Sunday, January 6, 2002

Yahoo Internet Life

God Sitings

Searching for Faith

December 2001

By Laura Fisher Kaiser

Search and you will find: Fueled by a rapidly growing number of venues and resources, more people than ever are seeking faith, community, and solace online. In this special report, we look at what's going on, what makes it different, and how, for some, the Net has become a religious experience all its own

The sky is a beautiful blue this Sunday morning, and it's time for church. I'm not a big churchgoer, but today I have a front-row seat at Atlanta's Peachtree Presbyterian Church. Never mind that I'm neither a Presbyterian nor in Atlanta. Like the rest of the world, I am reeling after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Looking for comfort in the church's live Webcasts, I'm not disappointed.

Though he looks lilliputian inside my Windows Media Player, senior minister Dr. Victor D. Pentz delivers a rousing sermon, at one point comparing Jesus to the brave New York City firefighters—both having descended into hell, "as a southern boy might say, to kick Satan's tail." For the first time in days, a wry smile creeps across my face, and as the Web cam pans over the pews tightly packed with grim congregants, I detect a ripple of relief.

At around the same time, Bill Hull logs on to Peachtree before attending his regular Presbyterian service in the small Texas town of Wimberley. The 56-year-old is one of more than 14,856 who tune in monthly; it's his way of reconnecting with the church of his youth. He confesses he's not as reverent as he would be in person, but he sings the hymns in his head and can print out the church bulletin. "It's not like cable TV, where if you miss the telecast, that's it," Hull says.

A recent Pew Research Center survey reveals that since September 11, nearly seven of 10 Americans are praying more; over the course of each month, some 25 million adults turn to the Internet for religious "expression," according to a survey by Barna Research, a consulting firm in Ventura, California. With more than a million religious sites from which to choose, individuals of every creed—from Adventists to Zoroastrians—are flocking online to congregate, meditate, chat, study, pray, debate, and even date. Travelers, too, are using the Net to find churches, mosques, gurudwaras, and synagogues far from home.

In recent years, the major faiths have built up a sizable Web presence. Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and the myriad Orthodox and Protestant denominations are firmly ensconced in the haven of absolute religious freedom that is the Net. The Vatican has its own Internet country code (.va); even the technophobic Amish can be found hawking butter churns at the Amish General Store. Multifaith sites such as Beliefnet and Religion Communities have their share of "loyalists"—people who hold passionately to the faith in which they were raised—but also cater to seekers of all sorts. The religion communities on Yahoo!, America Online, and MSN boast thousands of members chatting not only about mainstream beliefs but also about such esoteric subjects as Cao Dai, fire walking, and Umbanda. If all of that sounds a bit serious, the Web being what it is, there are plenty of quirkier pews—for example, the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua and the First Online Church of "Bob"—that claim devoted followings.

Although there is no shortage of welcome mats for potential believers, the purpose of most visitors is more to find fellowship than to be converted. This was especially apparent in the wake of the attacks. Many religion sites saw a jump in traffic during the days that followed, as people sought solace, shared their grief, and offered prayers.

The message boards at SikhNet were filled with outrage, especially over the murder in Arizona, within a week of the tragedy, of a Sikh who had been mistaken for a Muslim. Meanwhile, at The 700 Club, Pat Robertson explained that the attacks happened "because God Almighty is lifting His protection" from America, which has focused on "the pursuit of health, wealth, material pleasures, and sexuality," allowing "rampant pornography on the Internet."

But many sites were busy building spiritual bridges instead of roadblocks. OurFaiths suggested that members invite a Muslim to dinner. Beliefnet encouraged visitors to add their prayers to "an extraordinary multifaith prayer circle," and within 48 hours an estimated 1,500 people had heeded the call.

The Net is certainly not about to replace the intimacy of traditional churches, or their "on-the-ground" faithful. It's no wonder that IslamiCity, which caters to "the Global Muslim eCommunity," carries a disclaimer on its Webcasts: "In our opinion, you can't perform your prayers as if you were in the congregation along with these prayer broadcasts. Please join the prayers at your local mosque and watch these programs during other times."

Yet religion has thrived in the virtual world. "The World Wide Web can't really take one into the inner sanctum of religious groups or the hearts and minds of those who believe," writes sociology professor Jeffrey K. Hadden at "But without question, anyone who chooses can get much closer to scores of religious movements than has ever before been possible….It's a great learning laboratory."

It's also a powerful tool for interconnecting far-flung members of a faith and galvanizing them into action—sometimes with historic results. Such was the case in 1997 when several leaders of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America opposed the archbishop. These "contras" launched a Web site, Voithia (the word voithia is Greek for "seeking God's help"), which disseminated their arguments to church members and the media. The effort helped put pressure on the patriarch in Constantinople, and the archbishop was replaced in 1999. "What we're seeing," says OurFaiths' Lynne Bundesen, "is the democratization of religion through the World Wide Web. The implication is nothing short of the complete reorganization of all traditional religions."

