Friday, July 27, 2007

Religion in Second Life

Have you heard of Second Life? If not, I suggest you check it out. It is widely regarded as one of the most significant innovations in the online world - one with the potential for far-reaching effects on society.

It's a complete virtual world - fully fitted with time, space, "living" people, laws, money, an economy, and now, religion. Users can create an identity, called an "avatar", and interact with each other in an increasingly "real" way. Economic activity has taken off, with millions of dollars' worth of real money being spent every day. Property on Second Life is now worth real-life cash.

Some months ago the Commission announced it was looking into setting up an embassy in Second Life to provide information to curious users. I'd love to know if the EU is more surreal in Second Life than it is here...

Religion is still very much a minority interest on Second Life. I can think of several possible reasons but I am sure there are more: perhaps the online world attracts technology-minded people who are less likely to be interested in religious "superstition". Or perhaps "real-life" society inflates the appearance of religiosity through rituals such as Sunday churchgoing or Friday prayers at the mosque, and Second Life, as a fresh start, reflects people's beliefs more genuinely.

There are less than 1000 representatives of the major religions officially registered with the religious organisations that have sprung up on Second Life. The largest group is Christian, followed by Muslims, followed by Jews. But the absolute numbers are so small that the difference in size of the groups is hardly significant.

Which makes the fact that the Jesuits are now entering Second Life all the more interesting. Here is an opportunity for religious organisations from real life to test out their appeal to the world's youth in a unique, global environment - in an entirely new culture or civilisation that has no historical baggage to influence the outcome. There are no established churches, no state religions, no cultural or family pressures (yet). In other words, here is an opportunity to test the appeal of religions (paradoxically perhaps) in a more scientific way than has ever been possible before.
But indeed beyond science and perhaps more importantly, from a purely religious point of view, will the religions be able to bring more followers around the world into their respective types of union with the divine? After all, behind every avatar lies a soul potentially in need of spiritual nourishment.

This raises all sorts of questions and possibilities - could we see religiously-motivated or religiously-justified terrorism in Second Life? On the other side of the coin, could it be used to test out strategies and solutions for a wide range of social and religious problems? Imagine dialogue between Muslims and Jews in a world where there is no Temple Mount or Al-Aqsa mosque. Or between Muslim and Christian "Europeans" in a world where neither community has the advantage of political, geographic, economic, or social incumbency.

What about new advertising techniques? New political philosophies? New societal structures? And all these with the potential to spill over into real life. It really will be fascinating to watch. Or participate in...

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