Technology and Religion

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Technology and Religion

Technology, understood as practical implementation of intelligence, is a matter of know-how expressing values. Thus technology must somehow relate to religion, positively, negatively, or neutrally, since religion is also supremely a matter of values and ideas. Values come first for both, though ideasstrongly valued oneswill always be importantly present in both domains as long as Homo sapiens is a thinking species.

Religions are differentiated by a conflicting plethora of symbols and beliefs, but are alike functionally in expressing worship. Worship is here understood as directed to what is taken to be of first importance (last to be sacrificed) and of widest relevance (impossible to be marginalized). Thus religion, in principle, is our most intense and comprehensive way of valuing. This is a highly abstract characterization of religion. Actual people, on this understanding, are more or less concretely religious; some, who are casual about their values and see nothing as of comprehensive importance, may hardly be religious at all. Religious institutions, made up of actual people, are also more or less religious, since admixtures of economics, politics, cultural tradition, and the like, may be expected in every major human context.

Asian religions and technology

Divergent intuitions divide the primary world religions over what is ultimately worthy of worship, and thereby influence attitudes toward technology. Hinduism, in its Vedic and Brahmanistic forms, focuses its ultimate valuations on brahman, the transcendent, impersonal principle of universal order, paradoxically identified with atman, the individual soul. Although intermediate castes include warriors, producers, and servers, all of whom might take an interest in worldly technology, the most intense and comprehensive valuations of this many-stranded religious tradition focus on the priestly caste's ultimate goal of renunciationthe termination of an otherwise endless round of birth, death, and rebirth. Implements expressing practical intelligence for uses in this world, therefore, are of little religious significance. The predominant stance of Hinduism toward technology is neutrality, bordering on indifference.

Buddhism, Hinduism's offspring religion, takes a similar posture, though with a more pronounced negative tilt. Buddhism, because of its enormous variety and complexity, as cultural form and philosophy as well as religion, resists most generalizations. But the Four Noble Truths, traditionally traced to the Buddha's first sermon following his enlightenment, are as fundamental to all versions as can be found. The First Noble Truth diagnoses the basic human condition as suffering (duhkha ), while the Second identifies craving or desire (tanha ) as the cause of this suffering. The Third Noble Truth affirms that suffering can cease with the cessation of craving, for which the Fourth prescribes an Eightfold Path (right view, right thought, right speech, etc.) as the cure. But since technology, as intelligence seeking practical goals, is fundamentally powered by a desire or craving for something either to be achieved or prevented, it is hard to imagine an honored place for it if craving itself is the primary enemy. True, Buddhism steers for a middle way between the extremes of asceticism and hedonism, and would not advocate a brutish life, devoid of tools. But since Buddhism's oldest, highest value is the state of nothingness, transcending desire as such (that is, the state of nirvana, where all craving and all suffering have completely vanished), we would look in vain to Buddhism for religious guidance on technology policy.

Confucian thought is far more practical. Its emphasis on the sage of virtue, properly hierarchical society, and correct ceremonial practices, in order to retain both balance and the blessings of heaven, is emphatically this-worldly. However, its strong emphasis on the rectitude of the ruler and on virtues proper to the sage tended to deflect concern from the humbler manual arts. Chinese technology, for all its ingenuity, developed in relative isolation from religious attentionassuming, as we do, that Confucianism qualifies as a religious phenomenon, despite its secular and humanistic spirit. This spirit expressed for its adherents what, in the widest possible context, is most to be valued.

