Leslie Walker's .com Live
Guest: Steven Waldman, Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Beliefnet
Thursday, Nov. 1, 2001, 1 p.m. ET
Beliefnet, the largest Internet destination devoted to multifaith religion, has seen visits to its Web site soar in the weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Other religious sites are also seeing higher traffic -- the number of visitors to the most popular Christian and multifaith religious Web sites increased by more than 20 percent in September over August, according to Jupiter Media Metrix.
After Sept. 11, Beliefnet created online tutorials on Islam and discussion forums where people from any religious background could meet online and establish dialogue. American Muslims in particular have embraced the site as an opportunity to explain their belief to Americans of different faiths.
On hand to discuss the Web's role in fostering conversations between people of different religons, as well as the state of religious and spirituality sites on the Internet in general, is Steven Waldman, a journalist by training who helped start Beliefnet in 1999 and now serves as the site's editor-in-chief.
The edited transcript follows.
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Hello everyone and welcome, Steve. We will be starting at 1 p.m. but you can go ahead and submit your questions now.
Besides the increase in visitors, what, if anything, has changed on Beliefnet since Sept. 11?
Steven Waldman: There's been a big increase in interest in Islam. Before, our Islam area primarily attracted Muslims. After 9/11 we created a whole new area called "Understanding Islam" geared toward non-Muslims who want to learn more. We set up free "mini-courses". We had 500 slots and about 2000 people signed up.
Initially, the prayer circles were drawing a great deal of interest -- thousands of prayers posted from different faiths. Over time, the intensity shifted more toward learning.
We're also seeing a lot of interest in reading about and discussing some of the big theological issues tied to the war -- what is the Christian/Buddhist/Jewish approach to war and retribution.
Do you edit out or censor offensive material on your site like hateful or obscene postings?
Steven Waldman: Yes, blatantly obscene or violent postings we do delete. The problem, of course, is that one person's "truth" can be offensive to other people. So we try to make the conversations civil without inhibiting their expression of religious views. By and large, people who come to Beliefnet are interested in a relatively civil conversation.
I'm intrigued by your effort to cover not only organized religions, but other spiritual and inspirational topics. What are the common threads?
Looking at it another way, what do you say to critics who fear that in trying to be all things to all people, you being of little use to anyone?
Steven Waldman: It's true that we provide information and tools on traditional religions AND more general spirituality. The common thread? These are all ways that people are trying to explain what happens in their life and the world -- they are all "belief systems," ways of ordering the chaos of life into something understandable.
Are we trying to be all things to all people? No more than, say, ESPN is by covering "all" sports. Obviously, the danger is that in covering so many topics, we get superficial in any given one. Fortunately, one things we've never been accused of is being "thin" in our content or community
Promoting interfaith discussion is a great idea! Too bad that most religions have no tolerance for other gods.
Do you really believe that beliefnet can change this?
Steven Waldman: I am much more optimistic about intefaith dialogue as a result of my experience with Beliefnet. I've been amazed at the extent to which even traditional conservatives of different faiths -- even fundamentalists sometimes -- are open minded in listening to other faiths. Admittedly, there's a bit of a self-selection process at Beliefnet. If you're completely uninterested in hearing anything from any other faith you may not come to our site in the first place. But I've been pleased at the extent to which people seem open to learning.
The key is when people realize that learning about another faith doesn't mean you have to convert or dillute your own -- and that in fact it can enhance your own experience -- that seems to make people open up. The other important thing is to keep discussion focused on life's real crises and dramas -- birth of a child, making good relationships, death, how to be "good, etc -- as opposed to abstract theological hot botton issues
I can see how some more exclusionist religions might be offended or uncomfortable sharing space with other traditions. How do you accommodate them?
Steven Waldman: To those who are uncomfortable sharing the virtual space with other religions we say, "are you uncomfortable having your books be in the same bookstores as those of other faiths?"
It's been less of a problem than I would have expected. Whatever squeamishness folks have is usually outweighed by their desire to tell their story and explain their views to a large audience.
How would you grade the U.S. media's treatment of Islam post-Sept. 11?
