What the Metaverse Means for Religion
Imagine attending church during Holy Week. You are not gathered in a building, or even looking at Zoom squares, but joining together to walk behind Jesus as he carries the cross, standing at the foot of the crucifixion, or celebrating as Jesus rises from the tomb. Or, if you’d rather, imagine sitting face to face with the Buddha, listening to him explain the Four Noble Truths, or perhaps celebrating Diwali by witnessing Krishna's victory over Narakasura, or following Moses and Miriam as they lead you and others to freedom.
Welcome to the religious metaverse and what may be possible in the not-so-distant future.
Most people have not been following the quick advance of the metaverse in the tech world; however, with Facebook’s announcement of its name change to Meta, the metaverse is more imminent than ever. But what is the metaverse? Like most people, I’ve been playing catch up. Just this month I finally started reading Neal Stephenson’s influential 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” where the term metaverse first appeared. Thirty years later, metaverse has come to mean a 3D-virtual reality that people enter into various worlds that are seamlessly interconnected.
Mark Zuckerberg promised future users, “You’re going to able to do almost anything you can imagine.” Given what already happens on the internet, the idea of realizing anything humans can imagine inspires as much terror as wonder.
For those of us who identify as religious, or care about the future of religion -- we have work to do. The metaverse has dramatic implications that should make all of us sit up, lean in, and claim our role in shaping the worlds within the world that is being created.
To start with we should be asking: Who is going to be building, and therefore controlling, the metaverse? I had a short stint as the host of a Virtual Reality (VR) talk show called “You Are Here” with Jeremy Nickel, the founder of EvolVR, a VR company that hosts meditation and other religious and spiritual gatherings. One of our episodes was titled: "Meet the New Gods: Creating Virtual Worlds!" in which I was escorted through various VR worlds that had been created by kind and inventive technophiles who wanted to invite people into spaces that were made for their wonder and pleasure. I assigned the name “the new gods” to these coders because they were playing the role of benevolent creator of worlds for me and others to dwell in. The worlds I traveled through that day were confined by the limits of the technology and capacity of a couple of people, and I was always aware that I was in a digital construction of another human. Future metaverse worlds will not be confined in such a way as companies like Facebook and others spend billions of dollars to create beautiful and complex worlds, inviting us into experiences that appear and even feel as real, or more real, than the one in which we live.
As I mentioned, this will quickly lead to the ability to “meet” Jesus, or Moses, or Buddha. However, the setting, the appearance and even the words of these religious figures will be programmed by some human or AI mechanism that will dictate how many, even most, people understand the tradition going forward. When I was the religion editor at The Huffington Post, we did a story about Siri’s religious beliefs in which we asked our iPhone questions about the sacred. For the most part, Siri deflected, because Siri had been programmed that way. However, my guess is that AI clergy are already out there, or certainly in development; machines that are ready to answer questions about who Jesus was, and the meaning of his words, life and death for our life today. A recent example is “Biblical Love,” a Christian contemporary music single created by an AI machine with the provocative name J.C. – who, as its press release claims, was designed to be a “forefront runner in the Metaverse on Meta.”
J.C. reminds us that the future is now. Decisions about what Jesus will look like, what the Buddha will say, how Islam will be conveyed, the ethics of the Sikh tradition will all be determined by people or programs far away from any given congregation, synagogue or sangha, but who will directly affect how the people in those local spaces understand their tradition. If we think disinformation and misinformation on the internet is bad now, wait until it comes to us baked into the programming and presented in 3D.
As we imagine “entering” into the metaverse, we should keep in mind the mental and spiritual harm that people already experience as attacks based on their religious identity, race, gender, or sexual orientation come at them through their screens in the internet. Imagine the potency of antisemitism, Islamophobia or racist attacks when armed with all the interconnecting and encompassing power of the metaverse. How will we safeguard people from the menace of bigotry coming from both trolls and other humans alike that will feel like it is in the room with us?
Finally, part of what my own Christian faith offers me is a cosmology and ethic that undergirds my comprehension and calling in this world. There is a threat that the metaverse might becoming a convenient, alluring, if clumsy substitute for “the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven” as humans avoid the hard spiritual and physical work required of the “Beloved Community,” and instead opt to join an illusion of life presented in the metaverse. Tech investor Shaan Puri wrote on Twitter that that the metaverse is not a place but instead, “the metaverse is the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our physical life. This is not an overnight change. Or an invention by some Steve Jobs type. It's a gradual change that's been happening for 20 yrs.” Even now, many of are turning to the internet for an increasing part of our day to mediate our lives. It is hard to see how this will be reversed, casting even greater weight on the importance of ensuring that the internet and the metaverse are places worthy of our attention and presence, places that enact ethics and reflect the justice of our traditions, and that can guide, but do not replace, the destination of spiritual journeys.
While much of this short piece has cast the metaverse in a problematic light, the metaverse is not by definition negative. While it is important for all of us to be aware of the perils, I see even greater possibilities - and I'm not alone. Cheryl Contee, a tech innovator and President of Do Big Things also sees hope for religion in the metaverse: "We live in a world in which you can connect with thousands or even millions of people around an idea or interest and yet feel desperate, alienated and alone. Interacting in a metaverse construct around faith and spirituality would likely be the balm of Gilead for a diverse set of religious communities in terms of creating a strong, more connected and quasi-physical sense of connectedness for dispersed people."
With religious, spiritual and ethical people at the table, we can create a metaverse that allows communities to gather together for unprecedented ways of learning and wonderous experiences. While Facebook and others will be investing heavily in the metaverse, using it to collect data and sell goods, corporations do not have an inalienable right to control it. The Rev. Nickel from EvolVR insists that “at its core the true metaverse must be free.”
My hope is that people from every spiritual and ethical tradition will be part of creating these new worlds to come so that they might be spaces of liberation and peace for an interfaith and ever-expanding circle of people, seeking to know one another and recognize our common humanity. We have work to do. I believe we can do it and pray we can all do it together.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.