Daoism represents another religious tradition, but one with which Confucianism was able to coexist for millennia. It is said that in the late sixth century b.c.e., Confucius visited Laozi, the Daoist philosopher, to consult him on ceremonies, adopting the role of disciple. At any rate, the cosmic balance sought in Daoism is compatible in many ways with Confucian ideals. The metaphysical scale, however, is much grander in early Daoism, formulated in the Dao de jing (or Tao-te ching; attributed to Laozi), in which the Dao (or Way) is identified as a featureless, eternal, primordial reality, the mother of the world, giving birth to all things. Unity, above all, is to be sought, with the masculine principle (yang ) requiring completion and balance with the feminine principle (yin ). Everything, metals, geographical directions, seasons, colors, and so on, could be classified in terms of these oppositions in need of harmonization, calling for a yin-yang way of life beginning with attention to one's own bodily health. To Daoism's metaphysical enlargement is added a mystical spirit strongly contrasting with Confucian worldliness. Unity is so important that it drives out the possibility of discursive thought, which inevitably breaks up into multiplicity of ideas. Similarly, the Daoist sage, unlike the Confucian, is warned against intervening in the course of events. This policy, called wu-wei, is not one of absolute inactivity, but stresses the importance of respect for the autonomy of other happenings, both in their independence from the self but also in their complete relatedness to the network of things and processes as a whole. Through disciplined nonaction the Daoist relates to the eternal Dao, finding increased personal longevity and mystic ecstacy as reward. Technology, as we know it, however, has no place within the spirituality of wu-wei. Indeed, in our short survey of the primary religious traditions of Asia, we have found none with a positive place for the technological in general.

Biblical religions and technology

The three great religions of the Book, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all have mixed records regarding technology. There are characteristic differences between them, but even greater differences between strands internal to each faith.

Judaism, as the oldest, contains within its early scriptures the fundamental tensions felt within all three of the religions rooted in the Hebrew Bible. At the outset, the created world is pronounced good (Gen. 1:31). The sun, the moon, the stars, the birds and beasts, the trees and Earth, are all realities, neither indifferent illusion nor tricky Maya, and they are of genuine importance. They are not as important as the creator, of course, but they are divinely approved. They are given their names by the first man, and they are handed into permanent human care. Adam and Eve, as exemplary humanity, are from the start commanded to till and keep the garden entrusted to them (Gen. 2:15). Even after expulsion from the initial paradise, humanity must continue to till the ground, though in consequence of the great disobedience that led to this expulsion, tilling would henceforth involve toil and sweat (Gen. 3: 1719).

In the ensuing world of mixed morality, God not only commissioned and approved the first recorded technological project (Gen. 6: 1416) but also provided the design (three hundred cubits long, three internal decks, etc.) and the specifications (gopher wood and pitch). This was for the great ark that Noah was commanded to build in order to preserve a basic breeding stock to repopulate the world after God's impending flood. There is no hint of disapproval here of tools or the practical arts in general. On the contrary, human construction is a pious act and is rewarded with survival. But immediately following the story of Noah, after the human race has had a chance to replenish itself and spread once more, the descendants of Noah are depicted as offending God by their technological hubris (Gen. 11: 19). Having only one language, they are capable of unlimited engineering ambitions and decide to construct an enormous tower, reaching all the way to heaven. Before they can succeed in such blasphemy, God says: "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech" (Gen. 11: 67, RSV). In the ensuing linguistic confusion, attempts to complete the tower of Babel are aborted. God clearly disapproves when technological pride oversteps its limits.

This duality in attitude continues to express itself in different strands of Christianity. The mystical, otherworldly side, often (but not exclusively) associated with the Eastern Church, centered in Constantinople, noteworthy for its iconography and other sacred arts, has characteristically distanced itself from the secular crafts. In contrast, the Western, European, side of Christian faith, initially centered in Rome, contains (though itself internally mixed) craft-affirming strands that have blessed technological dynamism in principle and eventually encouraged the emergence of the world of science and high technology. Those monasteries following the Rule of Saint Benedict (c. 480547) were particularly significant for maintaining a sanctified balance between prayer, reading (or copying) scripture, and practical work, including labor in the gardens and fields and devoted craftsmanship of many kinds.

