religion and the internet

Thursday, April 18, 2002
5:00-7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street

Abstract

Religious Web sites have received little academic attention, but new online religious communities are being formed that actively reshape traditional religious identities and practices. Megasites offer information on everything from angels to Zoroastrianism, while other sites are built by and cater to the members of a particular faith. Some Web sites are oriented towards active discussion boards and theological debates while others seek to create an online religious experience through prayer, evangelism, meditation, and virtual pilgrimages. Are Americans turning to the Web for religious experiences and spiritual discussion, and if so how are traditional religious institutions responding to and being shaped by this shift? For this forum, we bring together three experts actively involved in understanding how people are using the Internet for religious purposes.

Speakers


  Rev. Charles Henderson is a Presbyterian minister as well as the organizing pastor of the First Church of Cyberspace.
 
  Elena Larsen is the lead author of Wired Churches, Wired Temples: Taking Congregations and Missions in to Cyberspace , a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
 
 

Scott Thumma is a faculty associate in the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary.

 
Daniel Huecker, graduate student in Comparative Media Studies, served as the moderator of the discussion.


Summary

THE REV. CHARLES HENDERSON described his experiences using computers and the Internet and explained how this led to the creation of The First Church of Cyberspace.

In 1984, Henderson said, he began using a PC to write sermons. "It was a convenience," he recalled, "but not life changing."

Then, as the Internet was becoming known to the public in the mid and late 1980s, he discovered Ecunet, a network for religious professionals founded in 1985, and the advantages of the new medium quickly became obvious.

"All of a sudden, you are no longer alone" writing a sermon, he said, but collaborating with two or three hundred others who can work from the same text to formulate a sermon, and who can then come back online after delivering the sermon to evaluate its effectiveness. "That," Henderson said, "was a life-transforming experience."

Another important event occurred in the days following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 when Henderson observed spontaneous memorial services taking place online. "It became apparent that the Internet was not only good for working collaboratively, but for building community," he said.

In 1994, Henderson launched The First Church of Cyberspace located at www.godweb.com. The home page articulates the mission of this virtual church: "an attempt to bring Christianity online with thoughtfulness, humor and a willingness to address the more controversial questions that tend to be avoided in the traditional church."

The site immediately generated attention from the press. Henderson was contacted by television, radio and print reporters, whose reports created greater exposure for the site.

Now Henderson plunged even more deeply into the Internet, becoming the Christianity expert for the About.com Web site. Today his contributions to these two sites register more than a million hits per month. "I'm doing the same thing I used to do at a local church. But rather than preaching to 65 people, I reach several hundred thousand every week."

Henderson said that to his surprise his own Web site and his writing on About.com have become financially rewarding, although he anticipated a reduction in income from his online work in light of what he called "the meltdown" of dot-com companies.

His own modest financial success led Henderson to speculate about the problematic future of online religion as a money-making venture. While the capacity for community building exists, he said, other trends such as the ownership of Web sites by large corporations raise concerns about "the commercialization of religion."

ELENA LARSEN presented findings from Pew Internet & American Life Project: "CyberFaith: How Americans Pursue Religion Online."

She said the study indicated that 25% of Internet users - about 28 million people - have gotten religious or spiritual information online, an increase from the 21% reported in 2000, and an indication of an increasing use of religious Internet resources.

Larsen said that 67% of what she called "religion surfers" have accessed information on their own faith, while 50% have sought information on other faiths. Twenty-one per cent of these users have sought religious advice using email, Larsen said, and 38 % have used email to send prayer requests.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Larsen said, there was a surge of activity on some of the larger religious sites such as Beliefnet.com and Faithandvalues.com as people not affiliated with a particular faith or church congregated in chat rooms to express their concerns and offer and seek support.

Larsen reported that after September 11, 41% of Internet users, many of whom had never considered themselves online spiritual seekers, said they sent or received email prayer requests; 23% of Internet users turned to online sources to get information about Islam; and 7% of Internet users contributed to relief charities online.

Citing a prediction by religion researcher George Barna that young people who currently attend church would eventually leave their congregations and rely on the Internet for their spiritual needs, Larsen said the Pew study found that the people who go online for spiritual reasons most often (at least three times a week) also tend to be the most active offline participants in their faiths.

Therefore, Larsen said, it appears that at least for the time being religious surfers use Web sites to augment their offline religious activities rather than replace them. In fact, 15% of survey respondents said their use of the Internet has made them feel more committed to their faith, and 27% say it has improved their spiritual life to at least a modest degree. In addition, 35% believe that the Internet has a "mostly positive" effect on the religious life of others, and 62% said that the availability of material on the Internet encourages religious tolerance. At the same time, 53% reported some fear that the Internet makes it easier for cults to promote themselves in ways that could be harmful.

Finally, while users may be indicating their online use supplements their offline religious activities, at the same time they are reporting that key spiritual resources are easier to find online. Larsen reported that 64% believe that the Internet provides easier access to religious study and educational materials than they can find offline, while nearly half (44%) believe that the Internet provides easier access to prayer and other devotional materials compared to what is available offline.

Larsen said that about 90% of the respondents to the most recent Pew study were Christian, and that an effort is underway to collect more information from non-Christian Internet users.


SCOTT THUMMA, a faculty associate at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, maintains the Institute's Web site, and studies the use of Web sites by religious institutions.

Thumma said that over the past four years the percentage of churches with Web sites had grown from about 11% to around 45%. At that rate of growth, about 90% of all congregations will have Web sites in five years.

