Robert Geraci, the author of “Apocalyptic AI – Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality,” has a new book published by Oxford University Press: “Virtually Sacred – Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life.”
I recommend this book to all those interested in the history and sociology of religions online, and online religions (there is a difference), and also (especially) to those who wish to participate in new, forward-looking, cosmic religious movements. All are invited to come and to Robert Geraci’s talk in Second Life, on Sunday June 29 at noon EDT (9am PDT, 6pm EU) in Soleri City.
The central thesis is that VR worlds, like World of Warcraft and Second Life, can play the role of sacred spaces, places of power where believers can engage in compelling forms of ritual behavior and form new online religious communities. Following David Chidester, Geraci considers VR worlds as “authentic fakes” that “can offer a feeling of transcendence or meaningfulness, promote the establishment of communities and ethics, or present a path toward immortality.” Geraci explored both World of Warcraft and Second Life for years, and conducted surveys and interviews with techno-spiritual seekers in these virtual worlds.
“World of Warcraft players can access a world of meaning and purpose frequently absent from everyday life. The scientific disenchantment of the world, described by sociologist Max Weber, creates space for new kinds of enchantment; World of Warcraft is part of that magic.”
The cover picture shows the “Silvermoon Meeting” for the launch of the Order of Cosmic Engineers (OCE), the only explicitly religious ritual in World of Warcraft that I am aware of. I co-founded the Order in 2008 with other “Architects” including sociologist William Sims Bainbridge, virtual reality guru Philippe Van Nedervelde, author Howard Bloom, artificial intelligence theorist Ben Goertzel, the transhumanist royal couple Max More and Natasha Vita More, biotechnology enterpreneur and visionary thinker Martine Rothblatt, and many others. What eventually blocked the initiative was our inability to reach a real consensus view of the core concepts, a common vision strongly held by all the founders. The main lesson that I learned is that fast design-by-committee doesn’t work for new religions. The virtual life of the OCE and similar initiatives are documented by Robert in this book.
“Bainbridge, now noted as a sociologist of virtual worlds in addition to religion, has suggested that in our secular world science and technology can host a new religious endeavor, one that will finally fulfill all of the promises falsely (in his estimation) made by past religions. In fact, he believes that a new kind of religion must emerge, grounded in science and technology, to carry humankind through its next phase of evolution.”
See also Bainbridge essay “Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0.”
Both Robert and I first entered World of Warcraft to attend the conference “Convergence of the Real and Virtual: The First Scientific Conference in World of Warcraft,” hosted by Bainbridge and John Bohannon in May 2008, and joined the Science Guild founded by Bainbridge and Bohannon. The conference and the Science Guild are covered in Bainbridge’s masterpiece “The Warcraft Civilization,” required reading to understand the magic of WoW. In the picture above, my Perplextar avatar at the conference, in Science Guild attire.
The conference was very interesting – I remember shouting “FOR SCIENCE, AND FOR THE HORDE!” at the end, which is not my usual behavior and shows how much I was taken by the experience. Initially I was only interested in the conference, but much to my surprise I was captured by Azeroth with its powerful sense of full immersion in a magic place, described by Robert, and continued to play avidly for a couple of months until the Silvermoon Meeting when my main avatar – “Eschatoon,” a Blood Elf priest (in the picture below with one of Bainbridge’s avatars) – was level 24 or something like that. Robert performed much better: he reports having leveled up his avatar until the very top.
Since I am much more familiar with Second Life, I found the three chapters dedicated to World of Warcraft very interesting, and the book helps me to make sense of my own brief virtual life in World of Warcraft.
The first two chapters dedicated to Second Life cover the basics and the virtual society of residents, including of course the well known “Immersionists vs. Augmentationists” issue and psychological aspects, and many efforts to establish religious communities in Second Life. 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 religious hierarchies in meatspace, and much more open to inter-faith dialogue and alternative lifestyles – they represent good examples of new “economics of religious practice among our ‘generation of seekers’.”
In the image below, a virtual recreation of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Second Life. I directed this ambitious project – we developed a very high fidelity recreation of the Basilica and part of the city using satellite images, detailed plans, and hundreds of high resolution pictures. The virtual Basilica was used as a gathering place for some time and was often covered by the press. Unfortunately the project was abandoned, like most of the initiatives described in the book.
Transhumanists – techno-spiritual seekers who think that science and technology can and should carry humankind through its next phase of evolution – made a home in Second Life between 2006 and 2009, after which the pace of transhumanist events in Second Life slowed down due to the general Fall from media grace of Second Life. A growing number of transhumanists share Bainbridge’s approach and consider transhumanism as a religion, inspired by science (and science fiction) and uniquely adapted to our times.
In his previous book, “Apocalyptic AI – Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality,” Geraci argues that transhumanism, the hope that we might one day upload our minds into machines or cyberspace and live forever, is a new religion. In this new book dedicated to religious practices in VR worlds, more narrowly focused than the first book, Geraci doesn’t waste time with caveats and, following Julian Huxley, considers transhumanism as fundamentally religious:
“[Transhumanism] is a philosophical or religious system in which human beings use science and technology to acquire goods traditionally expected from religion, such as freedom from disease, aging, and death… [J. B. S. Haldane and Julian Huxley] initiated two key thought streams in transhumanism: one rejects religion explicitly while the other accepts that transhumanism is fundamentally religious. Although most contemporary transhumanists follow Haldane’s model, Huxley’s is the clearer vision and expanded its ‘market share’ in the early twenty-first century.”
Second Life transhumanists are the protagonists of the chapter “Sacred Second Lives” dedicated to new, emerging religious movements in Second Life, and I am happy to see many good friends quoted extensively: Extropia, Khannea, Serendipity, and the “late lamented” Soph (who left Second Life in 2009 with a moving adieu message).
Robert reports that I also left Second Life, which was indeed my intention at the time. In 2006-2009 I made a decent living with a virtual worlds development business, and I was frustrated and disappointed when Second Life was killed by the media. But I never really left (see for example “Transhumanist Avatars Storm Second Life” (2011), and now all seems to indicate that a virtual renaissance may be around the corner, enabled by new, fully immersive, next-generation virtual worlds and user interfaces.
One of Geraci’s central points is that shared virtual spaces provide a sense of place, direction, and orientation, which has profound implications for religious practice. Contrary to flat web pages, in virtual reality we can build holy places, cathedrals, and sacred objects, which act as a “physical” scaffolding to hold virtual religious communities together. While vision and hearing are powerfully engaged in consumer 3D virtual realities, the possibility to touch objects in virtual spaces “in which the brain regions associated with grasping can potentially respond as though to conventional reality,” isn’t available yet to most consumers, but this will change with new haptic interface devices. I am persuaded that next generation VR platforms, with support for haptics and full-immersion display devices like the Oculus Rift, will soon take virtually sacred spaces above critical mass.