“Have you ever dreamed of being able to be part of the full hajj experience without leaving your home? Staying where you were and simply gets to the IslamOnline.Net virtual room in Second Life![i]”
That is the opening of the most famous Islamic virtual room in Second Life (SL). It was established in 2003 by Linden Lab. It offers not only a virtual religion space but also a game, romantic, dream destination, and many more. As for the religious space, SL provides a variety of choices from a Cathedral Church, Koinonia Church that claims to be a safe place for LGBT fellow, Mosques, Chapel, Meditation space, philosophical discussion, Ganesa temple, to Unitarian Universalism discussion and spiritual community spaces. With the tagline “Your world, your imagination” SL has more than 800.000 active monthly users as per 2017’s record. Moreover, SL reported a 60 percent increase in new registrations and a 10 percent increase in the number of returning users in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic[ii].
Online Religions in Second Life (SL)
Although SL offered more than 30 religion spaces, some are exclusively available only in SL, for example, the IslamOnline.Net, The Buddha Center, and Pastor D.J. Soto VR Church. Those spiritual spaces promise the sense of the real-life, in the virtual world.
• The virtual hajj from IslamOnline.Net and the “real” Chebi Mosque
SL has been referred to as space where the entire spectrum of Muslim believers, from lax to highly conservative, exist and mingle[iii]. One of the most "real" virtual mosques in second life is Chebi Mosque that provides headscarves at the main entrance for females and requested the avatars to remove their avatar shoe[iv]. Similar to Chebi Mosque, IslamOnline.Net also applies some rules that keep the virtual space sacred. For example, the visitor can experience the 'touch' of the Hajj rituals through clicking an action ball, the avatar can proceed along the Masjid al-Haram, circumambulating the Kaaba and kissing the black stone, as well as the prayer and du'a rituals in clicks away. However, the click surely couldn't replace the real-life hajj ritual. But IslamOnline.Net claimed that at least it may educate people of the ritual of hajj or may become an excellent place for people who never have the opportunity to visit the real sacred site in real life.
• The Buddha Center
Founded in 2008, The Buddha Center provides a community and non-profit organization based where teachers and facilitators share the teaching to more than 2,500 participants (based on the data from 2011)[v]. The Buddha Center does not focus on one or particular schools of Buddhism but is claimed to be universal Buddhism teaching. According to the founder, the virtual space highlighted some artifacts and objects associated with certain Buddhism schools or cultures, such as the garden and tea ceremony associated with Zen Buddhism, the wheels, and mandalas that adopt from Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Other “facilities” include temples, tea houses, shops, deer garden, library, yoga, and tai-chi areas also available, and the user can teleport from one virtual space to another[vi].
• Pastor D.J. Soto VR Church
Pastor D.J Soto founded his VR church in 2016[vii]. Interestingly, his sermons and services attract believers and also atheists. Through Second Life (SL), the VR Church becomes a space that people can enter from their own homes without the judgment[viii]Moreover, the Church also draws people who are unable to attend Church because of illness. To cater to the need for mobility problems, the VR Church also has the virtual baptism in Pastor Soto's virtual pool. Most importantly, it has the mission to attract more millennials who are not interested in real-life Sunday service and tend to be biblically illiterate. Thus, the concept of playfulness in the virtual Church, makes the usual Sunday service no longer a dull task, but like a game that can be enjoyed, Pastor Soto argues that it could lead to better engagement. [ix].
In a Seeking of a Safer Spiritual Place?
Although most people become familiar or even first encountered with the online religious services during the pandemic to avoid mass gathering, online spiritual practice is not a new phenomenon. At least since the 1990s, people from traditional and nontraditional religions experimented with creating new religious resources online, shortly after the idea of bringing spiritual practices online, TIME magazine published a special issue in 1996 on religion online focusing on religious resources and websites.[x] Fast forward, in the early 2000s, when people not only could “move” their “real” and offline religious experience to the digital place, people began to have more flexibility and choices, without boundaries to in and out a virtual religious spare. Even farther, through the “real” experience brought by the VR, enabling the shift of religion online to online religion. Religion online is when the information is presented and controlled by traditional offline religious organizations or leaders.
One of the examples of religion online is when Notre-Dame Church in Paris had a Good Friday service online, live from the Cathedral, due to the nationwide French lockdown. On the other hand, online religion refers to religious innovations and collaboration fully through the online environment, the virtual religious space not necessarily to have and traditional offline organizations.[xi]The IslamOnline.Net that we discuss in the beginning is one of the examples of online religion, powered by SL.
Interestingly as people can be connected without being judged, a discussion that is not exclusively attended by people in the same group, for example, may become one of the critical reasons why people adore the spiritual experience in SL. Group discussions on Islamic topics tended to attract individuals of various religious backgrounds through the avatar presentation. Therefore, digital performance plays an important role both in controlling users to obey some cultural aspects to help the virtual space culturally and ritually real. On the other hand, it is also an inclusive space when people from various backgrounds (presented through an avatar) may hear or be involved in some discussion that may be exclusive in real life.
[ii]Kariuki, David. (2020). Pandemic spurs Second Life usage, book club, lower non-profit prices. HypergridBusiness.com. (online). Accessed on: May 10th 2020. Available at: https://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2020/04/second-life-sees-increase-in-users-during-coronavirus-pandemic/
[iii] Derrickson, Krystina. (2020). Second Life and The Sacred: Islamic Space in a Virtual World. Digital Islam.
[v] Connelly, Louise. (2010). Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice. Heidelberg Journal of Religious on the Internet.
[vii] InsightsMagazine. (2019). Virtual Reality, A.I and The Church. Insights.uca.org.au. (online) Accessed on May 11th 2020. Available at: https://www.insights.uca.org.au/virtual-reality-a-i-and-the-church/
[x] Lyden, J., & Mazur, E. M. (2015). The Routledge companion to religion and popular culture. Routledge: New York.
[xi] Helland, C. (2000). Religion online, online religion and virtual communities. In J. Hadden & D. Cowan, Religion on the internet: Research prospects and promises. Elsevier Science: London UK