People wearing masks attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java, on March 20, 2020. But when religious gatherings must be avoided, technology can come to the rescue. Photo: AFP / Juni Kriswanto

In line with the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – and hastened by the global pandemic – there has been a recent surge in the development of religious apps to guide the faithful.

Whether it’s for dating purposes, meditation or prayer, believers of all religions are increasingly turning to their mobile devices to get them through the isolation caused by governments’ attempts to contain Covid-19.

Where once these two giants of modern life operated as polar opposites, religion and technology have become surprisingly easy bedfellows with online connections during this period of uncertainty, helping to strengthen people’s faith.

As a result, a number of Jews celebrated Passover via Zoom, worshippers have used online platforms to attend morning services, priests hear confessions via Skype, the Pope has sanctioned a Click to Pray eRosary, Buddhists log on for mindfulness meditation, and a daily Hukamnama app brings the words of the Guru to stay-at-home Sikhs.

And, as the global crisis rumbles on, triggering nationwide lockdowns that limit access to churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, these apps are growing increasingly sophisticated in order to cater to the needs of a community that has traditionally found strength in the communal experience.

Muslim Pro, one of the leading mobile prayer applications for Muslims, offers comprehensive religious, lifestyle and community features. Not only does it enable users to receive accurate prayer times, it includes full Koran audio recitations and an animated Qibla compass to show the right direction to Mecca.

And, as the Covid-19 restrictions show no sign of easing, Muslim Pro has found itself increasingly in demand. As many countries went into lockdown in early 2020, Muslim Pro updated its contents to inspire Muslims to remain connected to their faith.

“We saw a big spike in app usage during the Covid-19 pandemic period, so we knew it was helping people keep their faith,” a spokesman said. According to its website, Muslim Pro has now surpassed the milestone of 100 million downloads, a figure that continues to climb daily.

Although technology was not a complete anathema to religious leaders before the pandemic, much of the mainstream involvement revolved around tentatively experimenting with the digital age in order to fuel engagement and reach a younger audience. Then, when Covid-19 began to wreak its havoc, experimentation evolved into more concerted efforts to embrace this new world in order to minister to an isolated faithful.

In September 2019, Pope Francis addressed a conference at the Vatican on the “Common Good in the Digital Age,” admitting that “a better world is possible thanks to technological progress, if this is accompanied by an ethic inspired by a vision of the common good, an ethic of freedom, responsibility and fraternity, capable of fostering the full development of people in relation to others and to the whole of creation.”

And the digital age has been quick to respond. According to Bloomberg, the top Christian meditation apps raked in 2.3 million downloads in the US from March to August last year, up 325% from the same period a year earlier. Venture capital funding into US religious and faith-based apps surpassed US$18 million.

However, there are limitations to the reach of technology. A strict interpretation of Jewish law prohibits the use of electronics during some holidays. And when the debate began to rage about Zoom and other platforms being used for Passover seders – the ritual feast that marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover – the UK’s chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis recommended that technology only be used by families an hour or two beforehand.

However, many Islamic scholars support the educational role of apps, recognizing that the learning of rites, slowly and without stress, can help drive a deeper faith. When the hajj was closed to worshippers outside of Saudi Arabia last year because of the pandemic, a German company created an interactive digital hajj experience, dubbed Muslim 3D, that took viewers on a journey through Islamic lifestyle, history and rituals.

Muslim Pro also introduced a virtual hajj journey that enabled users to learn more about the pilgrimage to Mecca, with descriptions and a media gallery of the various landmarks.

Ahmad Fairiz, founder and chief executive of Recite Lab, a Kuala Lumpur-based group whose app helps Muslims read the Koran, believes it would be foolish for religions not to work with technology.

“Islam and, in general, other religions, should not be opposing technology,” he said. “They should embrace it and take it as an opportunity to adapt their respective religious values.”

Of course, for many of the faithful, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, virtual reality will never be able to replicate the strength of devotion offered by communal worship, no matter how convincing the graphics.

There is also a concern that in the race to modernize, technology might work to alienate older worshippers. For this reason, the Church of England launched a 24-hour free phone line last year to bring worship and prayer into people’s homes while church buildings remained closed.

However, with some experts believing the pandemic may rumble on indefinitely, it seems technology will continue to offer a much-needed phone line to the faithful and their god or gods.

Andrea Busfield

Andrea Busfield has been in journalism for more than 25 years, working as a reporter, features editor and copy editor for UK national newspapers, the chief civilian print editor of Sada-e Azadi in Kabul, and deputy editor of Gulf Times in Qatar. A published author, she now works as a freelance journalist based in Cyprus.