Religious Groups Turn to Technology

If you had to choose one weapon for fighting the next religious war, you could do worse than to pick an iPhone. In recent months, the foot soldiers of religion have come out with a bevy of new programs designed to win converts and make religious practices more accessible. For those of the Jewish faith, iBlessing helps in figuring out which blessings go with which food, ParveOMeter keeps track of the waiting times between eating meat and dairy, and Siddur gives prayer times based on one's GPS coordinates. Devout Roman Catholics will appreciate iBreviary, which pulls up and displays complete missal and principal prayers in Spanish, French, English, Latin, and Italian.

Ever since Galileo, the relationship between technology and organized religion has been uneasy. The printing press helped spread the Gospel and win new adherents to Christianity, but it also greatly undermined the Catholic Church's information monopoly. To avoid repeating this mistake, religious organizations are embracing cutting-edge communications technologies, hoping to stay on the right side of the next technology revolution.

Less than a year ago, the Vatican deplored "the age of the Internet and the mobile," in which, according to Cardinal Lombardi, the pope's spokesman, it's "more difficult than before to protect silence and to nourish the interior dimension of life." Since then, the pope has changed his tune. "Young people … have grasped the enormous capacity of the new media to foster connectedness, communication, and understanding between individuals and communities, and they are turning to them as means of … forming networks, of seeking information and news, and of sharing their ideas and opinions," he said in May.

Thank the Vatican's younger cohort for this turnaround. Paolo Padrini, a 36-year-old Italian pastor and a Vatican insider with a knack for technology, is the developer of iBreviary, the first iPhone application officially approved by the Vatican. Padrini launched the ambitious Pope2You site, which aggregates the Vatican's presence on various social networks. It boasts cutting-edge social-media components, including an iPhone application that keeps its users updated with the pope's recent speeches and activities and a YouTube channel that features papal video addresses. A site called Wikicath delivers the pope's messages "in a new way, interactive and hypertext, through a platform built in the Wiki style."

Not to be outdone, followers of Islam have begun battling over religion online almost as vehemently as they used to clash in the streets of Baghdad. Even mobile-phone ringtones are emerging as important affirmations of religious identity. So many people have been downloading verses from the Qur'an that a Muslim organization in India saw fit to issue a fatwa declaring it a sin to interrupt the tone before it has finished the verse.

As the Vatican has discovered with its Wikicath site, posting boring texts online doesn't guarantee thousands of followers. Lately the site seems to elicit little comment. If Vatican officials continue to haunt Facebook and Twitter, though, they're bound eventually to absorb the new-media culture. Whether the young crowd will have moved on by then is another story.