Belief Beat

We’ve had a lot of somber religion news this week, so here’s something from Religion Dispatches to lighten the mood: Crowdsourced Catholicism: New iPhone App Lets Users Forgive Sins.

Penance, an application released for the iPhone in early December, allows users to absolve one another’s sins. After passing the application’s obligatory security PIN system (conventional online security measures are the app’s primary faith-orientation), you come to an interface resembling a confessional booth. Through the left door you can “confess,” offering your sins to whoever is listening; behind the closed door you can “absolve” any sins received; and at the far side you can “reflect,” considering the shared confessions of others, conveniently arranged like a pinball machine’s top-ten list.

The service requires that every user play both Sinner and Saint, and a novice is granted five bits of each one’s currency: Five Horns for confessing, and five Halos for granting penances. One of each is “gifted… every Sabbath day” but for zealots and louts more credits can be purchased for 17¢ apiece. As with fancy chemical aids for our Facebook farms, this money goes straight to the developers. The users deal instead in an economy of social prestige. With each accepted penance, Saints climb in office from Bishop, to Archbishop, to Cardinal, and finally to Holy Father/Mother of the Church, the cost of directly requesting their absolution increasing at each step. To convert Halos to dollars, an untitled confessor’s services only cost 51¢, whereas the Pope/Papess turns their hoary ear for $6.84.

Penance’s religiosity is well incapsulated in its splash screen. We find a paraphrase a letter of Saint Ignatius, reworked for a quite different model of religious social networking. The original had read, “To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop.” Penance’s splash screen, on the other hand, is agnostic even concerning its own efficacy: “To all them that repent, may they find forgiveness.” But Penance gathers its sacred power precisely through agnosticism. While existent applications for socially-networked religion like Prayer Wall or Manistone facilitate shared reflection on sacred realities beyond the crowds they attract, Penance draws instead upon the growing faith that social networking can miraculously generate spiritual orientation, evading with sacrilegious humor where one expects guidance. Behold: crowdsourced Catholicism.

Seriously? Then again, folks are willing to pay for some pretty questionable apps (though not journalism?) — and this would be a fitting way to seek absolution for that disturbing Angry Birds addiction…

What do you think? Share your thougths in the Comments section below.

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