Faith at your fingertips
SINGAPORE, Feb 07, 2011 (The Straits Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- When asked to open her Bible, Singaporean air stewardess Celeste Tan, 29, whips out a slim device from her jeans pocket. She makes a swiping motion with her index finger, and then, finger hovering, asks: 'Which verse should I turn to?' The arrival of the iPhone has brought people closer together than ever. Now it may bring believers closer to God.
Over the past year, faith-based smartphone applications -- or 'apps' -- have emerged as the latest worship tools for people on the go.
For Christians like Ms Tan, they have taken the place of thick, leather-bound Bibles. Apps like Bible Utility even allow readers to search for phrases, write notes, and e-mail passages to friends -- in three languages.
For Buddhists, iDharma allows users to study sutras and other religious texts; Muslim Pro helps point devotees in the direction of Mecca, as well as locate nearby halal restaurants.
The apps have won new converts, who say they make it easier to access religious information, though some wonder if they will have any real impact on religious experience.
Still, with smartphone use on the rise, it makes sense for people to use mobile devices to support their religious practices, said Mr Jimmy Yap, the founder of iMerlion, a blog devoted to iPhone apps.
The advantage these have over, say, printed versions of the Bible or Quran, is that they come on the phone, he said, 'so they are with you all the time, you always have access'.
Mr Yap, an Orthodox Christian, has three faith-related apps on his iPhone: One is a Bible that tells him who the saints of the day are, and recommends daily readings; the other two are radio stations that play Orthodox Christian music.
He said: 'I'm embarrassed to say I don't necessarily use these apps every day, but it's nice to know they're there.' There are no ready figures on the number of faith-based apps in the smartphone universe, or how many are downloaded, but they appear to have taken off in the last year, according to media reports. Many are available for the iPhone, though more are being created for other mobile platforms like the Android and BlackBerry, said developers.
At least four were designed in Singapore over the last year.
Among them is Muslim Pro, created last August by Bitsmedia, a Singapore- based app development company. Founder Erwan Mace said he hoped to make it easier for Muslims to practise their faith.
The free app calculates -- based on a complex formula and the user's location -- daily prayer times for Muslims, and shows the direction of Mecca using the phone's internal compass. An updated version to be released this year will include audio recordings of the Quran.
The app has been downloaded more than 215,000 times, 16,000 of them by residents of Singapore, Mr Mace said.
'We have a community out there who wants this. Our app will be the toolbox for any Muslim mobile user,' he added.
Another app, Mosques@SG, finds the nearest mosque, and provides a blurb on its history and a contact number.
The app's developers -- IT professionals Mohammad Khalid and Mohd Farouk -- said more than 300 downloads have been made so far by iPhone users here.
Compared to other countries, the development of mobile apps here -- whether by individuals or religious institutions -- appears to be in its early stages.
In the United States, churches have come up with apps that stream audio and video clips of their religious leaders.
Last April, the Vatican launched Daily Sermonettes, an iPhone app that plays Roman Catholic messages about world events, dubbed in six languages.
In Seoul, the Korean Catholic Archdiocese last October started a mobile app providing daily missal readings. Buddhist groups, meanwhile, devised a 'Temple Stay' app that promotes local temples as weekend getaways for city dwellers looking for a moment of Zen.
In Singapore, most religious organisations rely on Web-based services, if they are online. Facebook and Twitter feeds are rare; keen adopters of such social media tools so far appear to be mainly evangelical Christian groups.
One reason may be ambivalent attitudes to technology among the older set when it comes to matters of faith, said Dr Lai Ah Eng, a researcher whose work has included religious trends here.
'For my generation, we have stronger comparative perspectives in face-to-face encounters, rather than Facebook ones,' said Dr Lai, who is in her mid-50s.
Another may be that faith teachers are sceptical of its application in deepening a person's religious knowledge.
Lay Buddhist minister Piya Tan Beng Sin said that mobile phones are not conducive to the kind of 'refined thinking' needed for religious study.
The attention-diverting nature of phones -- SMS alerts, for example -- may prevent followers from fully engaging in quiet meditation.
'You can't answer the questions of life with just a few lines -- you need knowledge, but you also need wisdom,' he said.
'On a smartphone, there is no structure, no discipline, no assessment to know how much you've learnt. It is a multitasking tool -- good for religious people with busy lifestyles, but it is not a perfect replacement.' Yet experts agreed that mobile technology would soon become an integral part of religious life, what with younger believers, or so-called digital natives, getting more active in religious circles.
Ms Yi-Fan Chen, a visiting research associate at the Singapore Internet Research Centre, has studied the use of new media in religious groups, and found that people use them for their mobility, connectivity and interactivity.
The assistant professor of communications at America's Old Dominion University said a new study she conducted noted that American college students often used mobile networking tools to organise religious activities and to ask for, or respond to, prayer requests.
'If people find a mobile app useful, they will likely adopt it in their religious practices. If not, they will create one for themselves,' she said.
One church here has done just that.
Mr Teo Yig Zern, a self-professed Apple fan and IT director of the Central Christian Church, designed an iPhone app in 2009 for the Punggol church.
The church now uses the app mainly to broadcast its activities, but Mr Teo said he hoped to include a new function this year that would allow members to buy tickets for church events.
Other groups appear to be gearing up for mobile outreach too.
The Taoist Federation said last month that it was looking into developing an app to help devotees locate nearby temples, and the type of deities found in them.
The Singapore Bible Society, responding to queries from The Straits Times, said it is also looking into introducing apps for Bible reading and listening.
It did not say when the app would be available, although its general secretary, Mr Lim K. Tham, said: 'I believe the popularity of mobile technology will grow in leaps and bounds.' Last month, Mr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah, chairman of the building committee for a new mosque in Punggol, said that he would like to create an app for the mosque. Mobile tools, he said, could promote interaction among the mosque's leaders and devotees.
In the end, however, the current excitement over faith-based apps may soon fade into the realm of the ordinary.
Mr Yap, a father of four children, said: 'My kids already take it for granted that you can use a phone for Facebook, for taking photos -- why shouldn't a Bible be on a phone?' As for Ms Tan, who often travels overseas for work during the weekends, the apps are useful but unlikely to replace the real thing -- going to church and praying with other Christians, she said.
'The hugs -- that's what I miss most when I'm away. I don't think there's an app for that. Is there?' To see more of the Asia News Network, go to http://www.asianewsnet.net/home/ Copyright (c) 2011, The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.