In 1989, U.S. Marine Leo Brunnick was in the jungle, training a group of Thai Royal Marines. He gestured to the top of a hill and told the Thais to run up there. It was the best position — easy to defend and difficult to invade — and a simple military strategy.
Except it wasn't: The Thai soldiers refused to go up the hill with ammunition and guns because it was a sacred site. And sacred wasn't something you messed with in a country where, on Bangkok's sleek, elevated transit system, signs ask passengers to offer their seats to the pregnant, to the elderly and to monks.
When Brunnick least expected it, religion popped up.
In the Middle East during the first Gulf War, he heard American soldiers say that they didn't like Muslims because Saddam Hussein was one. "But aren't the Kuwaitis Muslims?" Brunnick asked.
"They're a different Muslim. They're independent," the GIs responded.
"What do you mean different? What kind of different?" The antagonism against Islam just didn't add up. "I was the one asking 'What's going on here?' and caring about it," Brunnick remembers.
During his four and a half years of globetrotting with the Marines, Brunnick's fascination with religion grew. He read the major holy books, everything from the Koran to Scientology's The Way to Happiness to "secondary texts on Christian mysticism," as he calls them. "I loved it. I was fascinated by it all."
After getting out of the Marines in 1991, Brunnick got into the tech business. At one point he was working with Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu engineers in Hyderabad, India, on a project. The engineers spoke the same language, and all got along until one brought up his daughter's upcoming marriage; the ensuing discussion opened up so many black holes about marriage and gender issues that they decided to stay away from any more talk about religion.
"There are a lot of people who would like to believe that here we are in the 2010s — modern world, Internet, yadda yadda — and can we just get past all this ancient religion muck," Brunnick says. "But the world is so influenced by its religious traditions that we must have a better understanding of what they are and how they drive how people think and act."
To help foster that understanding, he ultimately started Patheos.com, combining the Greek word for God, "theos," with "path" to create the name. Patheos aspires to put credible information on all the world's religions in one place — a place where those religions can talk to one another, too.
On June 7, a computer window opened in the Patheos office located near the Denver Tech Center. It was an op-ed from the Washington Post responding to a Patheos post: Warren Cole Smith's "Why a Vote for Romney Is a Vote for the LDS Church: One evangelical explains why he cannot support Mitt Romney for President," originally published on May 24.
"What it seems you would like me and six million other Mormons in the U.S. to do is concede a fundamental right granted to all Americans because we don't fit within your definition of what is theologically acceptable. Fortunately, that's not what the Constitution says, and it's not what America teaches," Michael Otterson, head of public affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had written.
Smith's post had already stirred controversy in Salt Lake City and earned the blogger a listing on the People for the American Way's Right Wing Watch.
Leo Brunnick was stunned by the firestorm.
Smith, the associate publisher of World, a major evangelical news magazine, had written a similar piece on his personal blog in 2007. That post had caught the attention of Timothy Dalrymple, the managing editor of Patheos's evangelical portal. Dalrymple thought that Smith's piece would work well in a Patheos interfaith discussion series between evangelicals and Catholics on the future of social conservatism. He asked Smith if he could edit it and then publish it on Patheos.
Smith agreed; he'd seen Patheos becoming a force in the religious media and wanted "to be engaged in national conversations," he says. But he was surprised by the conversation that followed. "It just kind of blew up on Patheos," Smith remembers. "The issue is inflammatory, but I don't think my article was."
Used to writing for a decidedly evangelical audience, Smith wasn't prepared for the controversy: more than 1,000 comments, many throwing around words like "bigot" and "un-Christian." And Mormons weren't the only ones who were angry; evangelical and progressive Christians called Smith names, too.
Leo Brunnick, now 46, was raised Irish Catholic in a western suburb of Boston; his accent pops out after a vodka and Pepsi or two. He was in the ROTC while at Harvard and entered the Marines after graduating in 1987. He sits straight-backed, drinks large amounts of blue Gatorade (which he refers to as "water"), and has the build and gestures of a football coach. He exudes confidence.
He was working for the Austin-based Vignette Corporation in 2006 when he met Cathie Frazzini, now 44. The bubbly blonde had been raised Lutheran in Southern California, where she was both a cheerleader and the captain of the high-school swim team, Brunnick brags. They were the only divorced executives at Vignette and the only ones who lived in hotels, so they kept each other company.
