Angry Birds app v. meditation app

Some newspapers become obsessed with localizing just for the sake of localizing. Editors will look at something that happened in India and then get their reporters to find local Indian-Americans to comment on the issue. I know first-hand because I have been asked to do these stories in the past.

Similarly, some reporters will take a larger trend and try to apply it to religious groups: “Lots of people are on Facebook–pastors, too!” If you’re seeing a trend, chances are that it’s making waves in religious communities as well. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to take a step further with these kinds of trend stories. Take the pastors who join Facebook. Who cares? What makes them different from another Facebook user?

Using the Catholic app Confession news hook, Lisa Fernandez takes a look at how faith apps are growing in popularity for the Mercury News.

This piece takes the “look, religious people are doing it, too” approach to a new level by looking at how the technologies might conflict with religious practices.

Just before sundown Friday, a group of plugged-in Jews released a custom-made app to alert their Facebook friends and Twitter followers that they were checking out, logging off and generally not answering their e-mails for the next 25 hours.

Then, with iPhones tucked away in a cutesy sleeping bag, these frenetic, high-tech Jews met — in real time — at an organic ranch in Los Altos Hills to drink wine, break bread and honor the Jewish mandate of not using technology on Shabbat.

This just-off-the-shelf smartphone application, the Sabbath Manifesto, was designed by members of a Jewish nonprofit called Reboot. And it’s just one of a plethora of religious apps bombarding the online landscape as each faith tries to stake its claim.

Many see these electronic forms of religion as an extension of age-old concepts of study, prayer and evangelism. Others see the apps as potentially controversial, or confusing at best, when a Buddhist meditation timer or the teachings of Jesus are juxtaposed next to “Angry Birds” and a Netflix account.

The juxtaposition idea almost works for me, but as an occasional “Angry Birds” player and Netflix watcher, what’s the controversy? That said, there isn’t anything particularly zen about having my Twitter, NPR and gchat apps going at the same time.

The article especially looks at some Muslim apps and gives some pricing and download specifics, offering mostly a positive perspective.

Tahir Anwar, whom some have nicknamed the “high tech imam” at the South Bay Islamic Association where he works and regularly is plugged in to his Apple products, has no problem with religious apps.

…In fact, Anwar helped design a few apps now being offered both for free and for sale, at his friend Azmat Tanauli’s company, Salik Productions, in Sunnyvale. Anwar’s sons, Adam, 9, and Mohammad, 4, and his nephews, Abdullah, 8, and Ahmad, 7, regularly whip out an iPad or other electronic device to listen to the Arabic translations of the 99 names of Allah through an app, Divine Names, or study the 569 words in the Koran with Quranic Words. Anwar also helped create an app to advise Muslims on what to do, step-by-step, on their first hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca.

“Every day, there are about 1,000 new downloads,” Tanauli said. “People are downloading from everywhere — the UK, China, Indonesia.”

Since the company launched these apps in March 2009, Tanauli said, about 500,000 sacred Muslim apps have been downloaded. By far, learning the words in the Koran has been most popular, he said, despite the regular fee of nearly $15 for the app.

I’d be curious if anyone expresses concerns about religious apps, either from a Muslim perspective or another perspective. Fernandez spoke with Rachel Wagner, religion professor at Ithaca College and author of Sacred Texting, about some of the questions raised with using the apps.

Other religions, and different branches within them, offer apps too. Hindu apps present virtual incense and coconut offerings to the elephant-headed god Ganesh. The Gurbani World app allows Sikhs to listen and watch morning and evening Sikh prayers. Buddhists can download the Ultimate Buddhist Library, and numerous mobile Koans, or riddles. Bible Shaker offers Bible verses at the touch of the screen, with the option to e-mail Romans 5:11, for example, to all your friends.

As Wagner and others have pointed out, these religious apps sometimes raise curious questions. Can you bring a smartphone with a downloaded Koran or Torah into the bathroom? Is it rude to stare at your iPhone or Droid in church even if you’re staring at a New Testament app? Do virtual offerings to the Hindu gods count?

Something tells me that the most significant questions are not whether you can read religious texts on the toilet or whether it’s rude to use an app. It seems like there are bigger questions about whether apps alter a religious ritual or experience? Do they form a religious experience differently than if they didn’t have the app? Nice questions are being raised, but are there are more to explore that seem particular to religion?

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  • Jerry

    Sarah, I saw this story as well. I think the effect of these apps on religion is, as you indicated, an arena worth further exploration.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks, Jerry. Do you use emerging tech? Feel like they’ve changed the way you interact with them in the religion sphere?

