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  MR. WALDMAN, WHY DO YOU BELIEVE IN BELIEFNET?  
   
   
 

In a world where the word "jihad" has entered the everyday parlance of your average Minnesotan housewife, there aren't many places where you find people of different faiths happily -- or at least peacefully -- coexisting.

Beliefnet.com is one of them. Articles by Jerry Falwell and Bill Clinton

 
  bumped headlines at the top the site last week. In expert Q&As, you can ask the Rabbi, the Imam and the Lama. Got a hankering to learn about Zoroastrianism? You can find it there. And the duking it out over religious beliefs that goes on in the site's message boards is just as heated, twice as entertaining and thrice as weighty as the idiotic sniping that goes on over at Craigslist.com's rants-n-raves pages.

While 79 percent of Americans say they believe in God, only a minority -- 36 percent -- attend religious services once a month or more, according to a poll by Harris Interactive. Pews may be sparsely populated, but God is far from dead online. Beliefnet draws a million unique visitors to its site every month and sends out over

     
 

200 million e-mail newsletters to subscribers monthly. Every day, 10,000 to 15,000 new people subscribe. This year, Beliefnet was nominated for General Excellence Online by the American Society of Magazine Editors, and in 2002, the site won a Webby -- the equivalent of an Oscar for the Internet -- for Best Spirituality Website.

Steve Waldman is CEO, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the site, which was inspired in part by his own family's quest to find religion. Previously, he was the national editor of U.S. News & World Report, and also worked in Newsweek's Washington bureau as a writer and editor. These days, besides running Beliefnet, he's been writing about the presidential candidates for Slate.com and has been blogging from both the Republican and Democratic national conventions on issues of faith. Plucky entries include such titles as "Was It God, Billy Graham, Or a Hangover?," on George W. Bush's decision to quit hitting the sauce. We sat him down for some serious talk about God, the candidates, sumo wrestling and Jell-O salad.

BT: Your Web site is inclusive and multifaith. You don't talk down to readers or try to force upon readers the "one way" to God. Can you talk a bit about your personal relationship with God, how this Web site sprung out of that and what you're trying to do with Beliefnet?

SW: First, thank you, especially for saying we don't talk down to readers.

Some people think that people being exposed to other faiths will lead

 
  to one gray, ineffectual, watered-down religion. My personal experience was that being exposed to another faith heightened my appreciation of my own. A simple example: My wife, a generic protestant, said we could "raise the kids Jewish" if  
 

we "really did it." I suspected a dirty trick. "What do you mean 'really' do it?"

She said that, for instance, she said a bedtime prayer every night as a kid so we should say the Jewish bedtime prayer every night. I didn't know if there was a Jewish bedtime prayer, let alone what it might be. Turns out there is one! The Sh'ma. And we started saying it. I'm quite confident that if I had married another reform Jew, I never would have said the Sh'ma at night.

That made me feel that creating a multifaith site could not only improve mutual understanding but also help with self-understanding.

On a more practical level, when we were trying to figure out how to raise our kids, I kept finding it difficult to get the information I needed. That was a definite impetus for creating Beliefnet back in 1999.

BT: One criticism of "inclusive" types like yourself is that beliefs or religions can be watered down in the name of keeping the peace or even attracting new members. Are some religions trying to soften their hard stances to try to attract more adherents, and is that the right thing to do?

SW: I resent being called "inclusive"! Just kidding -- mostly. We are indeed extremely inclusive and respectful of all faiths. What we don't do, however, is adopt a "why-can't-we-all-get-along" editorial policy that encourages faiths to fuzz over differences or water down theology. We're always careful to use the word "multifaith," not "ecumenical" or "interfaith." What's the difference? It's the idea that in a religiously pluralistic society (and on a religiously pluralistic Web site), it's perfectly fine for people to believe that they have found the

 
 

one true way and to tell other people about it. We just try to get them to talk about that in a respectful way.

To some extent, religions have been "watering down" theologies for a long time. Some argue that Christianity grew faster in part because Paul's decided to water down the Jewish requirement for

 
 

circumcision. On the other hand, it's also true that the religions that seem to be growing most rapidly -- Pentecostalism, Mormonism -- have a vibrancy that flows partly from having a strong set of convictions.

BT: Just because your site is inclusive doesn't mean that your contributors are. Does, say, columnist Gary Bauer, a conservative Christian and former Republican candidate for President, have a problem sharing a page with a pagan Goddess named Starhawk and a Tibetan lama who wants you to awaken the Buddhist within?

