Virtual Temples

I’ve seen several recent comments in the Pagan blogosphere regarding building shrines and temples. Lack of land and funding typically come up as the main barriers.

This morning I wondered: why not virtual temples?

I’ve been thinking about that question all day. Why not?

From the standpoint of honoring the gods, kindreds, and spirits, I don’t see too much difference between building a brick-and-mortar temple and building a virtual temple. Both are works of art and skill. Both require dedication, time, and effort.  The medium is different, but the honor you offer them is pretty much identical — it comes from the heart, and the mind, and the hands.

At the opposite extreme, the individual psychological effect of entering and worshipping in a real temple, as opposed to a virtual one, has mostly to do with full sensory engagement. The virtual temple can only affect the eyes (and only in a looking-through-a-window way at present), and potentially the ears (good headphones). A bit of incense burned in front of your terminal could engage the sense of smell. You rarely engage taste in a real temple, and can provide your own if need be (bread, wine.) The main thing absent is touch: the feel of wood, water, stone; temperature, chill and warmth; the currents of air; the electromagnetic ambiance.

Is that difference crippling?

I think about the places the cinema has taken me — from the sand-swept deserts of Saudi Arabia, to the distant world of Pandora. It was just a movie, not a holodeck. But I was there. When they swooped off the eyries of the Hanging Mountains in Avatar, my stomach did flip-flops, and I nearly panicked. It’s close enough to reality to do that to me.

As a launch pad for journeys into places far removed from the mundane, I think the virtual temple might work every bit as well as the real thing. If not better.

The one thing the virtual temple cannot provide is locality. That’s the whole point of virtualization — it isn’t actually located any place. I’m quite curious how much difference that really makes, if any.

I can’t imagine the gods and spirits care. If they did, we’d have to call into question the very concept of world religions. After all, Jehovah is a desert-god from the Middle East. Diana is Roman, Artemis is Greek. If they cared about location, we’d have no business honoring any of them from the North American continent.

Indeed, the very idea of an altar in your bedroom, or in your backyard, or on property purchased to build a temple (selected because it was available for sale) tends to invalidate the idea that location matters much.

So the fact that a virtual temple isn’t located anywhere probably doesn’t matter as much as I first thought it would.

There is a different kind of shrine that recognizes the energy of a specific place. One of the classic places in Druidic tradition is Glastonbury Tor. These sacred sites dot the land on every continent and in every nation. Churches or temples are often built on these sites, but the sacredness of the place was already there when the shrine was built, and will still be there after all shrines have crumbled to dust.

Obviously, no virtual temple could stand in for one of these. But there also isn’t a lot you can do with these spots other than mark them, celebrate them, and perhaps move them a tiny bit over the course of centuries by various geomantic methods.

However, there is a question whether a sacred site of this sort — or of some sort — can be called into existence by simply declaring a place to be sacred and performing ritual there over long periods of time.

The idea figures prominently in popular culture. For instance, the concept of building suburban tract housing on top of an old Indian burial ground, or seeking sanctuary from a marauding demon by fleeing to consecrated church property, is a staple of the horror genre in fiction. The theology underlying this is the idea that ritual practice in a specific location — particularly repeated practice — changes the energy-signature of that place, and “sanctifies” it, or conversely, makes it “unholy ground.”

I personally have no fixed ideas on this. I’ve experienced holy ground, but I’ve also been in consecrated churches that feel as dead as a Wal-Mart. Was my sense simply off that day? Did the people who consecrated the land for the church not know what they were doing? Did it fade away, and if so, why? Or does the sacred energy have to already be there, before you build the church? I don’t know.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake that ritual in a physical location will change the energy of that place in a persisting way: that you can, in fact, consecrate ground that was previously not special at all. I’m very curious — could you do the same thing to a non-place like a web site? Could you consecrate a virtual temple?

I think it would be interesting to try. And then see what happens.

Another downside of non-locality is the fact that people cannot physically gather at the site. They can only virtually gather, through their online presence. Some will place public avatars in the space. Others will lurk like invisible spirits. Is this enough?

