Faithful build a Second Life for religion online

Larry Transue, pastor of the site’s non-denominational Northbound Community Church, sees Second Life as a mission field.

Transue, 43, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., who works in the biotech industry, is involved in evangelism and outreach at his real-world Northbound Church, and he replicated it online to “practice what I preach no matter where I am.”

Second Life, like the physical world, is riddled by “sin in thought, word and deed. People think what they do in a virtual world is OK, because it’s not real. But it is real, because your thoughts are real. Who you truly are will shine through eventually,” says Transue.

George Byrd, 37, a Columbus, Ohio, real estate broker, built the lavishly landscaped First Unitarian Universalist Church of Second Life, and organized weekly services that now draw more than 40 people.

To Byrd, virtual services here are as authentic as those in the physical-world church he attends in Columbus. “The spiritual connection is in your brain and in your soul. It’s the same either way,” says Byrd.

Not exactly, says Francis Maier, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, who has written for Catholic magazines about the Internet, video gaming and online role-playing games.

He says Second Life spirituality, however inventive, perpetuates the blasphemous idea that people control creation.

“We aren’t the ones in charge. God is in charge. I’m Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church teaches the truth. It’s not just going through mumbo-jumbo and dressing up,” says Maier. True religion means submitting to “beliefs and practices revealed by God and passed down by generations of believers. You can’t phone that in.”

Second Life imports much of the idealism — and the ugliness — human nature can conjure. There are fundraisers for philanthropy, intellectual forums, support groups and affinity clubs — as well as casinos, flashing billboards of rampant commercialism and porn, porn, porn.

The synagogue and mosques have been sabotaged by “griefers” — slang for aggressive troublemakers who script architectural destruction, text abusive language or send naked avatars streaking through church services.

Second Life might have been intended as a new-and-improved society but “the new Arcadia is so much more like real life now, not a little cyber Utopia,” says Martin Hiddink, 42, of Barcelona.

A Catholic, he created a version of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, with its arches and domes. “I wanted something beautiful, light-filled and emotional.” After it was damaged by griefers, he rebuilt it and donated it to the Islamic Society. He also built a Gothic cathedral with a rose window, bell tower, mosaics and an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “Every time you consider something beautiful or you are touched by love or beauty, you see God,” he says.

Indeed, says Internet expert Julian Dibbell, “virtual reality is in some ways an essentially spiritual experience.” Dibbell, of South Bend, Ind., has written about online society for 15 years and served as a consultant to Linden Labs.

“You see signs and signals but you give them meaning. Even the rites of the Catholic Church are an interaction of signs, tokens and material symbols of faith, given their meaning by what is happening in the mind and soul of the believer.”

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Apr. 1, 2004

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