I recently graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon with a BA, and my senior thesis was a study of the Campivallensis Catholic Meditation Center in Second Life – a place with which I am sure many of you are familiar. There have not been very many studies of religion in virtual reality yet, and almost none have been completed – so the goal of my project was to explore possible research methods as I tried to understand how virtual religion might someday integrate with offline religious practice.
Like Moz, who wrote a blog post earlier, I began my study by spending time with the denizens of Campivallensis – attending Bible study, interviewing them and others, and holding a couple of group discussions. Then, I reached out to the Catholic church, examining current theology and talking with Catholic theologians to try and understand what the Church’s position on virtual reality might become. Using what I learned, I came up with four aspects of Campivallensis’ practice that might challenge people who are used to an offline paradigm: (1) Great awareness of the physical versus the virtual, and the importance of each; (2) The concept that even if a person has multiple avatars, all those avatars are likely to be equally religious; (3) A focus on individual ideas and interpretations; and (4) The existence of communities grouped solely by interests.
I think that these four aspects probably apply to other SL religious groups’ practices too, especially other Christian groups – so it’s worth thinking about them in the context of Anglican practice on Second Life. Each aspect might pose a challenge to typical offline practices – but a challenge is not necessarily a bad thing.
I concluded that one way the Church might decide to approach the problem of virtual worship is through establishing “base churches,” that is, churches run by laity but infrequently visited by clergy. The base church model illustrates how the Catholic church could take advantage of Second Life’s strengths without abandoning the importance of the sacraments or the importance of the priesthood. Perhaps deacons could be trained to lead these virtual base church communities, ensuring that the genuine views of the Catholic church are expressed therein. With properly trained leaders, it would be easy for the Church to encourage attendees of virtual services to become involved in their local parishes. Furthermore, the leaders could help temper the eﬀects of virtual reality, guiding Second Life worshipers towards orthodoxy. They could possibly even create converts as people stumble upon their communities. This solution might be worth thinking about not only for the Catholic church, but for other religious groups as well.
Throughout the writing process, I tried to take into account the Campivallensians’ own ideas, beliefs, and feelings about what they were doing. I’m not just interested in what they had, and have, to say, though: I would also like to hear from other people practicing religion in virtual reality. I’d love to correspond with anyone who has something to say about the virtual practice of religion email: firstname.lastname@example.org both for my own benefit and for the benefit of my next paper!
To check out the full research click here.