Steven Waldman: I actually think it's been pretty good. There was a surprising conscientiousness on the part of the media about not wanting to fan anti-muslim harrassment and violence.
I think what's been missing is a spotlight on a fascinating internal dialogue going on in the American muslim community about how or whether to define an "American style of Islam." Beliefnet's been focusing a lot of attention on that.
Do you pay your columnists and/or spiritual leaders on the site or is it all volunteers?
Steven Waldman: Some yes, some no. Alas, no one's getting rich writing for Beliefnet but it does provide a great platform.
Why would I ever want to go online to talk about spirituality? Isn't real human interaction the core of spirituality?
Steven Waldman: I don't think it's an either/or. Absolutely for many, if not most people, personal interaction is the core of spirituality (though for some it's isolated contemplation and for others its interaction with God).
I view the web as more of a supplement than a replacement for face-to-face spirituality. There are some things that will always be infinitely more powerful in person -- the feeling of communal worship, the power of music, the smells, the transporting effect of a great sermon.
There are other things that are better on the web -- finding stuff out fast, asking question that are embarrassing, meeting people from different faiths or different parts of the world. Experimenting. Most interestingly, people seem more likely to open up and reveal themselves online.
How common is it for your web site to receive violently anti-American, anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli postings supportive of jihad against enemies of Islam?
Do you have any reason to think that Al Qaeda sympathizers have been posting on your website?
If someone were to make jihadist statements on your website would you be willing voluntarily to turn over your server logs to the FBI without a subpoena?
Steven Waldman: We've had a few anti-Jewish and anti-American posts, as well as anti-Muslim posts. Not very many.
No evidence Al Queda sympathizers have been posting
Is Beliefnet a place where the 'conservative' voice from a particular faith can be heard? It seems that by its very nature, the interfaith message embraced by your site is a liberal one that therefore cannot represent or host views opposed to the liberal view.
Steven Waldman: I'm so glad you asked that! Absolutely, conservative and traditional voices are very welcome and promoted. Among our regular contributors have been: Gary Bauer, Armstrong Williams, Richard Land (Southern Baptist Convention), Tom Bethel (American Spectator) a nd we've run pieces by Chuck Colson, Jerry Falwell and many others.
We pride ourselves on beign not only multifaith but multi-ideological. This is very, very important to me. And I think conservatives like those mentioned above will tell you that Beliefnet treats their views as respectfully or more respectfully than just about any media they've seen. Obviously they disagree with some of the stuff on our site -- but a lot of the liberals who come here disagree with the many conservative voices too
Please talk more about this new American style of Islam. What are the chief differences between the "new" and "old" American way of practicing Islam? Do you sense a rift might open between the Eastern and Western Muslim communities?
Steven Waldman: This is a story in progress. What we find in our Islam community is a real set of mixed feelings. They are suffering harrassment and attacks here on the one hand but also feeling angry at the fundamentalists that are defining Islam in the public mind.
It's dangerous to generalize, but muslim organizations here tend to be more democratic, have a more tolerant attitude toward women and, of course, are more pro-American. That's obviously not universal and there are many exceptions to that, but that's what the muslims on our site report.
Now the question is, will American muslims become more vocal about those differences and try to influence Islam in other countries? Or will they simply guide Islam here into a different direction. That certainly is a common pattern in American religious history. Almost every religion has seen the development of an American style here.
Has it been a struggle to ensure that different areas of the site represent diverse faiths? The one flaw I've found in an otherwise excellent site was that the entertainment sections seemed a bit heavy on the "Left Behind" series.
Steven Waldman: It is a challenge to represent all different views. There are so many of them!
Over time, it's pretty easy. In other words, if you came to the site every day, you would get quite a variety over the course of the month. If you come on any particular day, it might feel skewed in some direction, depending on what we're featuring that day.
Most of the religious sites I have visited are nonprofit, more like churches than magazines. Their purposes are spiritual. How can your commercial operation compete with sites that are pure in purpose? I would think your audience will wander back to church-like web sites if you go too commercial.
Steven Waldman: Sites affiliated with particular religions or churches play a hugely important role and we have no desire to replace them; indeed, we view part of our job being to help you find those.
