Archives For Beliefnet

This past April I wrote a piece criticizing the religious portal site Beliefnet for a news item that conflated the recent Cornwall controversy over teaching Paganism in religious education classes with the troubling trend of witch-hunts and witch-killings in places like Africa and the Middle East. The article, written by Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby, not only drew criticism from me, but from Beliefnet’s only Pagan blogger, Gus diZerega, and several Pagans who commented on the original article at Beliefnet. It also inspired a response from Evangelical Christians Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead.

“Those in Pagan circles have responded strongly to the piece, and with good reason. Kerby provides no solid substantiation for his claims, demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the spiritual practices and beliefs he critiques, and as a result, the piece creates fear and suspicion of witchcraft (and broader Paganism as well). While Christians have often accused Paganism of superstition, the irony is that the Christian community has often approached Paganism superstitiously. Kerby’s piece only adds to the superstition and suspicion, made worse by the stereotypes and fears that often underlie such representations.”

Now, two months later, Beliefnet seems to have finally reacted to the controversy their Senior Editor caused. In a thread on their forums, an official response was posted on June 7th in a thread started by Gorm Sionnach.

“We wanted to reach out to you to let you know how deeply sorry we are for the Beliefnet News blog post back in April titled “What can the third world teach the “civilized” world about witchcraft.”  Unfortunately this post was just recently brought to our attention; however it has been permanently removed from Beliefnet.com.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece are by no means representative of Beliefnet and our views toward Paganism.  Beliefnet is, and will always remain, a multi-faith website celebrating all beliefs.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.  Your voices and discussions are a valuable and enjoyed asset to the site and we look to continue to provide you with a safe environment to express your own thoughts and feelings on religion, spirituality and more.”

A quick check shows that the story has indeed been removed (here’s a cached version of the article), but there is no outside acknowledgement of this anywhere. The apology has only been posted to this thread on the Beliefnet forums, and somewhat disturbingly, they have also removed Gus diZerega’s criticisms of the piece as well (here’s a cache of the post). Since I know Gus diZerega, I asked him about this, and he related to me that the deletion was done without his prior knowledge or approval. An apology was also directed to Gus from Rob Kerby, but not directly.

While I appreciate that Beliefnet was willing to apologize to Gus diZerega and Pagans on the Beliefnet forums, I’m disturbed by how they have decided to simply scrub this incident away and not publicly acknowledge that they had done something offensive.  I also think it is disingenuous at best to pretend they knew nothing of this controversy until “recently.” That would mean that no-one reads comments at the site, looks at trackbacks, traffic reports, or even pays attention to the content on their blogs. I think a comment from Beliefnet forum member ‘Ferretling’ sums the situation up rather well.

“What I find bothersome is that they took it down from its very prominent position, but did not write a news article apologizing. No, they tuck away the apology here, where only those bothering to read the Multifaith Board will see it. To me this says a couple things. The first is that they don’t actually care. The second is that they are not really sorry. The third is that they don’t worry themselves about the concerns or feelings of any of their non-Christian members. I am a former pagan (now Zen Buddhist), and I found the article highly offensive. But what I find even more offensive is that there is no public statement on the same page from the so-called writer who spewed the idiocy, nor from Beliefnet itself. Put the apology and retraction on the page where everyone can see it, not tucked away here in a seldom-visited forum.”

One has to wonder, is this how Beliefnet apologizes? By scrubbing critical posts, keeping apologies “in house,” and generally pretending the whole thing never happened? That seems counter-productive to me, and holds no one accountable for their actions. If Rob Kerby and Beliefnet are truly sorry for this article, they should make their apology visible and accessible, posted in the same sections the original piece was. The question of if Beliefnet actually values its Pagan readers and contributors is still very much an open one.

[The following is a guest post from Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead. Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D. is Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University; Charter Member, Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. John W. Morehead is Director, Western Institute for Intercultural Studies; Director, Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.]

Rob Kerby, Senior Editor at beliefnet, wrote a recent article titled “What can the Third World teach us about witchcraft?.” This has resulted in the concern of and critique by Pagans, but it should also interest those in other religious communities. We are practicing Evangelical Christians, and we are very interested in what Christians and Pagans have to say about one another in hopes of light being shed on our respective spiritual pathways. Unfortunately, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and hostility have been characteristic traits of our exchanges throughout history. In our minds, Kerby’s article only intensified this problem.

