Virtual reality a new frontier for religions

Virtual reality technology is going to radically change what it means to attend church in the next fifty years — and maybe much sooner.

While the technology is still in its infancy, however, virtual churches are limited experiments rather than significant outreach efforts – but this will change.

“Numerous persons and groups have developed churches in the virtual world, mainly Second Life,” Rev. Christopher Benek told Hypergrid Business. “I would venture to say that most have been less concerned with true evangelical success and more focused on what their technological exploratory experience may yield in the future.”

Rev. Benek serves at the largest church in the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, the First Prebyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale, as the Associate Pastor of Family Ministries and Mission. He is also enrolled at Durham University in England where he is working on a Ph.D. in theology focusing on the intersection of technological futurism and eschatology.

For most traditional churches, virtual reality isn’t even on the horizon, he said.

“But for those of us who tend to be more inclined to the developments of human technology, we are keeping abreast of the important advancements that are occurring in the virtual world,” he said. “Personally, I think that as technology like Oculus Rift becomes more developed, immersive, and available to the general public, we may soon be able to easily develop virtual worship and Christian education experiences. This would be a great asset to the church universal, as it will enable the infirm, homebound, and potentially even the poor to participate from afar regardless of their personal mobility or lack of affordable transportation.”

There are a number of other ways in which churches can benefit by removing physical obstacles to worship, he added.

“Congregants and pastors will be able to visit and pray with greater numbers of people more often,” he said.”Small groups will be able to meet more frequently, even at great distances. The way that we currently do care and discipleship will radically change as will our expectations as to what it means to participate in those aspects of the church.”

….“I think the Church, as well as other religious organizations, would benefit from proceeding further in this direction of virtualizing and even open-sourcing their rituals,” Lincoln Cannon, President of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, told Hypergrid Business. “Imagine authenticating to an neurally immersive online temple in which you participate in the mythological re-enactment, adapting the imagery to your personal spiritual needs, perhaps in concert with or according to the guidance of spiritual friends or authorities. I don’t have a particular platform to recommend, but I do feel a great deal of inspiration from this vision of customizing and revitalizing ritual to such extent that re-enactment transcends itself and actually becomes reification: the expression of salvation mythology itself becomes transfiguration to godhood, and the expression of creation mythology itself instantiates new worlds.”

….The story of LifeChurch.tv in Second Life is told in the book Virtually Sacred – Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life, published in 2014 by Oxford University Press, by Robert Geraci, Professor in the Department of Religion at Manhattan College. Geraci argues that virtual worlds can play the role of sacred spaces, places of power where believers can engage in compelling forms of ritual behavior and form online religious communities.

The book reports that many groups in mainstream religions, including Christianity and Islam, established a virtual presence in Second Life, often bypassing institutional channels and creating grassroots communities instead. These virtual communities are often independent of traditional religious hierarchies, and much more open to inter-faith dialogue and alternative lifestyles….

The chapter “Sacred Second Lives” of Virtually Sacred is dedicated to new, emerging religious movements in Second Life. Perhaps more than established religions, new “native” metaverse religions will be able to take full advantage of the endless possibilities of virtual reality and offer a spiritual home to multitudes of people worldwide, especially those who search spiritual meaning independently, outside the legacy framework of mainstream religions….

Of course everything – even religion – runs on money, and how to finance virtual churches will need to be addressed. Many religious communities are self-sustaining through donations, and that financing model will still be viable. Virtual worlds have built-in payment methods, from the Linden dollar to the Bitcoin-like crypto-currency planned for High Fidelity, so that collecting donations in virtual reality will be even easier than in physical churches.

Besides recovery of survival expenses, it’s well known that religion can be a profitable business as well. Other forms of financing include membership fees, merchandising, pay-only events and virtual adventures, donations from wealthy patrons, and discreet sponsorship – or even blatant in-service advertising if the virtual parishioners are willing to put up with that.

By Giulio Prisco – Hypergrid Business –