TUCSON, Ariz. — Daniel Zimmerman, retired pastor of Universal Life Church and operator of one of its Web sites, gets so excited that he shouts when he talks about his church's secret mission to rid the world of religion.

The key to the plan is ordaining as many people as possible, he said, and that's where the Internet is a very useful tool.

Lately, according to Zimmerman's estimation, Universal Life Church has been performing “online ordinations” at a rate of about 15,000 each month.

With a few clicks of the mouse, Web surfers can be legally empowered in most states to perform marriages, baptisms, blessings, funerals and other ceremonies “as particular to your beliefs” and are free to start their own congregations.

“We issue the certificate the minute you click the ‘Enter’ key,” Zimmerman, the 54-year-old church spokesman in Tucson, Ariz., told the Register before launching into a practiced high-volume sales pitch. “You are equal with Billy Graham, Oral Roberts and the Pope. You can take care of spiritual needs from the womb to the tomb!”

In a curious intersection of television and the Internet last month, on an episode of the sitcom “Friends,” character “Joey” got ordained online so he could perform a marriage ceremony for two of his friends. Within 24 hours of the show's airing, according to Zimmerman, 1,500 Internet surfers had logged onto his site as laypeople and logged off as ministers.

“Religion teaches that ministers are something special,” Zimmerman said. “Oh! That man must be chosen, divine, selected by God, hand-picked by the Lord, called, pre-ordained, a holy man set apart — set apart from YOU! That's not true! We are AAALL called,” he shouted over the telephone.

The actual online Real Player ordination ceremony on his Web site is surprisingly peaceful. “Greetings,” intones Zimmerman solemnly over background organ music. “I … do this day, select, anoint and appoint you, a legally ordained minister, of the Universal Life Church.”

Andre Hensley, a member of the board of directors of Universal Life Church based in Modesto, Calif., said the church has been providing easy ordinations, allegedly based on the Bible passage John 15:16, since its inception in 1959. The church's only doctrines are that people operate within the laws of their jurisdiction and “do not infringe on the rights of others.”

The bulk of ordinations are still done by mail, but Hensley estimated the Internet has increased church activity (including ordinations) by about 25% to 30%.

Ordaining Dead Pets

But couldn't people ordain their cats and dogs, Zimmerman is asked? “That's fine with us,” said Zimmerman. “Didn't an ass speak to Saul in the Bible?”

A few months ago a woman complained to authorities after she ordained her parrot, Zimmerman admitted, but Universal Life Church has already survived a court challenge over this practice. Back in the early 1970s an assistant attorney general of Arizona ordained her dead dog and took the matter to court to challenge the church's tax-exempt status.

The church prevailed when the 9th U.S. District Court declared that no judge or branch of government “will consider the fallacies of a religion [or] compare the beliefs, dogmas and practices of a newly organized religion with those of an old, more established religion, however excellent or fanatical or preposterous it may seem.”

The way was paved for digital preachers.

The Internet has hosted an explosion of religious Web sites that run a gamut from blatant occult to tasteless jokes, such as the First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis. They span a spectrum for skeptics, such as the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua, to offerings for committed Catholics, such as Web cams for online eucharistic adoration and instruction in the Catholic catechism.

The “Internet ministry” of the Monks of Adoration in Petersham, Mass., www.monksofadoration.org, includes round-the clock Web cam surveillance of the Blessed Sacrament for net users the world over. Brother John Raymond of the Monks of the Adoration thinks the Net is a powerful tool for propagating the faith and is rich in resources for those who have fallen away from the faith or people who are seeking truth (see page 12 for his guide to religious truth on the net).

Brother Raymond expects it will continue to grow. “The numbers of Catholic parishes online increases every day,” he said.

At the same time, though, the number of Wiccan, pagan, New Age and other Web sites is also expanding, especially since anyone can found a religion and the Internet provides a virtually automatic audience. There are sites to help people find their “animal spirit guides,” (one online cult of New Agers encourages swimming with “dolphin angels” to absorb their positive healing energy), sites offering spell-casting kits (candles and string for $29.95), and even a reincarnation site offering a plan to “inherit your own fortune when you are reborn.”

Stealing from Catholics

The Universal Life Church Web site offers ID kits for ministers (or for shaman, high priestess or “any other title” you like), grants “Absolution of Sin” with a click of the mouse, and “plenary indulgences.”

“We stole that one from the Catholics,” said Zimmerman. “It's a great idea.”

On the other hand, Zimmerman doesn't like people stealing from his religion. Competition is “springing up all over the place,” he lamented. “But it's our church that started this.”

Now there's even a guy down in Chile operating a Web site called something like “Prestige Titles,” Zimmerman added. “He sells ordinations for $1,500 and we're giving them away! He charges $900 for a doctor of divinity degree and ours costs $20!”

But Zimmerman's church has a purpose — it is actually opposed to religion. “All religions are just gangs,” he said. “One sells hope, and one sells dope.”

“The secret purpose of the Universal Life Church is to get rid of all religion,” he added. “If everyone is ordained than it doesn't mean anything anymore. You can believe what you want to believe, we're not going to change that.”

Zimmerman gets a kick out of the people who sign the online guest book, gushing gratitude because they've “always wanted to be a minister.” “Nothing has happened, but they think it has,” he said. “Nothing has changed, but they think it has.”

Souls in Jeopardy

It's this sort of crass exploitation of people that bothers Jesuit Father Mitchell Pacwa, author of Catholics and the New Age. “It's frightening because people's souls are in danger,” he told the Register.

Still, Father Pacwa uses the Internet himself as a resource for religion students of Catholic apologetics, because Web sites provide “firsthand evidence of what these religions actually profess … you find a lot of really fine data.”

In post-Woodstock America, he explained, there has been a proliferation of people cultivating false religions. “As a Catholic you come with a perspective and with analysis, can discern what is true,” said Father Pacwa.

Dabbling in the Internet's religious offerings isn't for faint of faith, he stressed.

“If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything,” Father Pacwa said. “But if you know who you are, what you believe and why, you'll not only stay clear of a lot of these pitfalls, but you'll be able to help others out of them, too.”

Celeste McGovern writes from Portland, Oregon.