I have seen first hand how hard it can be for religions with thousands of years of history to adopt new technologies. In the spring of 2004, I fumbled with a little paper ticket that displayed my credentials to the Swiss Guard at the entrance to the Vatican. I was pointed towards the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for a meeting with Msgr. Charles Brown, who was a senior official charged with rooting out heresies in the Church. The head of the office when I visited was the future Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Excommunication on my mind, I ventured a few questions to make polite conversation and break the ice. “Msgr. Brown, with all this sensitive information do you worry about cyber security?” Msgr. Brown — ever friendly and gracious — replied simply: “My dear Andrew, we have the best computer security in the world. Our computers are not connected to the internet!”
Tradition plays an important role in the transmission of ideas and practices in all faiths, and religious leaders can sometimes have an uneasy attitude towards change. Yet with physical distancing mandated now public health reasons and empty pews the world over, religious leaders and communities are scrambling for solutions. Without the ability to gather, worship, and pray together, religious communities are forced to innovate with drive-in services, Zoom Mass and Instagram stories for instance. This means they must grapple with a fundamental question: Is now finally the time for technology to become central to the practice of mainstream religions? Can religions, which have their eye on the transcendent, borrow some lessons from the data-driven, disruption-oriented culture of high technology?
Philos Project founder Robert Nicholson argued in the Wall Street Journal that “Great struggle can produce great clarity,” and that the coronavirus pandemic could be the spark that ignites another great religious awakening. He may be on to something. Research from the University of Copenhagen found that for every 80,000 COVID-19 cases in a country, internet searches for prayer doubled. And while church on TV is not a new thing, individual congregations the world over have quickly embraced live-streams. Yet a true awakening involves transformation. It will be particularly important for this moment to produce more than just a fascination with faddish gadgets. What is needed is true innovation in the deployment of digital technologies for the benefit of religious institutions. There are already indications that a shift to digital platforms is underway:
- Within Muslim communities, the marketplace for prayer apps has exploded in recent years, and their importance has grown exponentially with Ramadan taking place this year during a quarantine. There were similar advances with traditions such as Ramadan bazaars moving to e-commerce solutions and live-streamed Qur’an recitations.
- Pray.com, a venture-backed faith entertainment startup has experienced a surge in user engagement this year. Traffic on the app has grown markedly, mirroring a similar trend in Google searches for phrases such as “God” and “Faith.” The popularity of the app has facilitated ways for isolated people to reap some of the benefits of religion through encouragement of prayer and gratitude. Meanwhile, religious organizations have used it to stream audio content and collect tithes from practitioners. Founder and CEO Steve Gatena created Pray.com to be the ESPN of faith, open to all religions. “The communal religious experience, I truly believe, has to happen mostly in person,” he says. “But the individual religious experience can happen digitally much easier.”
- Tech startup Subsplash, which creates custom apps for churches, has created an on-demand streaming service for religious content and accelerating plans to offer live-streaming options. Another tech company, Faithlife, has seen a decline in sales of its core digital bible program, but has more than made up for it by a surge in demand for web hosting services for churches.
Of course, these are just a handful of examples in which religious communities are already turning to technology. By embracing technology more fully, many religious institutions will open themselves up to broader change. Intensive use of technology brings with it a commitment to data, ease of experimentation, and user feedback loops. All of these things are recipes for success in other areas of human endeavor. Why not in faith as well? Where the Congress of the Faith had a computer disconnected from the internet — and thus from the world — religions are now being forced to connect with all of humanity at once.
Can religions, which have their eye on the transcendent, borrow some lessons from the data-driven, disruption-oriented culture of high technology?
Presently, many of these services are focused on serving content to an audience of isolated people, not finding new ways to create and bring together religious communities. There is a fundamental question about whether religious practice in isolation is as effective or nourishing as practice in person with others. Does spiritual flourishing merely require the consumption of religious material? Or does it require communal action and gathering?
Religion, it seems, can be thought of in terms of a video game as either single player and multiplayer. According to Gatena, most people in any given culture attend religious gatherings, far fewer pray or meditate. “Religion is probably mostly multiplayer,” Gatena says. “What I learned over time for us building a digital product is that we needed to be 80 percent single player and 20 percent multiplayer.”
The printing press was a highly disruptive technology when it was invented by Johan Gutenberg in 1440, and it allowed for the mass distribution of the vernacular bible which fueled the Protestant Reformation. We may be approaching a similar moment now when the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic combine with the power of digital technologies and the internet to radically reshape religious life. Already many of these technologies are quite adept at serving religious content to a passive audience and may be able to extract responses from users in terms of donations or prayer. The problem evident in my meeting with Msgr. Brown is quickly being resolved; the infrastructure required to reach people is rapidly making its way into churches. However, the true breakthrough — creating a genuine shared communal experience — remains on the horizon.