Monday, May 7, 2001
Putting the fun back into fundamentalism
Hell, if L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, can start a religion, why not you? All you need is a mantra, access to the Internet and, of course, some high-profile clients-cum-parishioners to help get the ball rolling.
Many religions are becoming prominent on the Internet - some humorous, some "real" and many more that defy explanation - as alternatives to the big three of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Peter Kenny, who edits www.theology.ie for the Irish Theological Association, says the Internet allows people who are "strongly committed to something" to express their views to a worldwide audience with relatively few resources. Most importantly for up-and-coming gods or ministers, says Kenny, you can give the impression of being a formidable presence.
But the Web can also work against you. Check out www.scientology.com. Impressive, isn't it? Now try www.scientology-kills.org, which rubs off the divine sheen. New religions flourish amid the Internet's culture of sharing, boosted by a millennial movement to start afresh.
"Part of the human spirit is bored with the old and cries out for the new," says Kenny. "With religions that are thousands of years old, there will obviously be stories of failure. If you start something new, the failure will eventually come, but it won't be apparent."
The Baha'i faith (www.bahai.org ) is one relatively new religion. It has around five million followers, who are sometimes persecuted, especially in Islamic countries. With aims of abandoning prejudice and seeking world peace, it was founded in the 19th century by the Persian Baha'ullah, a Shiite Muslim who was exiled to what is now Israel, where the religion has its "world centre".
Hitting a less serious note are the religious mutineers, for whom no proclamation is too grandiose. Try The First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine, where the late singer isn't just the King, he's God. The church is based on the theory of Elvisivity, say its followers. Albert Einstein made an error with his general theory of relativity: the E in E=mc² stands for Elvis, not energy.
"It's obvious that Einstein was describing the swollen, bloated Elvis of the later years, the Las Vegas Elvis, the Elvis whose mass increased exponentially almost daily and whose glittering sequins sparkled like a billion stars," writes the late Dr Karl N Edwards on http://chelsea.ios.com/hkarlin1/welcome.html.
The Presleyterians are "unlike those who follow the so-called religions that renounce any body of knowledge that doesn't fit in with their tiny scheme of things". They embrace the theory of evolution, for example, and refuse to condemn Galileo for observing that the earth revolves around the sun. But not all their beliefs are sound. They encourage readers to e-mail American senators with requests to "bring back involuntary prayer in schools".
The online backlash against established religions has only just begun.
The "Goddess Frenchy", who can be seen to be believed at www.tftb.com/deify, is known as Nicole Chardenet during her hours working for a computer and networking company in Connecticut. She is 37, "happily unmarried and happily child free". Frenchy doesn't deny her site is strange. But, she says, so are all religions. It's weird if you believe in God, she says, and weird if you don't.
"What I found after leaving the Christian church and embarking on a search for truth was that just about all religions have something important to teach us, and they're almost all a little screwed up in one way or another."
And, Frenchy adds, always question everything. "Jesus never said it was okay to burn witches or torture heretics, and Muhammad never said it was okay to kill Jews or harass white people . . . God/dess or evolution gave you an incredible brain and you're meant to use it."
Most of these humour-driven sites make tongue-in-cheek digs at Bible-reading Baptists and Catholics. So is Christianity the bad guy? Are recent scandals to blame for the online religious revolt? Tammy Todd, a Christian-turned-Pagan who waxes lyrical about alternative religions at http://altreligion.about.com , has encountered the full range of Christians, from those asking her to consider a life in Jesus and condemning her as an agent of Satan to those who show "love and tolerance" and represent "some of the finest people I know".
She concludes that the actions of some members of a faith in no way reflect on the worth of that faith. "I despise the actions of some Christians, such as the good Reverend Phelps [the extremist leader of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas] and his gay-bashing crusade," she writes. "But his actions and his rhetoric do not invalidate the worth of Christianity to those who do find peace and love within it."
Todd also dismisses myths about genuine alternative religions. As she points out, The American Heritage Dictionary defines a religion as "a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader". Notably, it does not specify which leader - or teachings - the beliefs must be based on.
Paganism, in particular, is misunderstood by many, and has come into its own on the Web. Ten years ago, many pagans worshipped in private, in front of home-made altars. Today, the likes of WitchVox.com have links to more than 5,000 pagan sites and include contacts for pagan covens. Its mantra is: "Those who walk in love and truth shall grow in honour and strength." WitchVox.com is a non-commercial, community-driven resource. Unlike many websites, it does not carry advertisements.
Contrary to popular belief, witches do not believe in Satan. Although Wicca, for example, was recognised as a religion by the US Supreme Court in 1996, anti-pagan attitudes prevail. Wicca, a modern interpretation of pre-Christian goddess worship promoted by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant, in the 1950s, is one of the most widespread pagan religions. Most pagans believe in the sacredness of the earth and the importance of goddesses. All believe in magic and the power of the computer.
Dublin-based Silja Muller (27) works for a major computer company. But she is also a Wiccan high priestess. Her website, http://indigo.ie/
silja/SilverWheel, has been crucial in gaining members for the Coven Of The Silver Wheel Of The Stars, which was founded in 1997. Muller first contacted another Wiccan member via the Internet. "I was always interested in earth-based spirituality, things that include the mythology of the country and the power of the land," she says.
As leader of the Dublin coven, Muller finds the Internet invaluable. She receives e-mails from all over the world, especially the US, and most of the coven members, who are mainly in their 20s and 30s, work in the computer industry. "People who work in computers have to think outside the box and be progressive in their thoughts," says Muller. "I don't tell them what to think. They have to think for themselves." But their profession had a downside during coven meetings. Among the techies, there was a lot of shop talk.
According to the theory of Elvisivity, Einstein made an error with his theory of relativity: the E in E=mc7#178; stands for Elvis, not energy If you're bored with your religion, why not set up an online church or look for a lesser-known religion more suited to your needs, writes Quentin Fottrell
©Copyright 2001, The Irish Times