God? There's an App for That

Apps are making it easier to access religion from anywhere.

July 19, 2010, 6:41 PM

July 22, 2010 — -- In the early evening quiet of her apartment, the young woman took the neatly folded prayer mat from its place on the shelf alongside her English copy of the Quran and prepared herself to pray.

With the sun having just dipped below the horizon for evening, the slow, solemn call to prayer filled the room with the Arabic chant:

God is most great. God is most great.
God is most great. God is most great.

In Muslim communities and countries the world over, sounds like these echo over community loud speakers six times a day, signaling to the faithful that it's time to break from work or other routines to pray. But here in her bedroom, the call to prayer sounds not through a community loudspeaker, but through the small speaker on the young woman's iPhone.

She is among millions of people who have downloaded apps available to ease the daily prayer rituals for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jews, among others. The apps provide users a way to access their religion in a multitude of ways through technology.

Meanwhile, the increasing use of technology itself presents concern for religious leaders.

The young woman, who asked that her name not be used, began practicing Islam late last August, during the final days of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Having grown up in an agnostic family in Los Angeles, she said it has been difficult learning the holy ropes.

Most Muslims are raised with family members to guide them through the customs, traditions or even how to pray, she said. She has had to make her own way with the help of Internet research (Islamicfinder.com), and she relies heavily on her iPhone apps for reference. Among her collection of apps is an Islamic dictionary, a digital copy of the Quran and another that helps her learn Arabic.

"This kept it always in my head that I had to go to prayer," she said, her iPhone in her palm.

Even when the call to prayer would sound when she couldn't participate, such as during a work meeting or some other time when she could not by praying, the reminder made her take pause, briefly centering herself, if only for the moment it took to shut off the alarm.

A search through the iTunes store yields hundreds of religion-related apps: access to religious texts or scriptures, daily meditations, daily messages of hope, dictionaries, references. The list goes on.

The uses for smartphones in a religious context go well beyond Islam.

"I've seen several different apps that are helping people to learn the [Tibetan] language, memorize prayers or be able to see the different images of the deities that are used in meditation visualizations," said Linas Vytuvis, vice president of the Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab Tibetan Buddhist Center in New York.

"Generally, you rely on your own mind through meditation, so the iPhone doesn't really come into play there, but there's actually a few really good meditation apps that act as meditation timers," he said.

The timers, he explained, could be set for varying increments: five minutes of meditation, followed by a one-minute break and so on.

Vytuvis said smartphone timers could be used to increase a person's meditative stamina, although he didn't know how useful they could be for serious Buddhists.

"There are some Lamas that can meditate for three or four days straight, but I would assume your battery would probably drop dead before your meditation session would be over," he said, laughing.

Guidance, which lists prayer times and includes a mosque locator and a compass for determining the direction of Mecca, was one of the first applications to bring religion to the digital user. GPS capability is required to use the app by Batoul Apps, a software development company.

"There were tons of Windows apps for this, but there weren't any Mac ones," said Ameir Al-Zoubi, Batoul Apps' co-owner.

Al-Zoubi launched Guidance in September 2008, shortly after Apple launched its iTunes App Store.

"We were the only one out there," he said. "So, right away, it was extremely popular."

The Guidance app has been downloaded more than 10,000 times, he said.

But Batoul Apps most popular app to date, "Quran Reader," is a digital version of the Quran that allows a user to flip pages or set bookmarks as if they were actually reading the book. With more than 50,000 downloads, the app is often a top-seller in traditionally Muslim nations.

Al-Zoubi said one reason for the increase in religious apps is their ability to incorporate the ancient traditions of Islam, or any religion, into today's fast-paced society.

"You could bring up the Quran, say, while you're standing in line at the store," he said.

"One thing someone always has with them is their phone," Al-Zoubi said. "The iPhone made personal computing so much more personal. You essentially have your computer in your hand all the time. And nothing is more personal than your religion."

Religious smartphone usage is even making its way into the classroom. James Clement vanPelt, the program coordinator for the Initiative in Religion, Science and Technology at Yale Divinity School, said students are allowed to access their smartphones in class.

"A couple years ago, there was some resistance to it -- professors thought students were being distracted," he said. "But now, one of the main uses is to connect you to Google. As questions come up in class, you can answer them immediately. In reference books, the phones allow you to grab quotes more easily. ... People have various versions of the Bible."

According to vanPelt, one student used the Kindle app to download an entire book during class, and another e-mailed a textbook author for clarification of a point the author had made in the book.

"The idea you can converse with [the author] in real time is pretty new," he said.

However, vanPelt expressed some concern about the increasing reliance on technology for religious purposes and otherwise. He pointed to the sudden mysterious glitch that caused the sharp drop in the stock market in early May.

"We're getting into an increasingly vulnerable situation as the power of technology grows," he said. "We tend to want to do things more efficiently, similar to the human beings in Genesis: Adam was tempted to choose to be as God, closer to being omniscient and omnipotent, rather than simply with God. ... The bible says it's a disastrous course that ends in collapse.

"I think it's an increasing problem," he said. "It's kind of built into us to try to have less and less between us and what we want, and technology helps us do that."

However, vanPelt sees the role of technology in a unique position: as both adding to mankind's trajectory towards self-destruction but also being a tool man can use to change that trajectory's course. Most notable, he said, is technology's ability to connect people to one another.

Just as the technology that enables a smartphone ability to connect people of a religion at one time for call to prayer, so can it be used to bring together "like-minded people who are willing to look ahead and decide what needs to be done to transition civilization into a sustainable mode."

According to vanPelt, this transformation of civilization is the type of huge task that religion has taken on in the past.

"Technology changes the way people relate to each other," he said. "But it doesn't really change the way that people relate to God. That sort of remains constant."