By early 2008, they'd quit their jobs and moved together to Denver, where Cathie had been based when she worked for J.D. Edwards. Brunnick had already been thinking about starting Patheos; Cathie helped make his thinking more concrete.
They got married that April. Each has two children from previous marriages, so at any given time, their tidy Lone Tree home has zero to four kids in it. Combining their families required figuring out what to do regarding religion — but beyond providing their childhood backgrounds, the Brunnicks will not discuss their family's current religious beliefs.
In stories about Patheos, Cathie is often described as a "Lutheran-turned-Evangelical," but she won't confirm that. She will, however, chat giddily about her favorite TV show, The Biggest Loser, and admits she usually cries at the end of each episode.
The Brunnicks say they don't want people to assume that Patheos is just pushing their own beliefs. That definitely wasn't the goal when they started working on the site that first summer in Colorado.
Brunnick wanted to create a place where people could go to find answers for their faith-based questions: "Does God exist?," "What are the origins of Islam?," "What language did Jesus speak?" — one of the queries most often posted on Patheos. The Internet makes it easy to search for answers and avoid awkward face-to-face discussions that could come off as ignorant or offensive, Brunnick explains. Besides, many people don't know anyone who is Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu to ask those questions of.
Unlike most websites devoted to religion, Patheos would present information on all the world's major religions — and do so fairly and accurately. The goal was to create a site that "hosts the whole conversation," Brunnick says. A site where people could discuss their ideas about faith — and while they might not come to an agreement, they should be able to reach an understanding. "We want to be educational without being too complicated. To educate without being reductionist," he explains. "But the world is a pretty complicated place."
Finding financing was definitely complicated. The Brunnicks quit their jobs to create Patheos, and they knew they needed to start big if they wanted to make money. As Google, Apple and Facebook were gobbling up their competitors, success was clearly dependent on scale. But Beliefnet, the only other major multi-religious site on the web, had been bought by News Corporation, then tossed aside, so the time looked right.
To sell their concept to investors, the Brunnicks pointed out that 64 percent of Americans use the Internet for religious purposes. According to a Patheos-sponsored study, more than 70 percent of Americans consider religion important in their lives, but at the same time, more and more people are leaving congregations and searching for what to believe in. Patheos could be the place where they'd find the answers.
But secular corporations didn't want to touch the project, which surprised the Brunnicks. No venture-capital companies were willing to invest in a religion-based website, even if it was neutral. Brunnick couldn't just present the numbers as a business deal; the moment one member of a company felt uncomfortable or alienated, the deal was off. "People would hear religion and just say no," he remembers. "They're too afraid."
Nonprofits shied away, too. The larger, secular charities didn't want to get involved with religion, and the religious ones didn't want to chip in for a site that placed their beliefs as just another choice on the smorgasbord of world religions.
Still, so far Patheos has raised $4.5 million through approximately fifty individuals, each investing an average of $150,000. Many of the investors are friends or former colleagues.
Finding funding wasn't the only challenge. Populating the site was a major project, too.
The base layer of Patheos contains 75-page profiles of more than fifty major religions, including eighteen subsets of Christianity, three subsets of Buddhism and three subsets of Hinduism, written by academics with doctorates in religion and each double-checked by both another academic and a believer. A 1,000-word summary of each of these profiles is included in the site's "library" and covers origins, history and important reading material, as well as how the religion sees gender and sexuality.
"We asked a lot, a lot of people," Brunnick says. To develop the list of religions Patheos would include, they contacted seminaries, the editor of the Encyclopedia of World Religions and people at the Pew Institute, the massive think tank that researches aspects of American life ranging from attitudes about immigration to religion. "We were very careful to be very clear about the different delineations of Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity," he says. "Even if people have never heard of Vaishnavite Hinduism, that's what we're going to call it, because that's what it is. As a lived tradition for someone who is Hindu, they might not even call themselves a Vaishnavite Hindu."