But the advantage we have is that we're independent. We free to cover topics that may be weighing heavily on people but which official church or synagogue or denominational sites might not want to cover.
Ultimately, we'll succeed or fail as a business depending on whether we're really helping people. If we're not, they won't come back. So far, they are coming back, a lot, so I guess we must be filling some need that's not otherwise being met.
By the way, this gives me a chance to clarify one point in Leslie's otherwise terrific article. We do find that people want to buy religious and spiritual books on our site. Indeed, our advertisers in those areas are extremely pleased with the response they get. What we stopped doing, as our business model shifted, was traditional e-commerce -- not because they're wasn't consumer interest but because the difficulty of warehousing and stocking products was formidable. So we know work directly with publishers, music producers etc who take care of that back end part.
The reality is that for some people listening to a CD or reading a book -- whether it's a sacred text or a popular book -- is an important part of their spiritual lives.
Do most American churches and synagogues have their own Web sites yet and are you affiliated with any? Is that part of your mission in any way?
Steven Waldman: Many do have websites -- but very few are being used effectively. They tend to be static, not very exciting and not chaning much -- largely because there's no one in the leadership who has the time or expertise to do it. I'm hoping that in the next year, the big story will be that more and more houses of worship learn how to use the community features of the web to energize their congregations. We've consulted with various houses of worship to help them do this and would love to do that more
San Francisco, CA:
I'm not real big on religion, although it does have a role for many people in helping them through the sometimes difficult, sometimes wonderful course of life. My question is whether you have unbiased views about religions on your site. That is, are we to trust believers of each religion to give us a fair assessment of their own religion? I think it would be good to have outsiders, neutral parties (if that is possible) doing some of the explaining.
For example, we have group A saying that group B are not practicing the "true" religion of Islam, while group B would claim, and is convincing many followers, that group A is not practicing the "true" Islam. I think this is problematic and some outside experts could help make sense of it. Have you addressed this issue? Thank you.
Steven Waldman: This is a great question. I would say it's virtually impossible to come up with a single authoritative voice on most religions (the Pope and the Catholic Church may be an exception). Even within a faith, so much is open to interpretation and there is so much disagreement.
What we try to do is present a variety of view points and make it clear where people are coming from. In our message boards we have not only many areas where people can talk proudly and passionately about what they love about their spiritual approaches but also an area called "doctrine and dissent" where people can offer challenges.
In general, we try to have a mix of regular folks, religious leaders, and scholars. Each type provides a different kind of perspective.
Hello Mr. Waldman,
If Islam is tolerant and peaceful, why did their Prophet forcefully convert people and kill those who refused to? (The recent massacre of Pakistani Christians is an example-- and not a single word of sympathy from our President or the UN or Mr. Kofi Anan)
Why in all the Islamic countries, NO ONE can practice any other Religion except Islam?
I am sure, they are afraid of the Truth-- that's why they want to suppress other Religions.
Steven Waldman: Fundamentalists of most religions have, at one point or another, used their sacred texts to justify violence and atrocities. Indeed, if your clever you can pretty much justify anything from polygamy to stoning to bigotry from the Bible or Qur'an. The question is, what's the overall gestalt of the religion?
I dont think it's true that in all Islamic countries, only Islam is allowed. For instance, I'm no expert, but I think that other religions are worshipped in Indonesia, the largest Islamic country. And, of course, we have several million muslims here. But it is true that Islam now is being defined in the public mind by Muslims in non-democratic, intolerant countries. This is a source of great frustration to many Muslims in America.
So your point on e-commerce is that you have switched from directly selling goods on your site--i.e., being the retailer yourself--to letting other companies sell on your site, which means advertising, right? The shopping section of Beliefnet now is mainly an advertising directory, isn't it?
Steven Waldman: Correct, though the biggest area where things are purchased is not so much in our separate shopping area but rather through the sponsorship programs visible throughout the site and our newsletters. In other words, the One Spirit or Crossings book club gets many signups for their book club through our site, as does the CD seller BMG. Guideposts and Catholic Digest gets subscriptions; Kabbalah Centre sells their products etc.
