Finding Religion in Second Life's Virtual Universe

By Shona Crabtree
Religion News Service
Saturday, June 16, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- In Second Life, the online virtual universe that is attracting 3.7 million users, you can light virtual candles for Shabbat, teleport to a Buddhist temple or consult the oracle for some divine guidance.

Second Life is a three-dimensional, online game produced by San Francisco-based Linden Lab in which participants create a virtual world, buy and sell land and products and interact in all the usual ways.

Now religion has a growing presence there, too, users say, and religious diversity and participation have skyrocketed since last June, when basic membership to Second Life became free.

And just like in real-life churches, mosques and synagogues, there is diversity, debate, schism and, yes, more than a few holier-than-thou types. With some real-life churches taking notice, it's not just for computer geeks, either.

It all starts when users create an online 3-D persona, known as an avatar, taken from the Sanskrit word for the incarnation of a Hindu deity. The game's 3.7 million users control their 6.5 million avatars with their keyboards and communicate with one another via instant message.

Tom Boellstorff, professor of anthropology at University of California-Irvine, says that contrary to what one might expect in a virtual world, Second Life adheres closely to real life.

"The surprising thing is when it's not surprising," said Boellstorff, author of the upcoming "Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human."

Noreen Herzfeld, professor of theology and computer science at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn., says Second Life reflects what she calls the "external face" of religion -- community, identity, codes and creeds, ritual and practice.

Beth Brown, a 33-year-old Orthodox Jewish artist from Dallas, says she didn't intend to start a community when she built the first virtual synagogue, Second Life Synagogue-Temple Beit Israel, in September.

"When it came to be, it shed a light on the lack of Jewish community," she said. Within an hour of its creation, two avatars were there, and now the virtual synagogue has more than 200 members.

"Once people started coming, I felt deep down inside that this was an obligation to the Jewish people around the world," she said. "This is the most emotional thing I've ever done in my life."

For some people, Second Life is their only chance to participate in religious rituals. Recently, Brown started lighting virtual Shabbat candles on Friday nights. Her mother, who lives in New York, attends online.

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