Islamic religion inherited what Christians call both the Old and the New Testaments, in addition to its own Qur'han and prophetic writings. Not surprisingly, the relationship between Muslim faith and technological prowess shows the same ambivalence we have noted in the other two Biblical religions. One of the technological domains enthusiastically entered by early Islamic culture was architecture. Islam requires frequent centralized meetings of the faithful, but existing structures were seldom adequate. The earliest practice of meeting in private houses was quickly outgrown, as Arab conquest spread Islam during the seventh and eighth centuries. Existing synagogues and churches were also usually unsuitable for mosques, which were used not simply as places of worship but also as community centers. In response, the hypostyle mosque, a rectangular building of many columns supporting a roof, was invented, allowing easy expansion by the addition of columns in the event of community growth. Minarets, initially built only in non-Muslim cities as prominent vantages for calls to prayer, were also created. But, simultaneously, decoration of Muslim artifacts was tightly restricted. Fierce rejection of even a hint of idolatry in this ardently theocentric religion strongly opposes the representation of living forms, lest human creativity usurp the exclusive prerogatives of the sole Creator. Iconoclasm, familiar in Jewish prohibitions on graven imagery and appearing at least sporadically among Christians, is a powerful governor in Muslim attitudes toward arts and crafts.

Historical development

Not surprisingly, the religious background of a culture makes a large difference in its characteristic readiness to respond to or incorporate technologies, as such possibilities present themselves. In Tibet, deeply steeped in classical Buddhist thought and perception, for example, the Manichos 'khor, or prayer wheel, a mechanical device consisting of a hollow metal cylinder containing a written mantra, has been in use for centuries. Each revolution of the cylinder is thought equal to one oral recitation of the mantra. From ancient times, these prayer wheels have been attached to windmill or waterwheel devices that have served to multiply prayers without human attention or effort. But, significantly, the harnessing of wind or water power did not extend to grinding grain or sawing lumber.

Western European attitudes, set in a branch of Christianity generally favoring the biblical affirmation of the importance of creation under human dominion, were far more ready to accept technological innovation. Monks, squinting over their copy work, were quick to accept the benefits of eyeglasses, when glassblowing crafts made lenses possible. The Christian peasants of northern Europe, perhaps as early as the seventh century, invented the moldboard plow to cut deeply into and turn the soil, rather than settle for Near Eastern and southern Mediterranean plowssuited to lighter soilsthat merely scratched the surface and required cross plowing. The historian, Lynn White, Jr., comments in "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" (1967): "Formerly, man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of Northern Europe?" (p. 1205).

Countless other technologies were grasped and put to practical work by the Western Europeans, with encouragement from its dominant religion. The magnetic compass freed seamen from hugging the coasts, making European exploration (and ultimately domination) of the rest of the world practical. The voyages of Christopher Columbus and other explorers were enthusiastically supported by Church interests, and it is no coincidence that missionary priests accompanied him and other openers of the New World.

In the twentieth century, the technologies of urbanization and modernization were subjects of theological celebration by at least some Christians. In The Secular City (1966), Harvey Cox praised what he called the disenchantment of nature, the elimination of its ghostly terrors, at first permitted in biblical religions by the concentration of all sacredness in the creator, excluding everything created, and then at last achieved by the antiseptic powers of modern science. He also welcomed the desacralization of politics and the freedoms of anonymity provided by technological society.

In sharp contrast, reminding us of the deep ambivalence of the biblical religions toward technology, particularly technologies suggesting hubris or idolatry, many theological voices were raised in opposition to the atomic bomb during the twentieth century. A particularly forceful voice was that of Jacques Ellul, whose indictment of nuclear energy included not only the bomb, but also the megalomania of atomic power generation in general, and of the heedless science that makes it all possible. In a 1974 essay called "Le Rapport de l'Homme à la Création Selon la Bible " ("The Relationship between Man and Creation in the Bible"), Ellul summarizes: "The effort to affirm science by itself, without limit, as judge of everything and carrying its own legitimization inevitably involved, as the other side of the coin, the devastation of the world, the squandering of possibilities, the frenzy of destruction" (p. 153).

Contemporary challenges

Most great religions have traditional ways of dealing with such apocalyptic anticipations, and even short of apocalypse, religions have (alas) had much experience with mayhem and devastation. Standard theological responses, even when the scale of devastation is very great, may be expected. A great fire is a great fire whether caused by burning pitch, chemical explosives, or nuclear fission. What is radically new, however, is the empowerment provided by science-led (or high ) technologies to accomplish hitherto inconceivable ends.

