Does religion have a purpose in a virtual world like Second Life?

Paradise Lost - Crucified
The Crucifixion scene from Agnus Dei in Paradise Lost – Photo by Caity Tobias

For various reasons, I enjoy a keen interest in religions. I’ve spent time reading and talking with people about them, their origins, evolution, impacts, and future. However, religion isn’t something we come across in much of our everyday experience in virtual worlds like Second Life. This past Easter weekend, however, was an exception – when I found myself being asked: “What are you doing for Easter?”

Many Christians would argue that Easter is a more important holiday than Christmas. In Christian doctrine, the idea that Christ was crucified and resurrected, is more central to Christ’s ultimate mission and purpose. This central tenet is symbolised by Christianity’s use of the cross, which was historically an instrument of punishment, but has since been appropriated as an icon of salvation.

Because the Easter holiday is more sacred and less commercialised than the much more widely observed Christmas holiday – in some ways, one’s answer to this question about Easter provides hints as to whether you are a Christian or not – and by extension, whether you are a person of faith. It’s rare to get into the subject of faith in every day chat, so this question serves as an opportunity to learn more about each other – sometimes in ways we might prefer not to share.

Because I tend to associate myself with thoughtful people who love to chat in local, I’m no stranger to religious discussions in Second Life. Many of these discussions, as Serendipity Haven rightly pointed out in a post she wrote about religion discussions in Second Life, are the type

where you can almost guarantee that somebody will get offended beyond what is reasonable, and you can bet your bottom linden that within moments any fun, enjoyment and bonhomie will have been drained from the proceedings, leaving only ire, vituperation and frostiness.”

I admit, I too have witnessed discussions about religious topics leading to hurt feelings and people stomping off. Sometimes, I’ve been the one that has excused myself when exchanges in local chat begin to wander into non-sensical land.

One exception to the ‘no-religious-talk’ rule has been our Basilique Chat Salons, where religion will sometimes come up as a tangent to topics we discuss. We even focused a discussion on the topic last week.

Paradise Lost
Mary, Jesus, and Joseph in the manger, from Agnus Dei in Paradise Lost, by Kara

Is there a place for religion in Second Life?

Getting back to the point: In a world where we can import what we choose – leaving out less useful things – do religions have any  purpose or advantage in a virtual world? Are they adaptive to our existence or development as residents? What benefits does religious observance bring to a virtual society? Alternatively, what costs does it also bring?

It’s probably no surprise that we have imported our religions beliefs, practices and places into the virtual world, as can be seen by this list of religion places in Second Life. These places represent many of the major religions, including Hindu, Christianity, Islam. There are also some places where Buddhism can be practised.

What’s the point? One could, I suppose, ask the same question about music, the arts, dance, and other aspects of real life culture – what is the function of these things in a virtual world? What good do they do?

Il Teatro Della Basilica @ Basilique
Il Teatro Della Basilica @ Basilique, by Floriana Thor

To take an evolutionary view, one might think that if these things didn’t have a function, societies without these things would have an advantage over societies with these things. Instead, we see the opposite in real life. That advantage, however, is fading – as we see the importance of religiosity declining over the last 50 years as our society collectively relies more on secular knowledge, institutions and systems to help make it work.

Religion – like art, music and culture of any kind – provides many important functions in real life society. It provides contentment to people and cohesion among groups. It serves to teach a society’s values. It helps to motivates members within these groups to make efforts that go beyond basic needs, like sex, subsistence and safety.

Evidence of religious belief and practice shows that it emerged as far back as 250,000 years ago, but religion – like so much else – has changed since the emergence of agriculture. One of the early purposes of religion was for explanation (e.g. origin myths aimed at answering questions like “Where did everything come from?” and “Who created us?”). Science has since provided us with plausible, evidence-based answers to most of these questions, which lessens the existential purpose that belief in religious and mythical stories once served.

Religion has served as a useful tool in creating standardised organisation that helps a society’s leaders teach and exert obedience. This is useful for larger societies – that get larger than tribal – where decision-making necessarily must be necessarily practiced more non-face to face.

