What Is Google Trying to Tell Us?


We’re coming up to the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (May 3). It seemed like a good opportunity to talk about England’s most famous Elizabethan bard, and I was thinking about writing a piece about Shakespeare’s faith: Do his plays and sonnets give us any insight into his spiritual beliefs?

Naturally, my first research step is the same one that any high school freshman takes: Consult Google. Because Google knows all.

So I typed my query: “Was Shakespeare Christian?” Google quickly responded with, it said, 34.8 million results—and at the very top, it gave me a nice little blurb that, Google presumably hoped, would answer my question without a lot of unnecessary clicking and reading. Here’s what it gave me:

In a 1947 essay, George Orwell wrote that “We do not know a great deal about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs, and from the evidence of his writings it would be difficult to prove that he had any… The morality of Shakespeare’s later tragedies is not religious in the ordinary sense, and certainly is not Christian.

Interesting, I thought, but it didn’t seem to jibe with what I thought I remembered from college. So I clicked on the Wikipedia article from which the quote was pulled, and the first paragraph gave me a far different picture of Shakespeare’s faith.

The direct evidence of William Shakespeare’s religious affiliation indicates that he was a conforming member of the established Anglican Church. However, many scholars have speculated about his personal religious beliefs, based on analysis of the historical record and of his published work, with claims that Shakespeare’s family may have had Catholic sympathies and that he himself was a secret Catholic. Other scholars have speculated that he was an atheist. Due to the paucity of direct evidence, no general agreement has been reached.

The article talks at length about Shakespeare’s religious affiliation, the Catholic influences in his life, the Anglican ethos of the day etc. It quotes Shakespeare’s will, which says in part, “I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.” Theories as to Shakespeare’s supposed atheism are summed up at the very end of the article in four paragraphs (including the Orwell quote)—lumping it in with speculation that he might have been a pagan, too.

Is all of that stated information true? Some of it? Certainly Shakespeare was an enigmatic guy (some people don’t even believe he wrote those pesky plays of his) and it doesn’t seem that we can know with certainty what, exactly, he believed in. But it would seem that Orwell’s take isn’t the whole story. Woe to the high school freshman who stopped searching after that little Google box.

Now, I’m not necessarily suggesting that Google algorithms—or the bright folks behind them—want to promote atheism or denigrate Christianity. But it is an interesting example of one of the strange dichotomies we face in the information age.

“Knowledge is power,” said Sir Francis Bacon (a man who some, incidentally, believed to be Shakespeare). And the Internet gives us access to more knowledge than ever before. It was thought that the Internet would democratize knowledge: Instead of relying on gatekeepers to tell us what they think is important—teachers, governments, the media—now we, the people, had the keys. We could drink deeply from the well of wisdom without waiting for someone else to bottle it for us.

But here’s the thing: It’s a pretty big well we’re drinking from. When artist Michael Mandiberg calculated the size of Wikipedia for an art installation, he found that it came to about 7,473 volumes, each around 750 pages long. The table of contents alone ran for 91 volumes and listed 11.5 million articles. Now, multiply that by about, oh, a gazillion, and you have an idea of how much information the Internet holds.

So forget democratization: We still lean on gatekeepers to tell us what’s important. Google and other search engines serve as a collective gatekeeper, even though we rarely think about it as such. Complicated algorithms return articles coders deem relevant to us. And those algorithms—even though they’re constantly honed and refined—aren’t perfect. And certainly an engine’s algorithmic overseers aren’t free from bias themselves.

Wikipedia is another gatekeeper—but it’s not the most reliable source itself. It’s created by just everyday users like you and me, who also have their biases, overt or no. (Ironically, Wikipedia has a massive article listing its own most controversial articles—entries that have undergone, and are still undergoing, huge editing battles.)

We get lots of information from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, but there our own biases—and those of our friends—come into play. We self-select our connections. We click on what interests us, what emotionally resonates with us. Which is why, I’m assuming, cat videos get more clicks than deep discussions of North America’s socioeconomic climate.

There’s not really a great solution to these broad issues and complications of the information age—at least not one that I can find on a wiki anywhere. But my search for Shakespeare’s faith is a good reminder for me of the importance of not necessarily accepting anything I read at face value. Even if Google might like us to.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Kal El More than 1 year ago
Yeah. My brother recently decided to totally boycott Wikipedia, because he was looking at a page related to Christianity for something he was doing and he found the page contained misinformation labeling Christian beliefs myths and rumors, and when he went to edit the page he was denied to the ability to correct the falsities because 'Wikipedia had ruled that these beliefs were myths'. Not exactly a service in favor of truth, nor if freedom of information.

