In Response to Crisis, Online Religion Sites Take off ; Americans Seek Comfort in Virtual Spirituality and Interfaith Dialogue

Article excerpt

More Americans than ever are "keeping the faith" in cyberspace.

The popularity of online religion grew gradually over the past year, but then, amid a heightened sense of vulnerability in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Americans turned in droves to religion and spirituality websites.

Many of those sites responded with an array of services and special events, highlighting the unique role a virtual community can play in moments of spiritual crisis.

While the dramatic audience surge in September has dropped back in recent weeks, some sites report that visits have plateaued at higher levels than before the events.

Some 28 million people - or 25 percent of Internet users - now say they have used the Internet to gather religious information or to connect with others on their spiritual journeys. More than 3 million do so every day, which is a 50 percent jump over last year, according to a survey of users by the Pew Internet & American Life Project to be released next week.

These "religion surfers" now outnumber those who have gambled, banked, or traded stocks online - or used Internet- based auction sites or dating services.

Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, the great majority of these surfers are highly religious people devoted to their faiths who use online resources to deepen their knowledge as a complement to their offline religious participation. At the same time, half also seek knowledge about other faiths.

Learning about Islam

In the wake of the terrorist strikes, both of these needs came immediately into play.

"At first we were a spiritual gathering place where people came to participate in prayer circles, then the focus shifted in a few days to an outpouring of interest in learning about Islam, and then [concern arose for] a lot of difficult spiritual issues and challenges," says Steve Waldman, co-founder of Beliefnet.com, the largest multifaith website.

"People from all over the world talking with each other led to an intense interfaith dialogue pretty quickly," he adds. Beliefnet responded with a new channel called Understanding Islam, including an interactive minicourse on the faith, given by professors from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

And in line with the site's usual potpourri of perspectives, it invited essays from an array of spiritual leaders and traditions on questions of urgent concern, including why the attacks happened, the question of evil, where God was, how to respond to hatred and violence, and even what one might say to Osama bin Laden.

The "biggest" offerings, Mr. Waldman says, were the multifaith prayer circles and the Islam section, plus provocative essays that generated discussion and controversy: Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the challenge of forgiving your enemies, and Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh, who said that, on meeting Mr. bin Laden, he would begin by listening to him. (See review, this page).

For millions over the past three months, the Web has provided around-the-clock, around-the-globe opportunities to share prayers and concerns, and to seek advice on spiritual responses to terrorism.

Some 41 percent of all Internet users - many of whom had never considered themselves online religious seekers - say they have sent or received e-mail prayer requests. …