Browsing Faith

Browsing Faith

The "belief-o-matic" and online absolution are just two ways that faith is reaching out to new spiritual spaces.

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the source: “God on the Internet” by Jonathan V. Last, in First Things, Dec. 2005.

What’s the next-biggest thing on the Internet after pornography? Religion. According to a 2004 survey, 82 million Americans turn to the virtual world for religious purposes of one sort or another, from seeking out information to making donations, blogging, and, most often, sending “spiritual” e-mails and online greeting cards. Jonathan V. Last, online editor of The Weekly Standard, finds some of this pious online activity troubling.

Consider, the largest religious website, which gets 20 million page-views per month and dispatches some nine million advertising-laden e-mail newss “a commercial, one-stop-shopping portal which serves evangelicals, Catholics, Scientologists, Earth worshippers, and everyone in between.” By answering questions posed by the site’s “Belief-O-Matic” survey, visitors can find out wheth­er liberal Quakerism, Unitarian Universalism, neopaganism, or some­thing entirely different would best suit them. is helping people meet their perceived spiritual needs, says Last, but these “aren’t always the same thing as genuine needs.” Without the tutelage and guidance of a real church, some spiritual seekers become lost in cyberspace, communicating only with like-minded others and forming insular online communities. “Something is happening at the intersection of religion and the Internet that is like the old denominalization of American sects raised to a new and frightening power.”

Last also worries that the Web’s promotion of “transparency” may be leading to a demystification of religion. Among the world’s religious bloggers are some 50 Catholic priests, who sometimes reveal priestly conversations about such matters as how to keep Mass short enough to avoid putting parishioners to sleep. There’s a loss of mystery that Last thinks diminishes the power of the rituals of the liturgy. The next step may be virtual religious practice. “At, for instance, you can enter the virtual booth, select your sins from five general classes of misdoing, and then proceed to the automated confessor, which doles out punishments normally consisting of some combination of fasting, Our Fathers, and Hail Marys.” Virtual confessions aren’t sanctioned by the Catholic Church, however.

Steve Waldman,’s founder and a former U.S. News & World Report editor, regards the Internet’s impersonality as a virtue. “The anonymity of the Internet is what makes it work so well for religion. It’s the flip side of why porn spreads.” Just as with pornography, he says, “you can explore religious matters in the privacy of your own home; ask questions you might be embarrassed to ask; have conversations with people with some ano­nym­ity; and do it anytime day or night.”

But just as pornography is a far cry from real sex, Last says, so virtual churching isn’t real religion.

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