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Applications

Religious apps with a higher purpose

From CNET Magazine: Mobile tech is making religion more relevant for a generation that’s glued to a screen.

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CNET staff reporter Abrar Al-Heeti.

James Martin/CNET

I'm attached to my phone. I use it to keep in touch with friends, feed my social media obsession and take Instagram-worthy pictures of my travels. Pretty much what you'd expect from any 23-year-old, right?

But my phone is important to me for another reason. It helps me stay on top of my religious obligations as an observant Muslim.

I pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan and read the Quran. I rely on an app called Muslim Pro, which pings me every few hours with prayer reminders. It even features a compass that points me in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam toward which all Muslims pray. The app's "Verse of the Day" gets me to (virtually) open up the Quran each night.

Millennials may be an unlikely target for religious apps, but I'm not alone. Joseph Ortiz, 18, of Oklahoma City says he often turns to The Bible App, which says it has more than 1,500 versions of the Christian Bible (he prefers the New International Version), in over 900 languages and dialects.

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YouVersion's Bible App includes hundreds of reading plans, and lets users share their favorite versions and bookmark passages. 

YouVersion

He likes to highlight his favorite verses and text them to friends as encouragement. Every night, he falls asleep to a recitation of a chapter.

"All the distractions and troubles are over. I can just listen to the word of God and fall asleep to that," Ortiz says. "I find it boosting my spirituality."

Ortiz and I are more religious than most people our age. A Pew Research Center survey of 35,000 US adults found that only about half of millennials believe in God "with absolute certainty" and around 40 percent of those born between 1990 and 1996 say religion is very important to them. Less than a third say they attend religious services at least once a week. Yet it's this younger market that app developers, including those writing religious apps, are aiming for.

Muslim Pro includes prayer-time notifications, a compass pointing to Mecca, verses from the Quran and locations of nearby mosques. 

Screenshot by CNET

The Bible App, for example, was designed by people in their 20s and 30s, says Bobby Gruenewald, co-founder of the app's developer, YouVersion. They designed it in a way that felt natural to them, with social functions such as the ability to share favorite verses on Facebook. The goal, Gruenewald says, is to make the religious experience more relevant for all audiences, including younger generations.

What you won't see on the app are any ads or charges. "We thought if we could keep it noncommercial, it would sort of keep the experience pure for people," he says.

Not in it for the money

Regardless of religion or denomination, developers don't go into the genre with the expectation of making big money.

"There's not a real business in selling Jewish apps," says Barry Schwartz, CEO of RustyBrick, which has created over 30 Jewish apps. "Giving back to the community is the most important thing."

Islamoji reflects various Muslim cultures and practices. 

Sakeena Rashid

RustyBrick's flagship product is Siddur, a Jewish prayer book that also calculates prayer times based on a user's location. A mizrah locator (Hebrew for "east") points worshippers toward Jerusalem. At $9.99, it's one of RustyBrick's few paid apps. It can be downloaded from the App Store and Google Play.

Ken Lane, 30, downloaded the app when he traveled to New York from Tulsa, Oklahoma, for an Orthodox Jewish conference on keeping Judaism relevant in modern times. A group wanted to hold the evening prayer service, but a few people didn't have a prayer book with them. He downloaded Siddur and gave his physical copy to someone else. He likes the fact that he no longer has to carry a book with him for daily prayers.

RustyBrick's Siddur app gives users a Jewish calendar, offers prayer times based on their GPS location and points worshippers toward Jerusalem. 

RustyBrick

"I'm religiously observant and a millennial living in the digital age. It's really nice when tools come along that allow me to practice my faith in the modern age without sacrificing my own tradition," Lane says.

Identity

Religious apps don't just involve scripture. They can also convey a person's sense of identity and culture. Islamoji features emojis relating to various Muslim religious practices and cultures. There are also characters wearing hijab and with different skin colors, as well as emojis of baklava, arroz con frijoles and samosas. It costs $1.99 to download on the App Store.

"It fills a void in the pop culture space where Muslims haven't had extensive representation," says creator Sakeena Rashid. "I wanted the app to be something that Muslim youth would see and feel, in a sense, validated. I thought it was important for them to be able to see something that looked like them and was for them."

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Mark Mann

And then there are Snapchat and Instagram — two apps that scream "millennial" but not "religious." Yet Imam Suhaib Webb of Washington, DC, shares sermons via both apps in response to questions sent by his (primarily millennial) followers. He'll answer questions about anything from issues with parents to converting to Islam. (Occasionally, a Snap about his favorite organic beard oil finds its way on his Snapchat, a reminder of the platform's generally trivial nature.)

"People feel secure and safe and can ask anything," he says.

It's fascinating that a phone, which can be a time-waster, doubles as a platform for spiritual consciousness. In between Snaps of cats and Facebook posts about high school reunions, I get nuggets of wisdom about the importance of faith. Prayer notifications are humbling reminders of what's really important, even if I'm binge-watching celebrity videos or selecting the perfect Instagram filter. 

This story appears in the winter 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

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