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Getting religion via the Web

By Ida Lee Wootten

The Religious Movements PageWith more than a million hits per month, the Religious Movements home page at the University has developed a faithful following.

Created 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The Religious 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 movements.

Hadden 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.

He 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.

"As 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.

Through 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.

"I've 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.

Author 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 20th century.

In 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.


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