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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.

"I can't light Shabbat candles anywhere with my mother but Second Life," she said.

Boellstorff expected -- but hasn't found any evidence -- that Second Life would foster relationships among far-flung members of minority faiths, such as Zoroastrians. But the game does seem to be sparking community among followers of more mainstream faiths.

Yunus Yakoub Islam, who believes he's the only Muslim in his village in England, uses Second Life to interact with more than 200 members of the game's Islamic Society. Islam is writing his dissertation on religion in Second Life and runs Second Faith, an educational resource about religion in Second Life.

Another user, Trey Mu, co-founded Soli Deo Gloria, a Christian fellowship group that has weekly Bible studies and prayer sessions. Second Life enables Christians from around the world to gather at any time of day. In addition, the anonymity allows people to discuss spiritual problems, Mu said, which might not happen as easily in real life.

"If you stop by church at 3 a.m., no one is going to be there," said Mu, who goes by his Second Life name. "We're using Second Life to make the connection among us, but everything that's going on is definitely in real life."

Leaders say the relatively small size of each faith community sparks a kind of internal diversity that might not be seen in real life. The Second Life mosque, for example, brings together Sufi, Salafi, Sunni and Shia Muslims.

"They all talk to each other, which might not be the case in real life, I regret to say," Islam said.

It also allows users to dabble in other faiths. Islam, for example, has attended evangelical Christian worship services in Second Life. "That would be a lot more difficult in real life," he said. "I'd be a lot less comfortable doing it."

Diversity, however, also leads to debate.

In the game's Buddhism Listening and Discussion Group, one of the larger religious communities, with more than 400 members, increasing numbers of Asian Buddhists are challenging predominantly white American converts about their knowledge and practice, says Pepper Laxness, group founder who also goes by his Second Life name.

What's more, a virtual universe is not immune from intolerance. In Second Life, troublemakers are known as "griefers." Religious harassment has ranged from naked avatars sitting on the Koran to a swastika painted on the synagogue.

And much like in real life, religion in cyberspace is prone to interfaith conflicts and internal schisms.

A Second Life user who goes by the name Taras Balderdash founded Avatars of Change, a multifaith group that follows the words of the Great Avatar -- or a supreme being -- by consulting the Avatarian Oracle.

Balderdash recently opened a contentious debate on whether the Islamic faith is tolerant of others; Balderdash resigned because he didn't agree that Muslims should be allowed to join Avatars of Change.

Although Second Life may be rife with religious community, Herzfeld says virtual worlds fail at fostering the "internal face" of religion -- the contemplative, meditative aspect of encountering the divine. Although people can set up their avatar to pray, Herzfeld says she sees cyberspace as more a diversion than a place to find God.

Laxness of the Buddhism Listening and Discussion Group says people ask him whether meditation in Second Life is the same as in real life.

"Are you kidding me?" he said. "I don't know anybody who meditates in front of a computer."

Now that Second Life has a critical mass of residents, some religious institutions are starting to take notice, especially evangelical Christian churches. One example is Oklahoma-based megachurch LifeChurch.tv, which broadcasts its weekly sermon to 12 locations -- 11 to its satellite campuses across the country and one to its virtual church in Second Life.

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