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Religious Freedom Resources on the Internet PDF Print E-mail

Jeffrey K. Hadden
University of Virginia

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

News of the explosion of the Internet and its potential impact on human culture has been the subject of repeated treatment in every communications media. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet itself literally bombard us with stories that tell us that the Internet is perhaps the most important communications innovation since the invention of the printing press.

To those who are not yet deeply into the life and emerging culture of cyberspace, much of what they read and hear must seem like the most extravagant hyperbole the mass media have yet concocted. Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times last week, offers a good example. In a column entitled “The Internet Wars,” Friedman addresses the question of power on the Internet. He showcases the views of John Chambers, president of Cisco Systems, which Friedman characterizes as “the most important American company that no one has ever heard of.” Writes Chambers:

“What people have not grasped is that the Internet will change everything. ... The Internet will change how people live, work, play and learn. The Industrial Revolution brought together people with machines in factories, and the Internet revolution will bring together people with knowledge and information in virtual companies. And it will have every bit as much impact on society as the Industrial Revolution. It will promote globalization at an incredible pace. But instead of happening over 100 years, like the Industrial Revolution, it will happen over seven years.”

Friedman doubts it will be possible to create bandwidth quickly enough for this revolution to happen in such a short time, and I agree. But I would add the caveat of how skeptical most of us were a mere 30 years ago when Alvin Toffler bedazzled us with forecasts of accelerating change. Dividing history into 800 lifetimes, Toffler told us that the overwhelming majority of all the goods we use and the knowledge we possess has been developed in the 800th lifetime. And, as knowledge continues to accelerate, we can anticipate that in a half-century, 97 percent of everything we know will have been learned in that half-century.

Most of us would challenge the proposition that the past three decades have seen much increase in wisdom, but by many indicators of knowledge, Toffler’s projections about the accelerated pace of knowledge expansion don’t seem nearly as exaggerated as they did when he wrote Future Shock. In the realm of computers, everything we know points to continuing acceleration of processing speed. And this development will certainly have profound implications for the growth, expansion, and power of the Internet to shape culture.

Forecasting the implications of the Internet, Chambers concludes that “companies and countries who will thrive in this Internet economy are those who change before the rest of the world realizes that they have to change.” And to those who show up late, two words will suffice to sum it all up. “Game over.”

The portentous implications of this forecast are staggering to the imagination. The potential for human betterment is clearly apparent. At the same time, we must not fail to recognize the ominous prospect that a lot of human culture that we cherish will be on the line; that much of what civilization has taken for granted for a long time may not be secure.

My particular concern, and yours, is the fate of religious freedom. Will we move quickly to secure this as a fundamental human right, or will religious freedom be lost as excessive cultural baggage that has no meaning or place in the brave new world of the new millennium? If we believe that religious freedom is the first liberty, we cannot afford to ignore the implications of the communications revolution the Internet is creating. And we dare not show up late.

I would like to briefly cover four points. First, I want to call your attention to a phenomenon that many of you may not be fully aware of. Following my colleague James Hunter’s popularization of the old concept “culture wars,” I want to encourage you to become more aware of what I call the “Internet cult wars.” Second, I want to show you some examples of very good religious freedom resources currently accessible on the Internet. Third, I want to show you the infrastructure of a significant new Web site on religious freedom that I am constructing with the help of some very able students at the University of Virginia. Finally, I want to talk about how we might join together to more effectively utilize the potential of the Internet to promote our common concern for religious freedom.

I. Internet Cult Wars

I first ventured into cyberspace during the summer of 1995. I quickly identified lots of materials on religious movements, and thought I saw here an opportunity to more actively engage students in learning about religious movements. I imaged students reading scholarly literature, the pages presented by the many movements about themselves, and the views of their adversaries.

I quickly learned that my vision of using the World Wide Web for instruction was fundamentally flawed. First of all, the large majority of Web sites on religious movements were the creation of anticult and countercult individuals and organizations. Second, many religious movements had no representation at all on the Internet. (Scientology, for example, had no page. Unless one knew about Lisa Goodman’s Home Page, search engines would deliver nothing but Scientology-hate pages). Third, had it not been for four lay persons in Canada who called themselves the Ontario Centre for Religious Tolerance, there wouldn’t have been any scholarly literature on religious movements.

The past three years have seen tremendous change, but it is not clear that the net impact of Internet resources about religious movements has changed. Virtually, all religious movements now have Web sites, and many have very extensive materials. Some groups, like the Hare Krishna movement, have encouraged members to build Web pages, and they responded with literally hundreds of well-constructed sites. To my knowledge, only the Jehovah’s Witnesses have discouraged members from creating Web pages.

