community of believers of all faiths
Religion site strives to be inclusive
By Leslie Miller, USA TODAY
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
"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
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
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
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.
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.
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."