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01/13/00- Updated 10:42 AM ET


A community of believers of all faiths

Religion site strives to be inclusive

By Leslie Miller, USA TODAY

USA TODAY's exclusive daily users' guide to thriving online.

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Steven Waldman used to be a correspondent for Newsweek and an editor for U.S. News & World Report -- until he realized that "the most important event in most people's lives is not a presidential election."

"Mainstream media wasn't, and couldn't really, cover the subjects that were most important in people's lives," like the birth of a child or the death of a parent, he says. News "emphasizes what's new and as a result doesn't do quite as well with what's eternal and timeless."

Waldman, 36, had been thinking a lot about such issues, prompted by questions about God from his kids, 5 and 3, who are being raised in a mixed Jewish-Christian household. He also couldn't help noticing that magazine sales went up whenever cover stories were about "religion, spirituality or morality," and that books on those topics were also hot sellers.

Now he's editor in chief of Beliefnet, a Web site launched last week that aims to be an online spiritual community for people of all religious backgrounds.

Waldman and co-founder Bob Nylen are gearing up to sell ads and plan to add an e-commerce section by spring -- everything from crosses and meditation cushions to books, music, travel and charity donations online.

"This is a hot topic at the right time," says Jo Tango of Highland Capital Partners (backer of Lycos, eToys and other Net successes), which has provided more than $5 million in startup funds for Beliefnet and plans more. "This is a huge market opportunity, and no one on the Web was claiming it."

E-commerce analysts don't even follow the religion market online: "It's not big or numerous enough to be on our radar at this point," says Mike May of Jupiter Communications.

Although thousands of religion sites have found a home page on the Web (Waldman observes wryly that "God is right up there with sex" as the Net's most popular topics), most are run by sectarian groups whose focus is on getting the word out about their own religions, rather than trying to serve all people of faith -- or no faith at all.

"We are not a Church," the site says. "We are not pushing a particular spiritual agenda."

Yet Beliefnet manages to gracefully walk a fine line, balancing inspiration and practical information, entertainment and spiritual substance. Staffers in New York package news and features on religion, spirituality and culture, as well as family and "milestones," deeper issues raised by births, deaths and the rites of passage in between.

Many of the articles are by a diverse group of more than 50 columnists, top names in religion and spirituality, from orthodox to fringe. They include Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, Catholic priest/sociologist Andrew Greeley, Buddhist Lama Surya Das, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Margot Adler, a writer on goddess spirituality.

Others address etiquette for a multi-faith society (appropriate attire for a Muslim neighbor's wedding, how to respond when someone tries to convert you) and questions about other religions, or your own, that you're just too embarrassed to ask.

Perhaps most innovative are some of the "milestones" features. One is memorials -- searchable, user-created tribute pages with text, pictures, audio and video. "When someone dies, you get five lines of microscopic type in the newspaper; it's not very satisfying," Waldman says.

A memorial page can be public or private; once it's posted, friends and family can add their own messages. (Only registered users can post on the site, which requires name, date of birth and e-mail address. Beliefnet's privacy policy says this information will not be shared or sold.)

Everything is designed to promote interaction. Message areas have been incorporated into each section, and users can set up informal "dialog groups" or join online seminars run by experts who suggest readings and lead discussions. Registered users can create profiles listing their interests and beliefs.

Other resources include a glossary of religious terms and background on many denominations and sects. Links are provided to numerous sacred texts; there's even a search engine for local houses of worship.

Even though Beliefnet's scope is broad and inclusive, "our goal is not to create one big, bland amalgam religion," Waldman says. He expects the site to be controversial. "It can't help but be, dealing with death and sex and abortion and God."

But in a multicultural society, he adds, "people will tend to disagree, and the Net is a great place to explore our diversity.

"People are coming from so many different directions, there's a need for information and help in sorting all this out."

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