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Spiritual sites attract larger flock

In today's go-go world of Blackberries and instant messaging, the virtual religious experience is catching on, with legions of people logging onto religious sites.

After his morning commute but before he embarks on a hectic day as a health care worker, Robert Turner flips on his computer and gets a small slice of spirituality.

First, he encounters the "God is Light" screensaver he downloaded from the Interviewwithgod.com site. Then he reads a daily inspiration from a Web page designed to deepen his devotion.

"I can focus on the Lord first," Turner, 43, a father of four living outside of Charleston, S.C., said of his quick morning ritual. "I start my day that way. It's kind of symbolic."

In today's go-go world of Blackberries and instant messaging, the notion of a virtual religious experience is catching on with many people--from the churchgoer such as Turner, who augments weekly services and daily prayers with an injection of daily cyber-scripture, to the agnostic Generation Xer considering a less traditional approach to spirituality.

In fact, legions of the deeply faithful and the merely curious are logging onto religious sites at an increasing pace. Whether to study a religion, learn meditation, or find a like-minded mate, people are scouring the Web for spiritual information.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that one in four Web surfers looks for religious content. Last week, research firm Jupiter Media Metrix noted that more spiritual sites are showing up on its most-popular list. Also last week, the Pope devoted an entire speech to the prospects and dangers of the Web while urging his followers to get wired.

Religious options on the Web are seemingly as vast as the medium itself. Mom-and-pop operations post daily meditations and screen movies for "objectionable" content. Religion-specific portals including IslamiCity, Torah.net and Hindu Universe provide online communities and answer questions about faith. Wiccan and pagan chat rooms are bursting at the seams.

What's more, religion-specific dating services such as JDate, a Jewish site boasting 300,000 members, sponsor singles events and link those looking for love in cities from New York to San Francisco.

And large nondenominational sites such as Beliefnet have taken online religion to a new level, providing meditation guides, prayer circles, columns and daily news--while trying to make a few bucks in the process.

The Web's ability to provide individualized, anonymous, immediate gratification is transforming spirituality as we know it--allowing people to post questions they might be afraid to ask in person, or to explore a religion outside of the mainstream.

"It's clear that the Web is a profoundly useful tool for people who are interested in spiritual matters," said Steve Waldman, who founded Beliefnet. "The Web enables you to explore other people's faith or your own faith safely."

Show of faith
A surprisingly large number of spiritual sites are volunteer efforts.

Steven Greydanus estimates he spends about 25 hours a week reviewing films and posting information on Decentfilms, his volunteer site that filters movies through a Christian lens. "It was something I wish someone else would do, but no one else was doing it," he said.

Greydanus' wife uses the Web to get information, both secular and religious, for homeschooling his three children.

One of the most popular spiritual sites of late is Interviewwithgod.com, which posts movies that pair serene songs and scenes of mountains, woods and deer with scripture passages. Creator Scott Kinney launched the site last summer; he said traffic soared after President Bush gave a Nov. 8 speech, in which he noted that victims of the Flight 93 crash had said the Lord's Prayer before the plane went down. A day earlier, Kinney had posted a new movie called "The Lord's Prayer."

Kinney said his traffic soon began doubling nearly every day. In December, his site attracted 617,000 visitors, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. Kinney, who works for an Arkansas-based Christian greeting-card company affiliated with Hallmark, said the growth is mainly the result of word-of-mouth promotion, something that's surprised him as much as anyone.

"I wanted to be able to provide something to people as a tool, as a comfort," he said, adding that he learned "if you provide something that really connects with people, you don't have to tell a soul. They'll come to you."

The popularity of spiritual sites is good news for modern-day religions, said Tom Beaudoin, an adjunct professor at Boston College's theology department and author of "Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X."

"It still means people are hungry. It still means people are curious," Beaudoin said.

He added the growth of online spirituality mirrors the growth of spirituality in popular culture.

"These days, spirituality is something that's highly personal, usually noninstitutional and something that someone cuts and pastes from different aspects of different religions," he said. "The Web is perfectly positioned to cater to that."

However, Beaudoin said it's unlikely virtual spirituality will replace real-world congregations anytime soon. "This is a technology, unlike the architecture of a church, that encourages aloneness," he said of the Internet. "If all you have is the Web, then you don't have a fully human experience of the spiritual life."