Sunday, January 07, 2007

Give Me That Online Religion

How will we do religion twenty, a hundred years from now? Will buildings still be important? Or, perhaps, will there be e-religion that people practice at home, just as they e-shop rather than going to the mall? It's already here. I've been working on a short video about religion in Second Life, an online user-created-content space.

We ought to look seriously at how online religion has gotten its start in what humans will surely look back on as the most primitive days of the internet. There are more than a million sites of diverse religious affiliation, drawing believers as well as those simply curious. Perhaps this is just the new way of distributing tracts, but online religion is the most pretentious development for the future of religion to come out of the twentieth century and could become the dominant form of religious experience in the next century.

Those familiar with basic traditional religions will find that they have moved onto the Web without much change; perhaps the literal Bible, apocalyptic ones are over-represented, just as they are on TV. There are others in this book that any reader will find strange. Some sites are direct offshoots of IRL (In Real Life) religious practice, like online prayer chains and chat rooms where people can go for a more-or-less directed Sunday school. The site of EvilPeople, Inc., invites people to click on a button in order to sell their souls. (A soul was recently put up for sale on e-Bay.) There are memorials to many dead people; there are 8,000 one scholar named Brasher has counted devoted to Princess Diana alone. There are strange and comic religious sites, including the surrealistic site of the Church of the Subgenius ("The World Ends Tomorrow and You May Die!") or the subversively comic realism of the Landover Baptist Church ("Where the Worthy Worship and the Unsaved Are Not Welcome.")

But much of the religion on the web is suffused with over-the-top humor. There are "Celebrity Altars," devoted to some sort of worship of someone famous, and she gives extensive quotes from the site "Dudes of the Keanic Circle," devoted to finding, among other things, the esoteric meanings of the films of Keanu Reeves. Keanu as Christ-figure is very weird, and so is another site that holds Keanu as the Antichrist, confusingly enough. The Transhumanists are interested in the typical religious goal of eternal life, but intend to do so by uploading their brains onto the `net (undoubtedly Windows is merely withholding this software until their legal problems are worked out). There are many strange and intriguing religions on the net. There are some not so strange, as the cyber-seder, and the woman who was drawn to convert to Judaism because of it.

I am an advocate of watching with curiosity the way religion branches in cyberspace, and its development in the face of commercialization. It's true that those who grow up on the web may find the agrarian and pastoral images of inherited religion less credible than they find futuristic fiction.

No comments: