Religion is Big News on the Net

Religion, long of marginal concern in the mainstream media, is big news on the Internet.

A survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project earlier this year found that of 64 percent of 128 million surfers used the Internet for some form of spiritual or religious activity. That’s 82 million adult Americans.

And, contrary to expectations in the early days of the Internet, it’s not just people searching for novel or unusual religious traditions: many people used the Internet to support their interest in traditional beliefs.

“We had expected the Internet to replace traditional sources of religious and spiritual information, but in fact the information complements and supplements surfers’ offline faith,” said Lee Rainie project director at Pew and co-author of the religion report.

It’s not a demographic catered to, or understood by, the mainstream media. News media generally treat religion either as an aspect of a larger story, like religion in politics, or seasonally, like the recent article in Newsweek about the birth of the historical Christ. Religion is rarely a story in its own right. “As a subject it’s a niche subject, not central to the life of a news organisation,” said Rainie.

“Survey research shows that mainstream media is largely secular in outlook, [with] very [few] church-going reporters,” wrote Michael Cromartie, vice-president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center where he directs the Religion and the Media program, in an e-mail interview. “Religion has been seen as only a curiosity, if that.”

A curiosity most often characterised as the domain of the uneducated.

“There’s always an element of condescension, sort of studying like anthropologists viewing the strange primitive habits of baboons or something like that,” said Steven Waldman, founder and editor of Beliefnet , a Web site reporting on all religious themes, from dating to doctrine, and all faiths – protestant to pagan. “But Religion isn’t the province of the least educated,” said Waldman. Waldman cites a Gallup poll from February this year that showed 88 percent of those with post-doctoral degrees believed in God or an ultimate being.

They don’t necessarily represent extreme views, either. Pew’s Rainie notes that when a recent Meet the Press program squared off Jerry Falwell and Reverend Al Sharpton, viewers called in to complain that neither guest represented their views.

But Americans do hold strong religious convictions. In the same Newsweek issue pollsters found that 79 percent of Americans believed in the virgin birth of Mary and 69 percent believed in the traditional story of Christmas.

These convictions just don’t necessarily fit into the polarised camps often represented in the media. “There is a much richer and more nuanced intersection between people’s faith and their political convictions,” said Rainie. For example, many people surf the Web to learn about faiths other than their own. According to Pew, 26 percent of those subscribing to particular religions use the Internet to find out about other faiths.

To plug the gap, the faithful, or the spiritually inclined, turn to the Internet.

“The Internet is perhaps the most remarkable tool ever in finding out information about religion,” according to Pastor Paul Raushenbush, Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University. “For good and ill. You can find anything, but you don’t know how credible it is,” said Raushenbush.

Beliefnet’s Waldman founded the site because he believed traditional media were missing a large readership that wanted broad, serious treatment on a wide range of topics in all faiths.

“When I was working at Newsweek I noticed that, whenever we ran a story with a religious theme on the cover, sales went up. So I started looking into why there was such a gap between supply and demand, of people wanting information about religion, but the mainstream media not really providing it,” said Waldman. Now Beliefnet gets 1 million visitors a month and has 3.6 million subscribers signed up to a daily e-mail.

“There are hundreds of thousands of religious Web sites covering individual faiths, but our role is to be the neutral portal,” said Waldman.

Beliefnet caters to the serious and curious alike with services ranging from breaking news, to forming prayer circles, from sacred texts to quizzes, one of which, Belief-O-Matic™, helps surfers find their religion.

The appeal of Beliefnet lies in its wide variety of topics, its coverage of all faiths, however obscure, and its determination to take religion seriously, worthy of reporting in its own right.

Others have followed suit. Last year Slate launched a new column, Faith-Based, treating religious issues as a valid topic for reporting and analysis. What’s particularly unique about Faith-Based is that it’s aimed at the secular and also treats religion as newsworthy.

“Slate launched the Faith-Based column in response to the growing awareness of how critical religion is in American life,” said Sian Gibby, editor of the Faith-Based column at Slate. “Certainly after 9/11, Americans’ religious ignorance became glaringly obvious. Partly F-B was begun in order to help disseminate badly needed basic information about what Americans – and others – believe.”

It’s also aimed at the secular. “The column is important [because] secular Americans need to face the fact that religious America is not going away. This column, I hope, will help show secular folks that people of faith are not inherently irrational and therefore dismissible. Not all of religion is squishy, and scandals and hypocrisy are not the only topics going on in the faith-based world that people are interested in reading about,” she said.

By contrast, most mainstream religious reporting appeals to the faithful alone, and there’s very little explanatory journalism of the sort practised in Slate. Gibby says that while the column is a departure for Slate, it’s proved popular with readers, though not without controversy.

Now, interest in religion generally is on the increase in newspapers. Waldman cites two factors for this: the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ and the recent US election.

“The president and his campaign staff made it clear that mobilising conservative Christian voters was a large part of their strategy and they succeeded at it. It was part of why they won. The day after, people woke up to this and said, ‘Holy Cow, it turns out there are a lot religious people here.'”

The EPPC’s Cromartie agrees: “With religious interest exploding worldwide and religious believers very active in public and political life, the media simply cannot ignore religious belief or religious believers.”

Editors are beginning to get the message. “We’re being asked for interviews and articles all the time. I’ve just got word that the Wall Street Journal is starting a religion beat, but the best example is that Seventeen magazine, of all places, started a spirituality section,” said Waldman.

Nonetheless, deep unease remains over a White House flaunting its divine inspiration. It is a cause for anxiety, said Slate’s Gibby, but not for the stated reasons.

“There certainly has been a lot of histrionics around that topic — that George Bush has brought the Christian God into the White House to an unprecedented degree and considers himself God’s messenger,” said Gibby.

“That does seem to be true, perhaps even to an alarming extent, but what bothers me is the knee-jerk way Christianity, and especially Evangelical Christianity, is dealt with as inherently nutty. I don’t say Bush’s religious ideas aren’t scary and dangerous. I think they are. But the press cannot afford to approach Christianity as some kind of bizarre, nonsensical cult. The president’s faith is frightening because he is floating on misplaced rhetoric, NOT because he believes in God.”

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