(Posted April 7, 2008)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Many people and cultures have faith in a higher power, but how does faith, spirituality and religiosity exist in a world that isn't real?

Donald Braxton, professor of religion at Juniata College, is shepherding a class of 20 students through the man-made worlds of "Second Life," an online virtual community that allows participants to roam through the world, socialize, participate in group activities, create and trade products and properties to learn how religion and spirituality evolves in an "imaginary" environment.

"Are the people you meet in this world really 300-pound shut-ins eating potato chips in front of the keyboard, or are they people looking for a spiritual connection like many of us?"

Donald Braxton, professor of religion

"We are going to explore and communicate with people online who tried to harness these virtual powers for the purpose of religious goals," Braxton says.

Braxton is taking the class into new worlds as part of his course Sacred Landscapes, an upper-level religion course that explores how geography and the environment shapes the development of religion within those landscapes. The class studies how religion evolved in far-off societies such as the pygmy culture in Western Africa, the Bushmen culture of South Africa and the Trobriand Islands culture of the Pacific.

"The Bushmen of South Africa live in society along the margins of the Kalahari Desert," Braxton explains. "Because their existence is dependent on many environmental factors beyond their control, the religious symbol that emerged from their culture is a trickster figure who is believed to have played a trick on the group if things go wrong."

Since Braxton cannot afford to take the class on a field trip to Africa or the South Seas, he has decided to take the class on a spiritual safari into the world of Second Life.

Those who enter the Second Life environment move throughout the spaces using an avatar, a representational humanoid figure that users can create as a representation of themselves. Avatars can fly, walk, talk, interact with others (people anywhere in the world logged into Second Life) and teleport to new worlds within Second Life. In short, they have nearly god-like powers.

"People can lead entirely different lives in this new environment," Braxton says. "You have virtually omnipotent powers and we can become the gods and angels of this world."

Braxton and his students will spend the next two weeks (until April 11) in a virtual classroom. The students can attend the class by logging on from their dorm room or by logging into several reserved computers in the college's technology center. Braxton (or to be accurate, his avatar, called Father Dreamscape) will teach the class within Second Life, delivering lectures and other activities. Students' avatars also can interact with Braxton.

Within Second Life, Braxton hopes to have the students seek out spiritual communities within the virtual world. "There are all types of religious or spiritual communities in Second Life," Braxton says. "One community has people whose avatars are cuddly pandas and do a lot of group hugging. There are traditional churches as well."

Some denominations have started programs within Second Life. The Lutheran church has established missions in Second Life and Presbyterians also have activities in the virtual world. The Catholic church has established youth centers, debating clubs, even cathedral reconstructions. Scientology, Mormonism and Pentecostal faiths also have a presence in Second Life.

Braxton expects the students to discover how the act of entering a virtual world can be empowering, exciting, electrifying and exploratory. In other words, a spiritual journey.

"By the end of the Second Life segment of the class, the students can begin to understand why this experience becomes sacred to some people but not to others," Braxton says. "Are the people you meet in this world really 300-pound shut-ins eating potato chips in front of the keyboard, or are they people looking for a spiritual connection like many of us?"

Although sacred landscapes can be found throughout the world, Braxton sort of likes the idea of exploring new territory, accompanied by his students. "College students want to find out what this new world can do," Braxton says. "They may not be gamers or even into computers, but they are really interested in this world and how people co-exist in it."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.