Is God in Second Life?

Second life ChurchI’m never sure what to make of news articles on Internet-based virtual worlds. This is partially since I have never participated in a virtual world, and while I play the occasion video game, the closest I’ve ever been to a “second life” on the Internet is the rare occasion that I play Halo 2. By no means am I suggesting that there are not legitimate news stories in these second Web lives. It’s just that I’m perplexed that there are enough people out there with enough time to make these genuine news stories.

Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times is up on the trend, and writes in an article on Easter Sunday that “Second Life has developed a rich spiritual dimension in the last year, welcoming congregations of Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and numerous Christian denominations.” Online-based churches are not exactly a new thing. Tmatt wrote about the Church of Fools experiment back in August 2004.

Maybe some of you out there who play virtual reality games like Second Life can provide a more nuanced perspective, but I can’t say for sure whether Simon is onto anything significant other than another attempt to start a virtual church in the latest popular online virtual reality world. The article mentions that Second Life has a membership of 5 million, but that does not mean they’re online at the same time. Simon gives the skeptics the first word on the trend, but more on them later. Here is what the proponents have to say:

Then again, it’s not all escapism: There are Al-Anon meetings in Second Life, and dances and bingo games — and every manner of mundane daily activity, except perhaps the bathroom pit stop. While worship services may be a bit stilted online, veteran gamers say they can be surprisingly fulfilling. Communities as varied as Hare Krishna, Quaker and Mormon meet weekly for discussions, lectures, live streaming music and text-messaged prayer.

“It’s obviously important for a small but significant number,” said Yunus Yakoub, who’s researching a doctoral dissertation on the religious dimensions of Second Life. Yakoub said he hears from several dozen avatars a week looking for information on virtual congregations.

Perhaps because all interactions are anonymous, conducted from behind facades, gamers say the spiritual conversations in Second Life tend to be more intimate and meaningful than the good-sermon-nice-weather exchanges that pass for conversation in real-world pews.

“We definitely feel the presence of the Holy Spirit there in Second Life,” said Larry Transue, who runs the virtual Northbound Community Church, which is a ministry of the very real church of the same name, located in Thousand Oaks.

Now would be a good point to hear from a theologian about God’s presence on the Internet. I know from a personal account that the mother of the American astronaut John Glenn was concerned what would happen to her son’s soul if he died while in space. In other words, does God exist outside of the Earth? She was assured that God does indeed reign in outer space. What do the theologians say regarding the Holy Spirit’s presence in Second Life? The answer is probably fairly simple but worth exploring.

Now, what of the unbelievers in this trend?

Skeptics suggest that believers could find more enriching ways to spend Easter Sunday than tapping out commands to make animated emus pray.

“It’s like online sex — it’s satisfying in a weird way, I suppose … but the real thing is so much better, why would you want to waste your time on it?” asked Francis Maier, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver and an avid video gamer.

Some Second Lifers also find the idea of virtual worship odd: They would rather spend their online time flying, shopping for risque clothes, chasing gorgeous blonds or engaging in other activities they would never attempt in a world marred by gravity and cellulite.

The article profiles a pastor named Craig Groeschel of the Oklahoma City-based church, which has spent $5,000 to $10,000 in programming and other expenses for its Second Life Easter service. The numbers show that nearly 4,000 people “attended” the service, which is more than the number of visitors to MTV’s virtual show.

For the non-gamers out there, check out the video that accompanies the article to get an idea of what Simon is writing about. The nature of the these virtual world is so flighty and subject to the latest crazes that it’s difficult to know whether this attempt to establish Internet-based churches will stick around in any lasting way.

Simon balances her article well with those who do not see the future in Internet-based churches while providing a voice for those who believe they are on the edge of the next big thing. But some historical perspective (the fact that these things are not new) and a bit of theology would have rounded out the piece nicely.