Bundesen ought to know. Before founding OurFaiths last year, she designed the first religious chatrooms for Prodigy and spent five years as webmaster for MSN's religion communities. When she started at Prodigy in 1993, various groups flamed one another so often on the Religion Bulletin Board that Armageddon threatened to erupt daily. "It was an absolute mess," Bundesen recalls. "Not a civil word anyplace—witches and Christians screaming at each other, which you might expect, but then you even had Buddhists threatening to sue other Buddhists!"

Bundesen's idea was to create a "sacred space" inside which people could speak freely, as long as they abided by a kind of Internet Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not proselytize" was high on the list; the rest boiled down to a do-unto-others ethic. Bundesen was also careful to use formal names and terms that would convey respect, and she separated the "text-based" Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) from the "multitext" spiritual believers, who generally adhere to a broader set of principles and are opener to alternative ideas.

This format proved wildly popular, and its success was repeated at MSN, where by 1999 the religion communities were logging a million hits a month. At times, 150 members a minute visited the Islam chatroom. Prayer circles were credited with curing cancer and other ills.

One popular MSN destination was a Judaic-studies chat, where Jeff Golding, a 37-year-old network administrator in Chicago, began tuning in on Sunday nights to learn about his roots. "I was looking for a sense of spirituality and to get something more into my life," he says. He credits the insightful study sessions with helping him pull out of a depression, rediscover his faith, and muster the courage to pursue a relationship. He eventually became a chatroom host himself, and last year he met, through an online personal ad, the woman who is now his wife.

That's not to say that the going has always been smooth. At one point, a Microsoft executive suggested as a chat topic the question, "Should the pope retire?" (Bundesen replied by explaining that devout Catholics view the pope as "ordained by God, not the CEO of a big corporation.") At another point, an ad for a Britney Spears album somehow appeared in the Islam Sisters chatroom, eliciting shock and disbelief.

And if you think balancing secular commercialism with religious sanctity is tough, try ensuring free speech, too. MSN learned this the hard way last year after revamping its interest communities—ousting Bundesen and others—with the help of, a software and management services firm whose mission is to convert community chat-rooms into profit engines for such companies as Whirlpool and Procter & Gamble. The transition was bumpy: Members were appalled when a Christian host took over the Jewish chatrooms and a Christian teen was asked to run the gay/lesbian room. Hackers harassed and threatened hosts, reportedly e-mailing them pornography and computer viruses.

Although many religious sites have rules of conduct, they're hard—if not impossible—to enforce without posting knowledgeable gatekeepers in every chatroom and on every message board. A recent visit to Yahoo!'s Islam, Catholic, and Buddhist chats found a deluge of profane and racist rants (in the Islam room, "You pissed us off now prepare to die scumbags" was a relatively benign comment).

"As you can imagine, removing abusive messages is a daunting task," says Mohammed Abdul Aleem, CEO of IslamiCity. "We have to be careful and monitor some free-form discussions so we don't actually inflame what is already out there. It's a very delicate situation, whether it's coming from Muslims or non-Muslims." His site began vetting posts a week after the September 11 terrorist attack, when the number of non-Muslim visitors increased tenfold.

To date, it is Beliefnet that seems to have juggled conflicting demands most successfully. Indeed, the site has drawn enough unique visitors—3.9 million is the latest figure—to not only show up on the radar of Jupiter Media Metrix but also win a third round of venture capital. The site has partnered with ABC World News Tonight (Peter Jennings is said to be a fan) to provide content and has made deals with Yahoo! and AOL Time Warner.

In its quest to be operating in the black by August 2002, Beliefnet is unabashedly commercial. Banner ads pop up on most pages, and the site links to religious tomes, music, herbs, and other items for sale to cash in on what cofounder Robert Nylen estimates is a $40 billion industry. He views the commercialization not as a conflict of interest but almost as the perpetuation of a great legacy—that is, if you're willing to trace the origins of capitalism to Catholic monasteries in the 11th and 12th centuries. "If we kept ourselves in a little, tiny box and sold only rosary beads and yarmulkes," Nylen says, "it would be boring."

Alongside spiritual quizzes and interviews with such celebrities as Bono and Christy Turlington (which produce traffic spikes of up to 10,000 hits in a day), the site hosts columnists—Margot Adler, Dan Wakefield, and Gregg Easterbrook, for instance—ruminating on provocative subjects: Strip Malls vs. Sacred Spaces, Born-Again Hindus, Is Heaven Boring?

"We give people the comfort of the tradition they understand, plus the security to explore the spiritual quest they're on," Nylen says. A typical quester is Sunergia, a stressed-out mother and student whose message-board post, "Big Questions," zeroes in on the issue that haunts all seekers yearning to fill that spiritual void: "Why do people have religious convictions? What does a person do with the dogma?" Her query is a plaintive cry in the virtual wilderness, and it elicits dozens of responses.

So who are all these people channeling their spirituality through cyberspace? Are they teachers pointing the way to enlightenment? Are they lost souls who need to get a life? In fact, they're both—and everything in between. Some are perpetual seekers, surfing for a sign. Others look only for affirmation of their beliefs. They are all experts in their own right, free to fill their heads (or the heads of others) with ideas that range from brand-new to thousands of years old, an infinite and ongoing progression of religious riffs and spiritual rants. Though faceless and ephemeral, the communities they have built are real—and connect seekers to, if not transcendence, then something they feel will get them a little closer to it.



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