God creates Adam
God creates Adam

Historically, decision makers (society’s leaders) have justified their existence (and their theft of property from the population that convert these resources into valuable things) through organised religion. It was a handy ‘you-scratch-my-back-while-I-scratch-yours’ arrangement, with religious leaders reinforcing the teachings of the kings and chiefs in order to retain their power as well.

Religion’s role in teaching and controlling obedience has since been superseded with the standardised organisation that modern capitalism and other secular systems now demand. Capitalism at least, is a highly visible feature of our virtual world, but because we don’t need to work or buy things in the virtual world in order to subsist in it – mass-scale social organisation becomes less important. Instead, we organise ourselves in smaller, detached communities of shared interests, with religion being only one of these possible shared interests, and a relatively rare one.

Religion has also been useful when teaching moral precepts. For example, religion has been instrumental in telling you that you are not allowed to kill someone else, unless there is a special reason. All major religions teach what is right and what is wrong. This function was designed to help us get along in larger societies because these moral precepts helped us behave in larger groups. In modern society, however, religion’s role in teaching these moral precepts is now superseded by law. In the virtual world, we have unwritten rules, the guidelines enforced by community leaders, and Second Life Community Standards, which incidentally, outlaws not only the intolerance of religious differences, but also the disclosure of someone’s religious beliefs without their consent.

Religion also serves to justify theft and wars. This was not a problem for tribal societies, who’s main justification for aggression and stealing from each other was survival. In modern societies, however, the state tells you whom you should not steal from and whom you cannot kill. Similarly, the state also tells you when it’s ok to steal from others, or when it is acceptable to kill people who are outside of the society. In virtual worlds, however, theft is much more difficult (although not impossible – as in the case of intellectual property) and physical violence is not even possible.

Morphe’s Cathedral at Morphe Northwinds, by Caity Tobias

When you consider the main purposes of religion, it becomes harder and harder to argue they have a place in a virtual world. Yet observe religious ideas we continue to do.

Personally, my fascination for religion arises from my keen interesting in history and culture. Because so much of that history is also deeply embedded in faith, I can’t fully understand one without acknowledging and trying to understand the other. This approach has given me, I believe, a deep appreciation for the importance of religion in peoples’ lives – both physical and virtual, and how so much of what we call culture today is a product of faith.

Therefore, I embrace the cultural output of religion – in the real and the virtual world. In Second Life, I use these religious outputs as part of the digital expressions I create – from Basilique, which is based on a highly religious society – and indeed named after a building that has the celebration of faith as its primary purpose – the Basilica.

My major work in Second Life – Paradise Lost – chronicles some of the most important Christian stories known. Paradise Lost was effectively 60 minutes of religious stories from the Old and New Testament set against Mozart’s church music. To my surprise, neither of these facts seemed to put many people off enjoying the production.

I am far from the first to interpret religious stories liberally, but I enjoyed doing so. For example, I portrayed God as a Hulk-like ecological spirit and Satan a young girl. I showed Adam and Eve graphically engaged in sexual intercourse – where the Bible only alludes to it. I portrayed Jesus and the apostles as dark-skinned middle eastern men.

Despite my concerns about my interpretations, I only had one physical protester – which some might say is a hint of popular success.

Paradise Lost - Press Premiere - The Basilica
Inside the Basilica at Basilique, by Caity Tobias

One of the more memorable aspects of the performance was the building in which it was presented – the Basilica San Pietro Martire. In many ways, this building acted as another character in the play. Today, you can go there if you want to find some virtual peace, sit quietly in the pews, and listen to the sounds of Gregorian chanting.

For some, that is the most important thing religion and spirituality provides – a sense of solace and communion with a higher power, and often, a way to give meaning to our otherwise biological existence. Seeing as religious belief has been a part of the human condition since we started walking on two legs, it makes sense that we’d import this aspect of culture, despite it having very little practical use in the virtual world.

Personally, I’d consider myself a foxhole atheist. I’m the type of atheist that cries out to God when under distress. The last time I was under that kind of distress, was when I prayed that my cat might survive his terminal illness. I remember the moment clearly, sitting on the couch as he slept on my lap, leaning my head back and closing my eyes, and hearing myself mentally ask God to let him live.

Distress follows us from our real lives into the digital, and many of us have felt real life distress as a result of our experiences in our digital lives. At these times, I can completely appreciate the solace one might find in places that invoke religious – or spiritual – connection. Why wouldn’t someone who is a believer not want to practice the faith that might help define their lives in a virtual world as well?

We trade so much across our physical/digital borders – culture, values, attitudes, lifestyles, knowledge – why wouldn’t religion be one of these things that can enrich the experience of the faithful – and even the experience of those who do not believe?

A detail of the facade of Morphe’s Cathedral at Morphe Northwinds, by Caity Tobias

I’ve read that what sets us apart from other living things is our culture – which could be defined as anything that goes beyond the basic satisfaction of physical needs. Human culture – in this way – can be defined as everything that we express beyond breathing, digestion and reproduction. When you think of all the beautiful things that have been created in the service of faith – from music to painting to architecture to poetry – why would we ever want to be without it? Even more curious, what might replace faith and religion if it one day goes away? Will science and commerce one day inspire the sheer fantastical inefficiency and unnecessariness of art that faith has been able to influence – even in a virtual world?

I’m not so sure.

Whether one is a believer or not, one cannot help but be affected by the faith and religion of others, and the many artistic and cultural products that have become an indispensable layer of the rich fabric of our historically religious past. Faith and religion are a part of what makes us human – and for that reason – they have a place in virtual worlds like Second Life, despite their lack of practical necessity.

What’s your view?

7 thoughts on “Does religion have a purpose in a virtual world like Second Life?

  1. I believe faith and spirituality are a characteristic of a person’s nature. We use these “characteristics” in how we deal with others, so they are favorably conducive to a virtual environment. But to me faith is a personal walk with who or what we consider our God and as such it is a private conversation held quietly between me and He only. So I guess God is good and God lives in world but like all of us he is merely a vaporous disturbance of molecules. Well, my 2 cents worth any way.

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    1. One thing that surprised me about our chat on the topic of religion was how many people there were religious in some respects. I would never have expected that in Second Life, which I assume tends to be more attractive to technical people, which might not have as much of a religious fervour as non-technical people. Of course, this is a wild overgeneralisation, based on some evidence that the degree to which a person is religious inversely correlates with the levels of education they attain. There’s evidence that claims the opposite too, but that’s another topic entirely. Perhaps the reason for the lack of religiosity one sees in Second Life is this privacy you speak of, if it’s a personal one-to-one relationship with God, then perhaps this is why we don’t see or hear much about it. I think too, saying one is religious invites prejudgement, which is one of the things I believe many of us aim to escape when we launch ourselves into the virtual world.

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  2. Just ac side note here about virtual religious practice — I was raised a Catholic and I studied Arabic, and what I’ve understood from Catholicism and Islam is that a lot of the rituals involved are difficult, arduous, uncomfortable for a reason. You are meant to sit on a hard wooden bench in a cold stone colossus. You are supposed to feel your knees when the bell rings and the congregation prays. You can replace the somewhat gymnastic movements of Islamic prayer with hand gestures only when you are really incapacitated. Religion is, in part, suffering and sacrifice. and I can’t help but think that clicking on a poseball to make your avatar go through the motions is thoroughly beside the point. Of course it gives that air of comfort and familiarity to the religious SL Resident, but it’s 100% form and no function.

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    1. I believe that, while commonly practiced and believed – especially in traditional catholic circles; self-imposed suffering, self-harm, and mortification is an interpretation of scripture – and some would argue a misinterpretation.

      I think too, that we are treading into ambiguous territory when we try to quantify someone’s religious or spiritual experience as less authentic than someone else’s, simply due to the presence of self-imposed physical suffering. I’m sure, for example, that certain powerful experiences might result from a state of suffering that might be entirely psychologically extrinsic (like the loss of a loved one), without the need to layer on additional suffering that is only physical in nature.

