/ 21 April 2011

knock, knock, [email protected]

God may or may not be on the internet, but Jesus certainly is.

The son of God describes himself as “carpenter, healer, God” and says he’s been on Twitter since 01-01-0000. During a moment of introspection, Twitter-Jesus muses: “What would I do?” There aren’t any responses from his flock, though. Jesus tweets but he doesn’t follow anyone.

Last year a blogger at the website Urlesque used data from Google to find out if, 44 years later, the Beatles were still bigger than Jesus. After comparing the volume of search terms for 23 of the biggest celebrities and the word “cat” over the preceding 12 months, he found that “as expected, cats are more popular than Jesus on the internet. But not even cats can touch Lady Gaga.”

When captioned cats have more pulling power than the son of God, it’s time for an intervention.

In recent years the Catholic Church has made a big push online. Pope Benedict XVI may not speak the language of the internet but he’s trying to be hip to the social mores of the young and connected. Last year he called on priests to “proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources”.

This year the Vatican, which sports a dedicated social communications office, is set to launch a new information web portal that will filter specially created content from the church to social media platforms. But it will have some catching up to do. It has been almost seven years since the Church of England launched a virtual church — i-church.org — with its own web pastor.

Nevertheless, the pope is leading from the front, so to speak, having already launched a YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter feed and iPhone application. Sadly, the Vatican’s much-vaunted Facebook page has just over 2 000 regular viewers and its YouTube channel has only about three million views. By contrast, teen heart-throb Justin Bieber has already clocked more than 476,5-million views for a single music video. In fact, Nora the piano-playing cat beats the Vatican channel by 20-million views. Maybe what the Vatican needs is more cats.

Researchers Lorne Dawson and Douglas Cowan, who edited a 2004 collection of essays on religion and the internet, say cyberspace is not as unusual a place as sometimes predicted.

“Life in cyberspace is in continuity with so-called ‘real life’ and this holds true for religion as well. People are doing online pretty much what they do offline, but they are doing it differently,” they observe.

Much of the day to day God consciousness on the internet consists of daily devotions and prayer chains, which mirror religious practices in the real world.

“They’re the same phenomenon we saw 30 years ago, with radio, and even 130 years ago,” said Maria Frahm-Arp, an Anglican deacon and lecturer in theology at St Augustine Catholic University, who helps to run an online meditation group of almost 40 000 Christians. “Victorian England was full of those things. We now just do them in a different way.”

Instead of Victorian-style printed tracts its group members sign up to receive short devotional email messages of about 100 words each morning.

The new frontier for religion online is in applications for mobile devices. There are the usual eBook scriptures like iBible, iTorah and iQuran, and then there are myriad practical applications that make life easier for anyone with a PC or a smartphone.

The Catholic Church recently gave its blessing to a confession application that helps users track their sins and prepare for confession. (At the other end of the spectrum, Apple recently removed a “gay cure” app put out by United States-based Exodus International, a ministry that believes homosexuals can be cured.)

For Jews, a number of apps provide the Torah and daily prayer books in digital format, but these don’t have the functionality of a physical book — they can’t be used on the Sabbath. For those who keep kosher, the ParveOMeter provides a timer to let you know how soon after eating meat you can eat dairy, for example.

Surprisingly, it’s not just the über religious who go out of their way to find apps for the spirit.

Uzayr Jeenah, a consultant at a global management consulting firm who might find himself in Edinburgh this month and in Nairobi the next, doesn’t consider himself to be particularly religious but even he has a few religious applications up his sleeve. One of them gets daily use when he’s out of the country.

“Most of my work is done on the road, often in places where there aren’t any Muslims. If you’re spending 90% of your life on the road, it’s a bit difficult to figure out what time to [pray],” he says.

Last year Jeenah found PC Prayer Time Pro on Google, which tells Muslims what time to pray and in what direction to face when doing so, no matter where they are in the world. Problem solved.

For Jeenah, a career-minded millennial with a bit of religion in him, there doesn’t seem to be much debate about whether God is on the internet.

“God is everywhere,” he muses. “If the internet is a place then God is definitely there.”

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for Mail & Guardian Online

This article is part of the Mail & Guardian‘s annual Religion Issue ahead of Easter. See more here.