Making a business of religion in a secular culture

Depending on your point of view, this is either a really terrible or absolutely ideal time to launch a site devoted to religion., launched yesterday, is a "library of the histories and belief systems" of more than 50 world religions, sparked by weekly debate topics moderated by professors, divinity scholars and theologians. The idea -- that we as a society are desperate to understand our own and other religions, but we're afraid to talk about it face-to-face -- is, well, money.

Yes, there is advertising available, and for the newsletter, too! But is this about money or about understanding one another? About learning the beliefs behind other religions, or better understanding the one we've chosen ourselves? Or is it just about star power (the article in Time Magazine introduces Patheos by explaining the pull of celebrities to Scientology)? Either way, the article is vying for the top-most emailed this week, along with a story on hacking Facebook (you make your own witty analysis here).

Much though our country plays at a division between God and money, that's never been our reality. It's clear from the size and nature of most popular churches -- for instance, the ones with gyms, several worship rooms, stadium seating and coffee shops -- and our frequent and scandalous stories about religious leaders gone bad, that there is nothing so wrapped up in money as religion.

Marketers and major media outlets might, as Beliefnet founder Stephen Waldman notes, be "scared" of religion, but they're certainly not scared of exploiting our yearning for knowledge, you know, in a "nonsectarian format." Check out the recent monstrous success of The Davinci Code and the upcoming sure-to-be blockbuster Angels & Demons, notable for their melodramatic depiction of the origins of -- and historical scandals surrounding -- several religious traditions. Or any of the commentary about religion's role in government leading up to the presidential election and inauguration.

And who can forget the fervor that was engendered when President Obama was found not to have attended church for 11 weeks after his swearing-in?

We're not scared of religion. No, on the other hand, we need religion, not just for its spiritual refreshment and the hope faith gives us, but for the way it explicates -- and enhances -- our divisions. We are not just right and left, but "religious right" and "secular left."

And there is nothing media loves -- make that, profits more from -- than divisions. How unsurprising that a major web site meant to describe those divisions is both big business and highly popular in America.

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