Retreat-masters, clergy, “inspirational speakers,” and academics are recruited by Patheos because it wants to be “the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world's beliefs.”1 Patheos seeks to add to its advertising and retail revenue by providing said contributors with a platform. It is a normal business transaction. How do I feel about bloggers who move to Patheos? I stop reading their blogs. Why? Four reasons come to mind.
Reason Number One: Some of the regular bloggers of the Patheos community are free-lance homilists who claim to represent a faith-tradition they do not.
For example: the group blog of the Buddhist portal. Its regular contributors are Rick Hanson and Gary Gach. Both appear to be big names in the Buddhist lite mainstream media circus circuit. They produce a molasses-like stream of devotional sound bites with almost no connection to Buddhism as practiced in temples, monasteries, and homes around the world. Their blogging elicits little or no community interaction, except from spammers like “colon cleanse” and “cheapest ohio auto insurance.” No one even takes the time to remove the spam comments [UPDATE: fixed now, in response to this post]. What to do with the Patheos Buddhist Portal? Throw it in the dumpster where it belongs, unless it is not Buddhism which interests you, but Buddhism as “atmosphere,” as an ideological alternative to religion. To be sure, Buddhist texts, the history of Buddhism, Buddhism as a unified system of beliefs and practices, the rhythms of Buddhist life - home ritual, communal rites, rites of passage, the yearly round of festivals, “church and state” in Buddhist-dominated polities - are touched on in the “Library,” a non-interactive environment with no organic connection to the site’s interactive content. The best written piece in the Buddhist “Library” is the one which provides historical perspectives. But once that contribution is digested, virtually everything on the group blog will be seen for what it is: New Age tripe. Still, even the “historical perspectives” contribution is problematic. It is an unattributed post without links to further resources or bibliography. It is not a serious enough contribution to come up to Wikipedia standards, the lowest acceptable baseline for online quality content.
Reason Number Two: The “Library” Feature is not a credible resource for the comparative study of religion. That might not matter but Patheos markets itself as reliable and useful in that sense. Its library content contains no footnotes, references, or external links; in some cases, no attribution. Put another way, the Library is user-friendly to the librarians who must keep it up-to-date; not to those who want to “seek and understand.” Two paragraphs on Judaism by Allan Nadler are symptomatic of the third-rate content one finds in the “Library”:
Judaism Vision for Society
Judaism is neither a universal nor an evangelizing religion. Jews believe that the Torah and its laws are the unique inheritance of a people elected, or chosen, by God for the purpose of forging a "kingdom of priests" whose mission is to spread the principles of ethical monotheism to all humankind.
Judaism Gender and Sexuality
Rabbinical Judaism has historically assigned distinct roles to the different genders, especially notable in the realms of public worship and ecclesiastical leadership. Judaism's positive attitude to sexuality has had the net effect of consigning women largely to domestic roles, as well as precluding women from attaining positions of ecclesiastical leadership.
Not to pick on Nadler, who is trying to accomplish too much in far too little compass, but is it the case that the Jews are a people whose God-given “mission is to spread the principles of ethical monotheism to all humankind”? It is, according to adherents of Classical Reformed Judaism; it is not, according to adherents of Judaism in general, past or present. Is it the case that Judaism’s positive attitude to sexuality “consigned women largely to domestic roles,” and precluded “women from attaining positions of ecclesiastical leadership”? This is the kind of stuff that gets written if you are being paid minimum wage by the paragraph.
It is also curious that Patheos has an “Evangelical Portal” but nothing in its “Library” on evangelicals per se. The “mainline Protestant” portal is being phased out, and replaced with a “progressive Christian” portal located just to the side of the “Pagan” portal. That sounds about right, but once again, there are no “Library” resources for “progressive Christianity” – yet this movement has a history, a core of common beliefs, and a particular stance over against Scripture, tradition, and reason. Patheos does not provide reliable background information on the religious and political identities which show up most regularly on its pages.
Reason Number Three: Money corrupts; if money is the bottom line, it corrupts absolutely. I’m not saying money is the bottom line for Patheos bloggers, but they risk being perceived as, first and foremost, self-promoters.
Take Mark D. Roberts. I choose him as an example because I like his content. His recent post in which he gently upbraids Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington for her ridiculous take on the Weinergate scandal, is vintage Roberts. Liberals no less than conservatives are pathetic creatures when they examine the dirty laundry of members of their own household – unless the dirt threatens to stick to them, in which case: watch out. Roberts, a liberal evangelical, is mildly refreshing here.2 The problem is another: Roberts’ blog is a dot com. It showcases him. The sidebar is one long self-advertisement. You might think a post on Weinergate by Roberts would attract a significant comment thread. It didn’t.
I have a suspicion: Patheos acts as a damper on online interaction. An example: Mike Bird’s rapid takedown of James McGrath’s all-smoke-and-no-fire posts against the inerrancy of the Bible and substitutionary atonement generated few comments. Since he joined Patheos, I don’t follow Mike online any more, but I remember when posts like that of Bird and McGrath, when both were independent bloggers, would have attracted a greater number of comments. Patheos is supposed to be about “global dialogue.” But it’s not.
I can say things like the above, but James McGrath, Mike Bird, Scot McKnight, Frank Beckwith, and C. Michael Patton, to limit myself to people I have interacted with in the past, on and/or offline, cannot. It would hurt the “brand.” It will not be easy for them to discuss the issues I raise. They can prove me wrong if they wish. I will link to them if they do.
I enjoy being an independent blogger. I don’t churn out stuff because I have to. True, I take a financial hit in order to blog, but I take the hit intentionally. I like the freedom that comes with paying a price for being a blogger, rather than receiving compensation for it. As soon as you receive compensation for something, it creates a sense of loyalty toward the one who compensates you. That’s fine if you are comfortable with all that entails. But I feel no affinity for the Patheos proof of concept, which comes across as something like the following: “all religions are created equal” – especially the “balanced” ones. We are all tempted to engage in hype and spin, but let’s face it: the business model of Patheos is built from the ground up on hype and spin.
Reason Number Four: Not enough quality control. Patheos needs copy editors, because some of its contributors write like freshmen in a 101 class. A sample sentence from a recent post (which, I admit, I found interesting for all kinds of odd reasons): “Kirkegaard was a devout Christian and would probably be a bit dismayed at the Existentialist movement his writings gave fruit to, and just so, I don’t think Ayn Rand really expected to inform Satanist philosophy.”
I am not a fan of Patheos. But then, I am not a fan of Beliefnet either. If you want to “explore and experience the world’s beliefs,” take the time to make friends with ordinary believers of the world’s religions, to read deeply in the world’s religious traditions, things like that. If you want to know more about evangelical Christianity, traditional Judaism, the Mormon faith, or a version of Buddhism, you will want to visit a place of worship and observe and perhaps even participate in the ritual. The world’s great religions have many dimensions: the ritual, the philosophical, the narrative, the devotional, the ethical, the legal, the social, the political, and the material (costumes, architecture, books, icons, etc.), not to mention the music, art, and drama beyond ritual religions engender. Patheos is a noble project, but it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of execution.
1 I am not making a cut at any of the four categories listed. I myself have led retreats and have been hired as a motivational speaker. I am both a clergyperson and an academic.
2 For real refreshment, check out the comments of Andrew Cuomo’s former chief of staff, Kirsten Powers. When she finishes with former friend Weiner, there is nothing left but a puddle of the kind one associates with the death scene of the wicked witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz.