Faithful build a Second Life for religion online
By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
Now is the holy season for the world’s Christians and Jews — on Earth and in the parallel cyberuniverse, Second Life.
In the real world, Palm Sunday began the Christian holy week that leads believers into the Easter story of salvation through Christ.
Monday night, Jews celebrate Passover’s ceremonial Seder meal, retelling the story of God freeing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.
Meanwhile, in Second Life, avatars (animated characters that serve as users’ “in-world” identities) will join in online prayer and praise.
Second Life was created by Linden Lab in San Francisco in 2003; its founders imagined a social platform for an idealized online society. Membership has soared to 5 million; it has established a thriving economy and become a popular venue for politics and education.
Wherever the human imagination goes, so goes the spirit. Second Life is now also opening windows on religious and spiritual expression. Theologians and philosophers may debate the authenticity of religious life online, but out on the Internet faith frontier, believers are too busy to listen.
This week, Second Life will feature Easter events and Passover celebrations, as well as the usual meditation meet-ups, Muslim prayers and legions of gatherings for spiritual freelancers.
Evangelists will preach the Gospel, secure in their belief that sin is sin, by persons or by pixels, and that Jesus saves online as well as anywhere.
“Worship is always between you and God, wherever you are,” says Ben Faust, 34, of Harrisonburg, Va., founder of Abundant Living Ministries, known as the ALM Cyber Church in Second Life.
It’s one of seven churches and Bible study groups that will feature Easter messages, a Passion play and enactments of scenes from the life of Christ as part of a “Redemption Week 2007” tour, complete with virtual T-shirt souvenirs.
Graphic artist Beth Brown, 33, of Dallas, who created one of Second Life’s first synagogues, Temple Beth Israel, will present four “seder-ettes” — her name for online mini-Seders that hit the holiday highlights while teaching Second Life skills like flying around while hunting hidden pieces of matzo, unleavened bread eaten during Passover.
And any day, any hour, anywhere on the globe, believers and seekers of all stripes will congregate. Some spiritual sites have coded in “pray-ables,” animated spots that will pop an avatar into proper prayer position, whether bowing on a carpet, kneeling in a cathedral or landing in the lotus position in a Buddhist spiritual center.
“I put my avatar in praying position and I pray at the same time. My prayer in my room is valid and my prayer online is symbolic,” says Sten Muhammed Yussif Widhe, 63, of Fagersta, Sweden.
An officer in Second Life’s Islamic Society, Widhe says his online prayer community, which prays in a replica of a 10th-century mosque in Cordoba, Spain, is bigger than the one in his small hometown two hours from Stockholm.
Statistically, denominational religion is still a speck in Second Life. In a typical week in late March, 451,000 avatars, nearly 9% of all registered users, visited Second Life. Leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites estimate about 1,000 avatars teleport into churches, synagogues or mosques on a regular basis. Hundreds more list themselves with Buddhist, pagan, Wiccan and other groups.
Some are parodies and pranks, such as the Church of Burgertime, based on an old video game called Burgertime, the Church of Elvis, or a Ten Commandments stone tablet mock-up chiseled with “Thou shalt not take us seriously.”
Others are purely architectural exercises. Patrick Rutledge, 37, of Rockville, Md., a computer science graduate student at the University of Maryland, copied a chapel of the medieval Church of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France, “for the intellectual challenge,” he says, and set it on his private parcel.
Other Second Life sites spin from spiritual ideas. Avatars of Change, for example, claims about 180 members from Christians to Jedi to Rastafarians, and is styled like a monastic order that functions to gather donations for charity and promotes interfaith discussion.
But a growing number are traditional, if virtual, places of prayer, study, support and counseling.
Faust, an ordained evangelical minister, had no desire to pastor a real-world church or give up his day job programming websites. Instead, he spent about the cost of a Starbucks mocha latte to buy a Second Life island for the non-denominational evangelical ALM Cyber Church. It looks like a contemporary church, complete with a drum set, Bible studies, a concert hall and a recreation center.
In Harrisonburg, Faust belongs to the Potter’s House Worship Center, where he works with the children’s ministry and the food pantry — programs that can’t be replicated in Second Life, where children age 12 and younger can’t be members and there are no hungry avatars.
Larry Transue, pastor of the site’s non-denominational Northbound Community Church, sees Second Life as a mission field.
Transue, 43, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., who works in the biotech industry, is involved in evangelism and outreach at his real-world Northbound Church, and he replicated it online to “practice what I preach no matter where I am.”
Second Life, like the physical world, is riddled by “sin in thought, word and deed. People think what they do in a virtual world is OK, because it’s not real. But it is real, because your thoughts are real. Who you truly are will shine through eventually,” says Transue.
George Byrd, 37, a Columbus, Ohio, real estate broker, built the lavishly landscaped First Unitarian Universalist Church of Second Life, and organized weekly services that now draw more than 40 people.
To Byrd, virtual services here are as authentic as those in the physical-world church he attends in Columbus. “The spiritual connection is in your brain and in your soul. It’s the same either way,” Byrd says.
Not exactly, says Francis Maier, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, who has written for Catholic magazines about the Internet, video gaming and online role-playing games.
He says Second Life spirituality, however inventive, perpetuates the blasphemous idea that people control creation.
“We aren’t the ones in charge. God is in charge. I’m Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church teaches the truth. It’s not just going through mumbo-jumbo and dressing up,” says Maier. True religion means submitting to “beliefs and practices revealed by God and passed down by generations of believers. You can’t phone that in.”
Second Life imports much of the idealism — and the ugliness — human nature can conjure. There are fundraisers for philanthropy, intellectual forums, support groups and affinity clubs — as well as casinos, flashing billboards of rampant commercialism and porn, porn, porn.
The synagogues and mosques have been sabotaged by “griefers” — slang for aggressive troublemakers who script architectural destruction, text abusive language or send naked avatars streaking through church services.
Second Life might have been intended as a new-and-improved society, but “the new Arcadia is so much more like real life now, not a little cyber Utopia,” says Martin Hiddink, 42, of Barcelona.
A Catholic, he created a version of the Great Mosque of Cordoba with its arches and domes. “I wanted something beautiful, light-filled and emotional.” After it was damaged by griefers, he rebuilt it and donated it to the Islamic Society. He also built a Gothic cathedral with a rose window, bell tower, mosaics and an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “Every time you consider something beautiful or you are touched by love or beauty, you see God,” he says.
Indeed, says Internet expert Julian Dibbell, “virtual reality is in some ways an essentially spiritual experience.” Dibbell, of South Bend, Ind., has written about online society for 15 years and served as a consultant to Linden Lab.
“You see signs and signals but you give them meaning. Even the rites of the Catholic Church are an interaction of signs, tokens and material symbols of faith, given their meaning by what is happening in the mind and soul of the believer.”