Sunday, November 1, 2009

Religion, Dating, and the Internet

Marni Hershbain

Religion is being transformed by the internet, which you can now use for religious activities ranging from downloading religious music to attending an online church service where you can actually recite prayers and interact with other church members (Jenkins 2008). As of 2004 over 64 million people were turning to the web for religious and spiritual needs (PR Newswire 2004). Even in countries in which religious internet use is considered low, such as Singapore, 10.5% of people used the internet to find a place of worship, 15% subscribed to a faith-oriented listserv or e-mail service and 13.4% received faith oriented guidance online (Kluver et al. 2004). One way in which religion and the internet have come together is through online dating. Between 2004 and 2005 the number of internet dating sites jumped from 850 to 1,122 (Benderoff 2006). Specific sites have been created to appeal to Jews, Muslims, Christians, specific Christian denominations, Hindus and Buddhists, to name a few. Even secular sites such as are being used for religious matchmaking. It was found that people listing a religious affiliation on their Facebook profiles were significantly more likely to provide their relationship status as well, even when total amount of profile information provided is taking into account, demonstrating the desire of users to attract attention from single members of their own religion (Young et al. 2009). The prevalence of religious dating on the internet should not be surprising given the important role of marriage in many religions and the abundance of research indicating how important religion can be for the success of a marriage. However, can the internet really serve as a replacement for traditional means of courtship and matchmaking? What are the limitations of using an online identity to find the person you will spend the rest of your non-virtual life with?

Much research has shown the important role religion can play in a marriage. It has been found that marriages between two people of the same religion are more likely to last than marriages between people of different religions, although the more similar and more tolerant the two religions are the smaller the effect is (Lehrer and Chiswick 1993). Additionally, marital dependency, defined as ‘the extent to which either spouse believes his or her life would be worse should the marriage end’ increases with religious affiliation and religious homogamy (Wilson and Musick et al. 1996). The increase in dependency with religious affiliation is most likely due to the emphasis that religion puts on marriage. Marriages between two people of the same religion may also be more successful because religion can factor into many aspects of married life including leisure activities, childrearing and money spending (Heaton and Pratt 1990). Of course, how much religion factors into a relationship also depends on how important religion is to those in the relationship (Lutz-Zois et al. 2006). For those that religion does matter to, religiously affiliated online dating sites provide a way to ensure that their partner is of the same religion and/or holds the same spiritual beliefs.

The growth in religious dating sites can also be explained by the strong emphasis many religions historically put on intramarriage. In the Jewish tradition, it is felt that the preservation of Jewish traditions in family units is necessary for the survival of Judaism, and high rates of intermarriage have long been a concern, especially after the effect of the Holocaust on Jewish populations worldwide (Cromer 1974). When 50% of Jewish children would consider intermarriage, but almost 66% of Jewish parents would be unhappy if their children intermarried, it is no surprise to hear of parents putting their children’s profiles on the Jewish dating site JDate, or that 22% of Jdate profiles are paid for by the user’s parents (Cromer 1974, Benderoff 2006). Although not necessarily as strong, the same tradition of intramarriage persists in Muslim communities (Hanassab and Tidwell 1998). The situation is similar for Indian dating sites, a culture in which religious homagomy is stressed and religion and caste are often the two most important factors in arranging a marriage (Sprecher and Chandak 1992, Seth and Patnayakuni 2009).

Often, religious dating websites are substitutes for the traditional matchmakers that arranged marriages in many religions. Shia Muslims traditionally relied on a matchmaker, but in the Western world it can be difficult for young Muslims to find other Muslims. There is also the risk they will just choose not to marry within the religion with so many other options now available to them. Exposure is a key factor in whether an individual is more likely to intramarry or intermarry (Hanassab and Tidwell 1998). Muslim matchmaking websites can bring Muslims together like matchmakers once did. Additionally, having their own websites allow traditional values to be preserved. For example, it would not be traditionally acceptable for a Muslim single to maintain relationships with several potential partners at once or for the potential relationships to be unsupervised (Zwick and Chelariu 2006). Western methods of dating are also considered taboo in many Indian cultures for religious as well as cultural reasons. Indian websites allow the continuation of traditional religious and cultural values while expanding the pool of potential partners and allowing singles a little more freedom. Indian websites allow members to search by religion and caste and parents often create their children’s profiles and remain highly involved in the process, but the children are still allowed more communication than in the traditional system of arranged marriage (Seth and Patnayakuni 2009). The Jewish website stays even closer to the Orthodox tradition of matchmaking by actually using a matchmaker who is able to view all of the profiles and contact those that would be good matches (Abernethy 2005).
Dating websites with religious affiliations not only help members of the same religion find each other, they also present users with relevant questions that a generic dating site would never ask. The Jewish dating site JDate allows users to select that they are either Sephardic Jews from Spain/the Middle East or European Ashkanazi Jews (Forster et al. 2008). Practices do vary between these two groups of Jews and some singles might prefer to find a partner whose traditions and practices are most similar to their own. Even though secular dating sites may allow a search by religion, only a site created by people with knowledge of a certain religion would know what specifications to offer, such as Sephardic vs. Ashkanazi, which is not offered on a site such as Facebook.

