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.
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.