San Francisco Chronicle - Not all who wander are lost

Not all who wander are lost

Monday, May 18, 2009

One thing I love about writing this column is having the opportunity to quiz people from all walks of life about their most deeply held convictions and beliefs.

Learning about a person's spiritual life satisfies my natural curiosity about the world and, at times, deepens my own practices and beliefs. I think many people long for that same sort of open dialogue, a chance to talk with others about why they believe what they believe and what they to do nourish those beliefs.

It's a need that Cathie and Leo Brunnik hope to meet with their new website, Patheos, which intends to share the history, theology and practices of 100 world religions and spiritual traditions. Visitors to the site can compare and contrast religious beliefs, watch videos of sacred rituals, discuss all aspects of faith and the spiritual side of the issues of the day, and dive deep into a growing reference library.

I spoke to Leo Brunnick, who lives in Denver, about his plans for Patheos -- a hybrid word that the Brunnicks mashed up to express the idea of exploring multiple "paths to God" -- his desire to enhance the quality of spiritual discourse online, smorgasbord religions, "cereal aisle" spirituality and the value of understanding what others believe.

What inspired you to launch a website about religion?

My wife Cathie and I have both been in Web technology for a bunch of years, so it's the world we know. And when we got married a year ago, we spent some time trying to understand each other's religious backgrounds. She was raised Lutheran but as an adult has done the nondenominational evangelical route, and I come from a big extended Irish Catholic family. Not that those are worlds apart, but, well, we were asking ourselves, exactly how far apart are they? What do the traditions mean? And how do they fit together?

You're documenting the major world religions and many of the minor ones as well. That's a big job. What was your starting point?

Our intent was to write about each tradition from the perspective of world experts and scholars but then to put the material into a format so that each tradition could be easily compared side to side. You could answer questions like: Do they believe in a god or gods? If so, how many, and what are their names, and what do they do? Where do they live? Is there an afterlife, and what is it called? And how do you get there? We wanted to get as close as possible to an apples to apples comparison, whether it was Christianity or Buddhism or even Scientology, you know, to document the belief systems that are a big influence on what is going on in the world right now.

Recently there's been a lot of media coverage about a Pew Research study that looked at the reasons why people change religions. It was following up on an earlier poll showing that a significant number -- 44 percent -- have changed their faith at least once. Does that statistic surprise you?

It doesn't surprise me. As a matter of fact, it speaks to what we're doing at Patheos. Whether it's the 40 or so percent that are switching within Protestantism or the large numbers of people going in and out of the unaffiliated category, it just shows that all over the U.S. there are people who, for lots of reasons, are looking around. Of those, the vast majority agree with the statement that every religion has it partly right, but no religion has it entirely right. Our intent is to kind of lay it all out there and say, this is what all the different traditions are, where they came from and you they compare to one another, how they're the same and how they're different.