Well, enough for what?

Clearly the gathering of people at a virtual temple is going to be different from a physical gathering. But how much different, and in what ways? Would the results be worthwhile to the participants? Would it honor the gods?

I think this is a question best answered by experience, not theoretical discussion.


I’ve done just a tiny bit of research.

I’m not the first person to think of this, by any means. There are many Christian churches that offer online religious services, and some Internet discussion about whether this is spiritually satisfying, or simply silly.

In the Second Life environment (I’ve never been online there) there are reportedly several Christian denominations that have created cathedrals and SL religious services, and at least one Islamic group has purchased “land” for a mosque. A number of secular humanist/atheist groups have created discussion centers, some of them fairly long-lived.

Not a word about Pagan temples. I don’t know whether I find that surprising or not.

In addition to Second Life itself, there is an OpenSource product called OpenSimulator (how original!) that provides Second Life-like client/server capabilities, basic 3D modeling, avatars, etc. So a Virtual Pantheon could be created on Second Life, or it could be hosted somewhere as a dedicated server running OpenSimulator.

I’d love to participate in something like this, but it’s well beyond my bandwidth to go it alone. I’m curious what other people think of the idea.

9 comments on “Virtual Temples

  1. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus says:

    Lots of good things to think about here…

    I’ve seen many “virtual temple” websites on the internet, and I’ve even tried to have one once myself.  And, what happened?  The “activity” side of things, where people could leave prayers or go through a “labyrinth” of web-pages for a particular meditative experience, or where they could simply adore a cult image of Antinous, were the parts of the website that got viewed and used the least.  What got used and viewed the most?  All of the information–the sacred texts, the prayers, the rituals, and (more than anything) the write-ups on theology and such.  For a while, I found it useful to have had that because it allowed me to access all of the important texts of my practice from anywhere there was an internet connection; but, since taking that website down in ’07, I haven’t missed it much.  I now have a book that I’ve created that has all of the essential things for practice in it, and it goes with me wherever I go–and that actually feels like something real in a way the virtual temple website never did.

    I’ve seen some virtual temple websites that have been better, with more animation and interactive stuff, but a lot of them didn’t do a lot for me…it still usually comes down to reading and looking, and possibly hearing.

    In SecondLife, I saw some potential polytheist temples that were pretty cool, and I had hoped perhaps to have created one at some stage; however, I lacked the programming and design skills to do so, and the money (virtual or real) to hire someone else for the task.  I considered for a while creating an entire Antinoan Mysteries experience in a SecondLife environment to substitute for the actual “mystery house” I’d one day love to build for this purpose…and, ultimately decided my efforts and money would be better spent elsewhere, because nothing compares to actually being in the space with other people having the ritual performed, and getting the necessary “sensory overload” experience that is part of it.  No matter how intense and effective SecondLife situations can be (like virtual sex, for example), it’s still not real…

    I suppose this brings up the question:  how “real” are the astral temples that many people use in their modern spiritual practice?  If a good web-based virtual temple does something similar in a technological way, I don’t suppose there’s anything which would suggest it isn’t possible to have something that the deities will like and can use and that humans will as well…but, of course, a lot is limited by hardware and the capabilities of programming.  And, that’s unfortunate–that isn’t the case with actual bricks-and-mortar temples, of course, as things do happen there on a regular basis, if the right people are involved, etc.  But, how would an epiphany happen in a virtual temple, outside of either some human programming it (even if it only happens randomly), or some human actively controlling the mechanisms which make it appear to happen?  If an actual deity’s energies took over, I don’t think it would be like these situations that are shown on so many magical and sci-fi television shows and films; I suspect the whole system would just go down!

    Anyway, there’s a lot else to think about here, but that’s a few brief thoughts in this direction for the moment…thanks for alerting me to this!

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    • Thank you for your response!

      So this HAS been tried, with less than spectacular results. That’s good to know.

