Communication and religion have been inextricably linked since the time of the earliest telling of myths, and sketches in cave dwellings. The earliest known written literature, which dates to the 27th century B.C., included the Kesh Temple Hymn. The first radio program broadcast was heard by ships at sea on Christmas Eve in 1906, and was a religious broadcast that featured “O Holy Night” on violin and the reading of a passage from the Bible.

Christianity, recognizing a dominant new mass communication tool in radio, used “radio broadcasts … as a complementary activity to traditional missionaries, enabling vast numbers to be reached at relatively low cost, but also enabling Christianity to be preached in countries where this was illegal and missionaries were banned.” In 1951, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen transitioned from radio to television, and ushered in televangelism through his program, “Life Is Worth Living.”

The virtual revolution, created by the rapid ascent of the Internet from the early-1990s, with its real-time connections and instant access to information, open and collaborative construct, and ever-increasing social spheres, has forever changed the way in which we communicate, and reduced our world to a global communication village. As one BBC blogger states, “We are able to connect, collect, contribute and create online in ways that were heretofore impossible. And we do all this for free. Pretty flipping amazing!”

Indeed! But within this new media reality has come the formation of new sociological structures, including new online religious communities that are dynamically reshaping traditional religious identities and practices. The Web has enabled a free spiritual marketplace to emerge, where spiritual practices and teachings are reaching substantial and increasing audiences in the privacy of their homes, offering, for example, religious experiences, theological debates and discussions in a way that necessitates religious and other scholars to analyze semiotics and signification in online religion.

Just to illustrate how popular religious sites are on Facebook, socialbakers.com, one of the largest Facebook statistics portals, has listed 697 main pages categorized as Church/Religious Organization on Facebook. The top three pages with the largest number of fans in this category are “Jesus Daily” with 5.5 million fans, “I love Jesus” with 2.7 million fans and “Yo Tampoco Me Averguenzo de Decir Que Amooo a Diosss y Que Creo 100% En El!”, a Christian page, with 2.1 million fans.

The growth rates in the fan base of many sites in this category are phenomenal. The three top sites listed above increased by almost 20% each in the last three months. Other sites like GodVine, “Dios NO ES religión,ES relación!!” and “YouTube Cristiano” experienced an increase in fans of 101%, 126% and 117%, respectively, over the same period.

Clearly, there is a rising, vibrant effort by the masses to actively engage in seeking out religion online. But, why are so many people attracted to religious sites? What are they in search of?

Recently, PRiyaCOMM conducted a survey of 162 persons to examine the extent to which new media is being utilized by these individuals in their religious life. Here are some of our findings:

 45% went online to find or share information about religion less than once per month, while 18% performed this activity daily.
 78% used email to send, receive and/or forward messages with religious or spiritual content.
 77% were seeking and/or exchanging information about their own faith, and downloading and/or listening to religious music, while 66% were looking for and/or exchanging information about another faith.
 69% agreed that social media are an increasingly important part of religion, while 72% thought that new media and communications are actually enhancing religion.
 79% felt that the Internet enabled them to have easier access to spiritual educational materials than they were able to locate offline.
 57% disagreed that social media and citizen journalism will ultimately harm religious faiths and traditions, creating an almost a split vote on this statement.

Researchers have begun to study the increasing importance of new media in religion, and analyze multi-faceted elements including content, production, practice and identity-formation within diverse cultural contexts. One thing is certain though. As we continue to uncover new tools and technologies to communicate, transfer information, influence thought and transform our world, it is imperative for traditional religious institutions to remain cognizant of the changing patterns of communications, and seek ways to adjust their communicative element to effectively serve their audiences. The inherent symbiotic relationship between communication and religion now demands that as communications systems and technologies continue to evolve, so must the approach by traditional religious institutions to augment interpretation, reception and interaction by their audiences.