Readings: Measuring the decline of our souls

Jonathan Merrit at NYT:

By searching the Google Ngram corpus — a collection of millions of books, newspapers, webpages and speeches published between 1500 and 2008 — we can now determine the frequency of word usage over the centuries. This data shows that most religious and spiritual words have been declining in the English-speaking world since the early 20th century.

One might expect a meaty theological term like “salvation” to fade, but basic moral and religious words are also falling out of use. A study in The Journal of Positive Psychology analyzed 50 terms associated with moral virtue. Language about the virtues Christians call the fruit of the spirit — words like “love,” “patience,” “gentleness” and “faithfulness” — has become much rarer. Humility words, like “modesty,” fell by 52 percent. Compassion words, like “kindness,” dropped by 56 percent. Gratitude words, like “thankfulness,” declined by 49 percent.

A decline in religious language and a decrease in spiritual conversations does not necessarily mean that we are in crisis, of course. But when you combine the data about the decline in religious rhetoric with an emerging body of research that reveals how much our linguistic landscape both reflects and affects our views, it provides ample cause for alarm.

I would argue that words like “patience,” “kindness” and “modesty” are not Christian words, certainly, but it probably is alarming if we as a society no longer use — or no longer have need to use — some of these terms.

Author: joeldermole

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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