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
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
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. …