The Discursive Construct of Virtual Angels, Temples, and Religious Worship: Mormon Theology and Culture in Second Life

Article excerpt

Cyberspace is changing the way religion is practiced in contemporary society. A 2004 Pew Internet and American Life project estimated that 64 percent of American internet users go online for spiritual or religious purposes.1 Religious organizations large and small are increasingly participating in cyberspace; and according to Peter Horsfield, the inf luence of digital media is producing major consequences for religious institutions and ideologies.2

One popular digital platform is Second Life, a virtual world owned by Linden Lab. Created in 2003, this site transcends both the real and imagined. Players pay a monthly fee to "own" virtual lots or islands on which they can build virtual buildings and homes, using components purchased with virtual money-Linden dollars ($L). Players maintain intellectual property rights to anything they create in this setting, allowing their virtual selves (avatars) to sell these cyber goods for Linden dollars, which can subsequently be exchanged for real money. Corporations selling virtual products in Second Life generate more than $1 million a day in real-world trade.3 By 2007, Second Life had reached 10 million registered users with the estimated resident population of about 600,000 players per day.4

Some players use Second Life to communicate religious beliefs or to reinforce their religious identity. Kerstin Radde-Antweiler, traced Second Life's religious topography and found clusters of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu players who were involved in varying levels of religious practice. These included sharing beliefs through official doctrines or requiring agreement to codes of religious conduct or values; offering (or requiring) avatar clothing that was consistent with religious beliefs (i.e., modesty requirements, skull-caps, burkas); practicing ritual worship, and building sacred sites (e.g., the wailing wall, temples, mosques, cathedrals). 5

A virtual island in Second Life, Adam-ondi-Ahman (AoA), is named after the site where, according to Mormon beliefs, Adam and Eve resided after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and where, before Jesus Christ's second coming, Adam will judge his posterity, receiving all of the keys bestowed in each successive dispensation, preparatory to turning them back to Christ. Although not endorsed by the LDS Church, island creator Skyler Goode (avatar name) states that the island functions as a place of respite for LDS players and also as a means of communicating the message of "the Gospel of Jesus Christ" to others. Visitors and residents agree to abide by LDS standards of dress and morality.6 The island also offers activities and objects for LDS or LDS-curious avatars (such as singles meets, socials, genealogy forums, and retreats), but it does not feature religious services or temple ceremonies.

The prevalence of "ritual knowledge" available through cyberspace signifies a momentous shift in both the traditional structure of religion and that of religious communities.7 If religion becomes "virtualized" in cyberspace, what elements of "real world" faith are co-opted in a virtual world to resonate with the expectations of the player? This article addresses this question by analyzing the role of religious iconography and symbols used to represent Mormonism and the LDS Church in Second Life.

I take the approach of an ethnographer avatar examining AoA intent on locating how the layout and construction of the visual enhance my experience and connection to LDS theology and culture in this virtual space. This analysis is grounded in the constructivist theory of worldview building as applied to religious belief systems. I season this construct delicately with postmodern concepts of the power of the visual in that world-building process.

I begin with a diversion into the ramifications of these theoretical constructs, followed by a brief examination of the unique value of studying Second Life and Mormonism. …