It is possible to be baptised online. It is also possible to receive Holy Communion, join prayer circles, and receive religious guidance, all over the web. This could be a reflection of our generation’s ever-increasing need for convenient solutions to living fulfilling and busy lives. But with the recent increase of religious organizations setting up base on the internet, the impacts of this trend both on society and these religions should be considered.
These sites are all-encompassing, offering the entire religious experience, accessible in just a few clicks. Online communities exist for faiths from Christianity to Judaism to Islam. These sites are not only filled with religious texts and news, but also stress interactive participation through prayer forums, discussion boards, games, and personality quizzes. Help and advice is also offered through this online medium; for example, many Islamic websites offer online fatwas (religious decrees), allowing the website to develop their own identity and influence their users.
Alphachurch.com provides, among many others, a marriage service, giving the email of a reverend who can be contacted for wedding ceremonies. This same online church gives online baptisms and offers online confession. Other websites allow virtual pilgrimages; hindunet.org, for example, allows you to visit 3,000 temples. While all this appears quite convenient at first glance, one wonders what this will entail for the religious institutions that use online methods of reaching patrons. The possibility for open discussion online may cause these religious communities to develop their own unique identities; whether this leads to changes in established religions, or even the perception of religion itself, remains to be seen.
Another concern is what this means for the patrons of physical places of worship. Many of these websites are meant to play a supplementary role to regular real-life participation. But in our ever-globalizing world, where real-life participation may not be possible or plausible for all, it is inevitable that for some, the internet will become a more viable or preferable substitution for traditional religious practices. By eliminating the restraints of space and time, the arrival of online spiritual communities makes religious participation more accessible. For example, in the age of online religions, moving to a different location or picking up an extra shift at work no longer entails the loss of all spiritual connectedness.
There are, however, inherent downsides that can arise from these benefits. While these sites may allow new immigrants an element of home to hold on to as they move far away from all they have known, it can be just as easily argued that a lack of resources drives people to set up new religious institutions and places of worship in their new communities. What remains to be seen is whether the new level of ease produced by these online communities will impede this spread of religious diversity. In addition, while these online communities can make worship possible at any time, at any place, perhaps religion should not be given the task of squeezing into a schedule. The availability of 24/7 prayer time and advice takes away the intimacy and communalism of worship held at a shared time and place, reducing the “organized” aspect of organized religion to something barely existent. This recent increase in online worship could thus also negatively impact both the quantity and quality of meaningful time spent in places of worship.
For all their convenience and strategic value, one must wonder whether the merging of religion and internet was an inevitability, considering the lifestyle a large portion of the world lives today. It’s certainly not a new trend in religion to use media as an outreach tool. From the early 12th century when morality plays were the main mode of popular religious expression, to the more recent development of televangelism in the 1980s, we’ve seen religions like Christianity use whatever media is currently most dominant to promote its message. But how will this particular shift change the image, or reality, of religion for future generations? While it may be too soon to predict the concrete impact of the internet on religion, it is not too early to know that such an impact will certainly arise.