Wikipedia religion: RNS examines risks of the online encyclopedia

The biggest strength of Wikipedia is also its biggest weakness: What one person writes, another can change or delete. This issue is writ large when it comes to religion topics, as noted in a recent feature article at Religion News Service.

"Religious topics are one of the top 100 most frequently vandalized on Wikipedia," says the article, which keeps up a brisk pace despite the 1,200+ words.  It explains not only the why of religious edits, but the difficulties of how to keep things straight -- and, in a field as subjective as belief, what it means to try to keep things straight.

The story starts with Mormons, surely one of the more scrutinized faiths, especially since Mitt Romney's presidential bid in 2012. In three years, Anthony Willey, a Mormon and a Wikipedia administrator, has done more than 8,000 changes, mostly on his own faith.

The problem confronting many Wikipedia editors is that religion elicits passion — and often, more than a little vitriol as believers and critics spar over facts, sources and context. For “Wikipedians” like Willey, trying to put a lid on the online hate speech that can be endemic to Wikipedia entries is a key part of their job.

Willey, who says he doesn't work "as an agent of my religion," also edits pages on other religions, like Islam and Christianity and on the Baha'i Faith. And he faces a lot of challenges. People blasting other religions. People boosting their religions. People spouting opinions or hate speech. People using unreliable sources.

A handy li'l diagram from RNS shows who and what, religiously, gets the most touch-up on Wikipedia. It may not surprise to see Christianity among the most edited.

That includes Jesus at the top, with 26,580 revisions; the Catholic Church, with another 23,884; Christianity in general, with 17,273; and Pope John Paul II, with 15,232. Oh, and depending on your preferences, you may wish to add Jehovah's Witnesses, coming in at 18,902.

Other high scorers among the top eight in religion include Muhammad (18,184), Islam (18,132) and Scientology (14,654). Why eight, though, rather than 5 or 10 or 20? That's one of the few things not explained here.

There are concrete reasons for the need for fairness on Wikipedia to religion, and between religions, RNS reports. A big one is the religious diversity; another is the lack of gender balance:

Among the Wikipedians, a large percentage self-identify as atheists, followed by Christians, Muslims, Pastafarians (devotees of the farcical religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) and Jews.
Most of the edits to Wikipedia articles, especially ones on religion, are made by men, according to a 2011 study by the University of Minnesota. Women accounted for just 7 percent of the edits on religion articles.

(If there's a lack of a female viewpoint on Wikipedia, though, they're certainly trying to compensate for it. Looking up Wicca, the religion of choice of thousands of women, shows a sizable main article on it. Wikipedia also explains modern paganism and feminist theology in general.)

The RNS report also quotes John Carter, a Catholic who helps out part-time on "more controversial pages," like those on Scientology, Martin Luther and "new religious movements." An interesting fact: It's harder to get reliable facts on smaller religious groups, like North American traditions.

Carter and Willey, unfortunately, are the only Wikipedians quoted in this otherwise deep and refined article. What of Muslim. Jewish and evangelical contributors? I know that even a feature-length story can't quote everyone, but I'll bet they'd have a lot of war stories, with people adding insults or deleting favorable content.

I also wish the piece had added some content to describe the technical process that makes it so, so easy to change almost anything in Wikipedia. Just by clicking the "Edit" tab on the modern paganism article, I was able to insert a few words with no oversight whatsoever. Amazing. The only control was a warning that as an unregistered user, my IP address would be visible.

Don’t worry, BTW. I left the paganism page without saving the changes. Such restraint is rare in Wiki land.

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