Soul-Searching on Facebook
For Many Users, Religion Question Is Not Easy to Answer

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

For the longest time, the question just sat there on his screen. Cursor blinking. Waiting quietly, like a patient priest in a confessor's box. Religious Views: _____.

Creating a Facebook profile for the first time, Eric Heim hadn't expected something so serious. Hunched over his laptop, he had whipped through the social network Web site's questionnaire about his interests, favorite movies and relationship status, typing witty replies wherever possible. But when he reached the little blank box asking for his core beliefs, it stopped him short.

"It's Facebook. The whole point is to keep it light and playful, you know?" said Heim, 27, a college student from Dumfries. "But a question like that kind of makes you think."

Such public proclamations of beliefs used to require a baptism in water, or a circumcision, or learning the five pillars of Islam. Now Facebook users announce their spiritual identity with the stroke of a few keys. And what they are typing into the open-ended box offers a revealing peek into modern faith and what happens to that faith as it migrates online.

Of its 250 million users worldwide, Facebook says more than 150 million people choose to write something in the religious views box.

Amid the endless trivialities of social networking sites -- the quotes from Monty Python, the Stephen Colbert for Prez groups, the goofy-but-calculatingly-attractive profile pics -- the tiny box has become a surprisingly meaningful pit stop for philosophical inquiry.

Millions have plumbed their innermost thoughts, struggling to sum up their beliefs in roughly 10 words or less. For many, it has led to age-old questions about purpose, the existence of the divine and the meaning of life itself.

Some emerge from the experience with serious answers. George Mason University student Travis Hammill, 19, spent several days distilling his beliefs into this sentence: "Love God, Love Others, Change the World."

Others try to deflect the question with humor.

"God knows," wrote Hannah Green, 19, who attended Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. "Pastafarian," typed Maddy Gillis, 20, of Kensington, invoking a popular pseudo-religion that venerates a "Flying Spaghetti Monster."

A good many, however, tread the fine line between wit and truth: "Agnostic, but accepting offers." "I barely believe I exist."

For Heim, who joined Facebook last year, the box posed a question with no easy answer.

With space limited to 100 characters, there was simply no room for Heim to go into his childhood experiences with faith -- growing up with an agnostic father, an evangelical mother and a fundamentalist grandmother. There was no space to describe the terror he felt after learning of heaven and hell. Or how the hell part weighed especially heavily after he was caught breaking into a neighbor's home at age 7.

He couldn't convey the profound faith and forgiveness he found in junior high after hearing the tear-filled sermons of a charismatic Baptist minister. Or the eventual dulling of that faith in college by alcohol. And he couldn't fully explain the slow reformation of that faith, now that he has abandoned the hollowness of his old party life.

"How the heck do you fit all of that into a box?" asked Heim, who sometimes attends a Lutheran church in Dale City.

So rather than type in a specific denomination or a pithy, amusing answer, Heim entered this non-sequitur: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

It is a phrase written by linguistic philosopher Noam Chomsky to demonstrate how a sentence can be grammatically logical and yet have no meaning -- how things that seem so right at first can crumble under scrutiny.

"It represents my faith," Heim said, "how it sometimes makes sense to me and sometimes doesn't."

A Bit of Code

The religious views box made its debut in 2006, two years after the launch of Facebook. Before that, users who talked about faith mostly did so in the "About Me" area.

The company had tried a political views box with a drop-down menu of limited choices. The religious views box, however, was created with one key difference: a free-text format that let users type in whatever they wanted. (It proved so popular that Facebook later made its political views box free-text as well.) By contrast, MySpace, another popular social networking site, also offers a religion box, but it's a drop-down menu limited to 14 choices.

Since then, Facebook's beliefs box has generated a staggering number of entries. So exactly how many users put down "beer" as their religion? How many "Catholic"? What correlations exist between religion and number of friends?

Company spokeswoman Meredith Chin declined to answer such questions, citing user privacy. But Chin agreed to compile a list of the most popular religious identities and offered some tantalizing hints at what a full readout might show.

Not surprisingly, the most popular faith professed is "Christian" and the various denominations associated with it. The category is so dominant that for this list, Facebook's statisticians insisted on combining such other designations as "Protestant," "Catholic" and "Mormon" under the "Christian" label. As a result, the second most popular entry on the list is "Islam," followed by "Atheist."

"Jedi," interestingly enough, makes an appearance at No. 10.

The complete catalogue of entries easily numbers in the thousands, Chin said. But even offbeat answers like "Seguidor del Wiccanismo" and "Heavy Metal" garner more than 2,000 users each. There is also, Chin noted with a laugh, a surprising number of people online who identify themselves as Amish.

All this is more than the company has ever revealed on the matter. Yet it still doesn't explain why the box elicits such an intriguing range of answers.

For that, we turn to Katharine Gordon, 29, a Catholic from the District, who joined Facebook two years ago and agonized over what to say about her beliefs.

The problem, she explained, was that she couldn't just type "Catholic" and leave it at that.

"The term comes with a huge asterisk," said Gordon, a civil rights advocate for a nonprofit group. She found herself wanting to add parenthetical clauses to explain her nuanced stances on homosexuality and abortion.

"I'm not exactly looking to discuss the intricacies of the latest papal encyclical with work buddies," she said. "I couldn't help thinking how others would judge me."

She had to consider her strongly secular friends from Bryn Mawr College -- people who might be shocked to hear her talk of God now -- as well as her current friends from the local parish. She could just imagine the reaction at church ("Wait, she doesn't list anything under religious views?").

So after several days, she finally settled on this answer: "Matthew 25," the Bible chapter in which Jesus urges his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and help the imprisoned. His words represent the part of Gordon's faith that she holds most dear.

"It's a bit of code," she said, "so people can make of it what they want."

'Where I Am Right Now'

Such fear of judgment plays an outsize role in how young adults express their religious views online, said Piotr Bobkowski, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina who is in the midst of a two-year grant-funded survey of religion on MySpace. He has found that a significant portion of privately religious young adults -- almost a third in the case of Protestants -- avoid identifying themselves by their traditional sects.

Many teens, Bobkowski said, prefer to portray themselves as spiritual but not religious: "That's why you see all these little one-line creeds popping up."

Such faith online, however, can sometimes be a moving target. What someone believes often changes throughout life. The difference is that the expression of that change is now instantaneous.

It happened to Nikki Jenner, 17, last year. For the longest time, the Howard County teenager listed her view simply as "Judaism." Then, last fall, one of her best friends suddenly died from a heart condition.

Afterward, Jenner found herself asking -- as countless philosophers, believers and seekers have for centuries -- whether God truly exists and, if so, why He allows such death and suffering.

"I'm not sure I believe in God anymore," the high school senior told a friend, "but I know I believe in Max. I believe that he's up there somewhere."

A few weeks later, she logged onto Facebook and changed her religious views to the initials of Max's name: MJLC♥.

"It's just where I am right now in life," she said. "If that changes, maybe I'll feel the need to change the box, too, but for now, this is who I am, what I believe."

Staff writer Jenna Johnson and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company