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saved by the web.  How to click your way to ultimate truth

illustration from a religion-based website


A Buddhist temple appears toward the top of my laptop computer screen, as if in the distance. Leading toward the temple is a paved way of gray slate, and a message.

"Come follow me up this path," the Web site (www.do-not-zzz.com) beckons. "Enter into the world of Zen."

I follow, clicking on the first tile, then the second, third, fourth, and fifth. A gong sounds, and suddenly I find myself before a virtual teacher, a monk dressed in dark robes with a shaved head. He sits cross-legged as words appear before me. In simple language, I'm taught how to sit, then how to breathe rhythmically with the rise and fall of a candle's virtual flame. There is the sound of chanting, and soon other sounds accompany my lesson--the rush of wind through tall grass, birds chirping, burbling water. I see an interactive rock garden and click on a boulder floating in the air; it settles with a soft crunch on sand. My journey is complete.

"So you've mastered the first steps of Zen," I read. "Take a look around you now. Maybe it looks a little different."

Not quite. But if at the end of the 15-minute lesson my office cubicle appears drab as always, the translation of Zen beliefs into computer code that I have just witnessed does signify a change in the religious landscape. For Zen is not the only religion that "can be experienced anywhere, at anytime," as the Webmaster notes during my lesson.

Adherents of religions both mainstream and on the fringe— from Christian to Wiccan to Jewish to Muslim to Santerian—are using the Internet, and the ways that they are using it are still evolving. It's been nearly two decades since the first religious bulletin boards—rogue, idiosyncratic enterprises unsanctioned by mainstream churches—encamped on the Net. Today even Web sites based in traditional, organized religions are moving beyond straightforward textual content toward recorded hymns and sermons, virtual tours, and video feeds from such evocative venues as the Western Wall in Jerusalem (www.aish.com/wallcam) and the Grotto at Lourdes (www.lourdes-france.org/gb/gbwcam.htm). The Net has always been a fertile field for religious writing, debate, and information; now, it's also becoming a potential house of worship.

To a certain extent, religious Web developers are simply responding to demand. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, one out of four adult U.S. Internet users—roughly 28 million people—have sought out religious or spiritual information online in the past few years. Each day more than 3 million Americans log onto some kind of religious Web site, up from 2 million in 2000.

With so many people getting Internet religion, can the old congregational centers hold?

In the United States, where radio, television, and the Internet all took early root, religious groups have always had an uneven relationship with new technologies, often denouncing their secular expressions before grasping their potential for spiritual good. When radio first appeared in the 1920s, some Protestant traditionalists, following in the footsteps of anti-modernists like William Jennings Bryan, saw the new medium as a threat to church and family values. But others, only a handful in the beginning, among mainstream and evangelical preachers alike, quickly embraced radio as an extension of the pulpit. Traveling evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the outspoken founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, was one of the first to jump on the airwaves; in 1924, she launched KFSG, the third radio station in Los Angeles. The Catholic Fr. Charles Coughlin was close behind. His Golden Hour broadcasts, begun on Detroit's WJR in 1926, had 30 million listeners on Sundays in the 1930s. "Everyone eventually seized the opportunity of radio," says Martin Marty, professor emeritus of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago. According to Marty, "the biggest show in the '30s was The Lutheran Hour." A broadcast sermon framed around biblical passages, it originated in St. Louis and still airs on more than 1,200 stations.

Early television produced its share of star preachers, too: In the 1950s and 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission encouraged TV stations to give free airtime to churches, and again preachers embraced a new medium. Some came from mainstream churches, like New York's Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen, whose program Life is Worth Living outdrew Milton Berle in New York City in the 1950s. Others, like Billy Graham, came from Protestantism's striving evangelical strain. (Graham's first appearance on television was in 1951.) Televised religion gained its largest audiences in the 1970s, after stations were given permission to sell airtime for religious programming and flamboyant evangelicals like Jerry Falwell jumped on board. The evangelicals, "seeing the potential, pitched their programming toward entertainment," says Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University. But, a few popular personalities not withstanding, the more typical Protestant and the Catholic broadcasts were of traditional church services.

In many ways, the movement of religions toward the Net has been similar. "A lot of folks have seen that religion on the Web is important," says Mark Kellner, author of God on the Internet (1996). "It's no surprise. If you look at the history of technology, every advance—going back to Gutenberg—has been embraced by some part of the church as a way to communicate its message."

