May 13, 2009
Patheos Paving a New Way
Leo Brunnick and his wife, Cathie, have a simple goal—give people an opportunity to see how other faith traditions understand themselves so that peoples of faith can begin discussions whereby they learn from one another. That’s a tall order, considering that the world of religion doesn’t suffer from an information vacuum. To the contrary, there’s too much of it. And that’s the fundamental problem the Brunnick’s set out to resolve.
Whether you’re a Catholic sitting down for a face-to-face with a Muslim friend, a humanist who wants to better communicate with your Jewish friends, or simply a Baptist who’s trying to figure out just what is different between your tradition and that of your Methodist neighbor’s, you can go to Patheos and, within 10 or 15 minutes, have a basic grasp of history, sociology, and theology. Tack on a few more minutes, and you can watch a video of a Catholic mass, or observe the whirling Dervishes of Islam’s Sufi tradition.
In an age when traditions seem more polarized than ever, Patheos offers a way to bridge the chasms and reach across to one another.
Leo Brunnick sat down recently with Faith and Fumbles to talk about Patheos, and the spiritual journey that lead to him to create what is surely among the most original religion sites of the past five years.
Where did you get the idea for Patheos?
World religions have long been my avocation. I was born Catholic, but during my years in the Marine Corps, and my career in web technology, I was afforded the opportunity to travel the world and observe the world’s religions first-hand. Likewise for my now wife Cathie, raised Lutheran, whose career in web technology also took her around the world.
When we married in 2008, we each brought two children with us from previous marriages. We had to decide in which tradition to raise them, so we began looking online for ourselves to see how our belief systems squared. We quickly learned there was no place on the web that would allow us to do this simply.
What did you find online?
We learned that regarding religion on the web, there are three basic types of conversations occurring. The academic discussion (which tends to be descriptive); the dialogue among faith leadership (which tends to be prescriptive), and the popular discussion (which too often is simply gimmicky).
We needed something between the academic and popular discussions that would resonate with the popular discussion. A website that exudes passion and belief, but a conversation that the public can learn from.
And how did you go about putting that site together?
We brought together a very powerful team, including world religion experts (David Charles, for example) to produce much of the content. We developed the design and concept. Many of the scholars came from Harvard and the University of Southern California. We focused on those who had experience writing introductory textbooks. We wanted folks who could write solidly, have their work stand up to peer review, and then survive a rigorous editing process that brought the material down to a level that most people could understand.
Given that pedigree, it’s easy to understand why the academic community and media have generally received the site well. But what about members of the faith community? What has their reaction been?
There’s no religion out there where we get a monolithic or single reaction to Patheos. We’ve had generally good reactions from all the faith traditions, but there are also those traditions that have a monolithic view of truth who wonder if Patheos is a good thing for them.
Everyone at Patheos believes that we can reach out to those who hold a more-singular view. But those who embrace those singular views generally are content for the moment to wait and see how the site does before they weigh in on their participation.
One of the interesting aspects of the site is that you separate out Mainline Protestant Christians from Evangelical Protestants. Why did you do this?
We took our cue from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which has made clear through its research and surveys that there’s a reasonably high self-selection among Protestants into one of two camps—evangelicals and non-evangelicals. We felt it critical that visitors to the site appreciate the evangelical mindset and how it differs from Mainline Protestants.
But there’s also considerable overlap between these groups. How do you deal with this?
That’s correct. To stretch that example, we have had Catholic contributors to the site who consider themselves “evangelical Christians,.” in the sense that they believe that are called to evangelize for Christ.
But all of the overlap eventually yields to branches, however, and we believe that with the proper background these branches create an opportunity for dialogue. And that’s why we keep the site straight-forward, factual, and lean. It’s hard to have a discussion when there’s so much information that people can’t find the starting point. We hope that in Patheos people will find the resource they need to find that point.
How is the site funded, and are there investors with a controlling interest?
We started it with our money, then it was friends and family, and now we have angel investors. The people we are talking to now are thinking that making money and meaning is a good thing and can do well in the market place. We don’t have institutional or foundational money. And no angel has enough influence to control the direction of the site.
The site’s off to a good start, but obviously, there’s work to be done. For example, the Humanist Gateway is yet to launch.
From a content level, there’s a lot of material coming up. More information in the library, for example, additional lenses, an international calendar, and fleshing out the Gateways both horizontally and vertically. The Pagan Gateway is launching this week, for example, and the Humanist and New Age Gateways will be launched within the next few weeks. Also, for several of the Gateways we’re developing an “ask the expert” section, as well as interactive videos of ceremonies and traditions for each of the religious traditions so that folks can not only read about, but experience, and talk about, the world’s faith traditions.
Many religious sites with bulletin boards have a difficult time controlling angry discussions. How will Patheos do this?
We have some good software that allows us to implement appropriate safeguards. That’s the first step. On the process side, we require that people register and sign-in. Also, if we do remove people, the site is structured so that it becomes difficult for them to come back in under some other guise. Also, areas of the Public Square and the Gateways don’t allow discussion on them except for experts.
What is the ultimate goal for Patheos?
Ultimately, we believe Patheos will become the point in the hourglass. There’s a point at which Wikipedia is fine. But at some point, you need a trusted advisor, such as WebMD is for the medical community. At the top of the Public Square, we want to be the place that people can point to to learn about what is going on within and without the world of faith.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
Most excited to be presenting Patheos to the world for the first time, and the reaction that we’re getting. We’re getting good reactions from academics as well as popular media. So we’re in a good place.
And what concerns you most?
I’m most concerned that we remain vigilant that Patheos stays true to its vision. Standing between faith groups, popular media and academics is a tough place to stand. You can’t go too far in any one direction.