While often the divisions between faiths and even branches of faiths are blurred, on the Internet, clear divisions are necessary to make a site navigable. "Of all the labels, the hardest one is the one called 'esoteric traditions' or 'emerging traditions,' but everyone wants to be an 'emerging tradition' because 'emerging' is just so positive and forward-looking." Brunnick says. "Esoteric traditions" roughly translates to what academics call "spiritual but not religious," or "New Age." But hardly anyone who is a follower wants to be called "New Age," and "spiritual but not religious" isn't very sexy, either. Internally, Patheos calls the group "SBNRs," notes Brunnick. "I don't know what we're going to name it, but I do know, whatever we name it, we will ultimately change it."
Creating Patheos's second layer involved bringing in established bloggers from multiple religions — and their readers. Site staffers identified the ten to twenty most-read bloggers in various traditions, starting with Catholic and evangelical and progressive Christians, but soon branching out to pagans and humanists (a catch-all for atheists, agnostics and other forms of spiritual but not religious belief). Then they courted those bloggers, asking them to join Patheos — not so much for the princely sum of around $200 a month (the pay depends on page views), but also for free hosting and tech support.
"They seemed to contact everyone I knew in the field," says John Shore, a progressive Christian blogger who's proclaimed himself Dan Savage's favorite Christian.
Today, the five most-visited named "portals" on Patheos are Catholicism, Evangelical Christian, Progressive Christian, Pagan and Humanist (though the most popular blog in that category is ardently Atheist); they also happened to be the ones with the most developed blogger communities. Currently, Patheos has eight Catholic, nineteen Evangelical, eighteen Progressive Christian, five Pagan, two Humanist, two Muslim, one Mormon, one Scientology and one Buddhist blogs.
Patheos has a full-time staff of seventeen, many of them hired right out of Harvard Divinity School; while some are continuing to add content to the site, others are marketing it.
Most of the company's income comes from advertising. About 10 percent of the ads result from direct sales — mostly seminaries, religious publishers and the like. The rest comes from four ad pools, including Google Ads, which populates slots based on the key words on the page and previous web behaviors of the user. On the Warren Cole Smith story, "Vote for Romney" ads frequently popped up.
"I think it's kind of funny when I get ads for Christian dating services," says Patheos Pagan blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters, but the off-point ads have been a point of conflict with others. "Many people feel like they need to create a safe space when they talk about religion," Pitzl-Waters notes. And ads, or money in general, destroy that sacred space for them.
But the Brunnicks aren't doing Patheos just as a labor of love. Brunnick estimates that the company will need another $2 million before it is profitable, at three million unique monthly visitors, probably in late 2012. Right now, Patheos is getting about three million page views a month, with a million unique monthly visitors.
Cathie, who started out as Patheos's chief operating officer, left that post early this year to take an executive job with a Denver-based tech company. "At my new work, they had to get to know me before they realized I wasn't 'crazy religious girl,'" she says.
Not everyone appreciates Patheos's growing profile. Several times a year, the Brunnicks get letters at their home address — which is not listed on the site — that inform them of their eternal damnation. "Today I know that mail," Cathie says. "I don't open it."
By placing religions side by side, Patheos puts the religions it features there — Buddhist, Catholic, Evangelical, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Pagan, Progressive Christian — on an equal footing, says Stewart Hoover, professor of media studies at the University of Colorado and head of the school's Center for Media, Religion and Culture. That center is one of only four such facilities in the world, and the only one that does research; Hoover is halfway through a two-year-long project looking into how twelve religious and purportedly secular websites — with Patheos one of the former, PostSecret one of the latter — are changing religion.
"We see these online journals as just that," Hoover says. "They're replacing magazines and religious newsletters." The people going to sites such as Patheos are interested in religion intellectually but aren't necessarily "pious," he notes; they're using these sites for information rather than as a "site of religious experience."
Hoover describes a "horizontalization" of religion that's creating an atmosphere where beliefs are different but equally valid. "They see even their own religion as a horizontal marketplace of religious supply and less as this unique and particular kind of belief," he explains. That allows people to pick and choose ideas, and also makes them less likely to follow religious edicts. "People don't want to be seen as submitting themselves to authority," Hoover says. "They want to make decisions for themselves, and digital media really encourages that idea."
Sociologists refer to eschewing traditional sources of spiritual authority as "seeking." And while Hoover notes that people have been swaying away from authority — in government, education and religion — for the past twenty-some years, he says the Internet is speeding up the process.
