Could virtual reality change religion -- and terrorize children?
Worship usually requires a large building with uncomfortable seating and the holy text of that particular religion's choice. But a reverend in Florida believes virtual reality could be used to help other worshippers, such as those who live in remote areas or are otherwise unable to attend church and participate in prayer.
Here's what Rev. Christopher Benek of the First Presbyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale said in an interview with Hypergrid Business last week:
Personally, I think that as technology like Oculus Rift becomes more developed, immersive, and available to the general public, we may soon be able to easily develop virtual worship and Christian education experiences. This would be a great asset to the church universal, as it will enable the infirm, homebound, and potentially even the poor to participate from afar regardless of their personal mobility or lack of affordable transportation ...Benek's points about virtual worship don't actually require virtual reality. They could be achieved with other technologies, such as voice calling services, today. But it's the bit about developing "Christian education experiences," combined with the power of existing virtual reality tools, that is particularly interesting.
Virtual reality does weird things to people. Aaron Souppouris said last March that virtual reality made him "believe I was someone else" with a gender-swap demonstration. Simulations are used to help war veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The experiences are virtual, but the effects are not.
It's not hard to imagine how such profound experiences could be used to help someone looking to engage with their faith. Christianity has already become a genre unto itself in the world of music, films, and video games, to varying degrees of success. The virtual reality category probably won't be any different.
Perhaps some devout coders will make it easier for people to traipse through their favorite stories in the Bible. Maybe the church experience will be made even more impactful through the use of incorporeal harps and unnatural light. Hell, someone could even code a virtual representation of Jesus Christ himself.
Zealots might find issue with representing Jesus or other biblical figures as a collection of animated pixels – and doing so with other religious icons would be sacrilegious – but for a religion that has long been about global evangelism and "spreading the word," this seems like a natural extension in the digital era.Of course, the technology could also be used to thrust someone into one of the layers of Hell described in Dante's epic poem, perhaps to stop teens from masturbating or kleptos from stealing. I can't think of anything more likely to scare people than a virtual Devil cackling with glee whenever someone straps on an Oculus Rift.
The possibilities are endless. I hope Benek only wants to make it easier for people to join their church in worship despite their physical limitations. The other possibilities, at least as I'm imagining them, are rather disturbing. As we've heard in countless other scenarios, "with great power [and technology] comes great responsibility."
[illustration by Brad Jonas]