Surfing for Salvation

Once prophets roamed the world recruiting the lost and lonely to spread their tales of redemption. Today, the spiritual world is working its way onto the web.

Please close the gate,my blood runs cold
A knock and the website will be opened to you at Heavens Gate

It is Judea the year zero, and you're a prophet unknown in your own land. You have a message of earth-shattering importance, but no phones, faxes TV or web - you have to rely on 12 loyal friends to spread your teachings by word of mouth.
The Romans, who occupy your country, aren't too big on free speech - especially when it attacks their own religion, and most of the rabbis aren't too keen on competition from an upstart evangelist. Let's face it the chances of you becoming the figurehead of a globally successful religious cult are slim. It's anywhere on planet Earth, the late 1990s. You too are convinced that you have the word for which the spiritually-bereft people of the world have been waiting. Your friends and family may dismiss you as a fruitcake, but Jesus Christ had a hard time of it in the early days, too.

You may only have a small band of acolytes, but never mind - you have a PC, a modem, a phoneline and access to the world wide web. You have, in other words, access to the potential computer-owning constituency of 5.7bn people worldwide - from England to Iceland to Ethiopia, believers, non-believers and those still searching. You have access to their attention, their minds and - possibly - their wallets, and no government, however religiously oppressive, can stop you selling your brand to those people. Now which these scenarios sounds the better bet for success?

Stay slim and live for ever
When the Sunday Mirror broke the news this spring of The Church of Diana, a new cult based on the premise that England's Rose had been dictating her thoughts from behind the grave to an American called Richard 'Chairman' Yao, there was predictable condemnation and revulsion in the media.
Just another dodgy evangelist preying on the weak and credulous to turn a dishonest buck. Her supposed promise that she would dictate the secrets of "how we will stay young, slim and healthy, live forever" plus "how the Asian market turmoil will affect Wall Street .Of course you may wonder whether it's the job of a church to offer health, slimming and share tips but every new church has to have an appealing selling point.

Can't they give it a rest? God doesn't exist.
A Presbyterian site will meet all your daily devotional needs

What's more significant about Chairman Yao's venture is that it represents a step beyond the cults - and the established churches - who have recognised the internet as a surefire way to spread an existing message worldwide. What's happening now is that churches are being born who have no chapels or temples, who only live on the web. It's quick, it's low maintenance and there's no need to ever meet the recruits.
All the Church of Diana asks from you is "your help" - and your skills, your money, your contacts, your phone number, email and address. In return, it offers "the happiness, fulfilment and peace of mind you have always sought". A fair swap? We'll let you choose.

Bright lights, big city
But if internet cults are burgeoning business, so are the anti-cult groups. The Cult Awareness Network has a long history of extricating people from the grips of cults and offering support to their families. A generation ago, the biggest risk was wide-eyed students and runaways being recruited at big city train and bus stations.


Cults tend to have common properties, these include:
  • using psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain members
  • the formation of elitist totalitarian groups
  • a founder leader who is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, charismatic and not accountable
  • they believe the end justifies the means in soliciting funds
  • they aim to continually recruit members
  • their wealth does not benefit cult members or society as a whole

Beware of:

  • people who offer easy answers to world problems
  • people who are excessively or inappropriately friendly
  • invitations to free meals and lectures, where the objectives are not clearly stated There may be a hidden agenda
  • people that pressure you because "everyone else is doing it". After all 'everyone else' could be making a mistake
  • people that recruit you through guilt
  • invitations to seminars having nebulous goals. There is no reason to be vague or evasive, unless there is something to hide
  • giving out your real name, address or email to religious groups over the net
If in doubt contact one of the cult awareness groups on the following web addresses:,,

These days, you are more likely to meet cult 'trolls and harkers' while you are surfing the web.
For Janja Lalich, a former cult member and author of Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, that is what makes the internet such a potential danger. "They are looking for potential recruits, and they're reaching millions of people this way," Lalich argues. Ray Kubiniak, a member of the Cult Awareness Network, agrees with her concerns. "It [the internet] is the cutting edge of where mind-control groups are active," he warns.

Lalich adds that the trolls will lurk "anywhere people who are curious may be looking for new things". And she believes that the cults have adapted their traditional recruiting techniques to the internet world. They might respond to a posting on a Usenet group or chatline by someone who appears open or demanding of new ideas, and their response could include a compliment. "We call it love-bombing," says Lalich.

A silly man with a silly hat and a big stick begs your company...
A The Vatican site offers a hotline to the Holy See

"It feels good to have a new friend who is praising you, then slowly they reveal their path to the one solution. Eventually they'll hook you up with something more tangible - invite you to their local centre, try to get you to spend money, hook up for something." See the box titled "Identifying Cunning Cults" for warning signs of cult recruiters. John Knapp tells how he has been the target of attempted recruitment during the decade he has used the internet. Being an ex-cult member himself, he knows what to look out for. "Once it started with a friendly message,Knapp recalls. "Within seven days it was about how I should fly to Southern California for some workshops and to buy some tantric scriptures."

Cult sites are proliferating like.....

Some sites are less serious than others

Of course, not all the net cults are quite so frightening. Among the sites listed on the Religion and Cults on the Net site,, are the Church of Duck Studies (for finding one's inner duck), the Church of the Gerbil, Church of the Overhead Projector and the Church of Shatnerology - you're unlikely to find too many potential family breakups and bankruptcies among that lot. And just because a church establishes itself via the net doesn't always mean it's dodgy.

Say a little prayer in cyberspace
The First Church of Cyberspace, - (it had to happen sometime - proudly boasts of being "the first church fully organised on the web". Refreshingly, it doesn't ask for help, it doesn't demand your hard-earned cash and it doesn't promise you riches in heaven or here on earth.

It's starting point is that the way people use the internet and the Bible isn't so different - dipping in at random, making connections to other parts of the scripture/world wide web. The church argues that people use the Bible 'hypertextually' in fact, hypertext being the links you see embedded on web pages that at a mouse-click whizz you to connected pages.

There's an imaginative attempt to extend this metaphor, with a hypertext version of the Lord's Prayer. Imaginative but dubious. Click on 'shepherd' and we switch to a page about sheep, which informs us that "without them we wouldn't get sheep or wool". Hmm, we're not entirely convinced this would lead to our depth of understanding of scripture.

Sick of praying your mouse will keep working? Try a Gerbil.

May your god or your gerbil go with you

Of course not every church welcomes the spread of the net. Since 1994, Scientology, the religion established by the late L Ron Hubbard and numbering among its converts John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, has been battling to defend its copyright on a range of confidential Church documents. Its adversaries? A range of individuals dedicated to preserving total freedom of speech on the internet, Netcom, the Washington Post, 14 Dutch internet service providers and a Finnish remailer, "".

The concern for internet service providers is that the Church is not just targeting the people who post the original documents, but the companies who automatically and passively make those documents available to internet users worldwide.
But back to that bloke in Judea 2000 years ago. He may have relied on word of mouth then, but his church is going strong 20 centuries later and, yes, spreading the word via the web. Click on and you will be taken to the website of the Holy See, where you can find news, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and biogs of the last four Popes rather unfortunately "Highlights of the life of Pope John Paul I" include 28 September 1978 - Died. But perhaps something is lost in the translation.
Our only other complaint is that logging on is painfully slow - but having waited a couple of millennia what's a few seconds more.
John Rennie

The belief system lottery:the odds are you'll lose

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