Virtual reality a new frontier for religions

Virtual reality technology is going to radically change what it means to attend church in the next fifty years — and maybe much sooner.

Basilica of Assisi in Second Life. (Image courtesy Giulio Prisco.)

Basilica of Assisi in Second Life. (Image courtesy Giulio Prisco.)

While the technology is still in its infancy, however, virtual churches are limited experiments rather than significant outreach efforts – but this will change.

“Numerous persons and groups have developed churches in the virtual world, mainly Second Life,” Rev. Christopher Benek told Hypergrid Business. “I would venture to say that most have been less concerned with true evangelical success and more focused on what their technological exploratory experience may yield in the future.”

Rev. Benek serves at the largest church in the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, the First Prebyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale, as the Associate Pastor of Family Ministries and Mission. He is also enrolled at Durham University in England where he is working on a Ph.D. in theology focusing on the intersection of technological futurism and eschatology.

For most traditional churches, virtual reality isn’t even on the horizon, he said.

“But for those of us who tend to be more inclined to the developments of human technology, we are keeping abreast of the important advancements that are occurring in the virtual world,” he said. “Personally, I think that as technology like Oculus Rift becomes more developed, immersive, and available to the general public, we may soon be able to easily develop virtual worship and Christian education experiences. This would be a great asset to the church universal, as it will enable the infirm, homebound, and potentially even the poor to participate from afar regardless of their personal mobility or lack of affordable transportation.”

There are a number of other ways in which churches can benefit by removing physical obstacles to worship, he added.

“Congregants and pastors will be able to visit and pray with greater numbers of people more often,” he said.”Small groups will be able to meet more frequently, even at great distances. The way that we currently do care and discipleship will radically change as will our expectations as to what it means to participate in those aspects of the church.”

And it’s not just physical barriers that virtual reality may help overcome, he added. Linguistic barriers will start coming down, as well.

“Virtual reality will allow church services to be seamlessly translated creating a more unified church body,” he said.

A few months ago Rev. Benek discussed his ideas in more detail at a Second Life workshop that I organized to discuss the coming metaverse renaissance. You can watch the video below — his talk starts at the 1 hour 30 minutes mark.

High Fidelity founder Philip Rosedale also appears in the video — and his presence brings in too large an audience and causes the region to crash. That is precisely one of the problems that next-generation metaverse platforms like High Fidelity will solve, Rosedale said. Soon, it will be possible for thousands of simultaneous participants to congregate in virtual reality, with low latency and none of the lag problems that today’s Second Life users are familiar with. That will enable the creation of massively popular online megachurches.

LifeChurch.tv is a large online church that has pioneered e-religion, initially with televised services broadcast from a central location to a network of secondary campuses and an online community. They established a presence in Second Life in 2007, but their foray into the metaverse hasn’t been very successful because they treated their Second Life campus as just another physical campus. They were not creative enough and didn’t design new experiences tailored to the new possibilities of virtual reality.

The story of LifeChurch.tv in Second Life is told in the book “Virtually Sacred – Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life,” published in 2014 by Oxford University Press, by Robert Geraci, Professor in the Department of Religion at Manhattan College. Geraci argues that virtual worlds can play the role of sacred spaces, places of power where believers can engage in compelling forms of ritual behavior and form online religious communities.

The book reports that many groups in mainstream religions, including Christianity and Islam, established a virtual presence in Second Life, often bypassing institutional channels and creating grassroots communities instead. These virtual communities are often independent of traditional religious hierarchies, and much more open to inter-faith dialogue and alternative lifestyles.

Most of the metaverse churches described by Geraci have disappeared since the publication of the book, but new churches appear all the time. At this moment, the most active metaverse church is the First United Church of Christ.

The Church of the Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormon Church, has a long tradition of esoteric ritual, including re-enactments of creation and salvation mythology. Historically, those re-enactments were performed live by actors. Presently, the re-enactments are generally presented as video recordings in temples to facilitate consistency across broad distribution. Recently, the LDS has developed several new versions of the video recordings, which emphasize and nuance the mythology re-enactments in various ways, renewing many members’ interest.

