When coronavirus started spreading in February this year, religious congregations all over the world were became the reason of anxiety spots. Governments banned the public meetings though hesitatingly. Religious activities were soon under lockdowns. They were asked to vacate their buildings and follow social distancing norms. But this was not an easy task.
The core of the religions has been the promotion of togetherness and physical closeness. Religious leaders had to accept and comply with these norms half-heartedly. In many countries of Asia and Africa, they resisted. But increasing death toll made it clear that God was not helping those who were not complying with the mandate of medical science.
When virus compelled people to leave their worship places, they sought the support of the technology.
Google Trends shows that searches for keywords’ prayer’ and ‘God’ multiplied during the worldwide lockdowns. People turned to YouTube to cope with anxiety and uncertainty. YouTube highlighted that people searched for videos related to yoga and guided meditation most.
Online Church Research Group of Durham University (UK) released highlights in August 2020 around faith-related activities during the pandemic. It concluded that 1 in 4 people engaged in online organized worship during the summer of 2020. Half of the UK’s young people (18–34) said that during the later lockdown, they regularly engage in an online faith-related activity, including regular prayer and engagement with online worship.
A pandemic could not slow down the religious fervor. On the contrary, heads of religious institutions understood the obligation to serve their communities with all necessary content that is required in regular days. They turned to technology to maintain old members and reach out to new ones. The easiest way found was mobile applications.
A surge was noticed amongst the number of mobile applications about religions worldwide. Video conferencing app Zoom expanded its worldwide user base by 300% in just under March. Because upwards of 500 participants can attend a meeting at any one time, it became a popular choice for virtual conferences, festivals and religious sermons.
It seems God has decided to speak through these apps. Churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and monasteries are moving online and onto mobile apps. Religious communities hope that they can survive the corona wave by using android and iOS apps, social media and live streaming. They are using apps to broadcast their messages, sermons and contents of holy books.
There are anxieties too. How to manage the finances of religious activities? Suddenly donations and contributions went down. Here again, mobile applications proved beneficial. Digital transactions have increased because of these hassle-free applications.
Whether for work or pleasure, our phones are the primary interface to connect with this world. It is a diary, notebook, radio, television, theatre and library of knowledge all at once. Then why can’t we access God through it?
You Can Serve Your God Right Through Your Mobile
If there are thousands of gods in hundreds of religions, there exist millions of mobile apps for them. Google Play Store holds 2.96 million apps. But there is no precise data about how many of them are only for religion. But if you peep into the Google play store with a simple query, you will be served with a great number of applications dedicated to different faiths. I chose a few random examples of applications on Google play store to discuss about them.
Starting with Christianity, there are hundreds of apps for the Bible. The Bible App has more than 100 million downloads. App developer YouVersion claims that “on more than 400 million devices around the world, people are reading, listening to, watching, and sharing the Bible every day using the YouVersion Bible App — completely free.” It provides 1400+ Bible versions in 1000+ languages. You can customize your app with highlights, bookmarks, and public/private notes. This app also aims for the younger generation.
Another popular Christianity app is Pray.com. It is a social media platform. The app developer’s data suggests that more than one million people have installed it. Fox News considers it the #1 App for Prayer & Faith. This app is designed for daily prayers, Bible stories, Bible sleep stories and Christian meditation. And they primarily make money through its audio content.
Let’s say, you need an app dedicated to a single ritual like confession, you will get it. There are android apps Konfesso, ConfessIt, Confession Guide, A Catholic Confession etc. These apps are well designed content wise. Most of them send you push notifications when it’s time. You can also find a checklist of sins in it.
As Christians, there are thousands of apps for Muslims. I will discuss here only two examples of apps developed by a developer Greentech. More than one million people have installed al Quran (Tafsir & by Word). It provides 70+ translations & Tafsirs with 35+ Languages, verse by verse audio playback facility. Another adverts free app by the same developer is Hadith Collection. It’s an ultimate collection of Hadith of Prophet Muhammad. The app contains 41000+ hadiths from most accepted and authentic versions. What more can a faithful hope for.
Play Store offers millions of Hinduism apps for different purposes. One of the popular apps is multilingual MyMandir, with more than five million downloads. With this app, you can find photos/videos from temples, WhatsApp status videos, 10000+ quotes, aarti sangrah, free Kundli & astrology, Hindu calendars, Yoga & Ayurveda tips. Saregama Bhakti is another app dedicated to bhajans and eight dedicated channels of Ram & Hanuman, Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna, Sai, Devi, Shabad Gurbani, Nirgun. It also provides 10 scriptures, 52 aartis and more than 20 stotram. Mangaldeep Pujas, Bhajans, Mantras app is developed by Mangaldeep Agarbattis. It claims to cater to your all daily devotional needs. Available in nine different languages, this app is curated by subject experts and provides an authentic way of performing rituals. It has an extensive collection of pujas, bhajans, mantras, temple locators & chant counters.
