I have read “Googling for God” over and over again, and I still can’t figure out whether or not Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s front page opinion piece in the Sept. 20 issue of “The New York Times Sunday Review” is meant to be taken seriously.
Consider his opening paragraph: “It has been a bad decade for God, at least so far. Despite the rising popularity of Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, Google searches for churches are 15 percent lower in the first half of this decade than they were during the last half of the previous one. Searches questioning God’s existence are up. Many behaviors that he supposedly abhors have skyrocketed. Porn searches are up 83 percent. For heroin, it’s 32 percent.”
Could this be tongue-in-cheek?
How do these Google search results support the contention that this “has been a bad decade for God”? What notion of God is behind these so-called proofs of His increasing unpopularity? Googling for churches down? Is God to be found only in approved houses of worship? Searching for porn way up? Does the author believe that God monitors our computers? Really?
Moreover, why should Stephens-Davidowitz conclude that an increase of “searches questioning God’s existence” is bad for God? I would argue that the questioning of God’s existence is at the very root of our deepening relationship with God. The mature religious life is very much a pilgrim’s progress, a lifelong journey, a quest with each question leading to a more profound question.
Stephens-Davidowitz admits that he comes from a family that for generations has been dogmatically secular, a family that has not found a need to make room for God in their lives: “At the age of 11, my father’s father asked his rabbi, ‘If God is so special, why does he need so much praise?’ Disappointed with the answer, he stood up, walked out of the shul and never returned.”
I would suggest that the actions of an 11-year-old boy, no matter how precocious, might not reflect the pinnacle of religious sophistication. Were you to ask me why God needs so much praise, I would answer that God does not require any praise. Nevertheless, I need to praise God as my way of saying YES to the universe despite all the reasons I can find to say NO: war, intractable poverty, disease, inscrutable unfairness.
To be fair to Stephens-Davidowitz, the first sentence of his third paragraph does read: “Of course, we should be careful not to draw overarching conclusions about religion from what people search for on Google.” He comes close to contradicting this statement in the very next paragraph: “That said, search data is illuminating. In fact, the patterns we see reflected there are much stronger than just about anybody expected when researchers first started looking into it.”
What I find so misguided about Stephens-Davidowitz’s approach is his application of quantitative measures to qualitative experiences. He never bothers to define such richly complex terms as “God” or “religion,” whose nuanced meanings vary greatly from person to person. He seems to assume that every one of his readers understands “God” and “religion” in the same superficial way that he does. Why else would he include such a ridiculous numerical comparison as the following? “There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.” Is the reader supposed to laugh or to cry?
It seems to me that the quality of an individual’s evolving relationship with God is not susceptible to a quantitative analysis of Google searches. As for me, God remains, and always will remain, an unanswerable question – more precisely, the unanswerable question.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.