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The World Weird Web

Heaven's Gate not the only fringe religion on the Internet

"Dear Earthlings, I am Doctress Neutopia. My mission here is to herald in a Neu Age of love, peace, ecofeminism, communalism, solar energy, the end of poverty, and a planetary network of arcologies."

So begins the Web page of the former Libby Hubbard, who changed her name while completing her graduate degree in "future studies" at Amherst. For several years, she has preached the Neutopian gospel of the Gaia hypothesis up and down the information superhighway.

"We're trying to grope with creating a new mythos," the Doctress explained. "We've been in a racist, sexist, classist patriarchal culture which has resulted in all these various problems that are coming to a head now. We need a new mythology that can lead us out of the ecological crisis we're in. Heaven's Gate was trying to provide something that would help us transcend our problems, even though it was corrupt."

Neutopia said that the Heaven's Gate cult members probably meant well, but couldn't find their "Gaia Messiah" that would help them find the answers. Her vision of a Brave Neu World is one example of how the cult that sent 39 members to an early grave isn't the only unusual religion running around cyberspace. Since the Net is one of the biggest free-speech zones in human history, every worldview imaginable has set up shop there.

Many of these groups are dead serious about their beliefs, though to a less radical extreme. Many, like Neutopia, are simply the work of one person distributing his or her own theories about life, the universe, and everything in it. Real-world weirdness like theosophy, santeria, and Scientology have also staked a claim on this new frontier. The ancient pagan sun god Mithras has no less than four websites.

After all, there's nothing like a website to promote an off-the-wall theology. The bright orange followers of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh have set up shop as "The Friends of Osho." Apparently their enlightened master was never born or died, but was only visiting Earth for about 60 years before he "left his body on January 19, 1990." The group now touts meditation centers in 69 countries, including Croatia, Mauritius, and the Dominican Republic and makes available 650 volumes of the leader's writings.

One unusual group that was an online pioneer is PreRaptureT International Message Exchange, which goes by the acronym PRIME. It's a computer bulletin board that promotes oneness pentecostalism. For several years, the man behind PRIME, Steve Winter, has posted messages anywhere and everywhere attacking those "unrepentant dirt false christian scum" who believe in the Trinity. Before the Internet was a gleam in Higher Source's eye, Mr. Winter was posting endless text files about how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same person.

"I call them false christian scum simply because they are false christian scum," Mr. Winter, who runs a computer hardware business, writes. "I prove it time and time again from their own Bibles." His website has files with names like "The Lutheran Cult Makes The News" and "Why No Trinitarian Will Be Saved."

While these groups are numerous, they have only minute numbers of followers. Yet the few true believers in these systems can connect from around the world via e-mail. And numerous voyeurs and dabblers can survey the scene without having to make any commitments. Even though the impact of each group is marginal, they all have their booths in the Turkish bazaar that constitutes the contemporary approach to religion.

Mr. Stamper is a writer in Manhattan.