RustyBrick Siddur is one of the most prominent Jewish apps with more than 14 million downloads. This is a feature-packed Jewish prayer book. A mizrah locator (Hebrew for “east”) points worshippers toward Jerusalem. You will find many Buddhist apps too in the Play Store. Few of them are Buddha Wisdom, Buddha Teachings, Daily Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhist Mantra etc. There are also apps for philosophical discourses of Buddhism like Dhammapada, Tripitaka.
Each mobile app has its appeal, and many fulfil the gap of space and time coronavirus has created. Some apps can find you the nearest temple, mosque, church, their schedules of prayers, service or pujas. Others show you the direction of Mecca or Jerusalem to pray toward.
Meditation is a big category of apps after religion. There are Hindu meditation apps like Himalayan Meditation, Om Meditation and Christian meditation apps like Abide, Soultime etc. Many of these apps like Abide, Hallow reported spikes in downloads and installations since the coronavirus started.
Religious apps are trying to keep adverts away from their interfaces. App developers know better that it will annoy people, and they want to keep them non-commercial. Venture capitalists are also seeking fortunes in these apps because the market has scope and will always be stable and expanding, unlike offline products.
Personal Apps of Religious Leaders and New Age Gurus
Now there is another category of apps, applications by religious leaders and gurus. Most of them are subscription-based and promise exclusive content delivery.
For example, controversial Christian motivational speaker and pastor Joel Osteen gives daily sermons. His sermons are consumed by more than seven million people on TV and online. You can find hundreds of the apps in his name. His official app states that it “makes it easy to watch Joel’s messages on your schedule, wherever you are. You can start your day like a champion with daily devotionals, swipe through a selection of inspiring testimonies, or browse Joel’s event schedule. Plus, get Joel’s broadcast listings, great local churches, and more at your fingertips. God doesn’t just want you to survive, he wants you to thrive!”
There are at least 100 apps in the name of controversial Islamic speaker Zakir Naik. All of them have been subscribed by thousands of people who listen to his lectures regularly on their phones.
Like Christian and Muslim leaders, many Hindu leaders have a powerful presence on play store. More than one million people access yoga, meditation and spirituality through Sadhguru’s app. Apart from English, Sadhguru app is available in seven other languages. Art of Living guru Sri Ravi Shankar’s app provides yoga, spiritual music, meditation, lifestyle tips, wisdom, and life hacks to its followers. You can choose your subscription plan and gain access to 50+ guided meditations by guru, 100+ spiritual chants, 600+ wisdom talks by the guru and 1500+ soulful melodies.
Acharya Rajneesh or popularly known as Osho had already left the world before the internet age began, but many mobile applications exist in his name today. His lectures, quotes, books, discourses are available through these applications and that too in multiple languages.
These mobile applications also let these leaders post videos of sermons or messages. They can broadcast a bulletin digitally at a specific time, and their followers can access them from their phones. Followers can share them to others, send in groups, email, text or post on social sites.
Alternate Reality of Worship
Worship places have been a consolation to the faithful, where they could connect with the supreme entity. These places also granted a satisfaction of sharing a spiritual space with fellow humans suffering from the same existential crisis. Coronavirus robbed all these conveniences and privileges.
Can the alternate of this human connect in the form of mobile application keep devout people interlinked to each other? Can the readings on small screens, audio clips of sermons and push notifications quench their thirst of emancipation the same way as in a worship place? Will traditional religious organizations survive on their followers’ donations and contributions as they have been? Can these worship places compete with the new age gurus and religious leaders who already have their substantial presence in the app stores since the advent of technology?
A professor of communications at Texas A&M University, Heidi Campbell released an e-book on Churches during the pandemic lockdowns — The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online. This is a collection of articles from religious leaders around the world. Choosing about the title, she says,
“The concept of The Distanced Church suggests church leaders need to find alternatives to physical gatherings and spaces, and are engaging technological options to do this. But while some consider or debate whether online church is a disembodied entity, I would argue that it is still one that is based on social interaction and relational desires.”
Her focus was on the issues related to the church in the digital age. The questions posed to religious leaders were — What are the biggest challenges for churches/religious leaders going online, and why? — What has your experience/research taught you about the crucial issues religious communities and church leaders must consider when making a move to doing church online? — How has the current situation (i.e., the COVID-19 pandemic, negotiating times of quarantine, closing of churches, calls for social distancing, etc.) influenced how you do or see the church in a digital age? In response to these religious leaders shared their experience about technology and how it helped them during the crisis.
Indeed, religion, as we know, is changing with the touch of technology. It has to and it will for sure. Is it becoming a genuinely personal experience? And is religion converting into an app like the weather? When coronavirus ends if it ends, will the religion revert to its old form?
About Author — Ajay Sharma is a multimedia professional. He loves to read about the history, existentialism, personal histories, genealogy and crime. He can be reached at email@example.com