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Click All Ye Faithful

By  Faith Hillis

The Web can help you buy explosives, download pornography, and gamble away your life savings. And it can save your soul.

The Barna Group, a religious research organization, estimates that 50 million Americans, or one fourth of those who describe themselves as religious, will rely solely on the Internet for faith-based experiences by 2010. The trend reaches beyond the United States. In 2001, when a Protestant church in Hanover, Germany, began offering worship services via mobile phone and the Web, 1,400 youths signed up. Led by the Vatican (http://www.vatican.va/)—which is currently searching for an Internet patron saint—the world’s religions are embracing the Net to service believers. The Web site of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church (http://www.russian-orthodox-church.org.ru/) boasts an interactive feast day and hagiography center. The “Udhiya Online” feature of http://www.islamicity.com/ allows visitors to arrange for a ritual animal slaughter to celebrate the Festival of Sacrifice. The New York–based Congregation Emanu-El (http://www.emanuelnyc.org/) broadcasts real-time cyberseders during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which in the last three years have drawn over 1 million participants from 71 countries.

Other sites seek to educate nonbelievers—or lead them to salvation. No group recognizes the proselytizing potential of the Web more than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has 11 million members, more than half of whom reside outside the United States. Its sites, http://www.lds.org/ and http://www.mormon.org/, translate sacred texts into dozens of languages and connect potential converts with practicing Mormons. Many evangelicals, however, see temptation as one mouse click away. Pastor Robert Vincent of the Greenville, S.C.–based Mount Calvary Baptist Church calls the Internet an “invaluable technology” (last year surfers ordered or downloaded 80,000 sermons from his site). But Vincent encourages parishioners to adhere to the church’s Internet policy, which discourages believers from logging on while home alone, lest they succumb to sin.

Nearly across the board, faiths that enthusiastically embrace the Web also insist cyberreligion should complement traditional religious practice, not replace it. Jewish leaders maintain that 10 men in a chat room cannot convene a minyan, or communal religious service. And the Roman Catholic Church has decided to forbid online confessionals.

Faith Hillis is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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