Anyone who has ever used the Internet for research - and that's probably anyone who has ever used the Internet - knows that it's a trail filled with side trips and winding roads.
That's especially true for those who are interested in religion. Looking for a copy of the pope's statement on abortion easily turns into a ramble into fascinating but irrelevant territory - like the "books online" link that creates the temptation to stop researching and read G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown series or another that displays the artwork of the Sistine Chapel. Lovely, but not very on-task.
Never has religion - of all textures, colors and varieties - been so accessible. The Internet has made it so simple for people to learn about other faiths that the computer-literate, at least, have no excuse for not learning at least a little about other people and their beliefs.
But it can also be a chore, sorting through hundreds and even thousands of sites relating to a particular religion. Catholicism, for instance, has more than 2,000 Web sites - and that's just mainstream Catholicism. Hundreds of sites relate to facets of Mormonism. Conservative and evangelical Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Krishnas, Jaines - they all live on the Web.
That's why a Web researcher finds it so hard to go to specific information (assuming it can be readily identified from the search-engine listing), get what's sought and get out. Who can resist taking a moment to look at the rules of the Gudwara, the Sikh church building? Or wandering into a quilting section from a Latter-day Saint site. People who researched Easter last year found themselves learning to make Baltic lacquer Easter eggs.
Enter Prima Publishing, which has released two comprehensive resources for those seeking religious sites on the Internet. More are sure to follow.
"Mormons on the Internet," by LauraMaery Gold, is a 344-page, $18 guide to hundreds of online resources for people who are interested in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It follows on the heels of the comprehensive "Catholics on the Internet," $19.95. The author of that book, Brother John Raymond of the Monks of the Adoration, goes by the sobriquet CyberMonk. He's compiled more than 2,000 mainstream Catholic sites.
They are certainly not the only books about religious sites that can be found on the Internet. But they are among the most comprehensive.
Both authors see great potential for the Internet, not just as a place for research but as a place to evangelize others. It's a wonderful tool for "spreading the gospel," Gold told the Deseret News in a telephone interview this week. "It's a place for missionary work and for fellowshipping people who for some reason, whether geographic or not, are remote from the church."
Brother Raymond, who wasn't available for an interview, told the Intermountain Catholic earlier this year that he receives e-mail from converts to Catholicism who made that decision based on what they learned about the religion over the Internet. He also answers their questions about faith, responding by e-mail.
The listings in the two books are not all - or even mostly - "official" Web sites.
"That's easy to find for the LDS Church," said Gold. "There's one. The rest are whatever someone feels inclined to do. There's one site for the Vatican. Most religious faiths have their own single sites. Is the BYU site official? Who can say. But there are lots of servers from BYU over the Net."
It's up to Web crawlers to decide what's trustworthy, according to Gold, who laughed when asked. What's trustworthy when you go to buy a book, she asked. It depends on who's looking. "My grandmother wouldn't buy any book unless it was published by Deseret Book."
Brother Raymond included "mainstream" Catholic sites in his book. Gold said she used "95 percent of what I found." She omitted only sites that were nothing but links, without any original content, and sites that "just were a complete mess. They're not in there."
Gold also believes people need to take responsibility for making decisions about the validity of information on the Web. "I think there's a lot of suspicion or undue worry about content. It's critical to understand there's a lot of bad stuff out there, but there's a lot of bad stuff in other places, too. Watch television for a half hour. And there's such potential for good stuff on the Internet."
A book makes the search easier, but for someone who likes to dabble in comparative religion, just jumping into the Web is fun - and productive.
Below are a sampling of religious Web sites, in no particular order, to whet your appetite. Most of them link to dozens of others:
http://www.wfn.org/ Worldwide Faith News, a free, searchable database containing full text news releases and other documents from national and world faith groups
http://www.wcc-coe.org/ World Council of Churches resources, including lots of links
http://www.ece.wvu.edu/%7ebkt/linkres.htm/ American Religious Web Sites. Links compiled by students and faculty at West Virginia University
http://www.aphids.com/relres/ Comprehensive searchable database of religion sites on the Internet
http://www.bcca.org/services/srb/ Baha'i faith
http://www.vatican.va/ The Vatican home page
http://www.nccbuscc.org/ National Conference of Catholic Bishops
http://nae.goshen.net/ Extensive Christian search engine and directory. Evangelical Christian focus
http://www.hindunet.org/home.shtml/ Hindu faith
http://www.chabad.org/ Chabad Lubavitch, Judaism
http://www.members.aol.com/jewfaq/ Basic facts about Judaism
http://www.lds.org/ Official Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
http://www.episcopalnet.org/ Episcopal Church
http://www.christiananswers.net/ Broad-based Christian Answers Network answers questions about Christianity
http://www.bible.org/welcome.htm/ Biblical research and study materials online, put together by the Biblical Studies Foundation