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Unraveling Religion

Prior to the twentieth century, humans had primarily one route to transcendence of the physical universe, namely supernatural religion. Over the millennia, this central institution of traditional cultures had evolved, but not yet fully unraveled. Early in human history, the distinction between religion and magic was blurred, and priests pretended to cure people of physical diseases, a job gradually given over to physicians. Even in ancient days, legislatures were the primary source of laws in many societies, but religion sanctified the state, and some societies were theocracies.

About a century ago, science fiction emerged as a cultural movement that explored alternative future routes to transcendence, and the noteworthy but seldom read 1911 novel, Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback imagined a future in which all the world would be connected by electronic communication media, rather than by messianic faith. Immediately prior to Halloween in 1969, the first two nodes of what today is called Internet were connected, and today it is easy to imagine that the supernatural might be replaced by the virtual.

Two of religion’s functions have not yet been taken over entirely by other institutions. First, and most obviously, only religion pretends to have a solution to the problem of death. Outside of horror stories and paranormal mythologies, there is no empirical evidence that a supernatural afterlife exists, and indeed the concept of supernatural seems to be a rhetorical technique to discourage disproof of religious claims. How can God both intervene in human life, yet be totally invisible to any telescope? Second, and perhaps more admirable, local temples and churches served as the hub of social life for the community, including humanitarian efforts that urged people to aid each other in confronting many practical problems of living.

Sociologists from Emile Durkheim in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915) to Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity (1996) have documented the way faith could inspire people to cooperate in seeking their higher moral nature, perhaps in return for hope that by so doing they could transcend death. Indeed, altruism may be the most direct route to immortality, investing one’s life in other people, including the younger generation who will live long after we ourselves have passed away. One way to understand the political debates that afflict nations like the United States today is the issue of whether government social programs should monopolize altruism, or leave good deeds to individual citizens and, yes, the churches.

In complex ways that have hardly yet been explored, let alone explained, information technology offers new ways to transcend physical mortality. Each method is still in the experimental stage, and we cannot be sure which will prove both valuable and durable. Here I will mention two lines of research I have been exploring myself, without claiming the these are the only plausible routes or that I have found the best ways to travel them. Real progress will require many explorations and explorers.

First, a number of reasonably well-developed technologies exist to preserve information about people that might be used to emulate them after their deaths, to at least some degree of realism. Reading a diary or watching a home movie of a deceased person, renders him or her slightly alive, at least in the momentary consciousness of a living person. As I was writing the software from my 1989 textbook, Survey Research, I thought of how it might be used in this way. Included was a module that allowed the user to create a questionnaire that could be answered on the computer, saving both questions and answers. While primitive, this system would allow a person to identify personally relevant issues and express opinions about them, saving the result as a data file or printing it out. Over the years the relevant technology has improved, although the question remains how such data could bring the person back to life long afterward.

My 2013 book, Personality Capture and Emulation, surveys a wide range of developments over the previous quarter century, offering many examples of computerized personality capture, and a few of how emulation of a deceased person could be accomplished through information technology. Yes, as artificial intelligence technologies advance, data about deceased persons could give robots human personalities, although it is unclear why living persons would wish to share this planet with them. More modestly, preservation of information about a deceased person can play a central role in new approaches to recorded history, the arts, and perhaps other treasured aspects of culture, if we have the imagination to discover such possibilities.

At this point, anyone may keep a diary, contribute oral history to local historical projects, add articles to shared knowledge resources like Wikipedia, and respond to social science questionnaires. Much of the data used in Personality Capture and Emulation came from a set of fully 40,000 questions embodied in 10 questionnaire administration programs for Windows operating systems that I developed over the years. Anyone at no cost may download this software from by entering this ISBN number: 978-1-4471-5604-8. The system includes statistical analysis procedures that can output summaries of a respondent’s answers, that may be of some interest to ordinary people of the future, as well as to historians and social scientists.

Second, and parallel to this line of research, I have explored online virtual worlds as environments for symbolic revival of deceased persons. A few examples already exist in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, for example two artificial characters in World of Warcraft that play key roles in missions are based on deceased players. My own first attempt was running an avatar based on my deceased uncle, Max Rohn, an Episcopal priest with a somewhat adventuresome personality, as a priest of the Holy Light, named Maxrohn. He plays a prominent role and his virtual portrait can be seen in my 2010 MIT Press book, The Warcraft Civilization. My 2013 Oxford University Press book, eGods: Faith Versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming, offers a more complete exposition of the idea, notably reviving my great aunt Cleora, who died in 1870 at the age of one. Her real and virtual pictures can be seen on the Oxford blogsite at

Most recently, I prepared a short book designed to serve as an instruction manual for reviving deceased loved ones through gameworld avatars: An Information Technology Surrogate for Religion: The Veneration of Deceased Family in Online Games. With no apologies for approaching the topic from a personally meaningful perspective, I ran avatars based on 11 deceased family members through a diversity of online role-playing games. Each chapter says a good deal about the real person’s life, then explores a carefully selected virtual world which would be an appropriate home for that individual. Sometimes science must be personal, rather than impersonal, but it is still possible to achieve a degree of objectivity. The screenshot picture below illustrates a moment from the last chapter, that well expresses several of the central themes of virtual death transcendence.

The scene is just outside the Prancing Pony tavern in Bree, a central location for social life in Lord of the Rings Online. An orchestra of ten players is performing for an audience double that size, each avatar representing a real living person. However, one of the players, Anraeda holding a lute in the middle, also represents a deceased person, my sister Barbara Constance Bainbridge, who was killed in an accidental house fire in 1965. The name Anraeda is an Anglo-Saxon term meaning something like constance, thus placing her identity in the context of the game’s culture. My sister had been active in amateur theater productions and loved the kind of music played by the band, so this was a very appropriate way of remembering her.

Had she completed extensive questionnaires, or used some other form of information technology to record her typical behavior, we could use artificial intelligence to emulate her as one of the non-player characters in Lord of the Rings Online, for example serving virtual refreshments in the tavern. But the existing technology represented by the picture is already impressive. The people operating the ten avatars in the orchestra live in both Europe and America, and must competently manage switching from one song to another, as the concert progresses. Two of the members had orchestrated songs for the music synthesis module built into the game’s software, and the leader handles the synchronization control.

Lord of the Rings Online is one of the highest quality virtual worlds, and perhaps the most perplexing. The original mythos created by J. R. R. Tolkien used the “one ring to rule them all” as a symbol of the most harmful technology, and Internet may have become that one ring. Tolkien regretted that his native England had lost its ancient traditions, and despite ample speculation we do not know the beliefs of the people who built Stonehenge, let alone their personal life stories. Yet he was a devout Roman Catholic, loyal to a faith that originated in the tumultuous Middle East, refined in distant Italy, and erased all memory of indigenous English religion. The ideal of both Lord of the Rings and of Roman Catholicism is the unification of all peoples under a single benevolent ideology, that resists the unraveling of religion. More modestly, except for mentions of her in my publications, Anraeda will cease to exist when Lord of the Rings Online closes down, something that has already happened to many of the best virtual worlds, including The Matrix Online, City of Heroes, and Star Wars Galaxies.

Scholars have begun to address such issues, for example in the 2014 book, Digital Death: Mortality and Beyond in the Online Age, edited by Christopher M. Moreman and A. David Lewis. My own chapter in that book discusses the deaths of virtual worlds, and the possibility that a new kind of digital library could be created to preserve them indefinitely. Unraveling religion does not mean destruction, but knitting of its ancient threads into a new fabric, that can protect human values in clothing better designed to endure far into our future.

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.

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