religion via the Web
Ida Lee Wootten
more than a million hits per month, the Religious
Movements home page at the University has developed a faithful
by U.Va. sociology professor Jeffrey K. Hadden and his students,
the web site offers an objective, accurate portrayal of well-established
and respected traditions, non-mainstream groups and nascent ones
that have few members and exist primarily as web pages. With profiles
of more than 200 religious organizations, movements, faiths and
quasi-religions, including cults and sects, the site offers an understanding
of how new traditions emerge and grow or sometimes stagnate and
die. Group profiles range from the Amish and Alcoholics Anonymous
to China's Falun Gong movement to UFO cults and Zen Buddhism.
comprehensive site provides information on such topics as brainwashing
controversies, counter-cult movements, minority religions and religious
freedom organizations. It also provides a bibliography, a collection
of on line lectures and links to thousands of Internet resources
related to religious movements.
"In addition to creating a foundation for understanding religion,
the site seeks to promote tolerance and appreciation of all religions
without preference for any particular faith," said Hadden,
who studies religious broadcasters and the emergence of the Christian
Right in America.
site is the centerpiece in a complement of three Web locations developed
by Hadden that probe sociological aspects of religion. The newest
page -- on religious
freedom -- analyzes the roots and assesses the status of religious
freedom throughout the world. It explores such issues as religious
tolerance, religious pluralism and human rights. The site has 11
sections, including one describing religious freedom in more than
190 nations and one that summarizes major U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Broadcasting site provides resources useful for studying the
impact of electronic communications on religion. The site describes
such topics as televangelism, radio broadcasting and religious networks.
"The sites are a great step forward in a field where controversy
and advocacy have had for too many years a wider presence on the
Web than accurate, reliable information," said Massimo Introvigne,
managing director of the Center
for Studies on New Religions, an association of scholars that
operates the largest European academic web site on new religious
began the Religious Movements site in 1996 in conjunction with a
course he'd been teaching at U.Va. for 20 years. "It didn't
take long to discover that in its infancy, the Web was a virtual
war zone for many new religious movements. Since an important part
of studying cults and sects is to understand their conflict with
adversaries, the prospect of being able to witness this live, on
line struggle was exciting," he recalled.
initially saw the site only as a learning tool for students in his
class. However, as students in successive classes contributed profiles
on religious organizations, he realized how valuable and comprehensive
the site could become.
the web page developed, the potential for engaging students in a
unique learning adventure became evident. By requiring students
to create a web page about a religious movement, and holding them
to high standards, I found I was able to engage them in the multiple
objectives of learning theory, substantive information about a group,
technology, and a sense of professionalism," he said.
Hadden guides the students in selecting profile subjects that help
the reader understand specific issues or traditions in religion.
Students enrolled in the course often spend more than 100 hours
per semester creating profiles of religious organizations. Each
profile contains a description of the groupšs beliefs and, if appropriate,
a discussion of how an issue has caused the group friction or controversy.
Profiles, which are listed on the site alphabetically as well as
by faith, also offer bibliographies of print and electronic resources
about the organizations.
the class assignment, Hadden found the outstanding work of a second-year
student named Craig Hirsch and immediately asked Hirsch to help
develop the whole site.
learned a lot from this undergraduate student in the past three
semesters and he deserves a good bit of the credit for what it has
become," Hadden said. Hirsch graduated last spring.
or editor of 25 books including the two-volume Handbook of Cults
and Sects in America, Hadden posts his lectures on the Religious
Movement site. Reflecting three decades of study on religious social
movements and his interest in religion and politics, the lectures
cover 30 topics. The subjects are as diverse as Fundamentalism,
the alleged use of brainwashing in recruiting people into religious
movements and understanding the Waco tragedy. Of particular interest
to scholars are lectures offering historical assessments of important
religious movements and those examining the major movements of the
1995 when Hadden first began exploring using technology as a means
of teaching, he had never heard of the World Wide Web. Now he spends
about four hours daily verifying the accuracy of the students' profiles
and updating and changing information on the site. He also asks
readers of the site to alert him if they spot incorrect information
about a group or significant material that is missing.