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  • Dennis Colby

    Interesting article, thanks for pointing it out. It reminds me that Reuters actually has a Second Life bureau:

    I wonder if reporters Get Religion in virtual reality?

  • Francis X. Maier

    Simon’s piece was at least a bit more interesting than the USA Today piece a week or so before that virally triggered it. But check the snarky hed: “In Second Life, nobody knows you’re a lapsed Catholic.” Excuse me? No lapsed Catholic appears anywhere in the story. Anyway, for background on MMORPGs and other videogame issues you might wanna see:

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  • Eric

    I don’t know if The Christian Post has a bureau in Second Life also or not, but I noticed that they have a photographer.

  • Eric

    They should have just hired me. I could have taken better pics.

  • Philocrites

    Here’s an example of denominational news coverage of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Second Life, from the magazine I edit: “Going to church in Second Life” ( 2.19.07). It’s news from a denominational perspective for several reasons: The church represents the concerted efforts of a bunch of people, ministers and laypeople in this case, who do think of what they’re doing as genuinely religious and who are trying to connect the work they’re doing in the virtual world to their values and institutions in the real world. Although it isn’t discussed in this story, the congregation is discussing whether it should try to apply for membership in the Association — a new and intriguing issue for a congregational movement.

    I also think it’s interesting that sacramental religions find it harder to “do religion” in a virtual world, but it hasn’t stumped Quakers, evangelicals, or Unitarians. Going online for church may not be my personal preference, but the fact that people are doing it — and especially the fact that they’re organizing a kind of congregational life in the process — does strike me as newsworthy.

  • Jerry

    As someone who has recently spent several hours wandering around Second Life, I found it fascinating as a phenomenon. I visited the campaign site of a presidential candidate, watched a video of a fight between the Star Trek Enterprise ship and the Star Wars characters, visited a Mosque and a Church and did some shopping.

    Of course, all of that is perfectly doable on the web if not in real life, but what made it interesting is the user interface. Aspects of real life and the web are blurred together so that I “walked” through buildings and not clicked on pictures, for example. I “visited” an art gallery instead of clicking on images. The interface allowed me to look at pictures from various perspectives, near and far, center and from the side. You can also chat with people so the ‘chat room’ aspect is also there. And you can take a basic “person” and adjust all sorts of appearances from hair on down. I’m too old to get obsessive about it, but I can understand the attractions.

    By the way, the “5 million” number is those that have signed up. About 1 million have logged in during the past few months and typically I’ve found 25-30,000 online when I’ve logged in. Still, I think that’s pretty impressive numbers.

    The presence of religion there makes perfect sense. Religion seeks to reach and minister to people in real life, on the radio and TV and on web sites so it’s perfectly natural to extend that to a ‘virtual world’.

  • Larry Rasczak

    I seem to remember being taught that an essential part of Christian worship was the Christian Community. One of the reasons we come together for services is the simple act of coming together.

    While I understand that people often feel more open when they are pretending to be an avatar typing into cyberspace, instead of talking to another human who knows who they are… still I wonder how one can have a “community” that is entirely virtual.

  • Adam Greenwood

    What an article. Am I right in assuming that all of the churches are either (1) associated with existing churches or (2) from denominations that don’t require some kind of authorization or credential to run a church?

    It would be so wrong to find someone playing the part of a priest, dispensing a virtual sacrament.

  • Davo

    I have noticed that the Buddhist movement in second life is rather strong. I can understand this as many Westerners who are drawn to Buddhism find themselves a little isolated in their everyday lives where most of their social interaction is with individuals mostly from the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. From my experience in the western world, revelation that a Westerner is drawn to Buddhist philosophy usually results in a rather pointless discussion about reincarnation and vegetarianism rather than the deeper philosophical / mythalogical / transcendental nature of the believe system.

    So it makes sense that in an environment which spans the world Western Buddhists (or at least people with a serious interest in Buddhist philosophy) would take advantage of their ability to obviate geographic boundaries in order find like minded people.

