If a mainstream media outlet raves about a movie or a restaurant or a book, you'd expect that its reviewer did due diligence in checking it out. One would hope that the reviewer actually saw the movie or ate the meal or read the book. Why then, I wonder, does Time magazine praise a new religion website that is so essentially flawed? That's the question I have after reading Time's promotional story on Patheos.com, which is titled "What Do Religions Believe? A Website with Answers." Time gushes:
Its founders, husband and wife Leo and Cathie Brunnick, have created a library of the histories and belief systems of 50 (and counting) of the world's faiths. ... Moreover, all the content on the streamlined, reader-friendly site is written and peer-reviewed by divinity scholars and other experts, including theologians at Harvard and the University of Southern California, where some undergrads will be using Patheos in introductory religion classes this fall.
Given all that peer review from the divinity schools it is hard to imagine why Patheos got so many things wrong. One of our regular readers, the omnipresent Jerry, points out flaws in the entry on Sufis. He writes:
The article started with the comment that Sufism is an offshoot of Islam which is not held by all Sufis. The founding date for Sufism is similarly not accepted by all since some say that Sufism predates Muhammad. ... Sufis taking vows of poverty and celibacy is plain wrong for many if not most because the teaching is "in the world but not of the world."
A quick check on some comparative religion books proves Jerry right on all his Sufi points and Patheos wrong. I decided to check out what I know best, Judaism, and found numerous mistakes. The site, for example claims that Conservative Judaism is the largest of the Jewish branches. That was once the case but hasn't been true in years. Reform is the largest.
Errors abound when it comes to the Orthodox Judaism too. Orthodox, the site claims "originated in response to the innovations in Jewish practice introduced by the Reform movement." They've got it backwards. Reform emerged in response to Orthodoxy, which is traditional Judaism. Their understanding of ultra-Orthodox Judaism is even more muddled. Here is part of the entry:
Ultra Orthodox Judaism (aka Jewish Fundamentalism) refers to several different strands of Judaism that stress the necessity of strict observance of Jewish religious laws and moral code as taught in the Torah and Talmud. Primarily found in Israel, Jewish Fundamentalism includes many within the Zionist movement (a militant religious sect), Haredi Judaism (an ultra-Orthodox sect), and Shas (a Sephardi political party). These groups formed after of the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948.
There is so much wrong with this explanation that I don't know where to begin. Suffice it to say that you can't lump all these groups together as "fundamentalists" and to use 1948 as their birthdate. To do so does a disservice to Jews and to Patheos.
I could go on, but I invite readers to check their own faith out at Patheos.com and let me know how they did.
Patheos isn't totally pathetic, however. It is easily navigable, reader-friendly and does have beautiful art. It also had ads for things like flowers for Mother's Day and spiritual books for sale related to each faith.
Patheos is the new kid on the block, apparently trying to do what Beliefnet.com did with its mix of faith and commerce. Beliefnet went through some hard times, including Chapter 11, but emerged healthy and was bought a couple of years ago by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
Time quotes Steve Waldman, the founder of Beliefnet, as graciously welcoming Patheos to the mix, saying that there is plenty of room in the internet religion market.
Perhaps the most curious thing about the Time article is the reason the Brunnicks offer for establishing Patheos. The article notes that they come from "different Christian faiths" and collectively have four children from previous marriage that they are wedding into a family.
"Bringing our kids together, deciding what to teach them and how and where to take them for Sunday school -- we weren't taking this lightly," says Leo Brunnick. "In your 20's, it's easy to say, 'I'm spiritual, without specific tenents, whatever.' That feels great until you're staring into the eyes of a 2-year-old and realize you have to give them some moral compass."
I wish them luck finding that moral compass on the Web.