      I think what I had envisioned is a bit (technologically) beyond what you’ve described here, and perhaps even a bit beyond state-of-the-art. Even if the technology were there, I don’t have any idea if it would work.

      Because I’m a musician, the auditory space is important to me, so I’m picturing a stereo audio feed that would allow you to speak in the space (for instance), and hear your own voice echo off the far wall. The actual Web technology would be no different than a conference call on the telephone — all the sound-shaping (reverb, distortion) would be done locally, on your PC. But the sound feed would provide the acoustical signature of the space, and position information for the different avatars so that (if nothing else) the relative volume of each voice could be adjusted based on distance from your avatar.

      Ideally, I’d like to be able to sing in a group in real-time, and have it sound good. Or even sound spectacular. 

      The other thing I think would be important would be the ability to create public art in the space without needing to be a master software architect. Paintings. Frescoes. Sculpture. Lighting effects.

      As with any endeavor, only skilled and inspired artists are going to have inspired results. But that should not prevent the non-artist from creating a small, simple shrine that could be enjoyed or elaborated by others.

      I’m curious what you mean by “epiphany.” I’ve had my own psychological epiphanies, and they don’t require anything from the environment beyond inspiration.

      I’ve also been in the presence of channels, and I’m not suggesting that you’d replace the channel with a scrap of software — any oracle would still be a living person, but instead of sitting in front of you, s/he’s be sitting a thousand miles away.

      I have no idea if a shared psychological epiphany requires physical proximity. At our Colorado Dragonfest, which has between 500 and 1000 participants, the opening rite casts a large circle, and I’ve felt it. A psychic friend was able to see it as what looked like a pale violet flame — I never “see” any kind of auras, though I’ve been able to trace them with a more tactile sense. That would be part of a “consensual” reality that (probably) wouldn’t show up on film, yet you can get lots of people to agree it’s there, and agree on where it is. Because these things deeply offend my understanding of the physics of the “real” world, I can’t even begin to theorize whether they are really “there” in a physics-defying physical sense, or if their existence is instead within the almost-conscious fringes of the collective unconscious, which I suspect is inherently non-local.

      This is one of those things where I simply wonder, and think the answer would have to be left to experiment. If a group of people cast a circle in a sufficiently interactive virtual space, would we all be able to “sense” the circle? I don’t know.

      It sounds, however, like you’re describing a physical phenomenon that is “objective” in the sense that a camera could record it — hence, something that would require the physical proximity of the witnesses. I’ve never personally seen one of those — which is just as well, because it would cause a great deal of cognitive dissonance and leave me wondering who had set up the smoke and mirrors — and it wouldn’t be possible in a virtual temple.

      The closest you could come would be to have pre-programmed flashes of light, or sounds, or other “manifestations,” and then the channel could pick one from a menu and trigger it. In effect, just like we use joysticks to control our avatars in the virtual space, the deity would have to use a human “joystick” to manifest its own virtual epiphany.

      I agree, having an outside divine intelligence try to take over a computer server  and then “program” it to generate some unexpected event that would be picked up by all the clients and rendered as something meaningful would be bizarre beyond words. As a deity with that kind of physical influence, I’d probably prefer to turn all of the client machines into sausages. 🙂

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  2. Well I’d like to comment on part of your discussion about holy or sacred ground, churches and the feeling of holiness or lack of energy of spirit of a place. Part of what I have been studying for years now is how dowsing and using sacred (better word is natural) geometry to create “sacred space”. I have studied different sacred sites and have learned how the Master Builders of old created the energy felt in many of the churches, temples, stone circles, menhirs, and dolmans. They consciously used the patterns of the cosmos (prominently the sun and the solstice sunrise and sunset positions throughout the year)  If you site them  and  mark them like all ancient cultures did, you will soon realize that the pattern is rectangle in some latitudes and a square in others. This rectangle forms the basic shape of the mandala of the Sun. From this simplistic shape, the mandala develops and the Master Builders would use the different energies that spring forth to build their churches for example. But the energies from the cosmos were not the only thing they used.  They searched (dowsed) for specific energies within the earth to give their structures energy. Water was a primary source of energy. But it had to have a certain quality to it. The water needed to be “good” or better yet sacred. This would lend the qualities of the earth to the pattern of the sun.  Also many churches were built using not only water veins and crossings, but fire lines (faults).  If you could find a fire line under a water line crossing, this energy would create an energetic steam that cleanses our energy systems if you stood on the specific spot of the crossing in a well made place.