In addition to the information religious groups and their members have put up on the Internet, there is considerably more scholarly material, but the Ontario Centre remains the most frequently visited scholarly site. The New Religious Movements page that I created with my students ranks second in accesses, and we now have information on a larger number of groups. Over the last year we have had more than a half-million accesses and somewhere between three and a half to four million hits. This is an accomplishment of which I am proud, but all the scholarly sites combined have only a small fraction of accesses compared with accesses to the anti-cult and counter-cult sites. Further, a large proportion of the scholarly literature addresses faith traditions that are not particularly under attack in the United States.

While there is a whole lot of religious movement representation on the Internet today, anti-cult and counter-cult pages have proliferated at a much faster pace. Many of these are quite clearly amateur, but many others have been professionally constructed and they present their message in a way that can be quite compelling unless the readers understand the presuppositions that guide the message.

Most scholars and members of religious movements, while being well aware of the hate that is spread by anti-cultists, have paid relatively little attention to the counter-cultists. On the whole, these are well meaning people who are motivated by the desire to protect the boundaries of their own faith from “false” teachings. I think this is, and must be, an integral component of religious freedom. But I am increasingly persuaded that many of these people have never considered the necessity of religious tolerance as a condition of religious freedom. This is a very serious problem that needs to be systematically addressed through multiple educational and political strategies.

As I will stress in the last part of this address, the potential for using the Internet to promote religious tolerance and religious freedom is considerable. At the present moment, I think we are losing ground.

II. Religious Freedom on the Internet

Let me turn next to a discussion of religious freedom on the Internet. The good news is that one can find a lot of excellent religious freedom resources on the Internet. I don’t have a firm count, but I think we have identified something in the order of a hundred sites. Clearly there is more than enough material to create a Web Ring. A Web Ring is a fairly simple device that links together similar subject matter so viewers don’t have to rely on search engines or individual links to do extensive exploration. On the issue of practical things that can be done to promote religious freedom on the Internet, this is a relatively easy thing to accomplish, and it should be done at an early date.

When we begin to think of creating a Web Ring, the diversity of views people bring about the meaning of religious freedom will quickly become obvious. If my technology doesn’t fail me, let me give you an idea of what I mean.

American Center for Law and Justice

“Hi, this is Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, and I wanted to welcome you to our Web page for the American Center. You’re going to find that our interests at the ACLJ are pretty broad. We’re concerned about religious liberty; We’re concerned about the unborn child. . . etc.”

The ACLJ’s concerns are indeed very broad, but most of the causes they become involved in are the causes of conservative evangelical Christians that we have known over the past two decades as the religious Right. Pat Robertson founded ACLJ. When he created this organization, he saw it as a conservative response to the second group on our alphabetical listing of religious freedom organizations.

American Civil Liberties Union

The ACLU is known the world around as a defender of individual rights, but one does not normally associate them with defense of religious liberty in the same way as the ACLJ. The front page of the ACLU Freedom Network I captured a week ago has a picture of a young girl with the words “If there’s prayer in school, whose prayer should it be?” superimposed.

One doesn’t have to examine the position of the ACLU very deeply to conclude that they are indeed concerned with religious freedom, but their perspective is very different from the ACLU’s. On the meaning of religious freedom, they would be more closely aligned with an organization that was founded by Baptists.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State

Americans United is a watchdog for strict separation of church and state. While their positioning on this issue seems to me principled and consistent, the pages of their magazine Church and State often seem to be primarily aimed at doing battle with the religious Right. In this regard, they often seem most at home with another organization that was founded in 1980 by Norman Lear for the explicit purpose of going head-to-head with Jerry Falwell and the religious Right.

III. People for the American Way

People for the American Way, in my view, has exhibited a lot of maturity in standing with the defenders of religious liberty on many issues (RFRA, for example). But they continue to join with the political Left in identifying the religious Right as a threat to democracy. Their conference next month here in Washington has as its theme “Threats to Democracy.” If the conference is true to form, we can expect more than a little religious Right bashing.

The Rutherford Institute

John Whitehead’s writings on religious liberty would suggest that the Rutherford Institute is another organization that approaches religious freedom from a highly sectarian perspective. I have appreciated Rutherford’s defense of several minority religious groups, but the organization’s high profile as the legal defense team for Paula Jones has tarnished the organization’s reputation in the eyes of many.