After reading the Kerby article, we are left wondering what the piece teaches us about witchcraft. While we did not necessarily learn anything about witchcraft from his essay, we did learn that he believes witchcraft in all its forms does great damage to civilization in the “Third World” and elsewhere, and that strong measures should be taken to eradicate it from the West. In addition to other problematic features, we were deeply concerned that Kerby claims that witchcraft is a capital offense in Saudi Arabia, punishable by beheading. Why did he make this claim? Is this something the “Third World” can teach us about witchcraft, or is this one of many sensational claims by Kerby?

Those in Pagan circles have responded strongly to the piece, and with good reason. Kerby provides no solid substantiation for his claims, demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the spiritual practices and beliefs he critiques, and as a result, the piece creates fear and suspicion of witchcraft (and broader Paganism as well). While Christians have often accused Paganism of superstition, the irony is that the Christian community has often approached Paganism superstitiously. Kerby’s piece only adds to the superstition and suspicion, made worse by the stereotypes and fears that often underlie such representations.

What we learned from reading Kerby’s essay and the responses to it from Pagans is that we have a long way to go in pursuit of charity and sound argumentation in our post-Christendom and pluralistic public square. We are charter members of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Our chapter aims to develop interreligious relationships and conversations in civility and without compromise with those of other religious and spiritual traditions. Our work in the chapter represents a new movement in Evangelicalism. The chapter seeks accuracy and fairness in understanding, and embodies a relational and dialogical approach, while addressing substantial differences in practice and belief between various religious and spiritual communities. Two examples of this approach are the books Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (written by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega, and edited by John Morehead; published by Lion, UK, April 2009), and Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Paul Louis Metzger; Thomas Nelson, May 2012—this work includes an article on Paganism and a response by Gus diZerega). We have been very grateful for our charitable and constructive engagements in reasoned argumentation with Dr. diZerega (who mentioned our exchanges in his beliefnet post on Kerby’s article). We welcome other opportunities for such collaboration. We also encourage Evangelicals to get involved in our FRD chapter and for Pagans to form their own FRD chapter so as to have a place at the table with other religions and spiritual paths. Over time, such collaboration may help mitigate against depictions like Kerby’s.

In our post-Christendom, pluralistic public square, Christians must learn to show respect for other belief and praxis systems by substantiating our claims and criticisms and arguing for the cogency of our own convictions on level ground also occupied by others. We must also seek to demonstrate that our Christian convictions promote the common good and pursue conversations with others from varying viewpoints who would do the same. One person self-identified as “unap” wrote in a comment posted in response to the Kerby article: “Crimes against humanity – death, torture, sacrifice, grave robbing and mutilation – are crimes pretty much everywhere. They need no special pleading for more punishment because you think those crimes are belief based.” Solid argument on level ground in civility.

We encourage both Evangelicals and Pagans to enter into sustained dialogue, with the former through our chapter, and the latter through the formation of a FRD chapter. The only way we will move beyond witch hunts and superstition is if we enter into public square discourse with level heads in search of charity and sound arguments.

A good news blogger will often try to spot trends and underlying issues in the stories of the day, using the strengths of the format to make links, provide more depth, and uncover nuances overlooked in the big headlines. However, sometimes a writer will commit the car-crash equivalent of same, using keywords and lazy cut-pasting to score pageviews for his or her employer. I believe the second scenario happened on Monday when Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby carelessly conflated the recent Cornwall controversy over teaching Paganism in religious education classes with the troubling trend of witch-hunts and witch-killings in places like Africa and the Middle East.

A fear of witchcraft? In our enlightened age? According to Reuters, the British news agency, a woman from the island of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India has been charged with casting a spell on a 13-year-old Saudi girl during her family’s trip to a shopping mall. [...]  In Cornwall, England, the local council is defending its decision to include teaching children about witchcraft in religious education lessons. The Cornwall Council says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about pagan sites like Stonehenge and at the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” Critics say the council is offering “witchcraft lessons.” Witchcraft? Seriously? The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund – UNICEF – says that tens of thousands of children in Africa each year are tortured and killed because of witchcraft. Blame is divided between local witchdoctors and Pentecostal churches that have led opposition to the witchdoctors.”

The whole thing is such a thematic mess that I really don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that he puts the religious police crackdown on “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia, and African witch-hunting,  in the same category as Cornwall making the teaching of modern Pagan religions an option in religious education courses, then veers into Harry Potter!

“In the west, witchcraft is trivialized with children’s books such as Harry Potter and Disney movies and TV shows that present it as harmless. However, the Vatican has called on African authorities to ban sorcery with rigid laws.”

Then, after careening back into stories on witch-hunting in Africa, he turns to instances of African immigrants in the UK abusing and killing children in the name of witchcraft, and somehow links this back to the Cornwall story!

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. [...] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

This spectacular exercise in lazy slander is capped by a lengthy quotation from  Catholic columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

That’s how Kerby ends it, with that direct quote from Odone. I have seen stupid and bad reporting on modern Pagan religions before, but this mish-mash of different issues takes the cake. It gives the headline “what can the Third World teach the civilized world about witchcraft” a decidedly sinister ring. What, exactly, can the “Third World” teach us about witchcraft? That it should be outlawed, that witches should be hunted and killed? That kids shouldn’t read Harry Potter because witchcraft is serious business in Saudi Arabia? What?

One could easily do a paragraph-by-paragraph fisking of this piece, pointing out all the places where this story runs off the rails, but instead let me make a few simple points that Kerby doesn’t make in this bizarre “story.”

1. Sorcery persecutions in the Middle East are not the same phenomenon as witch-hunting in African nations. Both result in the killing of “witches,” but have different motivations and underlying causes.

2. Modern Pagan and religious Witchcraft traditions aren’t “trivializing” the practice of witchcraft, they are operating under a completely different cultural context and understanding of the term and its practice. Further, modern Pagans exist in the Middle East, and South Africa, places where witch-persecutions are happening. They take this problem very seriously indeed, and Pagans have even been seen as a possible solution in the problem of witch-hunting in India. To claim our faiths are “trivializing” witchraft is a slur, and an ignorant one.

3. If Mr. Kerby truly cared about witch-killings he should look into how Christian missionaries in Africa helped make them possible. Evangelical Christian academics say that indigenous ideas and reactions to “witchcraft” and malefic magic have been “Christianized” (their term), creating deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand. I think Western funding of witch-hunters is doing far more damage than Wiccans practicing their religion.

4. Every culture has stories, folktales, and fantasy version of magic and witchcraft. To say their modern equivalent, Harry Potter, have somehow “trivialized” matters in the Third World is absurd.

5. The Cornwall “teaching Paganism” story was a tabloid sensationalist mess that distorted the facts in order to sell papers. That it is conflated with witch-killings in the UK is simply insane. No, worse than that, it is a deliberate smear.

That this patch-work monstrosity of an article exists at Beliefnet, who employs a Pagan blogger, one who co-wrote a book on Pagan-Christian dialog, and could have easily clarified many of the mistakes and misconceptions at work in Kerby’s piece, damns this exercise in unfounded conflation even further. If Beliefnet had an ounce of editorial conscience they would pull this abomination immediately, or at least not spotlight it as “news.” Then again, if Kerby is a “Senior Editor” maybe the lunatics are running the asylum at Beliefnet.

Pagan Community Notes is a companion to my usual Pagan News of Note series, more focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. I want to reinforce the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!

A Pagan Festival in Israel: September will see the nation of Israel’s first Pagan festival, at least in our modern era. A new site is promoting a Mabon (Autumnal Equinox) festival, with word being spread by other Israeli Pagan sites.

“The first Israeli Pagan Festival that we shall celebrate together, on September the 22-24th, 2011. [...] Pagans from all over the country are invited to celebrate together the spirit of kinship and community that Mabon invokes.”

It may seem like an odd occurrence for a land considered holy by all of the Abrahamic faiths, but modern Pagan religions have become a global phenomenon, and according to Dr. Marianna Ruah-Midbar, they could find fertile soil in Israel.