Blogger Shore has a far less charitable view of Internet searching. People don't go to church because they're bored in church, he says, and Patheos is just as boring: filled with stories written by theologians and other religious wonks, not writers and thought leaders. He calls Patheos "the loser zoo," a place where blogs that couldn't cut it on their own seek refuge. "It's the wrong paradigm for the times. You have to be with people, you don't talk down to people," he says. "Who are the best writers? Those are the guys who get the most views. Patheos is collecting dead people."
People aren't interested in the inter-religious dialogue that's found a home on Patheos, Shore continues. "Everything is a process now," he says. "Everything is a question or discussion. People are looking for confirmation of what our higher selves are aware of. I am pro-division."
As for the site's name, Shore jokes that it sounds like another word with Greek origins, pathos: "How pathetic is that?"
According to a 2004 Pew study, 26 percent of the people looking at online sites with religious content are searching out information about other religions. Half are doing so just out of curiosity, while another 28 percent say they use the Internet to try to convince people of their beliefs. In a 2010 study on religious knowledge, Pew found that only 6 percent of Americans read books or visited websites to learn about other religions once a week or more.
Even on Patheos.com, the majority of visitors go to the portals for their own religions. "People tend to read things that confirm their own viewpoint," says Dalrymple, who'd like to see the Evangelical portal regarded as the "op-ed page for Evangelical America."
Some Christian bloggers think "there's no value in a pluralist world," says Bruce Reyes-Chow, a Progressive Christian blogger for Patheos, and so they've refused to jump onto the website because of that. But Reyes-Chow says he's also gotten a positive response from Patheos: His readership has doubled from about 20,000 per month to 40,000, and the comments posted there are by thoughtful people, mostly progressive Christians interested in discussing ideas about faith — not drive-by trolls.
Not all atheists were thrilled when Hemant Mehta, who writes the Friendly Atheist, joined Patheos in July, either. A friend and fellow atheist blogger told him he "wouldn't be caught dead on a site like that," Mehta recalls.
"Some people are really uncomfortable with this separate but equal," adds Pagan blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters. "It's like a movie bleeding through to your movie."
"There's a lot of energy intra-religion," Brunnick notes.
Still, Patheos keeps pushing interfaith dialogues between the portals. Come early 2012, it will have "Faith and Family" and "Faith and Politics" sections, in which the views of multiple religions on issues such as abortion and homosexuality will be placed side by side. Brunnick also plans on producing a lot of content to demystify and clarify Mormonism and Islam, hot-button religious issues in the upcoming election.
"The political season will be interesting," he says. "I'm not worried at all. I'm excited about missing two of the big no-nos." And those would be religion and politics.
Although statistics show that an increasing number of Americans — including 57 percent of evangelicals — believe there is more than one way to salvation, religion still largely determines a person's politics. And while more people are identifying as spiritual but not religious, only 6 percent or so say religion isn't important in their lives.
The Internet makes it easy to share information. But at the same time, it also fosters the long tail, creating a haven for people who feel alienated in their non-virtual lives. And so it creates an "echo chamber" of ideas, blogger Smith says, where people just hear what they want to — and criticize those who say something else. Beyond a follow-up Q&A with Dalrymple, Smith has not written again for Patheos.
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"We even have very different views of the facts," Dalrymple says of Americans these days. "People on the right and people on the left live in different worlds." He describes this as a "balkanization," adding that he hopes Patheos will provide factual information for those who've been bunkered down in forts with people who think just like them.
Brunnick's vision of the Internet is a bell curve. The majority of the people are in the middle, and the wings are filled with people who will never be happy. He sees three major reactions to the religious pluralism the Internet is fostering: assume that all religion is bad and retreat from it; recognize that there are lots of different ideas in the world and engage with them; or assume that everyone else's opinion is bad and double down on what you already believe. To make money, Brunnick says, he only needs to reach the second group.
"You could compare Patheos to ESPN," he says. While the team you care about the most is clearly your own religion, you want to be exposed to how other teams are doing, what they're thinking.
"It just hasn't been done well in religion," Brunnick says. "Do people want to hear a really complicated answer? No. Do they want to hear different perspectives every day? No. But I do think that the brand of Patheos will represent the place to go if you are looking. Maybe someone will only want to hear a conservative Christian perspective, but the best conservative Christian bloggers will be at Patheos."