The Gospel According to Second Life
A week or so ago, NBC had a feature on the evening news ("Give Me That Online Religion") that chronicled the growth of religion in Second Life ("a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents." And before you open your mouth to make fun of such a world, it now has nearly 7 million residents "from around the globe.")
I've written about the confluence of technology and religion a couple of times in the past - Money Changers in the Temple (ATM's in churches) and From Skype's Lips to God's Ear (prayer requests over IP). But to me religion on Second Life represents something else entirely.
According to the NBC segment, the tech-assisted religious frontier has moved way beyond real folks attending church services via the radio, TV, or over IP. It's now about avatars getting religion.
Given that Second Life has sex, drugs, rock and roll, crime, real estate, fashionistas, travel agencies and just about every other thing you can think of, I don't know why I'm so surprised that it would get religion, too. Still, the thought of avatars attending church services - standing, kneeling, waving their arms, sitting in the lotus position, participating in an altar call, prostate on a prayer rug - is just a tad bit too bizarre for me.
While there are all sorts of churches, mosques, and synagogues on Second Life, with services attended by avatars, and places where avatars hang out to debate religion with, uh, other avatars, what was intriguing about the NBC story was its focus on a mega evangelical church in Oklahoma, Life Church, that broadcasts its services on Second Life.
So, if you're not in Oklahoma City, or in one of the other places where Life Church has a physical satellite church. If you - as you - don't want to listen to the Life Church service on radio. If you - as you - don't want to watch the Life Church service on TV. Or download a podcast. Or view it streaming live over the web... Well, now your avatar can attend for you on the Second Live version. And since you'll probably be looking over your avatar's shoulder during the service, you'll be attending church, too. Sort of.
One of the folks interviewed in the NBC story said he loved attending services via his avatar, a cheetah, claiming that he finds more acceptance at Life Church on Second Life than he would in a real church.
I'm guessing that he's 100% correcto, especially if he was thinking of attending real life church dressed as a blue-eyed cheetah, wearing a T-shirt and this sort of fez-like cap with a feather dangling from it.
So, does Second Life church "count"? As in, if your avatar goes to church, and you attend with it, are you really attending church? Does the kiss of peace handshake you give the avatar sitting next to you in the pew have the same resonance as grabbing the hand of the little old lady who only gets out of the house once a week to attend bona fide, genuine church and have contact with bona fide, genuine people? Sure, at Second Life church, you can probably shake the pastor's virtual hand on your way out the virtual door, but can you buzz over to Dunkin Donut's for a dozen mixed on your way home? How about incense, can you smell it online yet? And the choir? Does it sound tinny? Do you have to put money in the virtual collection plate? Or do you pay in the coin of Second Life's realm.
And the really big question: Do avatars zone out during the sermon? Yawn? Nod off? Whisper nasty remarks to their avatar spouses?
Oh, well. If people have jobs, build homes, and make love on Second Life, they may as well get religion there, too.
Which must mean that if two avatars get it on, they can have a baby avatar, and have him/her/it christened at a Second Life service. Let's hope they got married in a Second Life church and didn't have that little avatar out of wedlock. (I heard it's not good for an avatar if the avatar parents aren't married.) And will the avatar baby cry when the baptismal water hits its forehead?
There is just so much to think about here.
Do avatars share the religious preference of their owners? (Masters? Masterminds? What's the operative word here?) And if there's a personal schism going on, is it kind of like a mixed marriage?
Do avatars shop around, experimenting with other faiths? Can your avatar be a "cradle Catholic?" A cultural Jew? A lapsed Methodist?
How about an avatar crisis in faith? Can your avatar lose its religion - while you keep yours? And vice versa. ("That's me in the corner, losing my religion." Or will R.E.M. have to rewrite the lyrics: "That's my avatar in the corner. Losing its religion."
I appreciate that you can meet and befriend people virtually. I've done it through my blog.
But there's something about spending a lot of time "living" in Second Life, with a brand new avatar self with the attributes we wish we had, and bringing that avatar to church, of all things, that seems very sad to me. I'm sure that Second Life can be - like blogging - an enjoyable time sink. It's also easy to see that it can become an obsession, the place you go when you could be in your life blood community having real experiences with real people.
Like all kids, I was big into fantasy play. I played house, school, pioneers on covered wagons, Titanic, soldiers at war, beauty pageant, movie star, Indians around the campfire, hospital, and just about every other thing we could think of. Including church. If you used the white Necco wafers (or the somewhat inferior, due to thickness, Canada Mint), you had a very serviceable Holy Communion to give out at play Mass. Better yet, girls could be priests.
Yet it wasn't really church, even when we prayed. Did those Hail Mary's count for anything? Not that it matters (especially not to me: avatar or no avatar, that was me in the corner, losing my religion), but I'm guessing not.
Hanging around Second Life doesn't seem all that grownup to me. Isn't fantasy play supposed to help kids learn how to navigate the adult, real world?
Just where does all this stuff end, anyway?
God - or God's avatar - help us.