SW: One of my great disappointments is that we haven't a big party yet that would give us an excuse to have Gary Bauer and Starhawk in the same room, dipping carrots into the same onion dip. ("Starhawk, may I have this dance?...") So far they just peacefully co-exist in cyberspace. Yes, it's true that a lot of our columnists pretty much hate each other, or at least hate what the others stand for.

But what we've found is that they still like Beliefnet because they really appreciate being taken seriously by a mainstream media outlet. In that sense, what may matter most to Gary Bauer is that Starhawk is a leader in her field, a sign that Beliefnet may be full of "false views," but at least we're full of false views expressed by big league thinkers
and writers.

BT: Beliefnet has scores of stories that look at religion through the prism of politics. As for the upcoming elections, the faith of the candidates seems to be more in focus than in any election since John F. Kennedy ran. You indicate as much in a recent article for Slate. The topic of divisiveness seems particularly at the forefront. Why is that?

SW: Several different factors converge to make religion huge this year. Bush's overt discussion of personal faith. 9/11 creating a sense of a clash of religious cultures. Kerry being the first Catholic nominee since 1960. Kerry now adding more and more religious language. And the electoral reality that in a super close election, "getting out your base" becomes more important -- which means Bush energizing evangelical Christians and regular churchgoers. I also think that people now equate religious conviction with conviction in general, and since we're sort of at war, that becomes an increasingly important characteristic people want in a president.

BT: The U.S. election has pitted the so-called fundamentalist Christians against more liberally minded religious folk. Barack Obama addressed this during the Democratic National Convention, saying "The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republican, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States."

I live in a blue state. People here wonder: Why would a woman in the Midwest who disagrees with Bush's actions and feels like she can trust John Kerry vote Republican just because she's against abortion, which is already legal? Why does the religious right think a president who lied about the existence of "WMDs" is a great Christian? Why

 
  would veterans feel more comfortable with the military under the leadership of someone who shirked duty than a decorated leader?

SW: Red staters would say: Abortion is simply more important than other issues because it involves taking of a life. It would
 
 

be like a pro-slavery Democrat pre-Civil War saying "Stephen Douglas is so much more experienced than Lincoln. How can you vote for Lincoln just because of his position on one issue like slavery?"

As for Bush being a good Christian despite the WMD's, they'd say that Bush made a mistake -- which is not un-Christian -- as opposed to intentionally lying, which is un-Christian.

BT: And what kind of questions do the red states have for us?

SW: Red staters might ask: If John Kerry thinks life begins at conception, how can he be so amoral as to allow that life to be killed? Why are you Blue Staters afraid to say some things are just plain evil?

BT: That feeling of "us" versus "them" extends beyond the U.S. and seems particularly acute since September 11. The terrorist attacks were motivated by religious tenets, albeit extreme ones. Same thing in Israel. We're all scared of each other and the power each group could wield if we give an inch. Unlike Beliefnet, religions don't seem to like to be inclusive, and this has been going on since religion began. But today, our world is smaller because of global communications and international business. Is this going to help change things and foster understanding? It doesn't seem to be working so far.

SW: Hmmm. Good question. Well, I like to think that Beliefnet is proof that this new smaller world can improve understanding. We're currently running probably the biggest interfaith dialogue in the world. We have 200,000 message board posts in our discussion area each month (also: four million daily subscribers to email newsletters, one million unique visitors to the site). And we see case after case of people saying their horizons were broadened by exposure to people of other spiritual approaches. Now, it's also true that a lot of people come to our site to yell at each other. So I guess the more honest thing to say is that on Beliefnet you can see religion bringing out the best and worst in each other.

BT: Is there anything the U.S. can do to try to "talk sense" into zealots who want to attack us for religious reasons? There are plenty more Muslims (the majority of whom, of course, are not bent on terrorism) in the world than there are Americans. How do you build a bridge between Islamic and Western countries, and is the U.S. administration doing enough about this?

SW: It's important to bring democracy to the Mideast more broadly and break down the hateful nature of religious education in many Islamic areas. American Muslims can also help lead the way. One of things I'm most proud of was our book, "Taking Back Islam" -- a collection of essays from some very gutsy American Muslims trying to reclaim their faith.