“I think the Church, as well as other religious organizations, would benefit from proceeding further in this direction of virtualizing and even open-sourcing their rituals,” Lincoln Cannon, President of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, told Hypergrid Business. “Imagine authenticating to an neurally immersive online temple in which you participate in the mythological re-enactment, adapting the imagery to your personal spiritual needs, perhaps in concert with or according to the guidance of spiritual friends or authorities. I don’t have a particular platform to recommend, but I do feel a great deal of inspiration from this vision of customizing and revitalizing ritual to such extent that re-enactment transcends itself and actually becomes reification: the expression of salvation mythology itself becomes transfiguration to godhood, and the expression of creation mythology itself instantiates new worlds.”

The chapter “Sacred Second Lives” of Virtually Sacred is dedicated to new, emerging religious movements in Second Life. Perhaps more than established religions, new “native” metaverse religions will be able to take full advantage of the endless possibilities of virtual reality and offer a spiritual home to multitudes of people worldwide, especially those who search spiritual meaning independently, outside the legacy framework of mainstream religions. I invited Geraci to present the book and discuss new Metaverse religions in Second Life. You can watch the video here.

One of Geraci’s central points is that shared virtual spaces provide a sense of place, direction, and orientation, which has profound implications for religious practice. Contrary to flat web pages, in virtual reality we can build holy places, cathedrals, and sacred objects, which act as a “physical” scaffolding to hold virtual religious communities together. While vision and hearing are powerfully engaged in today’s consumer 3D virtual realities, the possibility to touch objects in virtual spaces “in which the brain regions associated with grasping can potentially respond as though to conventional reality,” isn’t available yet to most consumers, but that will change with new interface devices.

“I’m deeply curious about how an innovative church might make use of augmented reality in its services or festivals,” Geraci told Hypergrid Business. “It seems to me that there could be beautiful and artistic uses of something akin to the new Microsoft HoloLens. That kind of technology would actually allow people the benefits of physical community and virtual creativity. Like online churches, it could even be used to provide people with online connectivity to distant communities. Most likely, an initial introduction of such technologies would have a lot of awful, kitschy stuff happening; but there might be some real beauty and novel forms of storytelling included. In terms of a virtual-only church, I’d be curious as to what could be accomplished using something like the Oculus Rift. I have not, myself, used the rift, though; so i don’t know what limitations the platform might have.”

We can imagine powerful, inspiring religious services in virtual cathedrals, or in new places of worship – how about a virtual Stonehenge on the Moon – gathering huge numbers of people from all over the planet. The new virtual believers will listen to old and new words of wisdom, make friends, exchange mutual spiritual reinforcements, and contribute to their virtual communities.

Of course everything – even religion – runs on money, and how to finance virtual churches will need to be addressed. Many religious communities are self-sustaining through donations, and that financing model will still be viable. Virtual worlds have built-in payment methods, from the Linden dollar to the Bitcoin-like crypto-currency planned for High Fidelity, so that collecting donations in virtual reality will be even easier than in physical churches.

Besides recovery of survival expenses, it’s well known that religion can be a profitable business as well. Other forms of financing include membership fees, merchandising, pay-only events and virtual adventures, donations from wealthy patrons, and discreet sponsorship – or even blatant in-service advertising if the virtual parishioners are willing to put up with that.

Disclosure: the author is involved in a virtual church startup.

giulio@gmail.com'

Giulio Prisco

Giulio Prisco is a virtual reality consultant and a writer. He writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and futurology. He is especially interested in the convergence of religion and science, and new religions suitable for our times.

  • It is interesting to note that the very first virtual scene I ever saw was a 3D mandala made by buddhist monks, This was around 1997 (VRML was still a novelty). To be noted that the tradition of 3D mandalas is centuries old, although they were models.

    Why could monks be interested into showing spiritual worlds to everybody? Because when people see them, they have the experience of the immersion into such a world, and they receive the “benediction” of them. Since, I work for offering the experience of the immersion in a world of beauty. I started in VRML, when in SL, now in Inworldz, and maybe in other places in the future.

