BY DAMIEN CAVE
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
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
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
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
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
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.
man's roadmap of religious Web sites
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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
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").
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.
"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.
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."
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?"
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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
Damien Cave is a senior writer for the on-line magazine Salon.com.