“At the moment paganism is not a large-scale practice here, but I believe it has very big potential,” she said. “Pagan religions are the fastest growing religions in the West, and it could succeed here too, because Hebrewism and Zionism could connect to paganism due to the emphasis on land and Hebrew holidays. Paganism is a close, unusual parallel of more common practices, like environmentalism or traveling to the East. In practice, it really is not very different.”

As I’ve pointed out before, the growth of Paganism in places like Israel helps puncture the lie that our faiths flourish merely as a rebellion against Judeo-Christian norms or as a result of secularism’s ills. The truth is that Pagan beliefs, practices, and theologies, offer an appealing alternative to the often exclusionary monotheisms that have come to dominate the West. I’ll be interested to see how their first festival goes, how many show up, and if they experience any trouble.

TheurgiCon Is Today: Today is TheurgiCon in Berkeley, California, a one-day intensive that focuses on the practice of theurgy, the use of magic and ritual to invoke (or evoke) the gods. This year’s theme is “Tools of Neo-Platonic Theurgy” and features presentations by Don FrewTony Mierzwicki, and John OpsopausTheurgiCon was founded in 2010 by Glenn Turner, who also founded PantheaCon, here’s an interview with Turner from 2010 about the event.

You can also read impressions from last year’s event here, here, and here. Read more about this year’s presentations at the TheurgiCon website. I’m hoping to have more coverage of this event in the near future.

Transitions for a Circle Minister: Drake Spaeth, a longtime Circle Sanctuary minister and key participant in Circle’s yearly Pagan Spirit Gathering, has announced that he’s amicably stepping down from his clergy position and taking a break from participation at PSG.

“Yet, open circles sometimes close, and the moment of realization comes that the time to move on has arrived.  I am at such a juncture. I would ill serve the many folks whom I have counseled to recognize and heed the call to take a new risk when the time comes, to make the proverbial Fool’s leap into the unknown, if I now backed away from this moment when it has now come upon me with such clarity. Circumstances have impelled me to the point where, despite any wistful desire I feel that the dream might have continued just a bit longer, that I must step down from being a Circle minister.”

Spaeth is not leaving Pagan ministry, but is instead dedicating his time exclusively to Earth Traditions, an organization he co-founded with Angie Buchanan of Gaia’s Womb. Our best wishes to Drake Spaeth on this transition, we have no doubt his decision will be to the benefit of our interconnected communities.

Gus diZerega Joins Patheos: Gus diZerega, political scientist, Beliefnet blogger, and co-author of “Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue,” has become a columnist at Patheos. His first column, “The Ethics of the Universal Potlatch,” is now up.

“This is my first contribution to what I hope will be a weekly column here at Patheos. I am delighted to be in such good company with other Pagan contributors, both those I know and those I have not (yet?) met. I hope to explore some of the insights I think Pagan spirituality brings to challenge Western modernity, which far more than many realize, incorporates transcendental monotheistic assumptions antithetical to our own, and does so even in its secular guise.”

I’m honored and pleased to have Gus in our ranks here at Patheos, and I have no doubt his columns will be enriching. As for his blog at Beliefnet, he’ll continue on there, though in slightly different form.

More Community Notes:

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Pagan Community Notes is a companion to my usual Pagan News of Note, a new series more focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. I want to reinforce the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!

Heathens on the Plain: PNC-Heartland covers Lightning Across the Plain, the largest heathen gathering in North America, which took place September 24-26.

“On Saturday morning, the Chieftains of each tribe gathered to formalize an agreement on how they should work together to establish strong tribes in the Midwest.  This was the first time that so many Midwestern tribes had met face to face and everyone participating was ecstatic with the results.  The result was several general laws were agreed upon to ensure the autonomy of each group but established procedures that would enable mutual support.”

The event included and estimated 170 adults and 70 children, which is quite impressive for an event that’s only in its second year. It will be interesting to see what the long-term ramifications of these gatherings will be for Asatru and Heathenry in the Midwest and America.

