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Americans reaching out for ‘that online religion’

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More than 3 million Americans per day obtained religious information from the Internet in 2001 — up from 2 million in 2000, according to a national survey released last week.

More people searched for God online than gambled, traded stock or engaged in banking online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life survey. The study was funded by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust.

Of those who used the Internet for spiritual satisfaction, 15 percent said it made them more committed to their faith and 62 percent said it encouraged tolerance of other faiths.

Among scholars, the boost in Internet religion has caused speculation about a spiritual revolution.

"Online religion triggers notable changes in religious experiences that cannot help but transform the character of religion itself," says author Brenda Brasher in her book "Give Me That Online Religion," published last year. "Using a computer for online religious activity . . . could become the dominant form of religion and religious experience in the next century."

Spiritual surfers are downloading religious texts and music, jumping into chat rooms for debate, hooking up with new churches and creating a market for books such as "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Religion Online."

Sixty-four percent of "Cyber Seekers" surveyed said the Internet provides easier access to religious materials than they can find offline.

But the availability of more spiritual information doesn't sit well with everyone.

Aziz Eddebbarh, spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Southern Nevada, said the odds of getting "accurate" online information about Islam are "50-50 at best."

After Sept. 11, the Internet became the world's resource for information on Islam — but whose version of Islam?

"A lot of people have their own ideas and also people with prejudice and bias are putting out wrong information on the Internet," Eddebbarh said.

"Sometimes you get useful information, but I still think seeking personal contact would be better," he said.

Nevertheless, Eddebbarh said that Muslims routinely rely on certain Web sites, such as zaytuna.org and mpac.org for their religious news.

For local evangelical Christian churches, the Internet has created a new means of proselytizing to the "unchurched."

"We're starting to make our Web site more of an outreach site — we're starting to put more information about what we believe and who we are," Howard DeAlvarado, Webmaster at the International Church of Las Vegas, said.

International Church's Web site gets more than 4,000 hits a month.

"In the past, people used our Web site mainly to stay on top of events at the church, but that's changing," DeAlvarado said. "We're trying to reach out to more people who are not members now and let them know about our beliefs."