"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 March 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Suspension of Belief


Learning To Fly
The world is much more exciting when you think it revolves around you, and most can't get that feeling without a heavy dose of narcotics.
Five years ago today in Suck.

"How come God gets all the good followers and we get stuck with the retards?" laments the satanic Clown played by John Leguizamo in the forgotten 1997 classic Spawn. It's been hard to avoid a similar feeling during the inquisition surrounding President Bush II's faith-based charities initiative.

Bush's plan to enlist all the gods in helping the poor has ground to a halt, under fire from heathen and saved alike. The plan's supporters have gone into emergency salvation mode. Enemies on the right are demanding an auto-da-fé for the leader of Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

And given this rare opportunity to eat God's lunch, with their opponents coming at them one way and fleeing from them seven ways, what are America's atheists doing? They're fighting over the relics of their messiah. The dispute between the son of Madalyn Murray O'Hair's son and the heads of her organization, American Atheists — centering on the possibility that the remains of the late doyenne of godlessness might be given a Christian burial — raises only one question: What's the point of being an atheist if you can't be left alone when you die?

These fumbles on both sides mean that so far the only beneficiary of the faith-based initiative is Beliefnet, the "multi-faith e-community" that has devoted to the story a steady stream of news coverage, Nixonian opinion, old timey hallelujahs, and editorials for hire. In a March 7 piece for the New York Times, Beliefnet editor in chief Steve Waldman contrasted conservatives committed to limiting Federal handouts to followers of the "Abrahamic tradition" (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) with Bush's apparently more pluralistic beliefs, which would set aside cash money for a much wider range of faiths, possibly including even Hare Krishnas and Wiccans.

Leaving aside the quaint notion that George W. Bush actually believes in anything, it's notable that on the same day he penned this article, Waldman's site was opening the biggest crack yet located in this Abrahamic tradition business — an interview with the Reverend Jerry Falwell, in which the former Moral Majoritarian and Eyes of Tammy Faye villain opined that Islam "teaches hate" and "should be out the door [of the Bush initiative] before they knock."

While Falwell's thunderbolt may have been the latest in a long chain of good publicity for the site, it bodes ill for one of Beliefnet's most cherished creation myths. In the little more than a year that the site has existed, Waldman and (with considerably less subtlety) CEO Tony Uphoff have steadily advanced the thesis that Beliefnet is a uniter, not a divider. In a December interview with CNNfn's Mary Kathleen Flynn, Uphoff spelled out the company's mission: " You know, we looked at the spiritual landscape, and what is emerging, across the globe right now, is a new modern spirituality that encompasses focus on individual faiths across the range of spiritual interests, and belief systems." Waldman has spoken of the web's power to undermine the "religion know-it-all" and to let people "come and ask questions without fear of judgments." The site's slogan We All Believe In Something may leave out folks who have been believin' in nothin' all our lives, but it's a pithy ecumenical catch phrase. A December story on Beliefnet in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provided a perfect parable for the site's theodicy. In that report, an Ohioan named Ruthi Norman posted a request for prayers at Beliefnet after her 10-year-old nephew was rendered comatose. Instantly, spiritual replies poured in from around the world...

And then one day, there, in the stream of comforting postings came yet another shock: the prayers of a woman identifying herself as a pagan and a druid.

"She said she believed in witchcraft," said Norman, 46, a Christian. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, I don't understand this. How do I deal with this?' "

In the weeks that followed, young Nathan recovered, beating the odds. And Norman shed her fears about the pagan woman. She treasured everyone who "screamed to God for help" with her, regardless of their creeds.

This pluralistic philosophy may not have much religious backing, but it's a myth at least as old as the web — the idea that if people just discuss things, get to know each other a little better, then that understanding will bring community. That history provides ample evidence for the theory that the fiercest animosities occur among people who know each other all too well never seems to dampen this hope. And you could make a case that the large number of Beliefnet users who for example, agree that prayer works is not evidence of a self-selecting crowd but of a new way of finding common ground.

