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THE words people use of Facebook give clues to their religious beliefs - or lack of them - according to new research.

The study of more than 12,800 British and American users of the social network found that use of positive emotion and social words - such as ‘happy’ and ‘family’ - is associated with religious affiliation.

But use of negative emotion and cognitive processes - such as ‘angry’ or ‘thinking’ - is more common among those who are not religious.

The findings, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, replicate the findings of a 2013 study of religious and non-religious language use on Twitter.

Study lead author David Yaden, of the University of Pennsylvania, said: ‘We also found that positive emotion and social words are associated with religious affiliation whereas negative emotion and cognitive processes are more associated with non-religious affiliation .

Body talk

‘Non-religious individuals make more frequent mention of the body and of death.’

The researchers collected data from the MyPersonality app, which asked Facebook users to report their religious affiliation, and asks them for consent to allow researchers to analyse their written online posts and other self-reported information.

They ran two analyses, to see what words each group - religious or non-religious -used more than the other group.

The team conducted both a ‘top-down’ and a ‘bottom-up’ analysis.

The top down approach, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), uses groupings chosen by researchers, and is useful in making sense of the data in terms of theory.

The ‘bottom-up,’ or Differential Language Analysis (DLA), approach allows an algorithm to group the words and can provide a more ‘transparent view’ into the language.

Unsurprisingly, religious people used more religious words, such as ‘devil,’ ‘blessing,’ and ‘praying’ than do non-religious people.

They also showed higher use of positive words such as ‘love’ and family and social words such as ‘mothers’ and ‘we.’

The non-religious people used words from the anger category - such as ‘hate’ - more than did religious people.

Negative emotion

They also showed a higher use of words associated with negative emotion and cognitive processes such as ‘reasons.’

Other areas where the non-religious dominated included swear words, bodies -including ‘heads’ and ‘neck’ - and words related to death including ‘dead.’

While secularism is increasing in the west, religion is on the rise elsewhere.

Mr Yaden said: ‘Over 80 per cent of the world’s population identifies with some type of religion - a trend that appears to be on the rise.

‘Religion is associated with longer lives and well-being, but can also be associated with higher rates of obesity and racism.’

The researchers don’t know if the different language used by religious and non-religious people reflect the psychological states of those in the group, or if the language use reflects the social norms of being part of that group.

They hope further research will offer more insights.

Originally the researchers hoped to compare different religious affiliations with one another, but they didn’t have enough specific data.

Mr Yaden added: ‘We hope to do so once a larger dataset becomes available to us.’