It’s getting harder to talk about God

In New York — as in much of America, increasingly — religious fluency is not assumed. Work often takes precedence over worship, social lives are prioritized over spiritual disciplines and most people save their Sunday-best clothing for Monday through Friday. In pluralistic contexts, our neighbors don’t read from the same script or draw from a common spiritual vocabulary.

According to my survey, a range of internal conflicts is driving Americans from God-talk. Some said these types of conversations create tension or arguments (28 percent); others feel put off by how religion has been politicized (17 percent); others still report not wanting to appear religious (7 percent), sound weird (6 percent) or seem extremist (5 percent). Whatever the reason, for most of us in this majority-Christian nation, our conversations almost never address the spirituality we claim is important.

A deeper look reveals that the decline in sacred speech is not a recent trend, though we are only now becoming fully aware of it. 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.