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Keeping the Faith: Web Sites Provide Foundation for Understanding Religion

August 24, 1999 -- With more than a million hits per month, the Religious Movements home page at the University of Virginia has developed a faithful following.

Developed by U.Va. sociology professor Jeffrey K. Hadden and his students, the Web site offers an objective, accurate portrayal of new and non-mainstream religious groups -- including both well-established and respected traditions 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.

Remarkably current and comprehensive, the site provides information on such topics as brainwashing controversies, counter-cult movements, minorities and new religions, and religious freedom organizations. It also provides a bibliography, a collection of online 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, well-known for his studies of 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 site, 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. 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 has become.

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 group's beliefs and, if appropriate, a discussion of how an issue has caused the group friction or controversy. Each profile identifies and describes Internet sites offering relevant information about the organization.

Profiles, which are listed on the site alphabetically as well as by faith, also offer bibliographies of print and electronic resources about the organizations. Hadden guides the students in selecting profile subjects that help the reader understand specific issues or traditions in religion.

"We find the Web site by Jeffrey Hadden and his students to be a most valuable addition to the Internet," said Bruce Robinson, coordinator of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. "The Web is saturated with so many sites that attack small, emerging faith groups with misinformation, hate and fear. Hadden's site is a breath of fresh air. It’s accurate, balanced and objective."

Hadden asks readers of the site to alert him if they spot incorrect information about a group or significant material that is missing. He also encourages them to suggest appropriate Web sites or bibliographic references. Hadden, who spends about four hours daily verifying the accuracy of the students’ profiles and updating and changing information on the site, believes the continual monitoring helps to insure its accuracy and timeliness of material.

Hadden, author or editor of 25 books including the two-volume "Handbook of Cults and Sects in America," posts his lectures on the Religious Movement site. Reflecting Hadden’s 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, Pentecostalism, 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 Web. "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.

Hadden sees the Internet as an invaluable source for learning about new religious movements. "The topic is particularly good for honing skills of critical thinking and discernment because the content is so highly volatile," he said.

"The Web can't take one into the innersanctum of religious groups or to the hearts and minds of those who believe. But the Religious Movements Page enhances learning about religious organizations by making the process of locating materials easier," Hadden said.

For more information, contact Hadden at (804) 924-6528, office; (804) 977-5410, home; or via jkh8x@virginia.edu.

Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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