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David Scott: Studying Mormons in Second Life


David W. Scott is the chairman of the communication department at Utah Valley University, whose studies on media, religion and culture range from First Amendment issues to religiosity in South Park. Scott’s study of Mormon theology and culture in Adam-ondi-Ahman, a Mormon “island” in the online virtual-reality role-playing world Second Life, was published in April in the journal Dialogue. City Weekly talked to Scott about his experience.

What are the challenges of studying religion?
The most challenging thing about doing research on the LDS Church is this idea of it being either for us or against us. Typically, when I send my research to a peer-reviewed journal, they send it out to academics who are knowledgeable about the subject matter. Almost always it will go to one academic who is non-Mormon and one who is. And 9 times out of 10, it comes back to me and the non-Mormon says it’s not critical enough, it’s not clear enough, it’s not scientific enough, and the Mormon says it’s too critical. I’m often walking this tightrope because of this defensiveness when it comes to doing research about religion. That’s something I hope we get away from as people realize that there are people who do research who don’t have an agenda. Their agenda is about theory of religion, and the evolution of it, and how important it is in people’s lives. It’s not about whether they accept or reject the theology of those religions. That’s the thing that’s most important to me; I want to contribute to that without endorsing the theology or criticizing the theology. That’s a challenge, because people do sometimes conflate culture with theology. 

What was your Second Life hypothesis?
Religion is practiced primarily as this idea of ritual and also visual and cultural representations. Visual representations become meaningful for people. Given that the church has this tradition of visual representations—both borrowed from Christianity, and the ones its created itself because of the Book of Mormon story—how is that stuff co-opted in Second Life to symbolize and represent Mormonism? Which images stand out, and why?

Did the religious imagery on Adam-ondi-Ahman work for you?
My own experience was kind of surreal. There were very few people there, compared to other areas of Second Life, so I kind of felt that I was trespassing. There was a chapel there, and it looks just like an LDS chapel. It’s got the little foyer, it had the benches and the green hymnals. When I looked at that stuff, it was really convincing. You would get a message, and it would make sense, because it fit in with everything. There was another area that was a hedge maze, and it walked you through this narrative of the basic tenants of the LDS Church and the Book of Mormon. That didn’t ring so true. There’d be like gold plates with text on the plates telling you about Nephi. It started looking like Temple Square, and in those ways it looked very familiar. In other ways, because of Second Life, you could throw in stuff—anchors and compasses to represent sailing during the story of Nephi, for example. They become these visual flourishes that are entertaining and consistent with Second Life but aren’t consistent with reality. Some of those things became distracting. They may have been good in terms of giving it a straight message, but they were less numinous. Plus, you kind of felt trapped in the maze. Luckily, in Second Life you can fly.

What does numinous mean?
A numinous experience is when people have uplifting experiences. I had it at the Paul McCartney concert. There’s this kind of elevating of the soul. People are seeking the numinous in various ways nowadays. There’s a shift away from organized religion for a lot of people, toward other ways of experiencing the numinous. Some might find it at a concert, some might it on the Internet, some might find it in visiting cathedrals.

Are you LDS?
I’m not going to answer that. I get asked this all the time by my students, and they’re always trying to guess. I teach a class on Mormon culture and media. The reason I get asked that question by my students is deep down inside they’re trying to find out whether they can validate what I’m saying. So if I say I’m Mormon, the Latter-day Saints students, then they can validate the things I’m saying, even if they’re critical. On the other hand, if I say I’m not, then it invalidates what I’m saying, or they can take it with a grain of salt. In terms of my research, it stands on its own: It’s neither pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon, but the debate always gets turned into that among the local culture. My objective is to get my students away from that conversation, and be more open-minded about it. And they’re all placing bets to see if they can figure it out by the end of the semester, asking about my wife’s religion, or asking on a Monday morning what I did yesterday.

What’s your next project?
I’m going to Kentucky to a creationist museum, where they have pictures of people running around with dinosaurs. I want to look at how science is co-opted when it supports religious views, and how it is opposed as being invalid when it doesn’t.

What the your impetus for your Second Life study?
It got a lot of press about two years ago, and I started looking at it then. I’d heard that there were people using it for religious purposes. Joel Osteen has a virtual church where he’s being streamed to all these people. I wondered if the LDS Church had done anything with it, given its potential. There’s nothing official by the church in there at all, but I found this Adam-ondi-Ahman place, and I thought, “Wow, that’s fascinating.”