In response to crisis, online religion sites take off

Americans seek comfort in virtual spirituality and interfaith dialogue

ore Americans than ever are "keeping the faith" in cyberspace.

The popularity of online religion grew gradually over the past year, but then, amid a heightened sense of vulnerability in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Americans turned in droves to religion and spirituality websites.

Many of those sites responded with an array of services and special events, highlighting the unique role a virtual community can play in moments of spiritual crisis.

While the dramatic audience surge in September has dropped back in recent weeks, some sites report that visits have plateaued at higher levels than before the events.

Some 28 million people - or 25 percent of Internet users - now say they have used the Internet to gather religious information or to connect with others on their spiritual journeys. More than 3 million do so every day, which is a 50 percent jump over last year, according to a survey of users by the Pew Internet & American Life Project to be released next week.

These "religion surfers" now outnumber those who have gambled, banked, or traded stocks online - or used Internet- based auction sites or dating services.

Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, the great majority of these surfers are highly religious people devoted to their faiths who use online resources to deepen their knowledge as a complement to their offline religious participation. At the same time, half also seek knowledge about other faiths.

Learning about Islam

In the wake of the terrorist strikes, both of these needs came immediately into play.

"At first we were a spiritual gathering place where people came to participate in prayer circles, then the focus shifted in a few days to an outpouring of interest in learning about Islam, and then [concern arose for] a lot of difficult spiritual issues and challenges," says Steve Waldman, co-founder of Beliefnet.com, the largest multifaith website.

"People from all over the world talking with each other led to an intense interfaith dialogue pretty quickly," he adds. Beliefnet responded with a new channel called Understanding Islam, including an interactive minicourse on the faith, given by professors from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

And in line with the site's usual potpourri of perspectives, it invited essays from an array of spiritual leaders and traditions on questions of urgent concern, including why the attacks happened, the question of evil, where God was, how to respond to hatred and violence, and even what one might say to Osama bin Laden.

The "biggest" offerings, Mr. Waldman says, were the multifaith prayer circles and the Islam section, plus provocative essays that generated discussion and controversy: Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the challenge of forgiving your enemies, and Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh, who said that, on meeting Mr. bin Laden, he would begin by listening to him. (See review, this page).

For millions over the past three months, the Web has provided around-the-clock, around-the-globe opportunities to share prayers and concerns, and to seek advice on spiritual responses to terrorism.

Some 41 percent of all Internet users - many of whom had never considered themselves online religious seekers - say they have sent or received e-mail prayer requests. About 23 percent turned to online sources to get information about Islam, according to the Pew Internet Project.

Another multifaith site, FaithandValues.com, has responded to the spiritual needs not only of individual users, but also of congregations and religious leaders. Sponsored by a coalition of Christian and Jewish faith communities, the site has drawn deeply on the resources of those faith groups, sharing sermons, liturgies, interfaith prayers, and experiences in responding to crises and serving victims and their families.

It has produced a series of live webcasts on topics ranging from "caring for the caregivers" (pastors and others on the front line spiritually and emotionally), to exploring the meaning behind the Sept. 11 events from the perspective of various traditions. Earlier this month, in "A Time to Heal," citizens of Oklahoma City shared their experiences in fashioning a new understanding of life in the aftermath of terrorism.

"We've had very good response, and it's helped change our focus on how we do business," says John Peterson, executive vice president.

Christine Raymond, general manager of Spirituality.com (produced by The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which also publishes this newspaper), says her organization, too, was galvanized by Sept. 11 to speed up plans to offer live events. Spirituality.com initiated several series of weekly talks by a variety of "spiritual thought leaders," including authors John Gray and Neale Donald Walsch.

Users from different faiths and churches, or from no church, come to the site seeking a more spiritual perspective on all aspects of their lives - on how to be "spiritual activists," Ms. Raymond says. "And since 9/11, one of the biggest shifts we've seen is that people have moved from thinking about 'me,' from finding answers for their own life, to finding a spirituality for 'we.' "

Audience levels doubled in one year

Tracking information on the audience levels of religion websites is hard to come by, but data on about 20 of the larger sites shows a doubling in unique monthly visitors from 2.4 million in October 2000 to more than 4.8 million in October 2001, according to Jupiter Media Metrix.

Perhaps the biggest jump in September came with the inauguration of the Presidential Prayer Team site (www.presidentialprayerteam.org). Almost 1 million Americans have signed up to pray for the president, his family, and other officials. The effort is backed by the evangelical Mission America Coalition.

Christian sites with strong showings include ChristianityToday.com and Catholic.org. The site of the Sojourners community (www.sojo.net) has had a sevenfold increase in visitors since Sept. 11.

Yet all was not rosy in 2001: For-profit religion sites found it bumpy going, and several sites disappeared altogether along with other dotcoms. Beliefnet has cut staff and retailing ventures to reduce costs. But Waldman says the site is still growing in audience and ad revenues, and is reaching some 4 million people between the site itself and the electronic newsletters they send out daily.

"There is still a huge interest" in various manifestations of faith on the web, he says.

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