Archive for October 5, 2009

The Sacred and the Virtual: Religion in Multi-User Reality

Article Summary for 9.05.09 (COMMUNITY)

This article starts off with an abstract (about what I will be discussing). First, the authors have an introduction; they discuss virtual reality (VR) 3-D worlds on the web that have text boxes that let you talk to other people who are also online at that same time. You are an avatar – basically a 3-D person like the characters that you make on Wii that can move around and interact with each other (through the text boxes). If you would like, there is a website of the Contact Consortium,, which the article says has several different images of  the avatars and their different virtual world systems.

The authors talk in this piece about how religion is expressed through these multi-user virtual worlds that are mainly for socializing. They go on to mention that “the nature and structure of communications have profound social and cultural effects” (p 2). The three authors then talk about the E-Church world (the name has been changed for privacy reasons), which has prayer meetings in a church in one of these 3-D worlds. While there is no physical presence of a community, “graphics, video and sound open up a range of ritual possibilities that may have profound consequences for the symbolic expression of religiousity” (p 2). “Second Life” (which was not in my article, but I wanted to find an example) is one of those VR 3-D worlds that is mainly for socializing, but also has many religious places and things that you can take place in, such as prayer meetings in a church. I looked on the web, and found a video of an avatar touring the many places of worship in the VR world:

The E-Church was one of the first instances in the online 3-D virtual worlds that were directed towards religion/a religious community. The major variation between the E-Church and other more socially oriented VR worlds is the structure – the E-Church is more formal and the other worlds are looser in the way they work. Otherwise, the architecture is the same quality; the E-Church world has several buildings with a suburbia type of landscape, along with a church and some crosses with prayers and announcements. The formal part of the E-Church is (a) that the service is at a certain time on (b) a certain day of the week. Also, (c) the conversations that the avatars have are more restricted to a certain topic (a religious topic) than just a plain social 3-D virtual world and (d) the conversations are held in the same confined setting of the church. Then there is the tightly structured prayer meeting and how it works, which is easily compared to going to a ‘regular’ church.  There is a priest, or one or two leaders who lead the meeting (which is structured like in real life) along with the other participants – known as speakers in this article. Thus, there is a hierarchy taking place, which is another comparison with going to a ‘real’ church meeting.

The E-Church is a more “serious” (p 5) type of community, and because of this, their level of closeness sets them off from other virtual worlds. The E-Church has strength in a common subject that is discussed through regular attendees. However, because of the subject, the church’s weakness is that the followers of the E-Church only know limited things about each other, such as their religious theories, which can make a community less cohesive.

Even though the E-Church is considered ‘more formal’ in their online world, in ‘real life’ the church would be considered less formal. For instance, the E-Church prayer meetings tend to be more open and interactive, and members usually come from/have different traditions. Also, leaders in the E-Church can be women, which priests in ‘real life’ cannot be. What the leader(s) in the E-Church preach, however, often have to do with the group’s emotional commitment; the leader(s) power comes from what he or she speaks of out loud, which seems to have a pattern of religious language and reflects on the bible or ancient creeds. The article goes very in-depth on what the language is that is used and how it is applied. Here is a video of part of a prayer meeting, and the language that is used (again, I used a clip from “Second Life”):

In the E-Church, some of the practices of a conventional church may become different and changed because of the technological advancement. The authors note weaknesses such as these and others: “verbal exchanges become shorter, emotional solidarity with co-participants is weaker, and there is less orderliness to the prayer meetings” (p 11). But the article also states how being technologically advanced has gains: “the virtual church allows for more candid exchanges between participants, it enables a kind of access from all over the world that is not available in conventional services, and it permits experimentation in the use (and prior to that, the design) of the virtual space that is less constrained than a church in the real world” (p 11).

The article also discusses the boundary between public and private and where that line is online. For example, the authors were not sure what text from the E-Church world they were allowed to use in the article – the study of the E-Church and its world had researchers spend time in the E-Church world, so they were able to gain text from conversations, etcetera. However, the authors decided to only quote what was obviously public and available, and tried to disguise the space itself, for privacy reasons. They made this one of their sections in their article.

To end the article, the authors discussed the three elements of which they thought a religious ritual consisted of: “the physical co-presence of people to enhance emotional energy, the ritualization of actions which includes ‘coordinating their gestures and voices’, and a symbolic sacred object that reifies and reinforces the group’s sense of itself” (p12). The authors concurred that the E-Church met all three requirements, although the three elements may not be as explicit and “straightforward” as in a conventional church. Therefore, one may not have the same experiences as a real church, but the E-Church does reproduce the essential features needed.