December 23, 2001

CyberFaith: How Americans Pursue Religion Online

How Americans Pursue Religion Online

28 million Americans have used the Internet to get religious and spiritual information and connect with others on their faith journeys. We call them “Religion Surfers.”

  • 25% of Internet users have gotten religious or spiritual information online at one point or another. This is an increase from our survey findings in late 2000, which showed that 21% of Internet users – or between 19 million and 20 million people – had gone online to get religious or spiritual material.
  • More than 3 million people a day get religious or spiritual material, up from 2 million that we reported last year.
  • For comparison’s sake, it is interesting to note that more people have gotten religious or spiritual information online than have gambled online, used Web auction sites, traded stocks online, placed phone calls on the Internet, done online banking, or used Internet-based dating services.

The September 11 terror attacks compelled millions of Internet users to turn to religious issues and concerns online.

  • 41% of Internet users, many of whom had never considered themselves online spiritual seekers, said they sent or received email prayer requests.
  • 23% of Internet users turned to online sources to get information about Islam. Presumably, most of them considered this to be information-gathering activity rather than spiritual activity.
  • 7% of Internet users contributed to relief charities online.

The most popular online religious activities are solitary ones. Most Religion Surfers treat the Net as a vast ecclesiastical library and they hunt for general spiritual information online. However, they also interact with friends and strangers as they swap advice and prayer support.

  • 67% of Religion Surfers have accessed information on their own faith.
  • 50% have sought information on other faiths.
  • Religion Surfers appear to be more comfortable offering spiritual advice online than requesting it: 35% have used email to offer advice, while 21% have sought advice in an email.
  • 38% of Religion Surfers have used email to send prayer requests.  The practice is far more common among congregation members (42%) than non-members (12%).

Within the Religion Surfer population, variations in religious devotion, history, and affiliation play a role in determining what activities attract individuals.

Religion Surfers’ online practices can be studied from several viewpoints, based on their offline activities and history.  Four patterns of practice highlight different groups: Active Religion Surfers use the Internet in different ways from less-active Religion Surfers; religious converts use the Internet in different ways from faith loyalists who remain with the religion in which they were raised; religious outsiders use the Internet in different ways from insiders who consider themselves in the mainstream of their communities; and church or temple members use the Internet in different ways from non-members.

  • The most active online Religion Surfers (those who go online at least several times a week for spiritual material) are also the most active offline participants in their faiths.
  • Those who have converted from the religion in which they were raised are more likely than those who have not to be active Religion Surfers (33% vs. 24%).
  • Religious outsiders are particularly interested in using the Internet to meet others of their own faith and share items of religious interest.  Outsiders are those who see themselves as a minority, who say they have few people of the same religion in their local communities, or who say they have faced discrimination due to their beliefs.

A table listing the things Religion Surfers do online can be found here.

For Religion Surfers, the Internet is a useful supplemental tool that enhances their already-deep commitment to their beliefs and their churches, synagogues, or mosques. Use of the Internet also seems to be especially helpful to those who feel they are not part of mainstream religious groups. About 27% of Religion Surfers attribute to the Internet at least some improvement in their faith lives.  Religion Surfers are optimistic about the Web’s potential to improve the religious life of others, while at the same time they are fearful of the Internet’s ability to do harm to others by making heretical or cult-inspired material so easily accessible.

  • 15% of Religion Surfers say their use of the Internet has made them feel more committed to their faith, and 27% say it has improved their spiritual life to at least a modest degree.
  • 35% believe that the Internet has a “mostly positive” effect on the religious life of others.  And 62% of Religion Surfers say that the availability of material on the Internet encourages religious tolerance.
  • 53% of Religion Surfers fear that the Internet makes it too easy for fringe groups to promote themselves in ways that can harm people.

Religion Surfers are distinguished from other Americans by their religious devotion, rather than conventional demographics. They take their faith seriously in the offline world and use online tools to enrich their knowledge of their faith and to practice their devotions.

  • 81% of Religion Surfers describe their religious faith as “very strong,” compared to 61% of the general public who said in a March 2000 Gallup poll that religion was “very important” in their life.
  • 74% of Religion Surfers attend religious services at least once a week. Polls such as the General Social Survey, Gallup, and the National Election Study show that 26% to 39% of Americans attend religious services every week.
  • 86% of Religion Surfers pray or meditate at least once a day. By comparison, 54% of all Americans say they pray that often, and 23% say they meditate every day.

Many Religion Surfers think key spiritual resources are more easily available online than offline.

  • 64% of Religion Surfers believe that the Internet provides easier access to religious study and educational materials than they can otherwise find offline.
  • Nearly half (44%) believe that the Internet provides easier access to prayer and other devotional materials than they can otherwise find offline.
  • Non-members of religious organizations rely on the Internet to find resources that members of actual congregations are likely to find in their faith communities.