For all of the ways in which religious online dating services serve the needs of religious communities, they are not without their faults. Internet websites change matchmaking from the personal to the impersonal, reducing people to just a profile (Foster et al. 2008). Dating online requires less personal interaction than making a phone call, and classifying people by searchable categories such as religion is risky since people are “experience goods.” Experience goods aren’t judged only by factual characteristics such as religion, but also by the feelings they evoke; they are goods that one needs to be present to evaluate (Frost et al. 2008). Online dating also removes the shared experiences that are a part of real-life dating. For religions that do allow traditional dating, online dating may be insufficient by comparison. One proposed solution has been to add ‘virtual dating’ to dating websites. Subjects participated in virtual dates in which they could not see the other person, but were free to type to each other, move avatars around a virtual space and react to foreign images entering the space. Upon meeting a mixed group of potential mates including one they had gone on a virtual date with and one whose profile they viewed, singles preferred the person from the virtual date, demonstrating that the virtual dates did help to form a connection past what viewing a profile allows (Frost et al 2008).
Pressure to conform one’s identity to match the ideals of the religion can also be high. A user of MennoMeet, a Mennonite dating website, expressed concerns that she wasn’t “Mennonite enough for a Menonite dating service” and found it difficult to answer questions such as “How active are you in the Mennonite Church” and even what her hometown was (Cunningham 2008). Summing up one’s faith in a blurb can be a daunting experience, and when a short profile is all a user has to base his/her opinion on, every word in that profile counts. As Cunningham states, a seemingly innocent question such as “hometown” could also be used to evaluate economic status, political views and physical (and therefore also figurative) closeness to a particular religious community. Feeling this kind of pressure could affect the information a user places in his or her profile.

The information available in an online profile often varies by gender as well, making it even less likely that someone reading the profile will get a full picture of the person the profile represents. In general, women are more likely to present information about their physical appearance, personality traits and the topic of children. Females are also more likely to describe the age, economic resources, education, occupation and personality traits they are looking for in a mate (Tommasi 2004). Displays of gendered differences in what gets included in a profile persist on religious websites. A study on the Muslim site found that Muslim women were more likely to describe themselves in religious terms, talk about their education and use emotional adjectives such as “faithful” or “loving,” as well as more likely to express a desire for financially secure mates (Badahdah et al. 2004).
The lack of face-to-face contact also places significant importance on profile pictures, the only visual representation available. Unfortunately, this simplified visual version of the self often leads to a simplified representation of the individual. Information from one picture is used to make assumptions about a complex individual. On Muslim dating sites, if a woman decides to wear a hijab in her profile picture it is assumed that she is conservative and will be a wife with good Islamic values (Zwick and Chelariu 2006). Distinct trends in profile pictures are visible on the Latter Day Saint site LDS Singles Online. Women were more likely to present glamour photos or photos cropped so that they were the only one in frame, demonstrating that despite appearance being deemphasized in Mormon teachings, women still believed their best chance of attracting a Morman mate was by having an attractive picture. Men on the other hand, used photos of themselves engaging in physical activity or in a group of people, trying to demonstrate their physical and social skills (Scott 2002). Internet profiles put extra pressure on visual representations that may be shaped by what the profile-maker anticipates prospective mates would want to see rather than accurate representations of themselves.

Another problem with religious dating sites is the risk of racism and stereotyping that accompanies being able to sort through people based on searchable rather than experiential characteristics. It has been shown that there is a negative relationship between religiosity and willingness to date outside of one’s race (Yancey 2007). The ability to search by race and specify acceptable races in a profile only further enforces this behavior. While there are many legitimate reasons to want to search for members of a certain religion, the most obvious being the desire to find someone with the same beliefs and traditions, there is also a danger that people will come to a religious site looking for a partner based on preconceived notions of members of that religion. Despite being a Jewish website, 50,000 of J-Date’s 600,000 members are listed as religiously unaffiliated. While some of those 50,000 are likely Jewish members choosing not to specify their religion, many are not (Richards 2004). Some non-Jews choose to come to the site due to a history of dating Jews and the belief that they will continue to have success if they continue to date members of the religion. One reason for this would be the belief that a Jewish upbringing was responsible for a previous partner’s good character. However, other non-Jewish users come to the site looking to find partners that match preconceived notions of what Jews are like. These range from good stereotypes—such as that Jews are more put together, hold onto tradition, have good values, and that Jewish men are nice boys that know how to treat women—to more ambiguously benevolent stereotypes, such when men that believe a Jewish woman will take charge and make their lives easier (Richards 2004). Even if many of the stereotypes are benevolent, jumping to conclusions about someone based on his/her religion rather than individual characteristics is not only ethically wrong but could also lead to disappointment further down the road if these expectations are not met.

Religious dating services open up a lot of opportunities in an age of technology and globalization where many people have already turned to the internet for their spiritual needs and traditional dating and matchmaking conventions are proving difficult to sustain. The sites allow people for whom religious homogamy would likely be essential to a successful marriage to connect with each other while helping to counter occurrences of intermarriage, an event which is seen by a threat in many religions. Religious dating sites provide users with relevant knowledge about prospective mates that secular services would not include, and can function either as a virtual embodiment of traditional matchmaking practices or may incorporate more Western secular customs allowing potential mates increased communication early on in the relationship. However, reducing a person to a profile does present difficulties. There can be high pressure to give the “correct” answers to the sites’ questions in order to be accepted. Social conventions also exert pressure onto the types of profile pictures users choose and the information presented in their profiles. Sites that segregate by religion may also encourage users to come to the site with preconceived notions about the people they will find there. Internet dating is not a substitute for the ability to evaluate an entire person and share experiences with him or her, but as factors from globalization to busy lifestyles make traditional dating more difficult, the role of internet dating is likely to remain important.


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