  • joye

    I think the etiquette question is more worthy of consideration than you think. For example, many people get angry if they see someone using a cell phone at Mass. It’s perceived as rude in the same way that it’s rude to use a cell phone in class or at dinner with someone, because you’re not supposed to have your attention divided.

    However, the issue has become cloudy because smartphones can now do basically all the functions that books do. My husband has Universalis, one of a few apps that contains the Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass texts, etc, on his phone. He sometimes uses the phone as a prayer aid during adoration, in the same way as people use books containing the same information. I’ve also borrowed it to use for that purpose.

    I/We haven’t used it without qualms, however, because of the Catholic religious issue of scandal, that is, that it is morally wrong even to give someone the impression that you are sinning because doing so might lead THEM into sin. If someone gets pissed off because he sees me on a cell phone, and allows himself to stew about it instead of focusing on the Mass, I have done him an injury, even if it wasn’t intentional. Or if someone sees me on a cell phone, and next week brings their own cell phone to Mass to play Angry Birds or text, because “that woman was doing it, it must be ok”, likewise.

    Maybe it’s a little bit “inside baseball” but I imagine other religions have similar issues. The thing is that etiquette isn’t just about arbitrary rules, ideally it should be about moral behavior, right?

    As a response to your questions, I don’t feel any different praying the LOTH on an iPhone rather than using a printed book. Praying the rosary on an iPhone rather than on beads is cloudier; it clearly feels different, but I’ve also prayed the rosary on my fingers, and that feels different again. At an extreme, an app that purported, say, to offer the experience of dipping my hand in a holy water font? That I would firmly say was worthless. I guess it comes down to whether “matter matters”.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    joye, thanks for your feedback. I guess I feel like the etiquette question isn’t necessarily a religious question and could apply everywhere. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • John M

    Muslims have specific ideas of cleanliness that are required before handling a Quran. Suffice it to say, being in the bathroom disqualifies you. It’s not a trivial concern.


  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    John, I didn’t mean to trivialize it, but it didn’t seem like it necessarily changed the way a person might read the Koran, for instance.

  • Jerry

    Sarah, you asked if I use emerging tech. As a confirmed geek, my answer is yes. On Twitter I follow GetReligion:-), Religion & Ethics Newsweekly along with inspirational sources such as Rumi. On Facebook, “Foundation for a Better Life (” is one of my “likes”. I tend to use this media as a reminder notice something to help me remember what is important.

  • ralphg

    Did you mean “…faith apps are growing in popularity for the Mercury News” or did you mean:

    “Using the Catholic app Confession news hook, Lisa Fernandez takes a look for the Mercury News at how faith apps are growing in popularity.”

  • Rachel Wagner

    I’m the religion prof cited here and I definitely agree there are more issues to pursue! This piece was specifically engineered to think about apps, and these are a drop in the bucket in terms of the implications of virtual religion. I’ve written a book, due out in the fall, about a number of different hot button themes in this area. I also have a couple of pieces on Religion Dispatches that delve more deeply: one called “Sacred Texting” (on sacred texts in virtual spaces), another called “Dreaming Cyborg Dreams” (on virtual identity) and “Will God Gaming Alter the Bible” on storytelling and interactivity. These themes are all worth delving more deeply into, especially using the lens of ritual (which after all, is a type of programming too).

  • Bill P.

    Great post.

    From another Catholic perspective, the Holy Father is practically insisting that we baptize new technologies with our use of them—which is consistent with the faith’s Sacramental and Incarnational theologies and anthropologies, especially its theology of history.

    A good story would be a study if the theology (and anthropologies) of various faiths could be deconstructed by a look at how, when and why they use technologies.

    Another techno-impact worthy of coverage is the use of electronic giving. While many faith communities are doing this, for Catholics (and I imagine others as well) there’s a problem when you have nothing to place in the basket along with your neighbors. The sense of offering your bit in with the whole communities gets lost when your bank account is automatically withdrawn.

  • John M


    I’d argue that the ability to read the Quran with unwashed hands or in unclean places (i.e. the bathroom) would alter a Muslim’s relationship with that text, both by removing a set of rituals historically related to reading the Quran, and by opening up additional opportunities to read the text. This is probably too much detail to explore for a story of this size, and might be too far inside baseball for mainstream media in general, but I think that a Muslim reading this story would “get” that this is at least a medium-sized deal (if not a big deal) and recognize the implications for his/her religious community. Catching that speaks well of the reporter IMHO. (Or maybe just that she spoke to a well-informed source, but that speaks well also.)