Religion – There’s An App For That 9 November 2014
‘Please turn your phone off. God might be calling you, but it won’t be on your mobile phone.’
The poster on the wall of my local mosque is most likely familiar to regular worshippers at a church, temple, gurdwara or synagogue. Since the advent of mobile phones, it seems places of worship have been fighting an uphill battle for the attention of their congregants – a battle that has only intensified with the emergence of smartphones that can provide an almost infinite array of information, services and applications to entertain the user.
You might think that smartphones have won this particular battle – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, some tech-savvy religious groups have found that rather than being an enemy, the mobile phone is a powerful ally. In the past few years, the relative niche of religious apps designed to help in piety and worship has exploded and become a booming industry. The smartphone, rather than take people away from religion, has allowed millions to reconnect with their faith. I first realised this last year, when I noticed that the twenty-somethings who worshipped at the mosque would seldom visit the bookshelves loaded with Qurans, but instead open up iQuran on their mobile phone and recite their sacred scripture from an electronic source.
I wondered how else new technologies, particularly mobile phone applications, were changing the way people practised religion.
It perhaps goes without saying sacred texts are some of the most popular religious apps out there. They were also some of the first eBooks to be published, given that early translations of holy books into English had no copyright restrictions and so could be made publicly available.
You can download hundreds of Bible apps (potentially thousands, I wasn’t quite up for counting); the same is true for apps of the Quran. Almost every holy scripture in the world is available; from the Guru Granth Sahib to the Upanishads. Almost all are free, some with in-app purchases, and there are some versions that charge up-front but offer a host of features.
When I spoke to one Muslim about why he read the Quran on an iPhone rather than an old fashioned book, his response was pragmatic – “it’s easier on the iPhone, and it has more features”. Features? “You can read it in Arabic or English, have it recited to you by your favourite Qari (Arabic for reciter of the Quran), you can also find the chapters and verses much easier than flicking through a book, you can save your place, check the commentary, all there right in front of you on the screen.”
I asked a Christian, Jessie Chambers, the same question – “on my Bible app, it gives me daily readings, so that I’m constantly reflecting over the teachings”, she tells me while bringing up her mobile phone to show me a map “and this is really useful if you’re reading Paul’s stuff, it shows you where the different early churches were and his travels”.
It seemed obvious to me this wasn’t as straightforward as a generational preference over the medium by which books are read. Religious apps allow a completely new way of interacting with the text, one which is well suited to sacred scriptures.
Unlike a novel, which has a clear beginning, middle and end, religious texts tend to be more complicated. You might read some sections more than others or you may want to read things thematically rather than chronologically, or perhaps find a particular section of holy writ that is used for a funeral, or a birth, or a death. You’re constantly moving in and out of the text – and applications offer an incredibly simple way to do that.
What’s more, most holy scripture isn’t simply about reading, but recitation too. Quran and Torah apps provide a feature by which the audio recordings of religious scripture can be played while seeing the text – a multimedia approach to holy scripture, one which reflects the multimedia nature of the text itself
Smartphone applications are not replacing books, but changing the way in which the religious read their scripture altogether.
Where else are smartphones having an impact on religious practice? Those attending Sunday worship at a Church are probably familiar with the experience of a collection plate being passed around, or alternatively dropping money into the collection box as you leave.
St Paul’s Cathedral however has decided to adopt a novel way of receiving regular donations from worshippers. In June 2014 they launched St Paul’s in Your Pocket – a new application that delivered news and multimedia content in exchange for a monthly £5 donation. Matthew Lagden, Director of Development at St Paul’s, said “St Paul’s Cathedral has always had very generous supporters, including a very active Friends organisation, but we are always looking to reach out to new people who may wish to share in the ongoing tradition of the Cathedral by giving us their support.”
Of course, this is simply an extension of an already existing means by which to donate by text. Charities have for several years been able to ask potential donors to send a text to a predetermined number with an amount to donate – a simpler and easier way to manage donations than spare change.
Christian Aid also released a unique app aimed at helping Christians make the most of Lent. Their “Count Your Blessings” application offered daily reflections on the challenges faced by the world’s poorest people, and encouraged prayer and donations to help them.
One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, an obligatory donation of 2.5% of a Muslims savings that is given to charity annually. For Muslims, numerous ‘Zakat Calculators’ exist to help Muslims determine how much they should be giving to fulfil the pillar. Does gold jewellery count? What about cars? What if you have a mortgage? The various intricacies can be navigated through Zakat calculators by answering yes or no questions and adding figures until you receive the total amount that should be donated.
One of the most important aspects of a faith is the community – to believe and to belong. Social media has helped create new communities, transcending the boundaries of geography that have long determined how we connect with others. Synagogue on iPhone and Mosque Locator help Muslims and Jews find the nearest place of worship in a town or city, a challenge often faced by religious minorities. Once you’ve found a mosque or synagogue, applications such as KosherMe or 3D Salah Guide can help you pray. For Hindus, Hindu Calendar helps the faithful keep track of the celestial movements that dictate the religious festivals of Hinduism. Catholics can make use of iRosary to count their Hail Marys. Buddha Machine helps Buddhists meditate, and is one of numerous apps aimed at guiding users to meditate. Take a Break! Guided Meditations provides options to plan and schedule your meditation during your work day.
Many of these apps designed at worship aren’t replacing other forms of guidance in a recognisable way, but are providing a whole new type of service and utilising smartphone technology. The interesting thing will be to observe whether they’re here to stay, or simply a passing fad.
For Good or for Evil?
The smartphone has infiltrated and embedded itself within modern lives in a way unconceived when the first smartphones were first released. But is this good or bad for religion?
The good? It allows a tech-savvy generation to engage with their religious identity and worship in a way that fits into their lives. It helps you connect with others, find places of worship, learn and explore the teachings of your religion. Applications can help you organise and engage with the huge wealth of information out there on the internet and elsewhere without being flooded. Perhaps in this light, the smartphone application should be compared to the development of the printing press.
The bad? Well I’m not sure that worship should always lend itself to such a regimented and computerised approach. As our societies, lives and time are ever more organised, and dictated by the artificial structures we create around ourselves, worship and religion are often a way to step out of the industrial rhythm to connect with something that transcends our day to day grind. The danger of course, is to let our religious experiences exist only within the regimented spaces we confine them to, rather than allowing them to develop organically.
Perhaps best to conclude with Jessie’s insightful reflections “Some people keep going on about how we’re all disconnected from reality because of our phones, but I think they’re overreacting and not really understanding it. We all find different ways to waste time, and use time. My phone lets me study the Bible and read about Jesus if I have just a few minutes. I couldn’t exactly do that before with a book. It’s different, but it’s the same thing in the end.”
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