Charlottesville, Va. -- When Massimo Introvigne of Italy wants up-to-date information on an obscure religious sect or cult, he logs on to www.religiousmovements.org.
"It's the best out there in terms of being like an online encyclopedia," said Introvigne, managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions based in Torino, Italy. "Other Web sites just have piecemeal information on nontraditional religions."
The detailed, alphabetical profiles of more than 250 religious groups and movements aren't put together by some large, well-paid Web design company. They're churned out by University of Virginia students in a high-tech classroom half a world away. The religious movements site has developed a faithful following worldwide, attracting more than a million hits per month. "The goal of the site is to promote tolerance and appreciation of religions without preference to a particular faith," said sociology professor Jeffrey Hadden, who developed the Web site with students in 1996.
Hadden was awarded a teaching technology fellowship that allowed him to explore how modern communications technologies can be used in the classroom. Each student who signs up for Hadden's Sociology 257 class picks a group to write about and designs a Web page on that organization. The best work becomes part of the permanent Web site.
Students this year wrote profiles on China's Falun Gong movement, Father Divine's International Peace Mission Movement, channeling, and Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. The profiles provide details on how the movements have emerged, and how they've grown or faded. Hadden's classroom is equipped with computers for each student and a large screen that allows students to follow along with Hadden as he surfs the Web. The syllabus and other course material are distributed online, and Hadden often communicates with students by e-mail.
The emphasis on technology scared some students.
"I was literally afraid of computers," said Jackie Fowler, who took Hadden's class in 1997. "It was a chance for me to get over my phobia and learn to be more objective about religion."
Elizabeth Hagerty, who took the class this year, agreed. "I wanted to establish my own opinion about religious groups without just going on what I've heard or read about them," Hagerty said. "I wanted to try to understand what they are doing without being too critical of them." Bruce Robinson, head of Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, said the students do a good job researching and describing religions objectively.
"There's a serious problem in the United States, Canada and Europe with anti-cult movements. There are thousands of small, obscure religions and every now and then they go terribly wrong and many people die," Robinson said. "But sometimes people falsely label groups as cults. The students' essays are written without bias. That's rare to find on the Internet these days."
Introvigne, whose association of scholars operates the largest European Web site on new religious movements, said his group looks to Hadden's site as a model.
"It is really an inspiration for us," he said.
Hadden came to national attention with his 1969 book, "The Gathering Storm in the Churches," which looked at the conflict within mainstream Protestant churches after the participation of clergy in social action projects.
He had taught the religious movements class for 20 years at the University of Virginia when he developed the Web site. At the time, he described himself as a "technophobe."
Today, his widely used site includes a collection of online lectures and links to thousands of other Internet resources on religious movements. Among them are two other sites developed by Hadden, on religious broadcasters and religious freedoms.
Hadden spends several hours a day, checking information on the Web site for accuracy and responding to hundreds of e-mails. While most of the comments about the site are positive, Hadden gets his share of hate mail.
"There are a lot of anti-cultists out there and they mistake the Web site as being a source to advocate these groups," said Hadden. "I try to make it clear that I'm simply a defender of religious freedoms."