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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