Sikhs don’t make much religion news. They don’t go on TV announcing their intention to burn Korans; they don’t loudly forecast apocalypse; and they have not had to defend their faith as one of them races to be president of the United States. But the Sikh community caught my attention recently with the announcement of its FlyRight app, which, when installed on a smartphone, allows Sikhs to advise one another about airport security staff members who may be predisposed to harass or detain fellow Sikhs. FlyRight advertises itself as a “personal empowerment app.”
Information technology means the end of organized religion — or, at least, that’s what the opinion-makers say. The existence of Google, argued the atheist Hemant Mehta on the Web site of this newspaper, “is a death knell for religion as we know it,” because it enables people to instantly discover verifiable truths about the universe (evolution, the sex lives of clergy). In a pre-Internet world, they could have been kept in the dark. Last month, 40,000 Orthodox Jews met in a New York baseball stadium to bemoan the erosion of values in their communities thanks to the Internet. “It brings out the worst in us!” a spokesman for the event told reporters.
I would argue that the opposite is true. Technology can greatly enhance religious practice. Groups that restrict and fear it participate in their own demise.
Take the Sikh app, for instance. It’s cool on a practical level. It distributes pertinent information to a specific group in need of that information. But it also has perhaps unintended spiritual and religious consequences. It encourages among users a broad sense of community and mutual support, which is what good religion does. It abets religious affiliation, promotes action in the face of injustice or oppression, and welcomes outsiders, or anyone who experiences discrimination at airports, to use the app and see themselves, in some way, as Sikhs.
All the best religion apps do this: They support religious practice rather than substituting for it. Michael McBride, an economist at the University of California at Irvine, teaches a freshman course called the Economics of Religion. Understanding that religion is always about people making choices, he asks students to research the coolest religion apps. He also showcases some of his favorites, including Insight Timer, which announces the start and end of Zen meditation sessions with the chiming of bells: “Crystal clear, with extra long fade-outs.”
“Most of these apps do not replace community groups,” he says. “But they do enhance them. Technology creates new opportunities, new choices. It changes the way that people can interact. It can change things.”
People with personal practice of faith know this better than the pundits. When I asked Twitter followers to tell me which religion apps they liked best, the point came home. One person said she liked Carry Your Faith, designed by a group within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which allows business travelers, busy people and shut-ins to “go” to Mass every morning at 9:30 (and if they can’t make it live, to see it rebroadcast throughout the day). Also very popular are digital versions of Scripture, which can be loaded onto an iPhone or Android phone and toted in a pocket or purse: Half a million people “like” the Bible app called Youversion in the Google store. For Muslims, there’s Quran Android and iQuran Pro.
Luddites insist that nothing can replace the human touch of a faith community: receiving communion, reading from the Torah and practicing yoga — these are physical, individual acts, but their meaning comes, in part, from being performed in the company of others. And this, of course, is true.
But Heidi Campbell, an associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University, points out that religious authorities have long wanted the faithful to behave in ways that they do not behave. To insist that new ways of relating are not good or Godly ones is backward looking. As Campbell argues in an article she published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion last year, social media are dramatically changing ideas of authority, hierarchy and community. When new generations bring their values to religion, religion will have to adapt.
“If you don’t pay attention to digital technology, you’re going to be out of touch with the assumptions and values of your synagogue or church, which is more than just not having a Web site,” she told me. If religious groups don’t embrace and encourage the practice of faith online, the faithful might go shopping instead.