The fabled Island of Temples, Churches and Mosques
Dr. Helen Farley teaching religion in Second Life
By Hans Olav Arnesen
Everyone with a passion for religion, whether they are scholars or students of religion, or merely lay-people with an interest for the subject, would like to explore as many religious sites and places of worship as possible. There´s something about religious architecture, art and the composition of holy places that cannot be understood merely by reading about them. Unfortunately there are many obstacles for the curious. Time, distance, availability, hospitality on behalf of the religious community you would like to visit, etc. What if you could visit them all, Taoist temples, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, without having to leave your own home? Well with the advent of virtual worlds such as Second Life, this is already possible. Multiple faiths have established themselves in this virtual, religious space. Where worshipers gather, scholars follow. Among the first to take the religious importance of Second Life seriously is the University of Queensland. Not only as a place to study, but also as a tool of teaching. A tool that allows student to follow lectures regardless of distance, talk to religious people, and even change their dress or gender to match the objects of their studies.
Dr. Helen Farley at the University of Queensland tells us how she got into using Second Life as a tool for teaching religion at University level.
«A friend rang me up and told me about a documentary that he had watched about Second Life. I was very skeptical and told him that I didn’t need a Second Life because I had trouble enough with my first life! Even so, I was intrigued by the idea. I downloaded the software and created an avatar and loved it from the moment I entered the environment. I could immediately see the possibilities. I was thinking particularly of distance students who report feeling isolated from their instructors and peers. I thought that this would be an ideal environment for distance education.
I then began thinking about using it in my own teaching. I taught world religions and ordinarily, we would send students out to various religious spaces to observe a service. There were a couple of problems with that. Firstly, Brisbane is a predominantly Christian city and so there are very few Hindu temples or Buddhist temples or even Taoist temples. Consequently, students could only be exposed to various Christian denominations in this exercise. I knew that some religious spaces existed in Second Life and so I explored them. In that way I came up with the idea for UQ Religion Bazaar, an island with several religious builds on it.
I applied for a grant from my university to build the island. I was encouraged to apply by my head of school and we were successful (I applied with the head of studies of religion). The university was very happy to let me build the island. For them it was a triumph of marketing! I was interviewed by many radio and tv stations around Australia. The vice chancellor could speak about our project at UQ ceremonies and from that point of view, it was a big success for them (and us).»
How does it feel like to visit virtual religious communities with a body of students, as compared to real-life field trips?
«In Second Life, I have the students become part of the community. They dress in the robes/dress of a participant of the religion and reflect on how it feels. For example, I will have them dress in a burqa and go to a public place in Second Life so that they can experience the sort of discrimination Muslim women attract all the time in non-Muslim countries. In this way they have a direct experience of the discrimination. So, it is quite different from visiting a religious space as an outsider in the real world.»
The UQ Island is not the sole learning environment, however.
«UQ Religion Bazaar is not the sole learning environment. We also have a Blackboard site and face-to-face classes too. While we were waiting for UQ Religion Bazaar to be built, we organized treasure hunts in Second Life for our students, we necessitated them visiting other religious builds in Second Life. For example, they would have to go to a Buddhist temple, find out some information and take a photo of their avatar meditating and email it to me.»
Dr. Farleys avatar
Dr. Farley think Second Life gives an unique learning opportunity because you can manipulate your looks, and even your sex, in the virtual world.
«I believe that the greatest strength lies in students being able to adopt a different identity and experience what it feels like to be in a religious minority. In this way, learning is first-hand instead of third-hand.
I also believe it’s a great environment to practice things that are too difficult or dangerous in real life, and I’m thinking here of nursing simulations where students can practice on avatar bots and receive immediate feedback on a treatment regime.»
But are there any drawbacks to this highly unorthodox way of teaching?
«I think the biggest danger lies in students disengaging from the activities because of technical difficulties either with Second Life or with the hardware.
I don’t think students will exaggerate their understanding of a faith because they are told often that this is one representation of that religion. For example, we have a Zen Buddhist temple on the island but Zen Buddhism is just one type of Buddhism. They understand that. Also, the builds were examined by representatives of the various faith traditions and changes were made to the buildings accordingly so that they are as accurate as can be.»
Will the UQ Island be reserve only for Queenslanders? Or will scholars and other interested people be able to access the religious treasures on the virtual island?
«Anyone is welcome to use the island at any time. I can be messaged from the island and the island is open to the public. If anyone is interested, they will have to search for UQ Religion Bazaar from the map, rather than from the ‘Search’ box in Second Life. Or they can contact me and I can give them a SLurl.»
With religion comes religious harassment, even in a virtual world. In Second Life there has been anecdotic reports on vandalism of virtual buildings and people running around naked, avatar-streaking, through sermons, etc. Has any of these things happened on the UQ Island, and to Farley and her students?
«Fortunately, we haven’t experienced anything like that on UQ Religion Bazaar. I don’t want to encourage that but I think it would be an educational experience for the students. It’s easy for us living in a predominantly white, nominally Christian country to think about religious violence as being something that happens somewhere else. I think the students would feel very confronted by it happening on our own island. Having said that, people are not able to build or modify anything on the island so it would be difficult for them to do. Someone could arrive and shout a lot I suppose!»
Harassment can be educational too, then. So can having an avatar, a virtual representation of oneself, that can be entirely different with regards to sex, age, clothes and appearance.
«I think students are unprepared for how they feel when in an avatar quite different from themselves. They do report feeling different and consequently, behaving in a way that is uncharacteristic for them. I think it does promote tolerance among students. It’s difficult to know how people who are especially antagonistic towards a religion would react. My guess is that they would refuse to engage with the exercise.»
Does Dr. Farley believe that virtual rituals og worshipping will have a place in tomorrows religious marketplace?
«It’s already happening. Every Sunday you can go to an Anglican service at Epiphany Cathedral. I talked to Mark Brown (SL: Arkin Ariantho) about it. He used to be involved there and deliver sermons (he is an Anglican priest in real life). He said that all sorts of people come along. Sometimes they are people who are just curious, sometimes there are people who are travelling and can’t attend their usual church. He said that one of the congregation has Tourette’s Syndrome and so wasn’t able to attend a real life church without embarrassment, but could attend church in Second Life. What a wonderful thing!
Also, the neo-pagan community have been quick to adopt technology and so too with Second Life. There are lots of neo-pagan groups conducting rituals in Second Life. In fact, there are many groups actively conducting services and rituals in Second Life.»
Will there be a time when we can sit in Norway or any other place on the planet, and attend a lecture that Dr. Farley holds in Queensland?
«Yeah, absolutely. That already happens! Or they may be attending a virtual conference with people from all over the world!»
Virtual realities obviously hold a great deal of promise, both for academia, and for religious entrepeneurs and communities. The West, Europe especially, have experienced dramatic falls in church attendence. Could virtual sermons be an answer? What excuse do you have for not attending the mosque, church or synagogue when you could do so without leaving home?
When it comes to religious science, will there be a time when we can listen to the most renowned of scholars no matter where we live in the World? If that is the case, will we have virtual lectures attended by thousands of virtual students at the same time? What will happen to lectures held by less popular professors?
The future is unsure, but one thing is certain. Second Life, and other virtual realities, opens up great possibilities, and only time will tell what role virtual religion can play in our future. We will be there to find out though.
Dr. Helen Farley as she really looks