On Friday, August 30th, doctoral student Zachary Stine presented research from an ongoing comparative study regarding online religious communities.  Stine and fellow researchers Dr. Nitin Agarwal and Dr. James Deitrick, used Reddit to try to understand the differences and similarities between the religious cultures Buddhism and Christianity by analyzing their discussion text for specific lexicons on a more structural level.  

Doctoral student Zachary Stine presented his ongoing research about differences and similarities between online religious communities at the EIT Colloquium on Friday, August 30, 2019.

Stine described using topic modeling  in order to look at how both communities discuss certain topics. Buddhist and Christian communities were chosen simply because they had the largest amount of discussion text available. The researchers anticipated possible problems with this study, particularly the issue of lexicon vs. grammar. Lexicon refers to the “specialized vocabulary and jargon of a culture” and is more “surface-level,” while grammar refers to the “structural level below lexicon,” or the “fundamental assumptions and underlying views.”

Some examples of lexical terms for the Buddhist subreddit community they searched for were ‘buddhism,’ ‘buddha,’ and ‘meditation,’ while some examples of lexical terms for the Christian community included ‘god,’ ‘jesus,’ and ‘bible.’ The research method involved counting dominant topics in documents from both groups and comparing the distribution of those dominant topics. They would then begin to remove highly lexical terms and proceed to start the process over in order to measure the distance between dominant topic distributions before and after removing lexically distinct terms.

The researchers found interesting results. Before they began to remove the lexical terms, they discovered several overlapping topics between both religious subreddits, including explanations of subreddit policy (i.e. why comments were deleted), loss, doubts, and those seeking support. After the removal of terms, the researchers were able to identify even more specific topics that were discussed by both communities, including experiencing difficult times, guilt/forgiveness, pride/humility, and doctrinal debates. 

Stine stated that though this demographic on Reddit is not always useful, in this case, the “generic, western English-speaking popular culture perception of what Buddhism and Christianity are” is fitting, because “whatever demographic biases Reddit as a whole has, each of these communities should share those to a certain extent…so what should differentiate the most are their religious interests.”