    There were in SL several established religious communities of all the main religions and new religions (and unfortunately of some cults too). Some were celebrating services, others offered spiritual teachings. Some roleplay druidic or pagan rituals, although the difference between roleplaying a ritual and making it for real is very thin. Some do not want religion, although they still gather informally for praying for sick people.

    One of the best advantages of virtual life, meeting like-minded people, is very useful for religions. And anyway they appear in all the communities, so that their presence is a sig of a good lively community.

    “Wherever two or more are logged in in my name, I shall be with them”.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Re “there were in SL several established religious communities of all the main religions and new religions” – but most of them are not active anymore, and religious communities in SL have been usually short-lived. I would like to hear opinions about why it is so, what went wrong, and what are the lessons that must be learned from previous (mostly) failed initiatives.

      • There has been several long lived communities in SL, like the Milarepa trust, a buddhist centre, the Chebi mosque, and the Köln Dom. I don’t know if they are still active today, because I seldom go in SL. Most probably they follow the general decline of SL.

        I think that most reasons why they stopped are not specific to religions: supporting any activity in the virtual entails an active team of several people with enough time to keep working for it, and a stable source of funding, both able to stay up for many years without depending on a single person. Also, people need to be encouraged: drama, lack of attendance, or world mismanagement, end to wear up the most determined.

        The most successful or long-lasting groups however were the ones with an official rl support, like the Köln Dom, supported by the real clergy in Cologne. i think that if SL had remained a good place, such groups would be still growing today (or replaced by others)

        Also, before about 2008, SL had a good event calendar, sorted by categories. This allowed to filter out the massive amount of clubs events, and know about the interesting events. This is how I was able to attract attendance of difficult topics such as non-Aristotelian logic or epistemology. But when this system was suppressed, my attendance dropped to nearby zero. So a good event listing by categories is important: many people want to attend something when they come in world, and for this they look for ongoing events, rather than entering groups and waiting for events. It is interesting that we have a listing of ongoing events in the Hypergrid Business and in the Inworldz login page, but they are not sorted by categories, making them very impractical.

        About religion-specific motives, my own experience is interesting: I invited real monks or nuns into the virtual. They refused, thinking that they would waste a lot of time. Most of them already have a loaded schedule, and they will not undertake any other activity, unless they think at it by themselves.

        But I think that another reason is the repute of virtual worlds of being about sex, or porn, in the eyes of the general public who knows them only through the media. This is a serious problem, and many religious or spiritual people will think twice before inviting people in there. Especially if they see 18+ as soon of the account creation page…

        • Giulio Prisco

          Re “supporting any activity in the virtual entails an active team of several
          people with enough time to keep working for it, and a stable source of
          funding, both able to stay up for many years without depending on a
          single person.”

          Very true. I used to run VR events and can confirm that doing it well and professionally is a demanding full-time job for a team. If there is no real money even the most enthusiastic volunteers will burn out sooner or later, or be forced to give up and focus on other things that can put food on the table.

          But that’s a common problem for any small business owner. For us, another problem is that we have to wrestle with technologies that are super cool but not mature yet, and not user-friendly enough. I hope next-gen VR platforms with much better user interfaces will provide solutions.

          • There are several recent discussions on the inworldz forum on appropriating newer technologies and how to attract more people in virtual worlds. One of the conclusions is that we need more ready-made elements, like for instance ready-made outfits, homes, etc. In this way people with low or no technical skills can get at once a nice appearance and a nice living place. Only later they need to acquire some knowledge to adapt it to their personnal needs.

            For instance I see a fairy palace by Julia Hathor used in many places in inworldz. Why? Because it is a technically very good work, with details and seamless build (not “primmy” like in the beginning of SL). It also has numerous nooks and crannies, allowing the owner to appropriate it for many different uses. It could even do a temple as well.

          • Geir Nøklebye

            I second more ready-made elements, but the willingness to pay for the development of it is quite low, and has even become lower in SL. There are of course always people who want to supply free items because they love making them or want to showcase their skill, or because they fundamentally believe in sharing and free items. However, almost always are developed economies able to produce better goods, events, and offerings faster than a non-profit environment does.

