The Changing (Inter)Face of Religion

Online religious practices may signal the start of new traditions

| April 12, 2007

Time-worn places of worship, whether they be ornate gothic cathedrals or simple temples, tend to be communal, bringing people together to bump elbows, sneeze, and whisper while they perform the ritual of religious ceremony. Now, an increasing number of the world's faithful come together to practice in cyberspace, suggesting that the next Chartres may very well be built of pixels.

The move to put religion online has been in the works for a while: a 2000 Pew Internet & American Life survey of congregations found that 'the Internet has become a vital force in many faith communities.' And according to another survey by the research organization in 2004, nearly 82 million Americans -- two thirds of the country's online users -- go to the internet for religious or spiritual reasons.

Today, there are myriad ways the internet is used by the faithful. One way, following the popularity of sites like MySpace, is for social networking. In 'Sites Hope To Redeem Internet,' Bettye Wells Miller reports for Southern California's Press-Enterprise on the popularity of sites like MyChurch, MEETfish, and Shmooze, where members create profiles to share with a network of friends.

Other sites offer mutual support: at DailyConfession.com, anyone can anonymously confess their sins, baring their soul by typing into a text box and clicking 'I Confess.' David Briggs of the Religion News Service notes that the website is particularly popular among the young, who are becoming more comfortable sharing intimate secrets and seeking advice online. And share they do: 300 to 400 confessions are posted and over a million people visit the site each day.



Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post suggests that the internet plays a unique role in helping people -- especially the young -- define their religious identities. In 'Linking Ancient and Modern, A Worldwide Web of Worship,' he writes, ' Many are interested in religion, but they want the freedom to fashion a personalized style of worship.' Sullivan focuses on Saranam.com, an Indian website that sells ''Hindu rituals and products.'' For instance, one can purchase a puja (a religious offering made for a special purpose like health or the safety of a family member) and then choose from a list of temples where the puja is to be performed. The order will be filled by one of many devout contacts paid a small fee by Saranam.com. Sullivan notes that at first, most of the site's customers came from the 20 million or so Hindu Indians living overseas; now, however, most customers are Americans, Europeans, and people from the Middle East.

Virtual religious services, such as those available in the online role-playing game Second Life, are also increasingly popular rivals to physical-world services, as Cathy Lynn Grossman recently reported for USA Today . Some spiritual sites have ''pray-ables,' animated spots that will pop an avatar into proper praying position, whether bowing on a carpet, kneeling in a cathedral, or landing in the lotus position in a Buddhist spiritual center.' One player commented that while his avatar prayed, so did he, mindfully mirroring his virtual embodiment. Some players even build their own holy sites -- one has built a version of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Within the game are also pan-denominational groups like Avatars of Change, which has 180 members 'from Christians to Jedi to Rastafarians, and is styled like a monastic order that functions to gather donations for charity and promotes interfaith discussion.' 
 
While Pew's 2004 survey found that online religious activities are a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, similar offline activities, some worry that the internet will lead the faithful astray. Objecting to the virtual practice of religions in Second Life, the chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Denver told USA Today that religion means submitting to ''beliefs and practices revealed by God and passed down by generations of believers. You can't phone that in.' Yet as individuals -- particularly young people -- increasingly look to the internet to aid in their religious explorations, they are likely to create new beliefs and practices. What new developments this trend may bring are yet to be seen. One positive probability: Virtual interfaith conflicts would likely draw less real blood.