But the Net, unlike radio and television, is a many-to-many medium. Any user with a connection can not only receive but also broadcast. As a result, the experience of on-line religion, since the burgeoning of the Net in the 1980s, has taken some surpising turns.

Consider the genesis. The first religious cohort to make a home on the electronic networks of the early Internet was a group entirely unfamiliar to top-down broadcasting—namely, the neopagans. With little or nothing in the way of a physical church, Druids, worshippers of Roman gods, and even radical Freemasons formed virtual congregations through e-mail and bulletin boards. With little or no firm doctrine, they used the Net to confer, pray, and advise one another on what to believe. (A 1988 post by a Roman-god worshipper, for instance, urged, "Look to Apollo, and receive his light; hoard not His gifts: healing, growth, joy.") Religion on the Internet "exploded as soon as it could happen," says Howard Rheingold, one of the first writers to chronicle the Net's religious growth, in his book The Virtual Community (1993). "There were thousands of strange [bulletin boards] in the early '80s."

The Web site www.religioustolerance.org contains a list of neopagan groups currently represented on the Net. Many of them, like the Church of the Subgenius, a not entirely serious religion that focuses on the need to relax and "slack," have been active electronically for 15 years, an eternity by Internet standards. Their early presence shouldn't come as a surprise, says Brenda Brasher, a leading Internet religion scholar who teaches at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. "Neopagans had the least historical 'drag' keeping them off the Net," she says, "what I call the 'we have never done it that way before' syndrome."

Other religious groups without much historical drag—including the Foursquare Gospel Church founded by radio's Aimee Semple McPherson—came online soon after the pagans. But few of them made good use of the Net's novel technology. Christian fundamentalists in particular began to appear online in the early 1990s, "but with less pizzazz," Brasher says. "They wanted to let the world know 'the truth,' and as they believe that truth is powerful, invested less time in making it palatable." Some evangelicals were technically ambitious, placing volumes of Bible concordances online, but most of the sites looked more like print advertisements, showing address and contact information with short descriptions of the church's mission. When mainline religions staked their claims on the Net during the mid-1990s, their sites had a similar, simplistic feel.

But even in the mid-1990s, most of the religious sites springing up were, like their predecessors, unofficial, with a populist focus on back-and-forth communication. And in religions with strong institutional structures, it was lay men and women who jumped online with the most gusto. Among Catholics there was Bud McFarlane, Jr., the self-declared "Guy Who Grew Up in New Jersey." McFarlane is the author of several books aimed at lapsed Catholics—Pierced by a Sword (1995) being perhaps the most popular. In 1991, he launched the Mary Foundation to promote love of Jesus' mother, and in 1996 he produced a Web site called CatholiCity (www.catholicity.com).

McFarlane figured that the Net could extend his off-line efforts to engage estranged Catholics and bring them back into the fold. He created CatholiCity after a year of research into Net technology, servers, routers, and Web design. He wanted to push the medium to its limits.

McFarlane built chat rooms, newsletter services, and other interactive components early in the site's life. He even added a webcam in 1997 so visitors could see him at work in his office. Today, his efforts appear to be reaping rewards: about 3 million visitors log onto his site each year. Millions of Catholics, most of whom find the site through simple Web searches, visit regularly to read its content, order free taped sermons, or hang out in the moderated chat rooms.

"It was very hard in the beginning years," McFarlane says. "People just getting online didn't understand what a Web site was, what hyperlinks did, or even how to respond to an e-mail by cutting and pasting the original message in a reply. But we stuck with it and have no regrets. The Net is the best place to 'be there' for people who are searching for spiritual truth."

For those trying to understand where they belong in the world of religion, the Net has been a place to explore in relative privacy, to find community in anonymity. Miles Daniels, a gay man who's now a project associate with the Pastoral Summit and Congregation Study at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, says he was about to give up on God when he found religion online. "I discovered spirituality on the Web at a time in life when I felt spiritually lost, helpless, and marginalized from my mainstream denomination—the Assemblies of God," he says. "I started by going to search engines and typing keywords like 'homosexuality and the Bible.' [I was] afraid to sit eye to eye with any minister. The World Wide Web offered both theological insight and stories of others like myself."

Because he could access the Net from home, he could search privately. "I was able to take a spiritual journey which would have never been possible otherwise," he says. "If the Internet had not existed during that period of my life, I am confident my 'coming out of the closet' would have meant my separation from God."