      Buddhists, for example, would argue that all suffering is a result of conception (a state of dissatisfaction about things not being the way you want them to be), not perception (the actual physical stimuli that we label as the source of our physical or emotional discomfort).

      Further, one person’s discomfort might be another’s state of normalcy – all one has to do to seek examples of this are different levels of physical activity (e.g. a long distance runner isn’t going to feel the same discomfort from a short jog than someone who might be normally sedentary and only accustomed to walking short distances). Thus, how can one expect everyone to be physically stimulated in the same way, and expect the same physical effects? Our tolerances are all different.

      Also, even Catholicism has changed greatly in the last few decades, in order to retain and attract members – many things have been relaxed – leading to more comfortable religious interactions. While it still has a long way to go, the Catholic church has become considerably more compassionate and inclusive, more open to internal debate. The current Pope himself has shown an openness to gays.

      So, I’d stay away from absolutes when describing anything as nuanced as religious or spiritual experience, especially in times that are changing in ways that we might have never predicted even a decade ago.

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  3. For a while I was part of a weekly religious discussion that fell apart when the religious people stopped coming. I was the last hold-out for several weeks, and then I realized I was bored and annoyed and that wasn’t a good use of my time. The biggest problem with it from my perspective was it was a religious discussion where most of the people discussing were atheist of the type who discuss religion in order to discuss how the Christianity they no longer believe in is bad. Since I learned most of what I know about Christianity from a Lutheran Minister long after I stopped being Christian (the discussions were so cool!) I found their lack of a broader context or doctrinal details less than compelling.

    The other issue was that none of them were seemingly capable of discussing any religion other than Christianity, even when the only religious person in the room (me) is not only not Christian, but not a monotheist! A lot of the structural issues they had with Christianity literally didn’t apply to my religion, and yet they would have the same discussion every week about how an omniscient, omnipotent deity can’t also be benevolent given our world.

    The one time I was hurt on the topic of religion on Second Life was when an atheist ex-friend asked me bunches of questions relevant to Christianity, but none to my religion about which he knew nothing, and then told me I was either stupider than he thought, or mentally ill since despite his questions I remained resolutely religious. It wasn’t the religious aspect that bugged me; it was the insults when I didn’t agree with him.

    Personally, my religion hasn’t taken a large role in Second Life at least in part because in terms of ritual the trappings are more important than the images. If I’m going to do something religious on an entirely symbolic level, I won’t bother with a virtual echo. If I want to make the symbolic more grounded in physicality, I will use actual liquor and speak actual words and physically do the things I want to do to connect more deliberately with the gods. If I had a space on Second Life I would probably build a Hoff there just because, but I doubt I’d make a big deal out of it.

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    1. An agenda rarely provides much room for a truly open and exploratory discussion about such a topic like religion, so I can appreciate your frustration. My preference, like yours I suspect, would be to have a group of atheists and believers to openly and respectfully listen and contribute personal perspectives.

      The experience you share sounds very trying, and disappointing, if this was with a person you thought would act as your friend. Friends are not meant to always agree, but at the very least one can expect that they would accept your views without trying to qualify you as less intelligent for having them.

      Thanks for sharing your view on how you see the virtual world as a “virtual echo”. One of the aspects of any experience that makes it more ‘real’ is that it is shared with others, does this aspect add nothing to the first? Clearly the other people involved are not echos, they are real as you and me.

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      1. Hrm, I think you misunderstand me, but I worded it poorly. I don’t view the virtual world as an echo per se – especially not in terms of relationships with others; I view the specific religious acts of my religion within a virtual world as an echo. I hadn’t considered the idea of finding an in world Kindred, and then the symbolic would be different because it would be in relationship with other people in the presence of the gods. In terms of my individual practice, which is how I’m religious these days, I tend towards either entirely Otherworldly or entirely Physically, without much space for the symbolic in the middle, which is where I would consider coming up with a way to replicate making offerings to the gods in Second Life.

        That being said, there’s part of me that is now considering seeing if I can create religious images in Second Life – and I think that might have some appeal, as well as being an offering more decorative than alcoholic!

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