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The Web: Reformation online

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI, United Press International   |   June 23, 2004 at 10:17 AM   |   Comments

A weekly series by United Press International examining the global telecommunications phenomenon known as the World Wide Web.

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CHICAGO, June 23 (UPI) -- God does not have an Internet address, at least not yet, but many of his earthly disciples do.

Christians, Jews and Muslims -- established denominations and non-denominational affiliates alike -- are faithfully embracing the Internet.

"The Internet is the great missionary territory," said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

"It is the great green field," she told United Press International.

Experts say the use of the Internet for religious purposes may rival that of popular online activities such as dating or shopping. Research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project demonstrates millions of Americans receive spiritual and religious material every day through the Internet, and more than 28 million Americans have, at some time, used the Web for a religious purpose. That is about 25 percent of all of those who have gone online for any reason.

One leading site, Beliefnet.com, which is interfaith, boasts about 4 million subscribers alone.

Websense Inc., an online content filtering software developer in San Diego, has more than 77,105 sites in its database of universal resource locators, also known as URLs -- Internet addresses -- that are classified as being produced by traditional religions, from Buddhists to Bahai to Christians and Sikhs, spokeswoman Jennifer Culter told UPI.

The materials range from e-mail with "thoughts of the day," to e-newsletters with more in-depth material, to a complete catechism of a particular faith. That is changing the nature of theology, often called the queen of the sciences.

"Some people may not walk through the doors of a temple, but they will go to sites online to find religious information," said Yosef Abramowitz, chief executive officer of Jewish Family & Life, a religious publisher, based in Boston.

That publisher offers a number of online services -- from JewishFamily.com to shma.com to Babaganewz.com -- designed to bring Judaism into the cyber era. The interactive technology is helping spread the word about the Jewish faith, like nothing before in history, Abramowitz said.

"For the first time in 2,000 years, because of the Internet, Jewish ideas and values are playing on a level playing field with other religions," Abramowitz told UPI. "There is a democratization of religion."

Abramowitz said historically only certain rabbis, and others recognized as learned in the Jewish faith, could select materials for learning, and the process was quite lengthy. Internet technologies now enable the swift dissemination of messages about rituals or liturgies.

"There is something very Jewish about the notion of hyperlinking," Abramowitz said. "Hyperlinking is something that was done by the rabbis in their memory when they composed the works of the Talmud. They would cite something from the Bible or another side of the paper that they were reading from, and reference the source document."

Individuals now can hyperlink to source materials on the Internet, on their own, and pick the liturgy they find inspiring.

"This is something that is deeply theological, but that religions haven't wrestled with before," Abramowitz said. "There is no hierarchy in the access to God or Holy writings on the Internet."

For Christians, Internet technology also is causing something of a revolution, akin to changes wrought 500 years ago when theologians in Europe embraced the printing press as a missionary tool.

"This is the second Reformation," said Steve Farrell, a coordinator at Humanity's Team, an online, nondenominational ministry, and a former Silicon Valley high-tech chief executive officer.

"In the case of the first Reformation, it wouldn't have happened without the printing press. Martin Luther stated that. Without the Internet, projects like ours would not exist," he told UPI.

The anonymous nature of the Internet, expressed via technologies such as chat rooms, bulletin boards and e-mail, is a key factor for many seeking spirituality or truth online.

"The anonymity breeds intimacy," Steven Waldman, Beliefnet.com's editor-in-chief, told UPI. "People will open up to each other spiritually much faster online, for better or worse. Mostly it is positive. Also, they're asking questions they might not ask of other faiths, like Muslims, 'Why do you pray five times a day?'"

Some people are embarrassed to ask about their own religion -- to fill gaps in their knowledge that they may have. Being online allows them to seek answers and avoid feeling uncomfortable, said Waldman, who is based in New York City.

Waldman started the site with venture capital funding in the late 1990s, after stints at U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek Magazine. There, he had noticed every time a religious topic was on the cover of the magazine, sales would skyrocket.

"There is a hunger for knowledge of religion," he said.

At the University of Dayton, for example, new Roman Catholics can learn the tenets of their faith online, through the offerings of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives. Others who are more experienced can learn to lead catechism -- Sunday school -- classes through online training.

Other faiths offer even more advanced training online. The Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, near Pittsburgh, offers an online diploma that many dioceses are using for training of deacon candidates, and Liberty University, a Baptist bible college, even offers a Master of Divinity degree online.

Elsewhere on the educational spectrum, parents can learn online how to incorporate spiritual teachings into the raising of their young children.

"We try to support parents as they nurture children, and help them learn about the consciousness that relates us to God," said Mimi Doe, producer of Spiritualparenting.com, in Concord, Mass.. "This is not dogma. It can be whatever you want to call it. God, Allah, or nature," she told UPI.

That site features groups for parents to meet and share ideas, as well as a free electronic newsletter.

These new developments online are only just the beginning of a wave of religious projects on the Internet.

"We really haven't come near to tapping the potential of methodologies for use of the Internet," said Zukowski, the Roman Catholic nun. "We're living in a time of a great spiritual quest, triggered by the world situation that we're in, with Sept. 11, 2001, and the war on terror. Many people do not have the resources at their fingertips. So they are going out and searching in cyberspace, exploring places they've never been before."

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Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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