Daniels's enthusiasm for Net religion is hardly unique. During the late 1990s and into 2000, dozens of stories appeared in the national press about how the Net was transforming the missionary efforts and even the practice of religions. A handful of scholars and journalists who made on-line religion their specialty exulted over the new, electronic forms of religious experience. Some, like Margaret Wertheim, host of PBS's Faith and Reason, argued that the Net could help reinvigorate people's spiritual lives by creating a 21st-century collective soul--an unseen, non-physical space for God. "Cyberspace is helping to bring about an awareness that we are not just physical bodies," she wrote in the journal Mots Pluriels. "If this new space can help us to again take seriously the quintessential immaterial aspects of being human then it will be doing us all an immeasurable service."

Other observers focused on the Net's capacity to empower people outside the religious hierarchies. Stephen D. O'Leary and Brenda Brasher—in their 1996 essay, "The Unknown God of the Internet"—were possibly the first but certainly not the last to suggest that "technologized religion" would be better than old-time religion because it would give voice to those who had tended to be silenced by religious establishments and authorities, including women and gays.

Nevertheless, for every ardent fan like Daniels or Brasher, there seemed to be a critic who needed to be convinced.

"Sober mainstream religious folk have disagreed with what postmodernists celebrate as a liberation in cyberspace—the idea that you can go where you want, when you want," says Charles Ess, a professor of religion at Drury University who has written extensively on the issue. "From their perspective, being an embodied person and in an embodied community, the physical, is important."

Traditionalists also have viewed the medium's non-hierarchical quality with suspicion. "The Net undercuts authority in a way that you couldn't do with television or radio," says Marty of the University of Chicago. "With television, what Billy Graham said was it—the finished product. But with the digital revolution, there is no finished product. If I don't like the story being told, I can insert myself into it."

Poke around the net for a while and you'll see what Marty and Ess are talking about. Today, more than ever, the Web is full of alternatives to sitting in a pew and singing hymns. A Google search for "God" finds more than 31 million Web sites. A "spirituality" query retrieves more than 2 million. The variety of religious offerings would be enough to make Nietzsche declare that God isn't dead after all but split into millions of megabytes. There are sites that let you listen to Christian pop music (www. acaza.com) or view a 3-D, computer-generated rendering of the Shroud of Turin (www.geocities.com/player2000gi/ turin.htm). Sermons can be downloaded or streamed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' official site (www.lds.org) and at the virtual home of San Francisco's Episcopal Grace Cathedral (www.gracecathedral.org). Even the Catholic Church's previously stodgy official site (www.vatican.va) currently offers multimedia streams of Pope John Paul II's sermons.

Non-western religions are also well represented. Anyone interested in Islam can visit www.IslamiCity.com for information on becoming a Muslim or for virtual tours of historic Islamic sites in Spain, Morocco, and China. Hindu students can visit the Himalayan Academy (www.himalayanacademy.com) for lessons on the nine tenets of the faith, including reincarnation. There's even a site— www.skepticsannotatedbible.com—for nonbelievers who want to be able to cite the Bible's contradictions.

And yet, there is little evidence to suggest that the Internet is poaching believers from real-world congregations. The Pew study, the largest of its kind, has found that only 4 percent of the Net's users have taken part in on-line worship. Only 12 percent said they would like to attend an on-line service in the future.

"We had gone into this with the idea in the back of our minds that the Net would draw people out of their traditional churches because it's more convenient," says Elena Larsen, one of the study's chief researchers. "But we found no evidence of that trend. What we found is that people living active religious lives online are very active in their off-line religions. At the moment, the Net is playing more of a complementary role."

Some scholars suggest that the Internet will never pose much of an alternative. "The great limitation of the Internet is that it is only a virtual community, not a real one," says Thomas Hibbs, a professor of philosophy at Boston College. Ultimately, Hibbs says, the virtual can't compete with the real.

Moreover, some observers argue, the Internet activity manifested in the proliferation of religious sites in the 1990s is likely soon to wane—it was an anomaly of the time, just as the dot-com frenzy among investors was. "There was this postmodern enthusiasm in the 1990s that said this was the greatest thing since fire, and that it would replace traditional worship and community," says Ess, of Drury University. "But I think that fire has cooled a bit. It's much more common today to believe that this technology can do a lot to simply supplement traditional worship."

