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When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, they entered the German zeitgeist with seemingly supernatural speed. "It almost appeared," marveled one 16th century writer, "as if the angels themselves had been their messengers and brought them before the eyes of all the people." The real catalyst was slightly more prosaic: the magic of technology. The printing press, which decades earlier had carried the Holy Bible to the masses, now brought them Luther's heresies. Affixed to All Saints Church on Oct. 31, 1517, the 95 theses were by December rolling off the presses in several editions.

When technology cuts the cost of spreading the word, strange things happen. Potentates grow insecure and marginal dissenters feel their oats. Monoliths splinter and the splinter groups splinter again. (There are now hundreds of Protestant denominations.) The effect is hardly confined to religions; the era of computerized mass mail and desktop publishing has seen the number of political-interest groups grow by an order of magnitude. But religions, with their aspirations of human brotherhood, uniquely highlight the paradox: communication is supposed to be a social cement, yet new communication technologies are often fragmenting.

The Internet, which pushes the cost of spreading the word down near zero, could carry this atomizing trend to unplumbed depths. Of course it may not, but already it has taken the first step: empowering legions of obscure but enterprising people who harbor ambitions of spiritual leadership. Out on the fringe of the World Wide Web, beyond mainstream religion, storefront preachers and offbeat theologies are springing up like mushrooms. Here--as in many realms of culture and politics these days--the forces of fragmentation compete with the forces of integration.

The growing smorgasbord of upstart religious movements ranges from earnest, even plausible, efforts at finding a new creed for a new era to theologies that could be described as, um, eccentric. In the latter group is, for example, the Aquarian Concepts Community Divine New Order Government. On its Website you can learn about "Interuniversal Genetics," enroll in the "Starseed Schools of Melchizedek" and perhaps arrange a "personal transmission" with "Gabriel of Sedona." Gabriel, by the way, carries the endorsement of the "head administrator of our universe" (the two of them "fuse" once a month) and, moreover, is "the only morontia counselor/soul surgeon on Urantia (Earth) at his level of healing ability." (Accept no substitutes.) This Website also offers you the chance to pay money for sacred texts, learn about "Ascension Science," even explore the "Deo-atomic body" or "tron therapy." Godspeed.

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