America has always been a religious nation. The Gallup Poll has consistently found very high percentages of U.S. citizens believing in God. In 2000, 94 percent of adults professed a belief in God or a “universal spirit or higher power.” Other recent surveys show that only 14 percent have no religious affiliation.
So it should come as no surprise that on the Web religion is a primary content category and ranks high in usage. According to academic scholar Brenda Brasher of Mount Union College, there are now over 1 million religion sites. These range from megasites with links to many denominations and resources to those that offer highly personal religious experiences such as retreats or meditation.
A December 2001 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project [http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=53] found that fully one-quarter of adult American Internet users had accessed the Net for religious purposes—about half to acquire information on religion and a minority to interact with others about religion or spirituality. That’s a higher portion than for banking, trading stocks, or gambling. Of the 28 million people who are seriously committed to their religion, 3 million go online daily for religious activities.
The nature of religious experience itself is beginning to change as churches, synagogues, and other spiritual groups become more sophisticated in their use of online tools. As early as the end of 2000, Barna Research Group, a California research firm that specializes in tracking religious trends, found that 1 percent of adults and 2 percent of teenagers were using Net experiences as a substitute for a physical church. (At the time, 8 percent of adults and 12 percent of teenagers reported using the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences.) Many more Net users—two-thirds of those surveyed—said they were likely to engage in such activities in the next decade. The survey results led Barna to project that by 2010, fully 10 percent of the population, or 50 million people, will be relying entirely on the Internet for their religious experience. Double that number will get at least some spiritual experience via the Internet.
The Effect of 9/11
In the months following the attack, the Internet became a focal point for interfaith dialog and mutual support. Beliefnet [http://www.beliefnet.com], the largest multifaith Web site, became a spiritual gathering place for many who used the site’s varied offerings to participate in prayer circles, study Islam, and struggle with the religious questions raised by the tragedy and its aftermath. As did many other sites, Beliefnet invited prominent thinkers to write essays [http://www.beliefnet.com/features/911/2002.html] that probed and attempted to respond to the events of 9/11.
The usage of the Net by spiritual seekers, which burgeoned right after the World Trade Center attack, has subsided somewhat. Nevertheless, Jupiter Media Metrix, the audience measurement firm, said that religion traffic was still growing faster than any other category in mid-2002.
Some people use the Web for virtual meditation, retreats, or pilgrimages:
Some religious sites go far beyond liturgy and prayer to how religious principles may be applied regarding broader social concerns. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Catholic Archdiocese operates the Office for Social Justice [http://www.osjspm.org], which informs the public, teachers, and social action groups on ways they can act on their faith to promote social justice, provides materials on such issues as housing for the poor, just wages, landmines and child labor, and posts legislative action alerts.
Churches don’t take care of all their business via online methods, however. The Catholic Church, for example, has taken the position that confession must only take place in person with a priest.
Of churches and synagogues with Web sites, some 83 percent responding to the Pew Internet & American Life Project in late 2000 [http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=28] said that the Internet had helped their communities and created stronger ties among members.
CyberChurches: Moving Beyond Outreach
The site reports that it gets 20,000 daily visitors, one-quarter of them from outside the U.S., and that over 1,200,000 people now subscribe to the daily e-mails. Amazingly, the site receives 20,000 e-mail prayer requests to which personal responses are sent by ministry staff members. The service claims to minister to more people daily than any church in the country.
There are multimedia offerings as well as extensive text and a daily devotional keyed to the messages of music. Statistics posted on the site indicate that it has had over 60,000 visitors over the past 2 years. Ordained as a minister in 1996 and devoted to online ministry since then, Elder was a researcher for Texaco’s Advanced Technology Group and designed the company’s original Web site.
Members were to receive e-mails from the pastor and could participate in chat rooms. Its ambitious goal was to be the primary source of biblical teaching worldwide. Plans included online Bible study, live Webcasts of services, and prayer meetings. Initially, the effort received overwhelming response, attracting 40,000 people as members during pre-launch promotion. However, the Web site is no longer online, and news articles indicate that the site was unable to raise enough contribution dollars to stay afloat.
Concerns About Going Online
The Internet does help religious communities overcome the limitations of time and space. And the anonymity of the Web helps some people open up more than they would in face-to-face encounters.
Yet, these very same institutions are threatened by some aspects of online religion:
Questions remain about the real meaning of community, the apparent impersonality and lack of commitment in virtual spiritual encounters, and the quick fix that the Internet seems to provide to a seeker. One also has to wonder whether those with Internet access are becoming a privileged elite among the faithful.
Communications scholar Quentin Schultze is concerned about the ability of the Internet to lure seekers away from actual physical religious communities. He feels that the appeal of the online spiritual quest arises from the human needs for identity and intimacy, the very same needs that turn some toward pornography. In both cases, he says, people who fulfill these needs online get a dehumanized, limited fantasy instead of the real thing.
However, Brenda Brasher, author of Give Me That Online Religion, a thoughtful analysis published last year, argues that online environments can indeed provide individuals with the emotional interconnectedness and spiritual contemplation that characterize more traditional forms of religious participation. She says online religion is “a vital cultural vehicle for the emergence of religious experience and expression.” Brasher, a professor of religion and philosophy at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, maintains a list of interesting religious Web sites at her own home page [http://www.brendabrasher.com].
“Like the Diaspora synagogues of Judaism after the Second Temple, like the cathedrals of medieval Latin Christianity, and like the Bibles of European Protestantism,” she writes, “online religion is a form of new religious practice that possesses the capacity to transform the religious alternatives with which it now competes for human attention. Thus from young to old, from East to West, our religious landscapes could change dramatically in the next decade.”
“For the sacred to have substance,” she adds, “each generation must articulate ideas of the divine that are credible and meaningful against the backdrop of its time.”
Brasher believes the Internet revolution has already redefined people’s understanding of themselves as human beings and their view of community. Cyberspace equally allows newcomers to disseminate new religious ideas as it allows traditional religious voices to disseminate their authoritative views. It makes location irrelevant in pursuit of a religious identity. She believes religious content can make a unique contribution to global fellowship and interreligious understanding.
Will mainstream religions become more inclusive and tolerant of divergent views? Or will we see a fragmentation of religious identity and loss of the power major religious institutions now hold? What role will online religion play in unforeseen changes on the horizon? Time will tell, but surely the impact of online religion will not be insignificant.
Wallys W. Conhaim is strategic planner, researcher, and analyst specializing in interactive services. She is also a columnist for Link-Up.