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Finding faith online remains popular, challenging 20 years after Web explosion

Published: Saturday, June 14 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

Patheos is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

Patheos.com

The Internet, many will claim, is a repository of some of the lowest elements of society: pornography, hateful propaganda and ranting, intolerant screeds and rampant commercialism.

It's also a place to find connections to faith, a priceless commodity if ever there was one.

But can a faith-based website be a profitable business as well as a public service?

Five years ago, interfaith couple Leo and Cathie Brunnick decided to find out, launching patheos.com, an "independent religion and spirituality website" that now draws, it claims, 6 million unique monthly visitors. According to Web advertising research firm quantcast.com, which says Patheos' monthly global audience is 5.8 million unique visitors, its online viewership places it in the top 500 U.S. websites.

"The world is calling for intelligent, civil conversation about faith, and Patheos meets that need," Patheos CEO Leo Brunnick said in a statement. "From Atheists and Muslims to Pagans and Christians, Patheos is a model for how the world’s divergent belief systems can not only co-exist, but engage each other in meaningful dialogue."

Yet while different faiths can coexist and engage, history has shown it's a tougher road for entrepreneurs to earn income from, or "monetize" in Internet-speak, their rich content. Readers may want to read about faith topics, but whether those numbers are large enough to attract the advertising dollars and related revenue to sustain such ventures remains to be seen.

Casts a large shadow

The idea behind Patheos, Brunnick said, is to "create a multi-faith conversation in a for-profit model."

Leo and Cathie Brunnick created their own multifaith conversation first. The couple, both veteran executives with various software and technology companies, met as single parents, dated and planned on blending their families.

"I was raised Catholic," Leo Brunnick recalled, "and Cathie was raised Lutheran but was now a nondenominational kind of evangelical." As the two sought a church appropriate for all their children, Leo Brunnick found little useful in the way of online resources, especially those that helped people understand various religions. Searching led to thinking and planning, and in 2009, the Patheos site launched.

Today, there's little doubt Patheos casts a large shadow in the religious sphere.

Speaking from his Denver, Colorado, headquarters, Brunnick said Patheos hosts what he said were the largest websites — "channels" in Patheos-speak — on Catholicism, atheism and "progressive" Christianity, which is often defined as both politically and theologically progressive by observers.

More mainstream fare is also available, with channels covering Jewish, Mormon, evangelical Christian, Buddhist and Muslim topics, as well as one for spirituality. The site also hosts forays into general culture, including an entertainment channel and GetReligion, a blog (to which this reporter contributed before joining the Deseret News) covering how the press does, or doesn't, cover issues of faith.

Patheos is not the first or only multifaith website, however. Beliefnet.com and crosswalk.com are pioneers in the formula and have been around for close to 20 years. Neither venture has become wildly profitable, and neither Beliefnet, Patheos nor Crosswalk have cracked the ranks of the top 100 websites, according to comScore, another Web ratings firm.

Profits vs. proselytizing

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