God works in mysterious ways, it is claimed, and one of them increasingly appears to be via the World Wide Web.
According to a major new survey on internet use in the United States, more than a third of all Americans who are connected to the web (in total 126 million people as of August 2003) have used it to access religious and spiritual information.
This compares with 40 per cent of American internet users who have searched the web for political information, and 66 per cent who have sought health and medical data.
But while the number of people using the web for these last two purposes increased 57 per cent and 59 per cent respectively between March 2000 and November 2002, what the researchers call “religion surfers” almost doubled in number over the same period, from 18 million to 35 million (or an increase of 94 per cent).
Moreover, there has been a significant increase in the daily use of the internet to access religious information. While the overall numbers remain low, they nevertheless did climb from 3 million in 2000 to 5 million in 2002, an increase of 66 per cent.
The survey was conducted by the Pew Research Centre of Washington DC and the report of its findings was released just before Christmas. It can be found, appropriately enough, on the centre’s website (www.pewinternet.org).
It is tempting to dismiss this increased interest in religion as a one-off response to its abrupt intrusion into public affairs in the form of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But the September 11 bounce was accounted for in an earlier Pew Centre survey documented in a report entitled CyberFaith: How Americans Pursue Religion Online, which was released two years ago.
This survey found that religion surfers increased from 18 million to 28 million between March 2000 and September 2001. Post-September 11, more than 40 per cent of them had used the internet to send or receive prayer requests associated with that day’s tragedies, 23 per cent had accessed information about Islam specifically, and 7 per cent had made online donations to relief charities.
What’s important, however, is that not only had the number of religion surfers held since September 2001, but that it increased by 25 per cent during the next 15 months.
The 2002 survey also found that those people accessing web-based religious information were evenly distributed across educational and socio-economic groups (previous surveys had shown them to be concentrated on the lower rungs of each). Their age breakdown, however, had not changed: internet users in the 18- to 29-year-old bracket were the least interested in employing the web as a religious resource (24 per cent); those aged 30-49 years were the most interested (33 per cent).
The latest survey also showed that the more experience one had on the internet, the more likely one was to use it to search out religious material. Only 19 per cent of people who had been wired for a year or less used the internet as a source of information on religion. For those with six or more years of experience, the figure was closer to 40 per cent.
That suggests that the volume of religion-related traffic on the web will continue to grow. On the face of it, this should be a boon to the religious communities (the great majority of religion surfers tend to be the most active in their faith offline as well), but how well prepared are they to deal with the consequences?
Most churches have a well established web presence, for instance, but some have embraced the new technology much more readily than others.
It took until February 2002, for instance, for the Catholic Church’s pontifical council for social communications to give its official blessing to the internet.
That month it released two long-awaited documents: Ethics and the Internet and The Church and the Internet. The president of the council, Archbishop John Foley, summarised the underlying message of both when he told the assembled press that the church recognised the internet as “an opportunity and a challenge, and not a threat”.
While the opportunity has yet to be fully explored, the challenge is clear enough. The anarchic nature of the web makes it harder for religious authorities to control information, silence critics, or shield members of their faith from almost instant access to competing religious ideas and organisations.
Last, but not least, is the issue of autonomy. What people make of the religious information they access on the web untutored and unministered to, at least in the conventional sense, is anyone’s guess. God may indeed work in mysterious ways.