For one major example, theoretical biology has inspired mapping the molecular basis for the complete array of genes in the cells of a human person. This could never have been so much as an objective, apart from the theoretical work leading to the understanding of the double helix of DNA codons that constitute the alphabet spelling out all living organisms. Now that the Human Genome Project has succeeded, and genetic engineering is an established technology, unprecedented practical possibilities are opened for exploitation. New powers of diagnosis of such feared diseases as Tay-Sachs, Huntington's, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy, are in human hands. Diagnosis is not cure, but genetic engineering promises the synthesis of new medical helps, such as interferon, to increase resistance to viruses. Direct somatic gene therapy is another entirely new possibility, stirring the hopes of sufferers from otherwise incurable conditions such as Huntington's disease. And, beyond curing individuals, the way is opening to modification of the their offspring, and their offspring's offspring, by engineering the germline itself to eliminate unwanted genetic conditions, either in sperm or egg, and either before conception or in the fertilized egg.

Finding adequate religious responses to these, and vastly many other, completely new human powers is the primary challenge for the future. For religions depending upon ancient scriptures to provide divine commands, there is the challenge to avoid objectionable eisegesis and special pleading when clear textual guidance is simply lacking. There is a similar challenge to avoid the common fallacy of begging the question against a technological novelty by (correctly) identifying the new as artificial, therefore (correctly) as unnatural, and therefore (fallaciously) as wrong. Simply to be artificial, the partial product of art or intelligence (and to that extent unnatural), is not necessarily to be illicit. All major religions have come to terms with the interventions of human intelligence and practical purpose in ways that alter nature. Some, like agriculture, are universally recognized as licit. Eyeglasses and hearing aids are also in this inoffensive sense unnatural. The challenge for religious thinking in radically novel cases is to wrestle with what, specifically, it is about practical interventions led by theoretical intelligencefrom in vitro fertilization to germ line therapy or even cloningthat makes them unnatural in a bad sense.

Such careful thinking, in order to be relevant and responsible, will need to become well informed about the sciences that lead new high technologies to conceive their novel technological possibilities. In this lies still another challenge for the future relations of technology and religion, since the values and belief-systems of the great religions have not hitherto been forced to take serious account of the values and belief-system of the modern sciences. Modern science has made thinkable, and modern technology has made practical, many gadgets that have been used for religious purposes inimical to the values and beliefs of science. A prime example is the use of electronic tape recorders by the Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini (19001989) in sending his fiery sermons of Islamic fundamentalism from his home in Paris, rousing the Iranian populace to overthrow Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979. Neither the scientific understanding of the electromagnetic universe, nor the scientific methods and values that made this technology possible, is compatible with the content of those sermons or with the methods and values they espoused. But it is likely that using technologies without appreciating their intellectual and valuational foundations (especially if high technologies are to be manufactured worldwide) will become increasingly difficult. Perhaps gradually, over the current millennium, if religious leaders are forced increasingly to think deeply about the unprecedented technological possibilities being opened to their followers by the practical embodiments of scientific theory, there may be an increased coming to terms with the beliefs and values of science itself.

Such a global coming to terms would require wrenching reforms but not necessarily the abandonment of essential symbols in the great religions of the world. Though it has not been easy, many Christians since Galileo have found ways of accommodating their defining beliefs to established science, and it is not impossible to conceive a similar process globally, spurred by the spread of high technology with its implicit scientific content. If this should occur, a new basis for interfaith ecumenical dialogue might gradually emerge, as well. Such a dialogue could be accelerated by common concerns shared by the great religions for global justice among persons and for the protection of our vulnerable planet against technological hubris.

See also Biotechnology; Buddhism; Chinese Religions, Confucianism and Science in China; Chinese Religions, Daoism and Science in
China; Einstein, Albert; Hinduism; Human
Genome Project; Information Technology; Islam; Judaism; Reproductive Technology; Technology; Technology and Ethics; Value, Scientific


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frederick ferrÉ


Technology and Religion