Religion trumps porn in Web popularity
June 30, 1999
by Bob Jacobson
(IDG) -- Overcome by its fascination with pornography's domination of the Web, the press has overlooked the skin trade's leading contender: online religion. On AltaVista, a search on the word "porn" produced 4,794,806 Web page hits, while a search on the word "God" produced 6,396,150 hits. Could it be that the scales have tipped to the bright side?
Right now, "angels," with 1,292,520 Web sites, are storming the Net. But "Satan," with only 295,390 pages, is in danger of becoming irrelevant, a bit player.
On the Net, as in the material world, religious expression is incredibly varied and often weird. However, while in American public life it is generally considered gauche to question religious attitudes, on the Net nothing is sacrosanct, and there are no physical ghettos or vast distances to separate the faithful.
A click of a mouse summons widely divergent world views: Islam, Christianity, Taoism, Rastafarianism, Hinduism, Bahaism, spiritism, Native American and Polynesian faiths, Judaism, resurgent European paganism and all of their various sects and subsects. Even atheists and agnostics make the seemingly endless list. Religious persuasion apparently is no barrier to Internet literacy.
The allocation of domain names is no less troublesome among religions than it is among companies, of course. Given the sectarian nature of belief, it's probably tougher. For example, a Sunni humanitarian organization lays claim to www.islam.org. Where does this leave the Shiites? Maybe they can work it out in an Islamic newsgroup.
Religious Web sites include the plain and personal – with the simple integrity of a Quaker assembly hall – as well as the highly elaborate. One interesting experiment, being carried out by separate, somewhat competitive, Jewish organizations, will put online, in hypertext form, the Talmud – the original hypertext.
One of the more triumphal Web sites is being designed by iXL, a large Internet service company, for Pope John Paul II's millennial celebration. It will feature every state-of-the-art technology available in 2000, including streaming video, Internet radio and a high degree of interactivity.
The Mormons, too, employ sophisticated technology in the service of their mission, including online genealogies. They're not alone. When the stakes are so high – winning adherents, saving souls and preserving cultures – no investment seems too costly.
Perhaps the abundance of religious Web sites has been overlooked because, on most of them, no money changes hands. While contributions are often solicited online, e-commerce has yet to replace the real-world collection plate. (Although at least a few cyberpreachers, including former GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson, now take donations online.)
Except for the certifiably insane, most Web-based religious advocates take a restrained, even intellectual approach to spiritual experience. They bring together spirituality with intense rationality and cognitive discipline, qualities not always associated with faith.
So why are millions upon millions of electronic pages dedicated to sharing the ineffable, that which cannot be expressed in words? Obviously, many religious organizations are reaching out to their adherents, providing refuge from the heathens, organizing activities and reifying their respective dogmas. Devout individuals use Web pages as altars and confessionals. Not surprisingly, holy wars occur online as they do elsewhere, though happily they result mainly in textual flames and not inquisitional pyres. Unfortunately, no major religious portals give equal consideration to the beliefs of multiple religions. One ecumenical effort, the United Communities of Spirit, offers a fetching homepage with symbols of the world's great religions. It has tallied 3,445 members to date – fewer than inhabit a medium-size GeoCities (GCTY) neighborhood.
But the movement of religious energy to the Net cannot be ignored. The Internet is a major purveyor of spiritual expression at a time when spiritual hunger is growing in the West. And obviously, religion is pulling people online. Expressions of faith require network bandwidth, servers and a good deal of creativity. Although there may be few direct ways to harness online religion for commercial gain, this fact cannot be denied: Religion is a big part of the Internet industry. Unlike porn, online religion's consequences can't be priced – but they are no doubt more profound than has been realized.
Bob Jacobson is a principal with Bluefire Consulting, a strategic Internet consulting practice in Redwood City, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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