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.