Max Dashú Receives Honorary Doctorate: Artist and writer Max Dashú, famous for founding the Suppressed Histories Archives, and her presentations on female power through history, has been awarded an honorary Doctorate in Ministry by Ocean Seminary College.

“Ocean Seminary College is proud to confer onto Max Dashú the Doctorate of Ministry in honor of her significant and founding contributions to the fields of thealogy and Goddess iconography, as well as to women’s history.

Since the 19070s, Max Dashú has continuously explored, shared, and collected the rich iconographic history of the Goddess. Yet Dashú’s work is not limited to the religious sphere; rather her erudition extends into a critical global examinatoin of the underlying sociopolitical relationships between men and women and a restoration of knowledge of women’s essential role in human history. She has pulled these often disparate academic fields into a cohesive whole that has become the seminal Suppressed Histories Archives. This visual archive and its associated analysis has and continues to inspire women throughout the world to find their roots and reclaim their silenced historical contributions, while fostering renewed womancentric spiitual traditions.”

Ocean Seminary College was founded in 2005, and has a nature-based and interfaith focus in its curriculum. Congratulations to Max Dashú on the honor.

The End of MPN? The Military Pagan Network has released a statement that asks, with time and resources in short supply, if their mission has been accomplished, or if they should continue.

“The question now is MPN’s future. MPN’s ability to inform, educate, and network depends entirely on volunteers to make it happen. The current staff feels that we have done all that we can for now. Given our current resource pool and acknowledging the work of many other organizations, we feel that MPN may close its doors with a sense of “mission accomplished.”

However, given the magnitude and finality of such an action, it is important to us to make one final appeal to those whom MPN represents. If you are a military Pagan (A/D, veteran, or dependent), and you feel strongly that MPN truly needs to stay active, please step forward. Send a message through our online contact form stating your interest in keeping MPN running and how many hours/week on average you are willing to devote to making it happen. We realize that your military mission comes first, but it is up to you to decide whether MPN’s mission can and should continue. If a pool of truly dedicated fresh volunteers comes forward, the outgoing staff will gladly transition the duties and management of the organization over to you. If not, we must take this as a sign that MPN’s mission has been fulfilled to the best of our ability, and MPN will be closed.”

The deadline to contact MPN about their future is Samhain (October 31) 2010. While attitudes have changed within and without our communities about Pagan military personnel, many challenges still lay ahead. If you have an interest in revitalizing and helping the MPN move into the future, I would step forward now. You can contact them on their web site, or at their Facebook page.

Expanding on Theurgicon Coverage: Over at his Beliefnet blog, Gus diZerega expands on the recently held Theurgicon conference in Berkeley, California. First with an exploration of Tony Mierzwicki’s historical presentation, and then on Brandy Williamspresentation dealing the Chaldean Oracles.

“I am constitutionally suspicious of hierarchical understandings of reality.  They have had nasty political consequences, feed a lot of egos that believe they are “more evolved,” and I suspect constitute an attempt to apply models of relationship from agricultural societies that viewed nature and people as something to control to a spiritual realm.  Consequently I am most sympathetic to the less rigid models of dimensions that is a possible interpretation of this reality.

I believe this less hierarchical interpretation also fits better with my and other peoples reports of mystical encounters in their various forms. I would hope that less hierarchical forms of description will come to predominate.  My own working model is of a multidimensional tapestry where the closer one approaches “the One” the less differentiation exists and the farther one goes the more differentiation can be seen, maximizing the opportunities for love to manifest.  But it is all one tapestry.”

I look forward to reading his write-ups of the rest of the speakers.

More on Druid Charity Status: As I reported on Tuesday, The Druid Network in the UK has been granted charity status, the first Pagan group to gain such status under the Charities Act of 2006. Now the mainstream media is picking up on the story, including the BBC.

“After a four-year inquiry, the Charity Commission decided that druidry offered coherent practices for the worship of a supreme being, and provided a beneficial moral framework. The decision will also mean that druidry will have the status of a genuine faith. Referring to the tax breaks, Mr Ryder said: “For us that is a very small consideration because we don’t really have that level of income to make that even an issue.” He said what was more important was that it would make administrative tasks a lot easier for the organisation. “It does give recognition with local councils and people who provide premises and services to charities, who will only deal with registered charities,” he said.”