As for Google, I just plain don't use it. I use Bing or Yahoo, because Google is too much of a 'big brother' government lap dog, and it creeps me out. I'm not up to anything shady in my web searches, I just really oppose the idea of being stalked digitally all the time. It's bad enough via things like Facebook, GPS, etc..
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
For a little bit I was wondering what the article really had to do with Google, then you got to the point ^^.

"But my search for Shakespeare’s faith is a good reminder for me of the importance of not necessarily accepting anything I read at face value. Even if Google might like us to."

Except that don't we as Christians usually accept the Bible at face value? ^_^   

Sometimes I feel like there is a cultural expectation that we should be suspicious all the time about everything.  Like the way we should view the world is "never trust anything, period."  But I think that would be a very difficult way to live, and ultimately you could never really believe in anything or accept anything as true, because you're always open, at least partially, to the possibility that you could be wrong.  And then certain groups, including Christians, have the viewpoint of "never trust anything...except this one particular source of information."

I would hope at least that students are being taught to not just rely on one source of information, but to find multiple sources and do the research to compare and contrast different sources and recognize when a source is less than reliable.  

For the wikipedia thing; did he perhaps find this page?  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mythology

You know, the scholarly definition of "mythology" doesn't always mean "untrue".  dictionary.com's 1st listed definition is "a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature"  It can be used in a pejorative manner, to imply something is false, but academically the word is used to refer to the stories that make up a culture or group of people that explain their history and beliefs, as the definition above states.  So the term "Christian Mythology" isn't always meant to be derogatory.  
Andrew Gilbertson More than 1 year ago
As Christians, we trust the Bible as the divinely-inspired word of God; Google neither makes, nor could support such a claim. We take one at face value and not the other because of the profpund difference in their natures. Which is pretty logically consistent. :-)
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
My knee jerk reaction is to think that the only logically consistent behavior is either A) take everything at face value, or B) take nothing at face value.  I've always had a hard time getting to the "middle" so to speak of certain dynamics like that

Most religions in general take their sacred texts at face value; so what distinguishes our sacred text as being more worthy of trust than the others?  It must be because our sacred text actually makes sense with the world that we experience, and its truths are born out where we can see.  But then it doesn't seem like your taking the text at "face value" anymore, because your accepting it based on the proof of its truth that you can verify.

And it can be a pretty big distinction.  Would you say that "Something is true *Because the Bible says it*?" or would you say "The Bible says it *because it is true*?".  I've always felt that if the Bible says something is true, then it should be something we could see as true even without the Bible pointing it out for us.  For instance, the Bible tells us that sex should be saved for marriage, and then there have been secular studies where the results show that couples who waited until marriage for sex had higher rates of satisfaction and success in their marriage than those that didn;t; and studies showing that people who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to divorce than those that do not.  The reality that we can observe bares out the Biblical truth that we've been told.  But then you have controversial snarls like Naturalistic Evolution vs Young Earth Creationism vs Guided Evolution etc.  Science seems to be saying one thing about the world and how old it is and everything, and many Christians will say "The Bible says X, therefore if Science says Y then science is wrong."   But if the Bible says X, then why can't we see X when we observe the world?  Shouldn't we be able to?    That's what always gets me.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

There is a difference between a): believing the Bible is truth, and b): believing you can understand, explain, and defend every instance of that truth.

No one can know everything. Consequently, no one can defend what they don't know, either.

You mention evolution vs. creationism. There's a reason evolution is called a theory: it's a group of scientists taking their best guess. It doesn't mean we shouldn't have theories; it means we are finite, imperfect beings, trying to understand matters far above our heads.
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
I get what your saying, but you mentioned one thing that a lot of people make mistakes about.  

When Scientists call something a "theory" they aren't using the word in exactly the same way as your using it there.  Quoted from the wikipedia page on scientific theory...

"A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through thescientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.[1][2] Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.[3]
It is important to note that the definition of a "scientific theory" (often ambiguously contracted to "theory" for the sake of brevity, including in this page) as used in the disciplines of science is significantly different from, and in contrast to, the commonvernacular usage of the word "theory". As used in everyday non-scientific speech, "theory" implies that something is an unsubstantiated and speculative guess, conjecture, or hypothesis;[4] such a usage is the opposite of a scientific theory. These different usages are comparable to the differing, and often opposing, usages of the term "prediction" in science (less ambiguously called a "scientific prediction") versus "prediction" in non-scientific vernacular speech, the latter of which may even imply a mere hope."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

Oops. It seems a scientific theory is a bit more certain than I implied. 

Alright. Just bear in mind that I called it a "best guess," and not a "wild guess."

A few hundred years ago they didn't have that: we learn as we go.