            I think it is more an issue of economy than technology. There is tons of tech out there that could be employed, but it requires REAL effort to put it to use, and it is close to impossible to achieve that through voluntary work when you compete with the attention of and talent in environments where there is significant money involved (mobile mainly).

          • Rene

            There is plenty of tech out there to do the things needed for a quality experience. There are next-gen platforms soon to arrive that will bring even better quality experiences. But, it all comes to funding. And, the issues of funding in the virtual is pretty much the same as the funding issues of real churches or any recurring spiritual endeavor gatherings – there is rarely enough to keep things going. This is not an issue of tech, it is an issue of capital. It takes people to do the activities and they need compensation irrespective of where it happens. So yes, I agree that the prime issue is economic.

          • Geir Nøklebye

            I ran a 24/7 operation in SL for almost two years with some 2000 participants, but at the end of the day it was close to impossible to “produce it” with the quality people expected with only a non paid team. Even though participation required payment, it was never more than supporting the sim, so everything ended up with LL …

        • Good point about having an events system with categories — I’m about to hire someone part-time to manage the events calendar on Hyperica (thanks to our advertisers! Yeay, advertisers!) and I’ll have to switch the calendar app we use.

          I’ll add categories to the list of must-have features.

          As well as: Grid name, title, time & date, hypergrid address, photo, recurring dates, link to website with original event listing

          And a matching in-world script that will pull in upcoming events and display them in-world, with active hypergrid links, with the ability to just show events in particular categories or grids.

  • Caoilin Galthie

    Good article, with excellent comments by Yichard and Giulio about the challenges of sustaining a religious group in Second Life and Open Sim. I have led a Christian group, Friends of St. Matthew’s, in Second Life, where we have had a sustained location since 2007 and continuous church services since 2010, so hopefully my insights are useful to the discussion.

    One dynamic that I have seen over and over is that many groups and locations are started and led by one person. When that person leaves SL the group’s activities shut down, oftentimes resulting in yet another empty location that hangs around until either the region closes or the person paying the parcel rent stops paying for it. Another dynamic I have seen is that the one person leading the group and activities takes on too much, biting off more than they can chew, and when real life gets busy they back out of what they are doing in SL.

    The groups that I have seen succeed are the ones that either stick to what they are able to support or build up a team to run the group.

    In my groups case, we only have two short services a week, because that is what I can sustain over the long term, with other key group members contributing at a level they also can sustain. I would love to do more but I know that I would not be able to sustain it if I tried to take on more. We also have a small parcel that is paid for by a donation thermometer so we don’t have to worry about meeting the $300 tier each month for an entire region. The key has been to only do what we as a group can sustain.

    In contrast, another group I am a member of, the First UCC and Conference Center that is mentioned in the article, is growing and expanding because the leader of the group has worked hard to build a team and funding stream that can sustain a fuller schedule of services and activities. He also has the gifts of organization and team building that I know I do not have.

    However this is not unique to religious or spiritual groups. The same goes for any community in SL or Open Sim, that it takes being intentional about how to create, build, and sustain a community. I think one of the dangers of virtual worlds is that because it is so easy to start something, many of us do not put much thought into how to build up and support a community over the long term.

    Regarding attracting people, the reputation of SL as a sex saturated place is hard to overcome. My focus is on creating a community and space for the people who are already in SL rather than on drawing new people into virtual worlds.

    http://stmatthewsbythesea.blogspot.com/
    http://www.firstuccsl.org/

    • “Regarding attracting people, the reputation of SL as a sex saturated place is hard to overcome”

      Of course, since virtual worlds are places of freedom, the media don’t like them. Do the media say tennis is about sex because of one streaker? No. But It had been enough of one paedophiliac pick for calling all SL users paedophiles.

      • This is why nobody should rely on the media for their marketing. The media are interested in the new, the unusual, and the scary. (There’s a checklist that journalists use to determine news value — other things on the checklist include celebrities, money, proximity, and blood.)

        I think this was Second Life’s biggest mistake. They relied on the media to set their marketing message. Compare this with AOL, which saturated the public with its own branding — even as the media was focusing on AOL’s shady side, the company was pushing, and pushing heavily, its own positive message. And it worked. Everyone went online. They didn’t stay with AOL, necessarily, but they went online, even though you had to use a dial-up modem and every minute cost you money.