    As another side note, sacred places are not plentiful in the world, so when conquering armies came in and took over, one of the first things they did was take over the sacred sites of the land and build their Holy place on top of the one they conquered.  This is why you have a dolman or a holy well of the Celts, with a roman temple built on it, then a Roman Catholic church built over it. Usually the energy is basically the same, the holy well was dedicated to a Celtic goddess, then the Romans would name their temple after a Goddess that had the same attributes, and the Catholics would name their church after Mary.  I’m sure my colleague, Anne Parker has other insights as well.  This is wonderful subject that I could talk about for a long time!!

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    • Thank you for your response!

      So it sounds like you’re saying that sacred sites are found, not made.

      That leads me to wonder about our way of erecting churches (or temples) these days, and what it means for the worship there. Most churches purchase property because it’s available for sale, and zoned for a church building. The property lines are laid out by surveyors working strictly from legal descriptions — in these parts, typically on a rectangular grid taken from the nearest USGS section lines. 

      So they could check out a few available properties (if there are any to choose among), and choose the “most sacred” from among them, and maybe — maybe — try to position the church within that plot of land to take advantage of any fire or water lines that MIGHT be there. Or might not.

      If they get a piece of land with no fire or water lines, and nothing in particular going on there, is there anything they can do to “enliven” the land? Or are the sacred spots always found, not made?

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  3. Teo Bishop says:

    I think we need to get back into the physical world. While the idea of a virtual temple is interesting to me, I think it ultimately leads to a kind of disconnect between our experience of embodiment and our experience of divinity. This isn’t to say that divinity is absent from -well- anything, but it is to say that I don’t conceive of the content of my computer screen as being directly related to my experience embodiment. Does that make sense?

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    • Teo, thank you for your comments!

      I tend to agree with you. “Spiritual” has come to mean totally abstract and unembodied, and one of the reasons I’ve thrown in my lot with Pagans is that they hew to the physical even as they pursue spirituality.

      But I wanted to explore this idea anyway. What are the limits of “virtual” temples? Non-starters? Good to a point? Better than no temple? Maybe pretty darn good?

      I guess I’d have to see one.

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  4. Teo mentioned on Twitter that I ought to reply here, so I will. (I’m @tamarasiuda:disqus  there, if you want to see what I said earlier). The House of Netjer, a Kemetic Orthodox temple formed in 1989 (www.netjer.org and http://www.kemet.org, respectively), started working with the Internet and the “virtual temple” concept as early as 1991. We worship the ancient Egyptian gods, for your reference, so we’d probably fit your definitions here, though we generally don’t define ourselves as Pagan.

    We have also acquired and secured physical temples, one in Michigan (2000) and our current home, in Joliet, IL since 2003 (www.tawyhouse.org). We were early adopters of the concept of using technology to bring people into a religious space, and were the subject of an entire chapter (Chapter 14) in a book called Religion Online:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=xy0PJrrWXH4C&pg=PP6&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

    You can read about why we did what we did, and how we went about it, in the book. Essentially we were able to grow the religion from a handful of people who came to my home once a week, to more than 600 people in more than 25 countries including all 50 US states. This has been great – but it’s also had its drawbacks. After all this time, and even with the march of technology, I remain convinced that virtual temples work best when paired with offline, ‘real life’ meetings and practices, and are not designed to be a substitute for live work. If anything, they help bring together disparate people in various locations, and encourage them to get off the Internet and meet in the physical world.
    -Tamara

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