    I have been surprised by how many times I have chanced upon somebody who is promoting their interest in the Buddha Dharma in their Second Life profile.

    In Buddhism the Sangha (community) is mostly about sharing the experience of the Dharma. It is about sharing understanding, interpretation, thoughts, ideas and experiences and providing and receiving support and guidance. It has less to do with worship. In addition the Buddhist act of “worship” (for want of a better word) is a personal thing and wouldn’t have any value in a virtual world… the person at the keyboard has to be actively involved and focused… which is something you can’t do if you’re guiding your avatar around a game.

  • Brett

    Hmm…On the one hand, this is certainly an interesting phenomena and maybe Groeschel’s staff has found a method of outreach to a new constituency.

    On the other hand, I believe the word was made flesh. I’m not sure if I’m ready to expand the idea of the Incarnation to include an Insimulation just yet.

  • Yunus Yakoub (Islam)

    Thanks for this piece. My in-world not for profit consultancy has some webpages devoted to it on my website, to give you an idea of the scope of religions on Second Life:

    In Peace

  • Booperkit

    - a quote something like ‘Where two or three gather in my name’ feels like it applies here. People gather together in the name of God. Maybe thet cannot physically attend a ‘church’ gathering. Maybe they do not find one with people with whom they are comfortable. Maybe they are in an environment which in some way prohibits them from gathering. Maybe they were found by God in a virtual world where they were not found in the ‘real world’ Whatever the reason, they are ‘gathering’ in the name of God and surely that is better than not gathering in the name of God (I use the name God flexibly to mean the God of any religion.)

    -about the anonymity – I wonder? in my experience in SL (mostly on my own, building) I have a small but persistent number of people I have continued to be ‘friends’ with over the last two years. There is little anonymity between us anymore. We email in RL, communicate through myspace, Skype, telephone, even sometimes meet up. I think that may be the case in many of these ‘churches’, for many of the people involved.

    I am not religious at all, I used to be. I renounced my religion (born again Christian / baptist) due to the corruption & piety I perceived. Would I attend a virtual church? maybe. Why? so I could listen in private yet commune with others at the same time. My only reason for being there would be myself and God. Not all the other reasons why people often (not always) go to church. Quite a unique experience I would think.

    I think I’ll maybe go find one and see how it feels. Or maybe I don’t need to.

    -of course God exists in cyberspace, that was a funny question, it’s not really space, its right here in electric signals and packets of data all around us, and She exists here everywhere.

  • Adam Greenwood

    Come to think of it, sacraments are sometimes portrayed in film and I presume its not a real priest that’s doing them, and this has never bothered me.

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  • Maureen

    I wouldn’t have any problem with liturgical churches having discussion groups and fellowship in cyberspace. (Heck, I’ve been a member of St. Blog’s for a long time.)

    But what is happening in a liturgy is something done with physical presence and physical objects. You just can’t do sacraments over the airwaves or over wires any more than in a letter, and that’s been established (as a Catholic magisterial principle) since the earliest days of mass communication. Blessings, yes. Sacraments, no.

    So yeah, if you’re not dealing with sacraments but just with feelings and ideas, I don’t see any problem. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But I suspect except in the case of real shut-ins (and even for them), there will be a great longing to meet people and worship God together in person. No matter how good the graphics and sound get, it’s just not the same.

    Which is why I’ve never been in a group of folks who know each other at all well by computer that didn’t jump at the chance to have meetings and conventions in person. Which is why, when something bad or good happens, everyone always wishes they lived closer. Which is why private emails and home phone numbers get revealed, and weddings happen. Which is why, in extreme cases, you even find people moving to other towns or be recruited to other companies to be closer to more of their online friends, or making grand plans about building housing developments (whether or not they work out).

  • Alexei


    Remember the marriage scene in Deer Hunter? That was performed by a real priest! I met him at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in the Poconos. Nice guy.

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