The Freedom Forum

There are many organizations that do not approach religious freedom from either a political or theologically partisan perspective. The Freedom Forum, created by Gannett publishers, is an excellent example. Their Newseum in Arlington, Virginia, is the finest living defense of the First Amendment in the country and a welcome addition to the many educational museums in the nation’s capital. And their Web site is an extremely valuable religious freedom resource.

There are many very fine resources for the cause of religious freedom on the Internet. I would certainly want to include the Ontario group, who now call themselves Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (,
near the top of the list. The Religious Freedom page of the First Church of Christ, Scientist (http://www.religiousfreedom.
), and the extensive resources available at the Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies of Baylor University (http://www.churchstate.baylor. edu.html) are also important. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (http://www.
) is currently assembling a wide array of documents dealing with religious liberty. The list is extensive. As I noted above, I think we have identified something on the order of a hundred sites. Links to all of these sites will be available on my own page in a few days.

IV. Steps Toward More Effective Use of the Internet to Promote Religious Freedom

From the brief array of materials I have shared with you, it is obvious that there already exists a great amount of material that constitutes “resources.” There also exists serious disagreement about how the protection of religious freedom should be pursued. Without meaning to underplay the importance of real conflict, the diversity is testimony to the strength of a free society.

My view is that religious freedom resources need to be packaged and seriously promoted it they are to become effective instruments for affecting culture. I would like next to give you a very quick overview of what I mean by packaging of resources by showing you what is currently coming to the conclusion of its first developmental phase at the University of Virginia. The Religious Freedom page will parallel in structure what I have sought to accomplish with the religious movements page. The concept I use to describe the religious movements site is that of a Web-based total learning environment. We have not yet achieved the goal of “total” learning environment, but the goal is to organize materials on a subject so that every conceivable resource can either be directly accessed from the Web site or one can find a reference that will lead to that resource. From the New Religious Movements page, one can access my lectures, readings, group profiles, links to significant Web-based resources, and bibliographies that point to print and video resources. We seek to essentially parallel this structure with the Religious Freedom Page.

(The materials under construction are currently in four different locations. Sometime during the next two are three weeks they will be pulled together on the same site. The best way to access the materials would be to go to the New Religious Movements home page, and click on Religious Freedom from the navigation bar.)

The New Religious Movements page has been under active construction for about two and a half years. With the present resources, which consist exclusively of student scholars and my own time, I estimate that we are still two years away from what I envision as a mature page. I decided to proceed with the creation of the Religious Freedom page because no one seemed to be doing what I thought needed to be done. With the help of three very able students, we have succeeded in creating a solid infrastructure. (I couldn’t stand before a group like this without at least mentioning that resources to pay some summer wages to students could go a long way toward moving this project along at a faster pace.)

The packaging of what I have called a total learning environment is an important first step, but it is just a first step. What we are creating is resource materials for advanced learners. Religious freedom is a concept that needs to be instilled in the mind of every child in this nation and around the world.

Unless dedicated people commit significant resources for the creation of graded curriculum materials, we will be missing the opportunity the World Wide Web offers for capturing the hearts and minds of children, men, and women in every nation on this globe.

One of the criticisms frequently leveled at the Internet is that it is primarily an instrument of entertainment. Television was similarly criticized from the beginning. Because of the economics of television production and transmission, that criticism carries some truth. It would be an enormous mistake, however, to disregard the tremendous educational value that television has added to virtually every culture on the globe.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that once materials are created, one doesn’t have to worry about the cost of distribution. One could create educational materials and then block access to all except those who are willing to pay. And it would seem almost certain that commercial enterprises will capture this moment and make the Internet an alternative resource of marketing instructional materials.

But the structure of the Internet does not require that valuable resources be made available only with a credit card. One might be tempted to say “build an outstanding religious freedom site and they will come.” This is true to an extent, as I have noted with regard to my religious movements site. But the development of wonderful educational materials without a parallel commitment of resources for the development of a strategy for marketing would be a very grave mistake.

John Chambers is right on target when he says that the Internet will change everything—how we live, work, play, and learn. And I think he is right in asserting that those who reap the greatest benefits will be those who take advantage of the opportunities that cyberspace presents before the rest of the world knows they have to change.

Religious freedom could sweep the world. It could if those who believe religious freedom to be the first liberty would join together in utilizing the great opportunity the Internet provides. Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was the first of several bold steps that organization has taken to assert the universality of religious freedom. But those who love freedom can ill afford to wait upon large bureaucracies to do their bidding. Let us go forth together and seize the moment.

* Mr. Hadden is professor of sociology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. Inquiries may be addressed to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . The Web-based resources he has developed on religious movements, religious freedom, and religious broadcasting may be accessed from his home page at