I see in a quiz on your site that 58% of respondants believe the world will end when Jesus comes again. That tells me Beliefnet is a majority Christian site--is that true?
Steven Waldman: Well, the US as a whole is about 83% Christian, so I'd say that any given moment the largest group on our site is Christians. But, as that poll shows, we have many many folks on our site who are not Christian (and many Christians interested in faiths beyond Christianity)
Arlington, Va. (again):
Thanks for answering my question on conservative voices on Beliefnet. In my view, the Chuck Colsons of the world are hardly conservative when compared to the hard-line Taliban. Colson and his 'conservative' allies in the U.S. at least embrace our core value of freedom of religion, which is a very liberal view in the historical context.
So, to rephrase, can and does Beliefnet play host to ultra-conservative views like those of the Taliban and other violent/intolerant expressions of various faiths? To put an American touch to the question, would you allow KKK'ers to post on your site?
Steven Waldman: Gotcha. We have not run any articles by the Taliban or Taliban-sympathizers, though I wouldn't rule it out if I felt that it would help increase our understanding of them and if I felt that it wasn't somehow jeopardizing American soldiers.
Our message board areas are, in theory, open to anyone. We don't censor on the basis of who you are -- but rather how you behave in our community. If you're abusive, advocate violence or hatred, you get kicked off.
So in the case of the KKK, it certainly would be possible for a KKK member to come visit our site and post certain messages. But if he or she started writing that, say, blacks or jews should be killed, they'd get kicked off. As a pratical matter what happens is that the hateful folks get drowned out and verbally spanked by our aggressively tolerant members. They treasure the open, tolerant feel of our site and take it personally when people try to pollute it.
What is most threatening to all of us is being unable to talk about what our fears are and what we hope for.
Your work in setting up a meeting ground for interfaith dialogue should be celebrated as some of the best that the spirit and principles of this country has to offer the world. Really, thank you for this.
Despite differences in our religion and nationality, we remain equally, and inescapably, human.
Have you thought of other ways that the Internet can faciliate a larger, human community? Do you see other activism potential from the Internet, or from our growing understanding of each other's faith?
Steven Waldman: Thank you so much for your kind words.
I have become a big believer in the power of the internet to help improve understanding and heal divisions. I know most of the attention has been on the ways that the web promotes division or hatred or rumors, and that's all true. But, thankfully, the opposite can be true too.
Are recent effort to have online "mini courses" on Islam and online structured "interfaith dialogues" have been quite encouraging. I'm hoping that we'll be able to expand our offerings there. So many people signed up and we didn't have room.
Prince Georges County, Md.:
As a lead organizer for the 14-year-old nonprofit group Interfaith Action Communities, we have recognized the overwhelming need of Prince Georges county citizens since September 11th. As we use November as a special month to undertake the task of raising much needed funds, we would like to know have you been receiving calls from religious based organization who have a greater need since Sept. 11?
Steven Waldman: There was a fear for a while that all the focus on 9/11 relief activities was actually going to take money from other charities and non-profits. More recently I'm hearing that the early fears haven't panned out but I know folks in your position are nervous.
The problem of course is that we're now in a recession. So the increased willingness and desire for people to give -- to help the needy and promote interfaith understanding -- may be cancelled out by raw economic insecurity on the part of many Americans.
That's about all we have time for today, folks.
Which religions have you personally learned most about since starting Beliefnet? What have been the biggest surprises to you in learning about other faiths?
Steven Waldman: Probably I, like everyone else, have learned more about Islam, and I've been struck by how many similarities there are with Judaism (ironic, aint it)
But one of the great pleasure of working here is that I'm exposed to a lot of wonderful people of different faiths -- and I meet so many people through our community areas -- that I'm constnatly learning. We have an audience of about 3.5 million now between our site and our email newsletters
Steven Waldman: Leslie, thanks so much for having me here and thanks to those of you submitted questions. I hope I was able to answer them. I'd like to invite you to visit beliefnet (www.beliefnet.com) and explore -- and please let me know what you think.
Thanks to everyone for submitting questions and comments, and especially to Steven Waldman for taking time to talk about this subject of interest to so many. Hope to see many of you back here in two weeks.
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