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Friday, June 9 • 1:30pm - 1:50pm
How Do We See What Takes Place?: Dilemmas in the Creation of Educational XR Experiences of Religious Rituals

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This paper will present outcomes of a NEH supported workshop exploring the creation of extended reality (XR) experiences of religious rituals. The proposed resources would capture a selection of rites using 360-degree video while incorporating interactive commentary from scholars, clerics, and practitioners. An interdisciplinary cast of scholars met over two days with digital humanists and immersive media creators to discuss best practices for designing and producing these assets. I will address three questions from the workshop relevant to the critical making of educational XR resources for the study of religion:
  • How can we avoid reiterating the Euro- and Christo-centric “world religions” paradigm in selecting which rituals to record?
  • How might XR’s ability to approximate presence help combat religious discrimination and xenophobia?
  • How can we responsibly work with communities towards ethically recording and explaining religious practices?
  • What are the limitations of XR regarding rituals, both in terms of sensory experience and accessibility in delivery.
Choosing what rituals to record immediately raised concerns about religious essentializing. Selection implicitly communicates a determination of what constitutes a “religious” ritual versus, for example, a “cultural” celebration, which historically has led to the marginalization of indigenous and diasporic religious forms of life. Moreover, portraying a single ritual construction as representational of any tradition is irresponsible, while including every ritual nuance between lineages is impossible. Workshop participants determined to first use institutional networks (e.g. individual students, campus religious groups, or faith and spirituality centers) to identify interested communities rather than attempting to establish a list of rituals to engage.

Site visits have long been a feature of “world religions” classes, exposing students to spaces and viewpoints they are unlikely to encounter on their own. XR offers the opportunity to approximate presence at sacred spaces as well as experiencing first-hand the practices that take place in those venues. Cultural exposure mediated through XR has potential to increase empathy by humanizing those whose practices are unfamiliar to students, and religious practices are particularly well suited for such exposure. Treating religious rituals which are familiar in the same way as those which are not—as well as those often altogether excluded—can expand students’ understanding of religions as well as the boundaries of religion itself.

Effectively doing so will require thorough and consistent participation from these communities of practice. Visual anthropology has long recognized the dangers of treating cultural enclaves as mere subjects to be studied, and the workshop early determined that partnering with those whose practices would be recorded was essential. Plans were made to highlight the group’s voices and experiences; participants will guide users through the preparation for and participation in the rites, along with surrounding “microrituals” often ignored in academic studies.

Issues of equitable treatment and diverse representation are salient not only for the recording of cultural practices but are from the start essential considerations if we are to avoid imposing external meanings or reinforcing outmoded ways of thinking about religion. The result will not only allow mediated experiences of sacred practices, but will soundly connect those practices with living religious communities.


John Soboslai

Assistant Professor, Montclair State University

Friday June 9, 2023 1:30pm - 1:50pm EDT
PS 405 (Design Center)