Quick what's the difference between Methodists and Presbyterians? (Presbyterians believe in double predestination; Methodists that free will can help you get to heaven.) Confused about how Hindus believe the world was created? (So are they; the religion has no single canon and there are many, sometimes conflicting, origin stories.) Why are so many celebrities drawn to Scientology? (A key teaching says personal success can help overcome the human condition.)
The vast majority of Americans hold some religious affiliation, but we're often too polite or maybe too shy to ask friends and neighbors about the nuts and bolts of their beliefs, let alone sneak into a service in a house of worship that we're not thinking of joining. Enter a new website that sets out to explain the differences among religions as well as illuminate the areas of common ground. Patheos.com, which is launching on Tuesday, is a mash-up of path and theos, the Greek word for "god." Its founders, husband and wife Leo and Cathie Brunnick, have created a library of the histories and belief systems of 50 (and counting) of the world's faiths, along with maps of their origins and videos of their religious services, so people can learn more about their own faith and explore others in a nonsectarian format. Each week experts will present a debate on a new topic, such as religion on the Web or abortion. Moreover, all the content on the streamlined, reader-friendly site is written and peer-reviewed by divinity scholars and other experts, including theologians at Harvard and the University of Southern California, where some undergrads will be using Patheos in introductory religion classes this fall. (See pictures of a drive-in church.)
The launch of this comparative-religion site comes on the heels of a study released last week that found people in the U.S. switch their religious affiliations more than previously thought. Half of Americans have changed religions at some point in their lives, according to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, and the large majority did so by the age of 26 the perfect audience for online programming.
What this indicates is that there are a lot of people jonesing for spiritual information. Steve Waldman, founder of Beliefnet the world's largest spiritual website, with as many as 3 million unique visitors per month, and the closest thing to a Patheos competitor says there is room for another spiritual site. "Religion until recently has been something major media companies have been scared of," says Waldman, whose company was acquired by News Corp. in late 2007. And the recession could deepen interest in spiritual sites. "People are seeking religious support or guidance to help them get through financial crises, which become emotional crises and relationship crises," he says. (Read "Finding God on YouTube.")
He also notes a key difference between Beliefnet and Patheos: "We're multifaith, but for the most part, people use us to explain their own, rather than learn about other, religions," says Waldman. Which is why Patheos may be well supported among those whose religions have been broadly misunderstood. "Islam is this bogeyman," says Patheos contributor Jonathan A.C. Brown, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Washington, noting that people act as though "everyone has achieved some enlightenment, except for Muslims, who are stuck in the Dark Ages." For Muslims, he says, "to have a forum where their religion is going to be discussed seriously is important."
It's also important, he says, to create a venue for people of different beliefs to figure out how religion fits into the rest of their lives. "How do we integrate having religious ethics in our modern society? How does faith fit into a secular legal system?" says Brown. "Muslims aren't the only ones with these problems." (Read more about the American phenomenon of church-shopping.)
Those problems were actually the impetus behind the founding of Patheos. The Brunnicks, who come from different Christian faiths, collectively have four small children from previous marriages, and when they wedded, they struggled to find help integrating their beliefs. "Bringing our kids together, deciding what to teach them and how and where to take them for Sunday school we weren't taking this lightly," says Leo Brunnick. "In your 20s, it's easy to say, 'I'm spiritual, without specific tenets, whatever.' That feels great until you're staring into the eyes of a 2-year-old and realize you have to give them some moral compass."
If they so choose, Patheos members can help set their own compass, customizing the site so they receive a stream of information relevant to their individual interests and, maybe, beliefs, à la Facebook. They can also contribute to the weekly debates via public discussion forums, which are monitored by both software programs and live editors to allow for free speech but not animosity. "Maybe the monopoly of clerical authority is threatened," says Brown, referring to a topic he'd like to address on Patheos. But in our diverse society, where people have increasingly been turning online for spiritual guidance, maybe it already has been.