In the Introduction to The Religion of Technology (1997) historian David Noble writes,
“With the approach of the new millennium, we are witness to two seemingly incompatible enthusiasms, on the one hand a widespread infatuation with technological advance and a confidence in the ultimate triumph of reason, on the other a resurgence of fundamentalist faith akin to a religious revival.”
Noble believes that this will strike many readers as an incongruous juxtaposition. On the one hand, it had been assumed by Enlightenment types that the advance of technology (and science) went hand in hand with the retreat of religious belief. The plot, however, turned out to be more complex. “Today,” Noble continues, “we are seeing the simultaneous flourishing of both, not only side by side but hand in hand.”
This should not surprise us according to Noble. It is, and this is his thesis in brief, “a continuation of a thousand-year-old Western tradition in which the advance of the useful arts was inspired by and grounded upon religious expectation.”
On the other hand, “Some contemporary observers have argued … that the resurgence of religious expression testifies to the spiritual sterility of technological rationality, that religious belief is now being renewed as a necessary complement to instrumental reason …” But this view also wrongly assumes a “basic opposition” between technology and religion.
Against this assumption of opposition, Noble argues the following:
“… modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.
This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense, to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it evokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion, and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.”
Noble goes on to add that nowhere is this more evident than in the United States where “an unrivaled popular enchantment with technological advance is matched by an equally earnest popular expectation of Jesus Christ’s return.” What is often missed, according to Noble, is that these are often the same people.
Lastly, the suffusion of technology with religious faith manifests itself when
“we routinely expect more from our artificial contrivances than mere convenience, comfort, or even survival. We demand deliverance. This is apparent in our virtual obsession with technological development, in our extravagant anticipations of every new technical advance — however much each fails to deliver on its promise — and, most important, in our utter inability to think and act rationally about this presumably most rational of human endeavors.”