Roughly half an hour into The Matrix (1999), Neo—Keanu Reeves as the film’s messianic protagonist—reaches out to touch the once-shattered mirror beside him, which has just repaired itself before his eyes. Instead of merely leaving his fingerprints on the glass, he reaches inside the mirror, watches as it turns fluid and quicksilver. The liquid envelops him, changing him into a warped, writhing reflection of his surroundings. With a modulated scream that sounds a lot like the dial-up modems of the late ’90s, Neo is reborn into a new world; he awakens to find himself, for the very first time, in the realm of authentic reality.
The existence that greets him on the other side, dingy and Giger-esque, would not be anyone’s first choice. The Wachowskis’ Machine City, and the vast dark fields of human power cells sprawling endlessly around it, is a nightmare image for the ages: a reminder that the truth can be a bitter pill indeed.
In the “Philosophers Commentary” track available on the film’s Blu-ray edition, however, Dr. Cornel West cautions that no reality, nor “awakening,” should be trusted fully. He notes the film’s “skeptical dimension in which there are pseudo-forms of awakening, and there’s more convincing forms of awakening, so what you think you’re awakening to may in fact be another species of illusion.”
If we take for granted Philip K. Dick’s assertion that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” we might begin to see how arguments about the nature of reality and perception, vis-à-vis simulacra, are in some ways less useful than discussions of which realities provide some sort of positive social function.
Religion, for atheists and people of faith alike, is one component of social reality that does not go away. But technology affords us the opportunity to augment and refine our religious practices—even as it augments and refines us. It’s only natural that virtual reality should play a role in facilitating the development of religion, given how profound a tool it is for shaping our own experiences. Speaking with Dr. West in The Matrix’s audio commentary is writer Ken Wilber, a transpersonal psychologist who defines the search for spiritual enlightenment thus: “We’re in a world of illusion, but we can wake up to a greater reality.”
Looking back at the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and some of his public statements a decade later, it’s clear that Dick, if pressed, would have had a fairly complex answer as to just what that greater reality might be.
“Fake realities,” Dick writes in an undelivered speech from ’78, later collected in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick (1995), “will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans.” He wasn’t talking about the electric sheep and Nexus-6 models of the world but rather the authoritarian voices who would use the media to control, deceive, and therefore harm, the general population. While the Wachowskis’ Matrix allowed artificial intelligence to enslave humanity with its distinctly 21st-century pseudo-reality, the media manipulators in Dick’s novel are all about building a new era of colonialism and slavery upon the backs of “organic androids.”
Authenticity, then, is one of the key ways virtual spaces come into question: Who’s developing the software? What do they hope to gain by maintaining it? Is it a monument to the status quo, or a means of destabilizing and subverting those in power? West returns to these ideas again and again in his and Wilber’s discussion of The Matrix; according to him, the film’s resonances have to do largely with its assertions of might and free will in a world of quiet tyranny.
“God is just as real, just as omnipresent, in the world of bits and bytes as in [that of] molecules and atoms.”
Second Life, the online virtual world launched by San Francisco’s Linden Lab in 2003, is an example of a digital space with no imposed gamification or order of any kind. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that it has become home to any number of religious institutions.
Neal Locke, an ordained Presbyterian pastor who serves a congregation of about 350 people in El Paso, Texas, cofounded the First Presbyterian Church of Second Life in 2008. The VR church “has become essential to my spiritual practice and development,” Locke tells me. “I have friends and peers in this group that I have never met face to face, but know better and more intimately than most of the people in my offline community.” The virtual congregation has celebrated and shared communion, grieved the loss of fellow churchgoers, and performed the Christian liturgy together.
“These things are about as powerful and real as anything I’ve experienced offline,” says Locke. He describes a recent Pentecost Sunday, involving the reading of scripture from the Bible: “We listened to a recording from Acts 2. As our avatars stood in a circle listening, virtual tongues of flame descended upon our heads—scripted and animated by one of our members—and remained lit and flickering for the duration of the service.”
Locke explains how he once altered a virtual sanctuary to accommodate a dragon avatar. “It was a little surreal going through our usual worship service with a giant dragon sitting on the floor, reciting the Lord’s Prayer,” he says. But such surreality doesn’t diminish his experiences with the mystical. “The things we do and talk about, the funds we raise for charitable causes, are very real. And, of course, I believe that God is just as real, just as omnipresent, in the world of bits and bytes as in [that of] molecules and atoms.”
Dr. Hannah Schell, co-author of Christian Thought in America: A Brief History (2015), as well as a former student of Dr. Cornel West’s, remains unconvinced of virtual reality’s place in religious experience. “We seek out and adopt forms of technology that help us connect to other people, and so if VR does that, then I think it will become a component of everyday life—but I worry that many technological developments actually have the effect of isolating us,” she says. “More than that, they become a mechanism for withdrawal from the world, which is a temptation as old as human religious culture.”
In spite of this, Schell recognizes the potential virtual reality holds for high-intensity experiences within cyberspace, and that includes mystical ones. “Understood broadly, a mystical experience [involves] being connected to something larger than one’s self, something understood to be ultimate in some sense,” she explains. “VR technology presumably could offer such an experience, and it wouldn’t be a simulation.
“American culture tends to put a high premium on ‘experience,’ and especially on affective experiences,” Schell adds. “I could imagine a church using VR to recreate scenes from the Bible, presumably with the aim of helping people better understand the message. One stripe of American Christianity puts a high emphasis on the suffering of Jesus on the cross—and this directly correlates with the popularity of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). I can imagine VR being used toward that end.”
In Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the author envisions the perfect fictional analogue to Schell’s notion of shared suffering within a religious context. Followers of the post–World War Terminus religion of Mercerism, who commune using “empathy boxes,” inhabit the body of an aging, wounded messiah figure called Wilbur Mercer as he struggles to scale a mountain in the midst of an irradiated desert.
The central tenet of Mercerism is that human beings ought to cultivate empathy for all other life forms—for animals and for one another—to the fullest extent possible. The irony being, of course, that the book’s protagonist, Rick Deckard, earns his living hunting down and killing androids for the state. When a television report declares Mercer a hoax, Deckard rejects the idea.“Mercerism isn’t a fake,” he says. “Unless reality is a fake.” Whether we’re looking at the films of the Wachowskis, the transrealist works of Philip K. Dick, or the future of VR, it’s always going to be worth finding out about the man behind the curtain. But authentic experiences, spiritual or otherwise, happen at the level of the individual.