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Important notes

Evaluating accuracy of religious web sites

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Sponsored link.

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How accurate is a web site?

Anybody with a computer, Internet access, a text editor, and $10.00 can rent a domain name, create a web site, and promote any message that they wish. The flashiest looking website can be the least accurate. A boring web site with an unimpressive layout can contain the most reliable information. "Caveat emptor" (Let the buyer beware.)

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What is religious truth?

In the field of religion, there are special concerns. Each faith group's beliefs are generally based on some blend of four criteria:

  1. What does their holy book say, as it is interpreted by the faith group?
  2. What has their group's traditional teaching been?
  3. What has been the member's personal experience?
  4. What does reason, experimentation, and the scientific method tell us?

Conservative religious groups tend to emphasize passages from their holy book: Torah, Bible, Qur'an, etc. A Protestant Christian slogan that dates back to the Protestant Reformation is "Sola Scriptura:" (by scripture alone). This is the belief that the Bible is:

"... God's written word [and] is self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to the rational reader, its own interpreter ("Scripture interprets Scripture"), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian doctrine. 1

Other conservative faith groups, like the Roman Catholic church and Eastern Orthodox churches, place great emphasis on traditional teachings in addition to passages from their holy books.

More liberal faith groups give greater emphasis to the believer's personal experience and the findings of science. Rather than search for proof texts that deal directly with the specific topic under consideration, they often look for general themes -- like justice, love, caring -- which have some relevance to the topic. Many believe that the authors of their holy book(s) were severely limited by living in a pre-scientific, often tribal society. Religious liberals often consider parts of their holy book(s) to be opposed to the will of God and even immoral -- e.g. those related to the status of women, treatment of sexual minorities, human slavery, etc.

As a result, liberal and conservative faith groups have little difficulty reaching a near consensus of active social concerns like equal rights for homosexuals, abortion access, spanking children, etc. However, some mainline denominations which include significant percentages of both conservative and liberal members are experiencing conflicts and near-schisms.

In short "truth" differs among different faith groups. A given religious web site can do its best to explain their position accurately. However the end result may not reflect the wide diversity of beliefs in the culture. Since a religiously-based web site will typically reflect only the beliefs of its authors and sponsoring agency, reading one web site will generally give you only one viewpoint.

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Types of distortions commonly seen on religious web sites:

bulletOften, the prime motivation of such a site is to trigger a religious conversion so that the visitor will join the sponsoring organization. Guilt for past actions and fear for the future are sometimes used as effective motivators.
bulletA religious site will often explain only the current teachings of their faith group, and ignore their organization's history.
bulletReligious organizations will often gloss over or not mention their past failures: notably racism, sexism, homophobia, sexual abuse of children by their clergy -- even support for human slavery in the distant past.
bulletFaith groups often do not emphasize their present discriminatory policies against women, sexual minorities, divorced persons, etc.
bulletSome faith groups sponsor advocacy agencies that tackle social problems from an viewpoint that accepts religious beliefs and negates scientific findings. Some examples are:
bulletReparative or conversion therapy groups that imply that they can change their clients' sexual orientation.
bulletGroups focusing on global warming and concern for the environment.
bulletThe Church of Scientology attacking the mental health profession.
bulletThey will sometimes disseminate inaccurate information concerning rival religious groups. With the tens of thousands of faith groups in the world, every religious organization has many competitors.
bulletWeb sites in the counter cult movement specifically attack other religious groups that they believe to have deviated from historical Christianity and are thus not doctrinally "pure."
bulletWeb sites in the anti-cult movement specifically attack religious groups that they believe use psychological tricks to lure new members, manipulate them, reduce them to near zombie status and prevent them from leaving -- in spite of lack of evidence.

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Points to consider when evaluating a web site:

Notes:

bulletHyperlinks connect to essays on this web site.
bulletPersonal bias may have crept into this section.

Points to consider:

bulletMotivation of the author/sponsoring agency:
bulletWhat are their purposes and goals: your personal conversion, promotion of their faith group, or an evaluation of the full diversity of beliefs.
bulletAbout the web site itself:
bulletDo they have a statement of belief?
bulletWhat are their funding sources? Are they independent and rely on advertising revenue and donations, or are they financed by a religious organization?
bulletCan you send an Email/fax/letter to the webmaster or author?
bulletWhat are the qualifications & credentials of the author(s)? This is a touchy topic. Sometimes the most highly educated theologians have a narrow focus. Our essays are mostly written by an Agnostic whose religious beliefs do not match those of the main world religions. He has an engineering/writing background. We feel that this is a better background than is provided by a specific theological degree or diploma. Of course, we are probably highly biased.
bulletDoes the website admit its errors. Does it have an errata page listing its mistakes?
bulletDo the author(s) back up their information with proper citations?
bulletHow current is the information?
bulletOn some topics, like salvation, afterlife, origins of species, cardinal Christian beliefs, etc. this is not particularly important because beliefs change so slowly. On others like same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, hate-crime legislation, it is important that the site's essays be updated often to keep them current.
bulletHow useful is the information?
bulletDo the essays require specialized knowledge on the part of the reader?
bulletAre their any obvious biases by the author? Are the essays objective?
bulletDo the essays contain sufficient content? Are they too simplistic?
bulletDo the essays contain too much information -- more than you really need or want?
bulletDo the essays explain the full diversity of beliefs present in the culture or religion?
bulletDoes the catchment area focused upon by the web site include your country (This web site focuses on North America).

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Sola Scriptura," Wikipedia, 2007-JUL-19, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_scriptura

  2. Jim Kapoun, "Teaching undergrads WEB evaluation: A guide for library instruction," Association of C&RL News, 1998-JUL/AUG, Volume 59 #7, at: http://www.ala.org/

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Site navigation: Home page > Important stuff > this essay

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Copyright 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2007-JUL-21
Latest update: 2007-JUL-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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