Ess argues that only one fear remains: the fear of other faiths. The Net's low barriers to entry mean that a cult site (like that of the suicidal Heaven's Gate in the 1990s), a Buddhist site, and a site designed and approved by the Vatican are all, in a sense, equal. Sometimes, they're even unequal. The Buddhist meditation sites I visited contain far more innovative and appealing designs than any that preach the Gospel.

souls online

One man's roadmap of religious Web sites

www.IslamiCity.com: One of the most comprehensive religious sites on the Web, IslamiCity offers everything from recorded recitations of the Qur'an (in Arabic, English, Urdu, and Bangla) to instruction (in English) in the basics of the faith. There are games for Muslim youth, chat rooms for adults, and live television feeds from the Qatar-based satellite news station Al-Jazeera. A virtual bazaar sells books, artwork, perfume, and more.

www.Acaza.com: Christian pop music is now a billion-dollar business and teenagers are some of the Net's most active users; Acaza brings them together. Produced by Enigma Records, the site is aimed at 12 to 24 year olds, with hip graphics (think www.MTV.com), a message board (topic: "Battlefield for the mind and heart of today's youth . . . how do we reach the unreachable for Christ?"), and free music. Regulars get to vote for the Acaza Top 10 Hits.

www.gp4teens.com: The on-line teen version of the inspirational Christian magazine Guideposts (founded by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale), this site offers dating advice, stories of individual courage, and a bulletin board called "Pray for Me," where kids can solicit and exchanging prayers for personal causes.

http://uberspace.textfiles.com/occult/: Created by Jason Scott, a self-described "computer geek and art guy" in the Boston area, this site is a compendium of the Net's first religious pilgrimages—bulletin board posts from the 1980s on all manner of religious and spiritual topics. Most of the posts speak to paganism, but there is also a list of files "about that nice Jesus Boy."

www.Aish.com: Aish HaTorah is an international organization dedicated to "re-igniting Jewish pride . . . and building bridges between Jews of all persuasions." Its Web site offers equal measures of history, archaeology, spirituality, and personal advice. Visitors can type a message to be placed in the Western Wall, take a virtual tour of Jerusalem's ancient tunnels, get guidance on their love lives, and submit ethical questions to "Ask the rabbi."

www.do-not-zzz.com: This elaborate Flash tutorial, produced by the Zen Kodai-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, provides basic instruction in how to meditate and how to view the world with a new sense of peace. The same Web master has produced another striking and playful meditation space at www.do-not-zzz.com/zero

www.vatican.va: The Vatican's official Web site, available in six languages, is devoted largely to painstaking documentation of official Church teachings. (Papal decrees dating to the Middle Ages are available, among other things.) The diligent Web surfer, however, can explore the Vatican's museums and libraries, and even its Secret Archives. A tip: Try clicking on any image, even if it does not appear to be an icon—many of the site's internal links are poorly marked.

www.lds.org: Mormons were active early in posting religious messages on the Net, and the official Web site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is elegant and well-designed. It offers a wealth of multimedia streams, especially sermons. The Tabernacle Choir is conspicuously absent, but the site is worth checking out for the "Pioneer Story" that recounts, in their own written words, the 18th-century Mormons' exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

www.himalayanacademy.com: This site is for anyone looking to take Hindu 101. It offers an explanation of the Nine Beliefs and Four Facts of Hinduism, and provides links to an advanced Master Course. Visitors may sign up to receive a brief e-mail verse daily from Hindu scripture (example: "To utter harsh words when sweet ones would serve / Is like eating unripe fruit when ripe ones are at hand").

www.sikhnet.com: Giving access to radio shows and MP3 music files from Sikh artists, Sikhnet makes the most of the Net's multimedia capabilities. The site has a strong emphasis on youth. Coloring books are available for young children, while teenagers can enter moderated chat rooms to discuss topics like "cigarettes" and the "difference between Judaism and Sikhism." Brilliantly colored clip art, screensavers, and decorative electronic wallpaper for computer screens can be downloaded for free.

www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserve/divam.htm: "Divining America: Religion and the National Culture" is a collection of essays written by scholars to provide curriculum enrichment for public school teachers of U.S. history. Sponsored by the independent National Humanities Center in Research Triangle, North Carolina, the readings are crisp, thoughtful, and generously illustrated. Topics range from "Religion and the American Revolution" to "Islam in America." Submit a question—say, What do Native Americans mean by "happy hunting ground"?—and a professor from a major national university will publish a reply.

www.qis.net/~daruma: A plain, text-laden site, this Quaker electronic archive and meeting place is run by a Friend named George Amoss. The site contains historical documents, journal excerpts, poems, and prayers. It also has a semi-active message board with queries about out-of-print books, genealogies, and this message, posted on Sunday, 9 June 2002, at 8:26 a.m: "Are there any Quakers/Friends who enjoy bird watching? I would like information on locations, accommodations. Thank you."

www.spirituality.com: This well-designed Christian Scientists' site hosts regularly scheduled "live chat events" devoted to the writings of founder Mary Baker Eddy. Visitors may participate in polls ("What spiritual quality do babies represent to you?"), read the Bible, and explore topics ranging from wellness to current events to the workplace, all from a Christian Science point of view. One recent discussion focus: "How Can Prayer Help in an Up and Down Economy?"

www.subgenius.com: The Church of the Subgenius isn't a real religion—or is it? Is the need to stop working so hard a topic that couldn't use more prayer and supplication? A single $30 payment buys salvation, membership, and ordination. The church figurehead is "Bob," a grinning, clean-cut man with a pipe clenched in his teeth. "THIS IS IT—the weirdest supercult of them all!!!" the site declares. "THE ONLY 'FAITH' THAT PROMISES ACTION - THRILLS - SUCCESS IN SEX AND BUSINESS!"

www.CatholiCity.com: Bud McFarlane's site lets visitors order free tapes ("The Truth about Mary," "The Conversion of Scott Hahn") and novels (three, all by McFarlane). There are e-mail discussion groups dedicated to home schooling, politics, and devotion, with two labeled "CatholiCity Lite," for participants willing to suffer a 400-word limit on all messages. Also at this site: "The Best Catholic Links on the Net."

www.BlackGospel.com: Praise the Lord, this site is an audio showcase of Gospel talent, with a link to 24/7 on-line Gospel radio. The work of R. McCollum—she describes herself as a Webminister—it boasts over 8 million hits a month.

www.catholicinternetbroadcastingtv.com: A kind of Catholic TV (and radio) Guide, with extensive links to live programming at stations from Omaha to Tampa to Vatican City. Here, visitors can listen to a recorded broadcast of Bishop Fulton Sheen's popular Life is Worth Living program from nearly half a century ago. Sheen's sly jokes and charm still hold up.

www.skepticsannotatedbible.com: The Skeptic's Annotated Bible is the work of Steve Wells, a member of the Idaho Atheists Community Association. Wells has taken the King James Bible and color-coded it for injustices, foul language, false prophecies, contradictions, and absurdities (For example, in Genesis, says Wells: "Plants are made on the third day, before there was a sun to drive their photosynthetic processes"). "Still," Wells says, "It is important to point out the good stuff," and he has placed a "thumbs up" icon beside choice passages like "Honor thy father and thy mother."

www.geocities.com/player2000gi/turin.htm: Another skeptic's site, this one hosts 3-D images of the Shroud of Turin, the cloth that Jesus was purportedly wrapped in before being placed in the tomb. The site's creator, Mark Bruzon, describes himself as a 28-year-old Hindu living in Gibraltar with a résumé that is "computer-related." Bruzon attempts to show, with proportional anatomical analysis, that the image on the shroud "has the same errors as found in medieval art."

www.healthandhealingchannel.com: Faith healer Benny Hinn picks up where Jimmy Swaggart left off, with his seductive, impassioned preaching. His critics say he spends more time asking for money than he does sharing the Good Word. But he's entertaining to watch, and visitors to this site can see his TV program, Health and Healing, or check the viewing schedule for Divine Cuisine, a cooking show "with Christian themes."

www.Beliefnet.com: Created by Steve Waldman,former national editor at U.S. News & World Report, this site just won the 2002 Webby award for best spirituality Web site. It's a kind of interfaith mall, offering one-stop browsing through multimedia meditation guides, prayer circles, and readings, whatever the religion--Bahai, Eastern Orthodox, Jainist, Unitarian Universalist. Don't have a religion? Take the belief-o-matic quiz to find the ideal match.

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is a senior writer for the on-line magazine Salon.com.

Photo: do-not-zzz.com

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