More coverage here, and here, and here. It’s looking like this accomplishment is making waves, and may signal an increased level of respect for the Druid religions in Britain. Congratulations once again to The Druid Network on their accomplishment.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Pagan author and Beliefnet blogger Gus diZerega is quoted in The New Yorker regarding a feature on the billionare libertarian conservatives David and Charles Koch, who fund “a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups”.

DiZerega, who has lost touch with Charles, eventually abandoned right-wing views, and became a political-science professor. He credits Charles with opening his mind to political philosophy, which set him on the path to academia; Charles is one of three people to whom he dedicated his first book. But diZerega believes that the Koch brothers have followed a wayward intellectual trajectory, transferring their father’s paranoia about Soviet Communism to a distrust of the U.S. government, and seeing its expansion, beginning with the New Deal, as a tyrannical threat to freedom. In an essay, posted on Beliefnet, diZerega writes, “As state socialism failed . . . the target for many within these organizations shifted to any kind of regulation at all. ‘Socialism’ kept being defined downwards.”

At his own blog, diZerega expands on the article and targets specific themes relating to the Koch family and their political worldview.

Americans have almost completely lost from sight a crucial distinction underlying the political thinking behind our founding.  All our Founders were as one in arguing that the Constitution created a limited government.  That is why the first ten amendments, our Bill of Rights,  declares limits on what government may do: it may not establish a state religion, it may not abolish freedom of the press, it may not make unreasonable searches and seizures, may not ban firearms, and so on.

Left far more vague is what government can do if people want it to act.  In fact James Madison explicitly said that if at some future date citizens trusted the federal government more than they did the state governments, it should expand its power – as it did during the Great Depression. (I would link to the appropriate passage in The Federalist, but I am moving and almost every book I have is in a box.)

Both the New Yorker article and diZerega’s follow-up make for thought-provoking reading, and I encourage you to check them out.

I just wanted to quickly note that I’m extensively quoted in a new column by Michael Triplett at the media-observing site Mediaite on the recent sale of Beliefnet by former owners News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch to the evangelical Christian investment group BN Media. I’m afraid I don’t have many glowing laurels to lay at Beliefnet’s feet.

“The site itself, aside from a few of its blogs, was so watered down as to be completely uninteresting to those looking for something aside from bland platitudes and feel-good inspirational stories. As others have complained, the site seemed direction-less, purpose-less.”

Also quoted in the story is Get Religion’s Terry Mattingly, soon-to-be-former Beliefnet blogger Rod Dreher, and David Gibson of Politics Daily. The piece paints a picture of a media giant that killed a once-popular (though fiscally struggling) religious site through inaction and indecision, a site that’s been losing its audience and faces an uncertain future with its new owners. It’s a very nice round-up on the situation, and I encourage you to check it out (and I’m not just saying that because he say’s I’m at the “epicenter” of the online Pagan community).

Religion mega-site Beliefnet, which was recently put on the block by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has been sold to investment group BN Media according to paidContent.

“This afternoon we are announcing that Beliefnet has been acquired by BN Media, LLC, which is the investment group behind Affinity4 and Cross Bridge Media, companies many of you know due to our successful working relationships with them over the past year.  This course of events begins a new chapter for Beliefnet, and it’s one that I am confident will enable us to continue our growth and prosperity alongside an organization that is so well-versed in our category and committed to our mission of being the leading provider of inspiration and faith-based content in a multi-faith environment.”

Unsurprisingly, layoffs are now happening (so they can “continue growing”, naturally). But who, exactly, is BN Media? What’s their agenda? While there were concerns that Rupert Murdoch would steer Beliefnet in a more conservative direction, those fears were diminished somewhat by the fact that News Corp. is a vast (largely) secular media empire. But BN Media seems to be a different sort of owner, if their two largest initiatives, Affinity4 and Cross Bridge, are any indication. In short, it seems they are a conservative “family friendly” Christian group. All you have to do is pay attention to all the subtle buzz-words.