        I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong in what the media is doing.

        If you’re standing in the middle of the field and there are pretty flowers in all directions, and a tiger coming from one direction, you’d WANT the media to focus on the tiger, instead of on all the pretty flowers. You can stop and smell the flowers any time. But you really really want to know about the tiger right away.

        You might argue that there’s only ONE tiger, and MILLIONS of pretty flowers, and the media is totally focusing on the wrong thing. But you’d have a really hard time making that argument. That’s where the marketing comes in. You spend enough money promoting the flowers, and people might decide that the tiger’s worth the risk, or that there’s enough people in the field that the tiger will go after someone else first, or that the authorities will show up and deal with the tiger.

        Anyway, back to the media and the pedophiles. The flip side of the media attention thing is that after a risk has been around for a while, the media will start to ignore it. So it will seem like we hear nothing but pedophiles on the news for months on end … and suddenly the media will go on to the next thing. The reason is that the public has pretty much learned everything it can about this particular threat, evaluated the risk, decided how to deal with it, and moved on.

        This is why we don’t hear news stories every night about car accidents, no matter how horrible they are (unless there’s a really massive-pileup or its related to another news story, such as a storm). Because we all know that driving a car is risky, we know what makes it most dangerous, we have organized our lives to deal with this risk — seatbelts, staying home when roads are icy, etc… — and have moved on. By comparison, Ebola, say, killed a lot fewer people last year than car accidents but it was a new, and unknown threat. We wanted to know more about it, so we could figure out how much of a threat it was.

        Anyway, that’s why the media isn’t covering pedophiles in Second Life anymore.

        Which leaves the media… nothing to say about Second Life at all.

  • Bryan French

    The headline should say “Churches” and not “Religions”. The article was about one religion.

    • of course the author has one religion, but the title says “religions” plural.

      A thing I like in the virtual is that there is much more oecumenism than anywhere else. I even saw several places hosting temples and churches of several different religions.

      • Bryan French

        Writers are able to write about other religions other than their own. The article was entirely about Christianity in the virtual world and excluded everyone else. The article was actually about Churches and Christianity, not about religions.

        • lmpierce

          The article makes reference to Islam and Stonehenge (a site at times considered a place of religious significance distinctly not Christian). The examples were illustrative of active communities the author could use as examples, not as exhaustive or exclusionary exemplars. In his other written work, which he makes reference to, he also writes about new religious forms coming into creation in virtual spaces, and the challenges they face.

          If you have examples of additional religious communities in virtual worlds, this would be the place to make reference to them, which would be informative and complement the main article.

  • Chip Poutine

    Back in 2006 I had an opportunity to attend a service of the First Second Life Church of Elvis, and it was good. The concept of a community focused on something inherently immaterial seemed to translate really well to a virtual environment.

    If you’re interested: http://www.virtualsuburbia.com/2006/10/elvis-has-left-building.html

  • Re-reading the article, I noted one sentence: “there might be some real beauty and novel forms of storytelling included”. Storytelling is precisely one of my main activities in Inworldz, and before in SL. In a more general way I try to build beautiful things, in order to offer the experience of the immersion in a world of beauty.
    This is not just some intellectual art: it is connected to spirituality.
    And spirituality is not just “believing”: it is about consciousness, our consciousness, and all the important things of life which link us to the consciousness of others. It is also about methods to transform our mind, and eradicate all the ill feelings and prejudices. I can speak of this, since I found efficient methods well before being involved in a “religion”.

  • Pam Broviak

    I attended an Anglican church in Second Life for years on Epiphany Island. Although I’m not sure exactly when it was started, I have notecards from there dating back to July of 2008 so the church has been active for several years now. During that time, they have always hosted weekly services and bible studies. It’s a really nice church with very nice members, and the majority of the time the gospel I heard there was of a much higher quality than I was experiencing in my RL church.

  • Alistair

    The first virtual reality Church experience has arrived for Oculus / Samsung Gear VR with an Oculus Rift version to follow: http://www.immersive-gaming.com/2016/09/25/pslams-experience-on-samsung-gear-vr/