The Religion of Technology

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.”

5 thoughts on “The Religion of Technology

  1. I am wondering what he has to say about the Catholic Church’s reign of terror over the advancement of technology during the dark ages and the persecution of Galileo. What about the climate change deniers most of them are religious. I would say that people that are into technology may be religious in their acceptance of technological innovation but organized religion has often been opposed to scientific progress. Is he saying that religious people use computers? Fundamentalism in any context has to do with going back not forward.

    1. Well, I think he would say that it is all a bit more complicated than that. Perhaps distinguishing between science and technology is the first consideration. The Galileo affair, at least as it is popularly understood (a mostly ideological affair) is an episode in the relationship between science and theology. Noble is interested in the less commented upon relationship between technology and religion (in the West, which amounts to Christianity). The opening chapters of Noble’s book are a chronology of the theological origins of technological development beginning around the tenth century. The monasteries, for example, where seedbeds of technological innovation (watermills, windmills, glasses, mechanisms for metal-forging, mechanical clock, spring wheels, etc.). He then proceeds to the religious motivations operating among many of the early modern promoters and developers of technology (e.g., Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, etc.). Following historian Lynn White’s work on medieval technology, Noble more or less argues that the explosion of technological innovation in the West is owed in part to the particular theological climate of the late Middle Ages.

      This also reminds me of a great quote from new media scholar Henry Jenkins:

      “Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

  2. For most of history, it seems to me, religion has been central in the advance of knowledge. As you say, Michael, the monks were developing all kinds of things. I believe they were also into medicine and herbal remedies. Certainly religion tried to block developments that appeared to go against doctrine, as in the case of Galileo who challenged the basic world view of Judeo-Christian faith. At the same time even Darwin did not have in mind tearing the two disciplines apart, although he certainly must have been cautious in what he said and published and I think eventually he did give up his faith — and possibly this was his response to the outcry from the church of his time . But this separation is largely a twentieth century thing when people’s view of authority changed from religious doctrine to a rational methodology that became authoritative in and of itself. But still many scientists continued and do today being persons of faith and see strong relationships between their work and their religious world view. For these people the discoveries of science expand our understanding of God’s universe. I do, of course, have a scientist friend who told me his scientist friends sneer at his church-going, and I’m sure quite a few people have similar attitudes. Still, a concurrent movement continues of theologians who study and include science in their world views. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic scholar is one of the earlier ones. Diarmuid O’Murchu is another. J. C. Polkinghorne is another. And so on. Unfortunately, about technological developments, I know much less, and continue to read with interest.

    1. As your comments suggest, it is a complicated relationship to be sure. Part of the complexity arises from the vagueness of the word “religion” when we’re talking about religion and science. One may be better off talking about more concrete and particular cases. At any rate, certainly alongside those who have taken a more oppositional stance (and they seem to get most of the attention), there have been many who have sought and lived with a synthesis of some sort. Francis Collins comes to mind along with those you’ve mentioned. And ne need look no further than Francis Bacon for a religious inspired vision of technological progress.

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