In 1989, U.S. Marine Leo Brunnick was in the jungle, training a group of Thai Royal Marines. He gestured to the top of a hill and told the Thais to run up there. It was the best position — easy to defend and difficult to invade — and a simple military strategy.
Except it wasn't: The Thai soldiers refused to go up the hill with ammunition and guns because it was a sacred site. And sacred wasn't something you messed with in a country where, onBangkok's sleek, elevated transit system, signs ask passengers to offer their seats to the pregnant, to the elderly and to monks.
When Brunnick least expected it, religion popped up.
In the Middle East during the first Gulf War, he heard American soldiers say that they didn't like Muslims because Saddam Hussein was one. "But aren't the Kuwaitis Muslims?" Brunnick asked.
"They're a different Muslim. They're independent," the GIs responded.
"What do you mean different? What kind of different?" The antagonism against Islam just didn't add up. "I was the one asking 'What's going on here?' and caring about it," Brunnick remembers.
During his four and a half years of globetrotting with the Marines, Brunnick's fascination with religion grew. He read the major holy books, everything from the Koran to Scientology's The Way to Happiness to "secondary texts on Christian mysticism," as he calls them. "I loved it. I was fascinated by it all."
After getting out of the Marines in 1991, Brunnick got into the tech business. At one point he was working with Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu engineers in Hyderabad, India, on a project. The engineers spoke the same language, and all got along until one brought up his daughter's upcoming marriage; the ensuing discussion opened up so many black holes about marriage and gender issues that they decided to stay away from any more talk about religion.
"There are a lot of people who would like to believe that here we are in the 2010s — modern world, Internet, yadda yadda — and can we just get past all this ancient religion muck," Brunnick says. "But the world is so influenced by its religious traditions that we must have a better understanding of what they are and how they drive how people think and act."
To help foster that understanding, he ultimately started Patheos.com, combining the Greek word for God, "theos," with "path" to create the name. Patheos aspires to put credible information on all the world's religions in one place — a place where those religions can talk to one another, too.