BT: What defines a religion, anyway? Under your list of religions you cover on the site, you include Falun Gong, but not Scientology. If you include Scientology, do you have to include Trekkies or Satanists? What about atheists; where do they fit in? While you have a page devoted to Shinto, I don't see Mennonites anywhere. The list seems random; how do you choose who gets covered?

SW: Actually, we do list Scientology. (See the left hand navigation.)

We basically use a few standards. First, there are some "religions" that have actual informational areas with articles and resources. We chose which ones got their own pages based largely on two factors: number of adherents -- is it a major faith? -- and whether the IRS considers them a religion. I know that second factor sounds like an odd standard, but we simply don't have the capacity to go out there and assess whether every group is actually a religion, or a cult, or something else. The only ones who have made that judgment is the IRS. So we follow their spiritual guidance.

But we also have other areas on the site dedicated to "spirituality" more broadly. That area does include things like astrology, tarot, etc. -- anything that's a significant "belief system," even if it's not a formal religion.

And finally, we have a community area - the message boards - where users can set up discussion threads. That is the broadest collection of all, including pretty much any spiritual approach that anyone wants to talk about -- including Mennonites.

BT: Now that you've solved the mysteries of the world for us, onto the lighter stuff. I end up talking about God with my friends more over pints at the bar than I do at church. I attend church, but social events here revolve around drinks. Is that why a Web site about religion has the appeal that a traditional place of worship had years ago? Are Americans simply living their lives through the computer? (Or in my case, at the bar.) And what are the pitfalls to that (regarding the computer, not the bar)? Are Americans today in search of God online missing out on more than stale coffee and Jell-O salad after the services?

SW: Part of why we started Soulmatch (our new "values based, spiritually attuned dating site") was to enable virtual relationships to turn into real ones. Have you seen it? It's quite cool. (My favorite Soulmatch question: "Do Pets Go to Heaven?")

I would NEVER argue that Beliefnet is more enticing than Jell-O salad, unless it's the green kind.

BT: Beliefnet launched during the dot-com boom. So many sites flamed out, and while you filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, you've obviously pulled through. How big are you now, and what's the secret to your success? Does God just like you better?

SW: We now have 30 staffers, we're profitable, happy, healthy. We reach four million folks a day through our newsletters and the site. Somehow, we send out 220 million e-mail newsletters a month. The secret to our success? Part of it is that the staff really didn't want to give up. We just felt that given what's going on in the world -- where religion is causing so much division and violence -- it wasn't a good time for a multifaith site like ours to be disappearing. We come across so many lonely people, or people really searching or needy. We felt like we owed it to them to at least try again.

Really, our business is succeeding because, well, people are very spiritual. It turns out this religion thang is really big.

Does God like us better? When we came out of chapter 11, one of our readers said we'd been "resurrected." Someone else said, we'd been reincarnated. On that, I'm agnostic.

BT: Speaking of God playing favorites, does he just hate the Red Sox, or what?

SW: There was a lot of talk last year that if the World Series were between the Red Sox and the Cubs, it would be the first time the World Series would end up with both teams losing. Theologically, there's a lot of Biblical evidence that a Red Sox-Cubs World Series would signal the end of the world.

BT: Humor is used to excellent effect on your web site, both by columnists and in interactive features like the Belief-O-Matic, which helps you determine which faith may be right for you and adds the disclaimer:

"Warning: Belief-O-Matic(tm) assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul."

I'm also a fan of "The Worst Sermon I Ever Heard." Is the use of humor a concerted attempt to make the site more accessible and friendly, or does it spring organically from your staff?

SW: It's very intentional that we use humor a lot. Religion has the potential to be so ponderous and daunting. I guess we hope that if people can yuk it up a bit, they'll be less likely to attack each other and less likely to be intimidated by the subject matter. We do have a lot of fun. My favorite day of the year was our April Fools issue, especially the story about Oprah being added to the Trinity.

BT: Who would win a sumo wrestling match: Buddha or Jesus?

SW: You kind of stacked the deck there by saying "sumo" wrestling, didn't you? I mean on that, you have to go with the Mindful One. But if it were World Wrestling Federation, Jesus would probably have the edge. That "turning the other cheek" move would send Buddha flying.

BT: Final question. If the God you worship had a vote in the upcoming election and had to cast it -- whom would He vote for?

SW: I think he'd try to vote for one of the candidates but get confused by the ballot layout and accidentally pick Pat Buchanan.

 

Erin Schulte is a writer based in New York City who spends her Saturday nights at the bar and still makes it to church on Sunday. You should feel really guilty now.