A matter of faith

Studies in all areas have tried to get at the issue of whether the Internet qua Internet has powers that can change people.  Concerns have arisen (and been challenged) as to whether Internet use fosters social isolation.  The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group which defends victims of hate crimes, watched with alarm as the number of hate sites on the Web seemed to skyrocket.  Then it determined that more damage came out of the social interaction in offline discussion groups and rock concerts, rather than from static Web sites themselves.10 In this report, we look at a slippery question indeed – can the Internet significantly affect a person’s religious life?

Assessing the Internet’s benefits

The answers we got from Religion Surfers are both expected and quizzical.  Not surprisingly, for Religion Surfers Internet browsing itself fell far behind traditional offline practices of prayer, worship, and service to others in the evaluation of the importance of spiritual practices. Few (2%) said that the Internet was a major aspect of their practice of faith. Nonetheless, some Religion Surfers attributed improvement in their spiritual life to their use of the Internet. Many more said they thought that use of the Internet could influence the spiritual lives of others.

The power of prayer

One primary area of religious practice that might be affected by Web resources is prayer.  Fully 85% of Religion Surfers said that that private prayer and meditation were “very important” to their spiritual life and almost half of Religion Surfers said they found prayer resources more readily available online than offline.  Nonetheless, it would appear that those who rely on the Internet for prayer resources do not see themselves as “practicing” prayer online, any more than someone using a prayer book might see the book as a medium of prayer.  The means are external, the practice internal – and that might explain why even the most devout users of online resources did not feel that the Internet was critically important to their faith life.

Even if a spiritual practice is not altered by the Internet, the availability of online resources may have other effects.  Some people recognize how seeking of spiritual material online has increased their own commitment to their faith, and even more people believe that the Internet can provide some beneficial effects.  One in six Religion Surfers (15%) say that online resources have contributed to their own faith commitment, and 27% said it had improved their spiritual life to at least a modest degree. 

The impact on themselves

Not surprisingly, the Active Seekers were the most enthusiastic proponents of the spiritual benefits of the Internet.  Some 26% of them said their use of the Internet increased their commitment to their faith – that is a rate 9 percentage points higher than the Religion Surfers group as a whole, and 16 percentage points higher than less active Religion Surfers.  The most active Religion Surfers also showed a marked difference in recognizing the benefits to their spiritual life, with 46% citing some improvement, compared to 20% for the rest of the Religion Surfer population. 

Those who don’t belong to a congregation are more likely than congregation members to cite some benefits from their online spiritual searches

There is probably a two-directional effect taking place here.  Netizens with strong religious beliefs would naturally be drawn to faith-oriented sites, and would derive benefits from such sites that would bring them back online for more.  Religious sites would have to be rather exceptional to draw and sustain the attention of those with only a marginal interest in matters of faith.  Also, as Active Seekers tend to be highly involved in offline religious activity, their online activities may simply serve to complement their interest in their flesh-and-blood faith communities.

It makes sense that Active Seekers would realize the most marked benefits from their online activities.  It would appear intuitive that the Internet would do a lot for Religious Outsiders, those isolated in their communities who need only log on to meet their confederates worldwide.  However, this group does not appear to be particularly lonely. About one in four Outsiders say it is easier for them to meet people of the same faith online, which is greater than the one in six religious insiders who say the same, but it does not seem a particularly high figure. Nor do Outsiders appear to need the Internet more than Insiders in any of the other aspects of study or practice we asked about.

Rather, the most enthusiastic beneficiaries of the Internet are those who do not belong to a congregation of worshipers.  Non-members as a whole are less likely to describe themselves as having a “somewhat” or “very” strong commitment to their faiths (81% vs. 99%) but they are by no means less interested in the state of their souls. The Internet appears to provide for them many of the benefits of a congregation. Non-members are almost twice as likely as members to find it easier to meet people of the same faith online than off. They are also more likely to rely on the Internet than offline resources for reference materials, faith-oriented conversations, prayer resources, worship, speaking with clergy, and finding volunteer opportunities.  And they are more likely to have sought out a new congregation (24% to 12%), even if they have not yet found one.

The impact on others

Interestingly, a notable portion of Religion Surfers appears quite optimistic about the effect of the Internet on others.  Over one in three (35%) believed it has had a “mostly positive” effect on the religious life of others. Fully 62% of Religion Surfers believe that the availability of material on the Internet “encourages religious tolerance.” Outsiders are less likely to share this rosy outlook. Still, almost half of them (47%) agree with it. And 86% of all Religion Surfers believe that the Internet helps people find others who share their religious beliefs.

But Religion Surfers also worry about undesirable material on the Web. Nearly two-thirds (64%) believe there is too much material on the Internet that is sacrilegious. Christians in particular worry about the amount of sacrilegious material available online. By the same token, 53% of Religion Surfers agree “it is too easy for fringe religious groups to use the Internet to hurt people.”  The belief that Internet content alone can lead to harm or benefits for viewers appears to exist in Religion Surfers, but may not be limited to them.  It echoes long-running debates in this country over sex, violence, and commercialism in television programming.

The Internet and spiritual communities

In addition to the potential benefits and harms that the Internet poses to individuals, the evidence suggests that the Internet helps improve the workings of spiritual communities. In contrast to the 27% of individuals who claim their spiritual lives have been improved through the workings of cyberspace, 83% of congregations who participated in our study last year reported that their Web sites and use of email had helped the spiritual life of the congregation either some or a lot.11 By creating better ties within a pre-existing community, by creating a Web presence, and by facilitating discussions that can be difficult to hold in other settings, congregations tightened bonds within their groups, re-established connections with former members, and in some cases, expanded their missions on a global scale.  These are communal benefits.  Web sites may not create new communities, but communities can create vibrant Web presences that redound to the benefit of their members.

Although we found that there are some spiritual things that Religion Surfers prefer to do online, we found little to support the theory that the Internet will take the faithful out of their churches and temples.  While it may provide significant benefits to those who pray and do faith-related studies, use of the Internet does not appear to be as strong in forming new religious communities.

Meanwhile, the Internet brings a variety of benefits to different Religion Surfers.  To those already highly engaged in their faiths and with a predilection for surfing, the Internet provides material that reinforces faith and surfing habits alike.  To those highly engaged in their faith communities it brings new possibilities for members to work together, and reinforcing bonds that make the community strong.  To those who remain outside of religious communities but want to pursue their spiritual needs, it provides resources for private practice and, to those who desire it, a safe place to explore re-entering a community of faith.