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SciTech Religion On Your IPhone? Faith Apps Grow In Availability, Popularity


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Religion on your iPhone? Faith apps grow in availability, popularity

By Lisa Fernandez

Just before sundown Friday, a group of plugged-in Jews released a custom-made app to alert their Facebook friends and Twitter followers that they were checking out, logging off and generally not answering their e-mails for the next 25 hours.

Then, with iPhones tucked away in a cutesy sleeping bag, these frenetic, high-tech Jews met -- in real time -- at an organic ranch in Los Altos Hills to drink wine, break bread and honor the Jewish mandate of not using technology on Shabbat.

This just-off-the-shelf smartphone application, the Sabbath Manifesto, was designed by members of a Jewish nonprofit called Reboot. And it's just one of a plethora of religious apps bombarding the online landscape as each faith tries to stake its claim.

Many see these electronic forms of religion as an extension of age-old concepts of study, prayer and evangelism. Others see the apps as potentially controversial, or confusing at best, when a Buddhist meditation timer or the teachings of Jesus are juxtaposed next to "Angry Birds" and a Netflix account.

What's clear, however, is that the number of religious apps is growing at a pace impossible to count.

"Everyone wants their religious presence on that space," said Rachel Wagner, an assistant professor of religion at Ithaca College, author of "Sacred Texting" and an upcoming book, "Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality." "They want the online world to be colonized by their apps."

A Roman
Catholic app, Confession, generated international buzz earlier this month when the creator, Little iApps, invited users for $1.99 to confess and keep track of their sins online, even though to receive absolution, believers still would have to physically see a priest at church.

Other religions, and different branches within them, offer apps too. Hindu apps present virtual incense and coconut offerings to the elephant-headed god Ganesh. The Gurbani World app allows Sikhs to listen and watch morning and evening Sikh prayers. Buddhists can download the Ultimate Buddhist Library, and numerous mobile Koans, or riddles. Bible Shaker offers Bible verses at the touch of the screen, with the option to e-mail Romans 5:11, for example, to all your friends.

As Wagner and others have pointed out, these religious apps sometimes raise curious questions. Can you bring a smartphone with a downloaded Koran or Torah into the bathroom? Is it rude to stare at your iPhone or Droid in church even if you're staring at a New Testament app? Do virtual offerings to the Hindu gods count?

Tahir Anwar, whom some have nicknamed the "high tech imam" at the South Bay Islamic Association where he works and regularly is plugged in to his Apple products, has no problem with religious apps.

"There's never a shortage of people who are quick to judge," Anwar said. "But all those who understand this mobile technology are not concerned about such issues. Of course, we would not read or listen to the Quran, for example, in the bathroom. But then, who would?"

In fact, Anwar helped design a few apps now being offered both for free and for sale, at his friend Azmat Tanauli's company, Salik Productions, in Sunnyvale. Anwar's sons, Adam, 9, and Mohammad, 4, and his nephews, Abdullah, 8, and Ahmad, 7, regularly whip out an iPad or other electronic device to listen to the Arabic translations of the 99 names of Allah through an app, Divine Names, or study the 569 words in the Koran with Quranic Words. Anwar also helped create an app to advise Muslims on what to do, step-by-step, on their first hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca.

"Every day, there are about 1,000 new downloads," Tanauli said. "People are downloading from everywhere -- the UK, China, Indonesia."

Since the company launched these apps in March 2009, Tanauli said, about 500,000 sacred Muslim apps have been downloaded. By far, learning the words in the Koran has been most popular, he said, despite the regular fee of nearly $15 for the app. Tanauli and Anwar soon will release a new application called MyMasjid, where users can search for the mosque closest to them, which also will link them with websites, addresses and prayer times.

Following on last week's intimate affair at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, members of Reboot, with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, are kicking off the group's second annual National Day of Unplugging this Friday at sundown through Saturday night. They're asking everyone, Jewish or not, to disconnect from their computers and spend a meaningful day of rest.

Of course, this year, they have a new app to remind them by text to shut down and a simultaneous post to their social networks with a "Check Out" tab to alert friends they'll be offline for a while.

"Believe me, we fully appreciate the irony of using a high-tech app to announce a low-tech day," said Reboot spokeswoman Tanya Schevitz of San Francisco. "But really, what better way to tell your followers that you won't be tweeting on the weekend?"

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