Uniting the Digital Tribes: Science and Faith Ecosystems in Pre-Metaverse Diaspora

What will we worship when reality is owned by corporations?

We forget how small we are in the US. We’re a big country, but the world is so much bigger. In America, my sense is that it’s easy to lose sight of how insignificant our beliefs about social politics and religion are compared to the global population who thinks that, from a world-community perspective, Americans are at best misguided when it comes to world religions and, at worst, as my cousin in the west of Ireland put it, “fekkin’ crazy.”

A Snapshot of Global Religions

Consider faithful traditions abroad: from sacred Hindu cows roaming the streets of Dheli, to pilgrims circling the temple of Kaaba at Mecca, to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where Jews gather to kiss the remnants of the temple rocks and mourn the history of their faith. When I debate with fellow Americans about religion, these are not usually the symbols, of which my opponents think. Instead, the symbols foremost in the American mind, when it comes to the believers in a mystical higher order, are instead of evangelical Christians writhing in church pews, pouring money into the coffers of a slick preacher selling salvation at a price. Perhaps, there’s good reason for Americans’ conflation of global, or I might suggest, human religion and the images of the Christian faithful in America. People often only see the biggest and closest things to them and in matters of religion in the US, Evangelicals are indeed larger in number and closer in distance than the sacred cows of India. But, in my mind, that’s no excuse.

“Jesus Freaks” & Neo-Liberal Contempt for Relgion

Consider this antidote from about three years ago. I invited a friend over for dinner for the first time. I own many antiques and decorate my apartment with various art and artifacts I’ve collected throughout my life; some are quite meaningful to me and represent places I’ve visited and people I’ve known. One such artifact I had hanging on my wall was a “wood chip” painting of Christ. My mother’s partner, Jenefer was a Catholic nun before she came out as lesbian and left her diocese. She struggled with her faith as a homosexual Catholic all her life and it was one of the things she and my mother bonded over. Jenefer tragically died in 2007 and the Jesus wood chip painting is one of many relics of Jenefer’s I keep in my apartment. Jenefer was curious about global religion and I credit her in part for encouraging me to explore the world through the many books about religion she lent me—Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Laotzu’s Tao Te Ching).

When my friend caught site of Christ’s image, she froze. “Oh.” She said. “Are you some kind of Jesus freak?” It’s weird how casually she asked this, as if “Jesus freak” was just another modern analog for “Christian.”

As I’ve written many times before, I am not religious. However, I explained to her, that I was indeed raised Catholic and that a close family friend had gifted the wall hanging to me, along with a number of other books and religious artifacts. At that moment, I didn’t feel like outing Jenefer, given my friend’s tone. It didn’t feel at all like safe space, if she indeed thought I was a Christian and referred to my faith as being a “ freakish,” right to my face.

“So, do you believe, someday, a giant snake is going to come and destroy the world?” She asked, after I said I was raised Catholic. What? Clearly she was mixing Evangelical stereotypes with Catholicism, but still, the point was that she felt entitled to belittle my non-existent faith, right in front of me.

It’s important to know the person I’m describing was not some random cousin who rode in from the hills on the back of a turnip truck, but rather an educated and fashionable professional in her 30s living and working in New York City—a human whose tastes and knowledge of the world should have had space for a reasonable understanding of the complexities and nuances of her home country’s religious diversity. It’s not a huge leap of faith or a scientific concept requiring a PhD to understand that just because you have a picture of Jesus hanging on your wall, doesn’t mean you believe in giant snakes. (By the way, she didn’t even bother to get her stereotype right. The creature in Revelations, to which she referred is not a snake. It’s a dragon.)

Are Populations Trending Away from Religion?

But this is the level of religious understanding cosmopolitan Americans have. When I circulate at functions full of smart and fashionable people, places where diversity is celebrated, if not mandated, I feel as if bringing up any conversation about religion that’s not critical or in some way linked to a celebration of a protected group, is taboo. I wouldn’t dare, not if I don’t want to feel frustrated and rejected at the end of the night.

In Ireland too, it’s amazing to me how many of my family and friends don’t attend Catholic mass on Sunday anymore. I asked my cousin when she invited me for a Sunday “fry” (Sunday breakfast), if the breakfast would follow Sunday mass. (I don’t go to mass, myself. I just assumed.) She said, “No, we don’t bother with that much.” Trust me when I say this is an absolute reversal of my experience when I visited my extended Irish family, back in the 90s. Back then, the village where my grandparents made us stop and attend mass was completely shut down on Sunday morning, to the extent that villagers parked their cars in the middle of the street in front of the church, blocking the only road through town—because, why not? Everyone was going to mass anyway.

So, What’s the Future of Worship?

As the conceptual technological spaces we’re calling the Metaverse continue to take shape, where will humanity’s natural appetite for projecting meaning in the form of religion take us, now that we basically have a blank slate? Call yourself an atheist if you want, but I’m sorry to inform you that there’s no such thing. As David Foster Wallace said at Kenyan College in perhaps his most famous speech, “This Is Water”: we all worship something.

Here’s the quote:

“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.”

–David Foster Wallace

What will we worship when the “day to day trenches of adult life” are limitless universes of the imagination, codified in commercial funnels to conversions. Even the word “conversion,” as I often refer to it in my advertising job, refers back to the Conversion of St. Paul, when on the way to capture Christians in Damascus, was seized by a vision of the holy cross, perhaps the world’s first logo, in the burning hot sun above the desert road. Paul regarded it as a sign from heaven and was, there and then, “converted” to this new thing called Christianity.

What will it be like, when that vision is not a cross, but a Nike logo or Trump flag or some thing we haven’t imagined yet, but wants our money, or attention, or for us to believe in and evangelize it as part of our identity, which is, I hate to say, our soul? Atheists hate my previous writing on this topic, but I think David Foster Wallace is right: Everybody worships and the reason it’s better to worship a cow, a box, a wall, or an imaginary snake-dragon, is that anything else will eat you alive.

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