“Cross Bridge is committed to providing high quality, inspirational programming and resources, bridging the gaps in current mainstream media, while conveying uplifting messages and nurturing positive outlooks … Through our partnership with FOX Networks Group of News Corporation, Cross Bridge is integrating value-based legacy media programming with an interactive, new media experience.”

“What groups do you support? We work with many charities and ministries and other organizations such as booster clubs. Most promote, support and protect traditional family values and religious and constitutional freedoms. Click here for a listing of some of our charities and ministries.”

When you do click to see what groups Affinity4 supports, it’s a who’s who of conservative Christian organizations. Focus on the Family, Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Promise Keepers, Concerned Women for America, and Christian Broadcasting Network, to name just a sampling. Now, BN Media, and its holdings, can support whomever they like, but it doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of future interfaith interactions and diverse viewpoints on Beliefnet. How long will the new pay-masters tolerate a Pagan blog? Not to mention all the New Age stuff. Will Rev. Barry Lynn soon find himself increasingly uncomfortable?

Aside from concerns over Beliefnet’s new owners scrubbing the site clean and “family friendly”, the big issue is if Beliefnet can ever get its mojo back in an increasingly crowded field. With PatheosReligion Dispatchesthe Huffington Post’s religion sectionCNN‘s just-launched Belief Blog, and the Newsweek/Washington Post-supported On Faith all looking to draw folks interested in religious news and views, will Beliefnet end up like MySpace (another News Corp. acquisition)? Perennially behind the curve and slowly leaking readership/users? Whatever happens from now, I think it may be the beginning of the end of Beliefnet as we currently know it (and I feel fine).

It isn’t making the religion blogs and newswires, and I would have missed it entirely if Get Religion hadn’t mentioned it, but religion mega-site Beliefnet is being put up for sale by News Corp. (owner of Fox News) after acquiring it only three years ago.

It looks like News Corp. Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch has lost faith in Beliefnet. After only three years of ownership, the media giant is seeking a buyer for Beliefnet, a website devoted to religion and spirituality. The decision was first reported by AllThingsD and confirmed by people with knowledge of the situation. News Corp. acquired Beliefnet for an undisclosed sum in 2007, with plans to integrate it with the company’s other faith-based units, including HarperCollin’s Zondervan unit, which publishes bibles and Christian titles such as Rick Warren’s best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life.” Fox Home Entertainment also operates Fox Faith, a label that distributes family films and Christian DVDs to retailers and through churches and ministries … As with other digital assets, News Corp. has decided to jettison Beliefnet as no longer fitting with its strategy.

Back in 2007 I was rather pessimistic about Rupert Murdoch’s company acquiring the site; I didn’t think it would lead to some new synergistic golden age for the fiscally unstable religion hub.

“No doubt promises of independence and a glorious future are forthcoming, but I’m not sure this will be good for the already-marginalized religious minorities who were once strong supporters of Beliefnet. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, over the next few years, Beliefnet grows ever-more Christian and conservative in tone. A “family friendly” site to help promote Fox Faith films and hype new Christian book releases from (coincidentally) Zondervan.”

In defense of the new owners, they did fiscally stabilize the site, and tried their best to adapt to the new blogging and social networking culture that grew up in the years since Beliefnet first launched (blogging was still in its infancy back in 1999). They even installed a Pagan blogger (Gus diZerega) back in 2009, after years of complaints over how the site treated its non-Christian communities. But the question now is, who wants Beliefnet? While they are still the most popular religion site on the Internet, their numbers have been softening of late, shedding nearly 400,000 regular visitors in the three years under News Corp. Some, like former Beliefnet News Producer Ira Rifkin, think the site may have run its course.

“Beliefnet has made itself irrelevant and US magazine down-market by dropping all serious content – even its blogs have lost all their umph. How many bumper-sticker-depth, saccharin lead features consisting of no more than – literally – “inspirational” one-liners, cheery photos of flowery fields or “15 Love Lessons from ‘Sex and the City’” can you run before serious readers looking for consequential spiritual/religious insights to help guide their actions realize how trite it all is, get bored and log off, taking sponsors with them? Beliefnet is worth very little in today’s media market. Empress Oprah might be a good match, except she has no need to spend money on a much inferior version of her own product line. In short, Beliefnet may have run its course. We’ll see.”