But you could make another, more credible case that old habits die hard, or not at all. It's an oddly reassuring part of the Beliefnet experience to see how the hard core resists all efforts at We-Are-The-World sweetening. In one Beliefnet discussion, a Jewish teenager claiming to have converted to Catholicism gets read the entire book of lamentations against intermarriage. In another, a Christian identifying herself as pro-choice is given holy hell. The hottest action on the Catholic boards goes to those old chestnuts abortion and anticatholicism. And so on. When seekers after truth bump into each other, they're more than likely to head back where they came from, each convinced the other's prayer is nothing but whistling and clapping of hands. The kind of religious tolerance advertised above happens not when people care deeply about their beliefs but when they don't.

Beliefnet, which does an excellent job of promoting itself, tacitly acknowledges this fact through its paid search engine links. If you get to Beliefnet through a Google search on a Catholic topic, you'll go to a customized Catholic front page, never having to bother with the damned. Chosen People on the prowl for Chosen People topics get a choice front page of their own. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs all can enter through a separate door, without having to associate with heathens, infidels, untouchables, or the uncircumcised. (Alas, only the followers of Zoroaster seem to be denied a place of their own.) All of this, of course, is familiar basic-customization technology, and smart site design. But it doesn't do much in the way of pluralism (Nor can we vouch for the site's expertise: This reporter, who couldn't tell Vishnu from C3P0, scored a "traditionalist" rating in the What kind of Hindu are you? quiz).

Not that any of this should hurt Beliefnet, which has found favor in its spiritual search. Since its official debut last January, the site has attracted a dizzying collection of familiar charlatans and self promoters to act as contributors — Bishop John Shelby Spong, Father Andrew Greeley, Elliott Abrams, Charles Colson, Michael Lerner, James Fallows, Debra Dickerson, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Armstrong Williams, to name just a few. With a combination of reporting coups (Gregg Easterbrook's Beliefnet column was one of the first to identify Joseph Lieberman as a potential Gore running mate) and a message that was embarrassingly easy to sell, the site has been a media favorite ever since. In July of last year, the gang of Believers, like Norman Greenbaum before them, found a friend in Jesus — a prominent plug came from Peter Jennings during his The Search for Jesus ratings bonanza. In November, Media Metrix put unique visitors at nearly half a million a month. And since disbeliefnet.com hasn't been registered yet, we still have the parody to look forward to.

That rapid growth just couldn't beat the market, and the site went through the usual round of layoffs when the IPO dreams turned out to be false prophecy. But while it may not be the right time to bring the company out, Beliefnet is still perfectly suited to the times. First, because, as Ulysses Everett McGill says, hard times bring out the chumps — and aren't we all, right about now, looking for answers? Second, because it's no accident that the market continues to churn out online/divinity ruminations in books like Give Me That Online Religion or The Soul of Cyberspace or About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture. But perhaps most important of all is the special space Beliefnet occupies at this moment in our culture. While the site is dressed up with a vaguely hipsterish sensibility, the forces that most effectively drive it are the same ones that propelled George W. Bush into office — the millions of Americans who take seriously the notion that Bill Clinton was a figure of unprecedented vice and immorality in American politics, that our moral crisis demands answers bigger than ourselves, that we need to take a cold shower in our spiritual traditions.

Which is why the right exit plan for Beliefnet may not be acquisition or public offering but old-fashioned evangelization. In the most astute review of the site so far, Georgia Cameron-Clarke of the London Daily Telegraph wrote, "If this site weren't so serious, it could make up a religion entirely and pass it off as real." That may have been intended as a joke, but it works better as a business plan. After all, the American public may have little interest in uniters, and Wall Street has no more room for web companies, but there are six billion people in the world, and we all need something we can take on faith.

Praise the Lord in today's Plastic discussion

courtesy of BarTel d'Arcy


pictures Terry Colon

BarTel d'Arcy

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