For people questioning their faith or those who have left their church the Internet offers sanctuary in the form of Web sites and online bulletin boards where like-minded souls share their concerns and feelings.
“The Internet has this weird combination of anonymity and intimacy,” said Steven Waldman, editor in chief of beliefnet.com, a leading faith and spirituality Web site, based in Manhattan. “People do open up and they’re willing to reveal their turmoil of their spiritual lives to other people they don’t know that well.”
Halfway down beliefnet.com’s busy main page, one selection is “Discussions.” Another myriad of selections appears with various boxes, articles and links to click on. One large box allows visitors to choose from an A to Z of religions — that’s A Course in Miracles to Zoroastrianism — and join in e-mail chats.
Once a religion is selected, more options appear, to learn about that faith or where to direct criticisms, or to join a debate. To keep the vitriol down in the chat rooms, people are encouraged to read rules of conduct, which encourage courtesy and respect and prohibit hate speech, violence, proselytizing and disruptive behavior.
Some Web sites are devoted to a single religion, with lists of local support groups, information that often discredits a religion and personal experiences from people who have left a church. Though some of the testimonials can be funny or merely inquisitive, the feelings registered by those who run some sites and those who use them are more often disillusionment and acute anger.
Eric Kettunen said that the chat room on ex-mormon.org, the site he founded, is monitored for offensive language. Mr. Kettunen created the Web site in 1995, after he sought out support groups when he decided to leave the Mormon Church.
“In a way I did it to pay back the kindness of the people I had spent a lot of time with on the phone,” he said. “I wanted to pay it forward.”
Mr. Kettunen said his Web site was created to provide support to those confused about their belief.
“The purpose of the site was to help people already considering leaving the church and to help them along the way,” he said. “Every day we hear from people who say they were so glad the site was there when they were having doubts and how it gave them the strength to leave the church.”
Ex-mormon.org is maintained by 18 volunteers and does not make any money, Mr. Kettunen said. He estimated there were 30,000 to 40,000 new visitors to the site daily.
Mr. Kettunen, a 51-year-old engineer in Cleveland, Tenn., said that actually attending a support group was not practical for everyone.
Mr. Waldman of beliefnet.com agreed. “With people spread out geographically, when they are leaving their faiths, there is not a great big organization of former Catholics or Jews in any given town,” he said. “It’s really hard to talk to friends or acquaintances about leaving a faith or joining a new faith without embarrassment. Some people worry they’ll be considered a traitor to a faith or alternately talking to people in a new faith they are nervous about coming off as ignorant.”
Sue Emmet, who is the president of exmormonfoundation.org, said the online membership has evolved into an annual convention that has drawn 800 people. Ms. Emmet, who says she is a great-great-granddaughter of Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, said she could not turn to her own family when she left her faith.
“When you leave the Mormon Church, you are not just considered someone who chose a different path, but someone who has turned their back on the truth,” she said. “It’s different than being, say, a Methodist.”
On a board at beliefnet.com, a questioner wanted to know how the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses spends the money it raises. In another belief.net chat room, another poster asked if Quakers were accepting of homosexuality.
Mr. Waldman said that when he began beliefnet.com in 1999, there was concern that religious leaders might interpret the sites as ways to lead people away from their faiths. But so far, he said, there had been little criticism.
“The Internet allows for both — people to strengthen their faith and to explore other faiths,” he said. “The number of message boards about leaving your faith are tiny in comparison to those for people staying in their faith.”