What should the virtual world do when a neighborhood becomes a den of iniquity? The only appropriate response is to dive in and clean it up, according to Jesuit scholar Antonio Spadaro.
In an article in the Catholic journal La Civilt Cattolica, Spadaro writes that Second Life and sites like it should be considered locations for mission work, just as on the real Earth.
The article appears in a publication that serves as a Jesuit mouthpiece and is cleared by Vatican authorities before release. While the location may seem offbeat, the message is age-old. Rather than judge those who participate in Second Life, Catholics should consider participating themselves to understand the people there and how their spiritual needs might be served, Spadaro urges.
Where Angels Fear to Tread
Because gambling, pornography and illicit drugs pop up in most any Internet search or spam-filled inbox, one might assume that churchgoers would avoid the Web in order to avoid exposure to sin. However, there are real people behind those online avatars, points out Spadaro. Those people seeking connection and adventure on Second Life also may be seekers in the larger sense, he speculates.
In fact, Second Life is more of a social network than a game or a commercial site, Mike Goodman, director with Yankee Group’s consumer research group, told LinuxInsider. So, why wouldn’t we expect to see all the things that go on in social circles also show up in their online counterparts? In that context, spiritual counseling — even outright evangelism — seems to fit into the larger picture of humans in groups.
Where the lines blur is when the service or site creators themselves try to establish codes of morality, Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider. Activities that are objectively illegal are relatively easy to identify — child pornography, for example.
However, saying that a particular human activity is “right” or “wrong” and banning it from a particular online realm may be pushing things too far, Enderle notes, especially one in which real-life people often try on identities that may differ substantially from their day-to-day selves. Much of the hype surrounding sensational news reports of anonymous sex and wild behavior on sites such as Second Life mistake real life for virtual life, he noted.
Still, however fantasy-based avatars may be, people tend to display behaviors in the virtual world that are remarkably similar to those occurring in the real world, Enderle noted. Those behaviors might include exploring different thoughts and feelings. It makes sense, then, that there is no particular reason that those thoughts and feelings wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be religious ones.
Life as We Know It
Thus, the invitation to Catholics to enter Second Life, learn about it and its inhabitants, and express their own spiritual beliefs can be taken as just another indication that online social networking is becoming more and more intertwined with offline experience.
In a world where any given day could include a Jehovah’s Witness knocking on the door or a billboard directing us to certain biblical passages, we might now also encounter a Catholic proselytizer online.
Those things may happen just after a job interview — online or off — or just before a chat with a far-flung friend, by cell phone or avatar. We may receive an e-mail warning that the end of the world is near, along with a disconnection note from the phone company warning about an overdue bill.