For the record, today’s “headline” features are “Movie Mom Looks Ahead At New Family Films”, “Support For Military Families”, “How To Treat Yourself Royally”, and “12 Ways To Be  A Better Listener”. It’s not exactly what you would call gripping, hard-hitting, or even fascinating. Still, 2.4 million readers is nothing to sneeze at, and that might tempt a news or media outlet to acquire the site/brand and do something new with it. But whoever acquires Beliefnet will be dealing with a very changed religious-news and information landscape. Where once the site stood alone, they now have competitors in an expanding God(s)-beat on the Internet. PatheosReligion Dispatches, the Huffington Post’s new religion section, CNN‘s just-launched Belief Blog, and the Newsweek/Washington Post-supported On Faith are just some of the sites it must now contend with, not to mention the ever-thriving religious blogosphere where folks can find original and curated news to fit their particular social and theological niche.

So, to echo Get Religion’s question, who do you think should acquire Beliefnet? What changes should the prospective buyer(s) make if they do pick it up? Should Beliefnet survive at all? Will it go down in history as an early failed experiment in new media attempts to cover religion and spirituality, or will it rise once more and keep its spot at the top?

It’s no secret for those who’ve been paying attention that traditional media outlets (ie newspapers) have been cutting back on their coverage of religion. This was confirmed by a Pew Forum study that analyzed news coverage of religion for 2009 and found that new media (blogs, web sites, podcasts, etc) were taking up the slack, and becoming the primary outlet for religion news, debate, and discussion.

In 2009, religion attracted significantly more attention in new media sources than in the mainstream media.in a sample drawn from millions of blogs and social media finds that religion was a top story in nearly a quarter of the weeks studied (11 out of 45 weeks) … The blogosphere and other social media tools have grown over the past few years. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 51% of internet users post online content that they have created themselves. Eleven percent of all adults use blogs. The use of Twitter has tripled since 2008. At the same time, the number of reporters assigned to the religion beat in the mainstream media has been shrinking. According to Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, at least 16 major print news outlets have reduced or abandoned their religion beats since 2007. At the same time, she says, online newspapers such as The Huffington Post and Politics Daily have increased their religion staff. “We’re in the midst of growth of the [religion] beat online,” Mason says, “but newspapers haven’t kept up with the trend and have instead let religion coverage languish.”

This year we’ve already seen the launch of the Huffington Post’s religion section, joining sites like BeliefnetPatheos, Religion Dispatches, and the Newsweek/Washington Post-supported On Faith in expanding religious coverage on the Internet. Now they are joined by CNN who has just launched their Belief Blog a few days ago.

“The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day’s biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers’ lives. It’s edited by CNN’s Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, with daily contributions from CNN’s worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.”

With CNN joining the fray, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more mainstream news outlets (MSNBC, Fox) launching their own religion sections online. This is an encouraging trend, the more religion coverage, the better, in my mind. What is in question is how diverse will their coverage be? In other words, will they cover minority religions and modern Paganism beyond mere tokenism? So far it’s been hit-or-miss with Internet religion sections. It took Beliefnet years to give Pagans a consistent voice on their web site by finally recruiting Gus diZerega to blog for them, and the HuffPo Religion section hasn’t really recruited any consistent Pagan columnists at this point, relying on religion-tagged Pagan contributions from other sections. So far Patheos has been the most Pagan-friendly with a dedicated Pagan portal helmed by a Pagan and filled with Pagan content.

But it isn’t so much that I’m demanding sites hire Pagans or develop Pagan sections per se, only that minority faiths get the attention they deserve when a story breaks concerning them. In this sense Religion Dispatches has excelled, giving us academic and knowledgeable commentary on issues most news sources skim over. Their coverage of Vodou in the wake of the Haitian earthquake is to be commended, and I can hope more dedicated religion sites follow their lead. After all, on the Internet you have limitless space, and few time constraints, so there’s no reason to shy away from in-depth reporting or insight. Here’s hoping CNN makes the most of their new section, and really gives it the attention it deserves. As for Pagans we need to continue doing it for ourselves, so we can continue to participate and influence the conversations over faith on the Internet and in the news.