The rush to post Web sites has been undertaken by wealthy congregations, Thumma said, and there are strong correlations between the size and wealth of churches and the use of Web sites and email communication within a congregation. All "megachurches" - those with weekly attendance of more than 2,000 -- have Web sites, Thumma said, and most of these take advantage of the dynamic features of the Web such as interactivity.

Thumma has posted additional statistics about congregations and the Internet on a page on the Hartford Institute's Web site.

Thumma said while the trend is toward increased use of the Internet, in nearly half of all churches fewer than 100 people regularly attend services. Given their limited resources, such congregations are unlikely to be able to build Web sites that take full advantage of the Internet.

Thumma concluded with some speculations concerning the impact of Web sites on churches themselves. There are some indications that "a whole-hearted embrace of new technologies" may alter the cultural, interpersonal and social dynamics within a congregation. For example, Thumma while the use of email has enabled congregations to improve communication among many of its members, email communication could come to replace the face-to-face interaction that takes place within the church setting. "An electronic email from a pastor is not the same thing as a personal visit," Thumma said.

Increased reliance on the Internet is also changing and will change the power structure of congregations by pushing previously "marginalized techies" into new leadership roles such as "church webmaster." In addition, the maintenance of these sites puts public relations responsibilities in the hands of members who previously might not have played a role in constructing and retaining a congregation's image.

Thumma wondered to what extent some churches might construct online identities designed for broad appeal that would misrepresent to some degree a church's core mission. "Will congregations fabricate a public persona, and then have trouble living up to the HTML image it has created for itself?" he asked. "Perhaps in five years, we'll know."


DISCUSSION

QUESTION: Which Internet features or activities are the most popular with congregations?

LARSEN: We found that while the most common reason to have a Web site was reach outsiders, it's email that is used most successfully within a congregation.

THUMMA: We asked church webmasters what on their sites got the most traffic, and many of them had no idea. That's the level of sophistication with some of the people, often volunteers, building congregational sites.

One answer, though, is the online sermon, whether text or audio.

HENDERSON: Most of our traffic right now is people reading content, a one-to-many communication activity. That will change as people increase their use of the interactive aspects if the Web.

Right now, the forum or discussion area in which you have several hundred people involved in an ongoing dialogue tends to be the second most popular feature. The third most popular is the chat area where 25 or 30 people can form a community that can last for years.

QUESTION: As a Catholic, I feel there is not a lot of debate in the church. In the past, there may have been a greater simultaneity of communication. As these faiths initiate dialogue within their online communities, will there be a return to more public debate?

HENDERSON: Most religious communication is hierarchical, based on that one-to-many model. When people take religion online there is a liberating effect; people feel they have an equal voice. I get attacked much more often online for things I write than I would in a church setting. People thrive on the conflicts in the forums in a way they never did in a church.

The lack of simultaneity is a problem with online worship, but in the future with high bandwidth you will be able to hear people singing and you can sing or pray along with them. In the future, you will have a greater sense of people being physical present in the same space even if it is virtual space. This is going to change everything. It'll involve all the senses.

MARAGRET WEIGEL, CMS: Often technology is posited as counter to religion and faith, especially among more fundamentalist groups. Have you encountered this kind of bias against this technology?

LARSEN: In our surveys, the more conservative groups, and I mean fundamentalist groups, are not afraid of the technology. There are certain aspects of the Internet they don't like and would like to change, but they appreciate that ability to go after content on their own and get prayer resources sent to them via email.

For the most part, Christians are more likely than non-Christians to worry that there is too much sacrilegious content available on the Internet.

DANIEL HUECKER, CMS: We have been speaking for the most part about institutional Web sites that are used to communicate both within congregations and with the outside world. Could comment about two other types of religious sites: the large information warehouses on religion that don't favor any particular religious perspective, and those that are created by individuals that express an opinion about a particular religion or about religion in general.

THUMMA: This is a point I wanted to make when Charles was talking about the privatization and commercialization of the big religious sites. I am mostly thinking about Beliefnet.com [LINK: http://www.beliefnet.com] , but there are a number of others like that that are operated by large companies where everyone can have a religious experience, and such sites are operated for profit.

We did a class about Islam using Beliefnet, and in a corner of the page was an ad showing a pink pig wearing sunglasses. It didn't mesh with the study of Islam.

LARSEN: On your question about personal religious Web sites, we found that for the most part organizations such as congregations make Christian Web sites, and individuals put up pagan Web sites.

THUMMA: I look at a lot of evangelical Protestant Web sites and I've noticed a heavy reliance on a handful of companies that market one piece of digital technology to churches. There's one company, for example, that provides streaming media services to religious Web sites. So there is a kind of commercialization of even the local sites that is somewhat disturbing.

QUESTION: Scott, you referred to quality Web sites. What is a quality religious Web site?

THUMMA: We list the criteria for reviews on our site. These criteria include design basics, such as the inclusion of contact information, an indication of when the site was last updated, and a fast-loading home page; site aesthetics, such as the use of color and balance between text and graphics; and the effectiveness of site content.

If you want to attract younger families who are out on the Web looking for a new church or synagogue, you have to have a good-looking site. If they find a lousy site they won't visit the church. If you want to appeal to that demographic, you can't have a bad site.

HENDERSON: I know of one church that has a whole team that is basically a video and Web production company. They project images on a screen behind the pulpit during a sermon, and this goes up on the Web site. They are serious about providing this level of quality to church Web sites.

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