Many secularists and nonbelievers of various sorts tend to regard religion and science as fundamentally incompatible. This incompatibility is also imagined to extend to the relationship between religion and technology, since technology is a product of science and science cannot proceed without technology, especially today. Thus atheists marvel in disbelief how many engineers are also creationists, how many people in high-tech industries display high-energy religious motivations.
Why do we witness widespread enchantment with technology and at the same time a world-wide resurgence of religious fundamentalism? We shouldn't assume that the rise of both is simply coincidence. Instead of presuming that the education and training behind science and technology should always result in more religious skepticism and even a bit more atheism, we should wonder if perhaps empirical observations are actually disconfirming our ideas. Atheists are often ready to criticize theists for failing to deal with evidence that doesn't meet expectations, so let's not fall into that same trap.
Perhaps there are religious impulses underlying the drive of technology which has characterized modernity — religious impulses which might affect otherwise secular atheists, too, if they aren't self-aware enough to notice what's going on. In this way, unnoticed premises or attitudes will prevent technology and religion from being incompatible. Perhaps technology itself is becoming religious on its own, thus also eliminating incompatibilities.
Both possibilities should be explored and I think both are occurring to varying degrees. Indeed, I think that both have been happening for hundreds of years, but the clear religious foundations for technological advancement are either ignored or hidden away like embarrassing relatives. The enthusiasm so many people have had with technology is often rooted — sometimes unknowingly — in religious myths and ancient dreams.
This is unfortunate because technology has proven itself capable of causing terrible problems for humanity, and one of the reasons for this may be the religious impulses people are ignoring. Technology, like science, is a defining mark of modernity and if the future is to improve, certain elemental premises will have to be identified, acknowledged, and hopefully eliminated.
For a thousand years in Western culture, the advancement of the mechanical arts — technology — has been inspired by deep religious desires of transcendence and redemption. Although currently obscured by secular language and ideology, the contemporary resurgence of religion, even fundamentalism, alongside and hand-in-hand with technology is thus not an aberration but simply the reassertion of a forgotten tradition. If you don't recognize and understand how religious and technological transcendence have developed together, you'll never be able to successfully counter them — much less recognize when they might be developing within you as well.
Early in the Christian era, nothing like this was considered. Augustine wrote in The City of God that "quite apart from those supernatural arts of living in virtue and reaching immortal beatitude," nothing humans can do can offer any sort of solace for a life condemned to misery. The mechanical arts, no matter how advanced, existed solely to aid fallen humans and nothing more. Redemption and transcendence could only be achieved through the unearned Grace of God.
This began to change in the Early Middle Ages. Although the reason is uncertain, historian Lynn White has suggested that the introduction of the heavy plow around the late 8th century into Western Europe may have played a role. We are accustomed to the idea of humanity's subjugation of the environment, but we need to be reminded that people didn't always see things this way. In Genesis, man had been given dominion over the natural world, but then sinned and lost it, and thereafter had to earn his way "by the sweat of his brow."
Through the help of technology, though, man could gain back some of that dominance and accomplish things he never could have alone. Instead of Nature always being one up on man, so to speak, the relationship between man and Nature was reversed — the capacity of the machine to do work became the new standard, allowing man to exploit what he had. The heavy plow might not seem like a big deal, but it was the first and important step in the process.
After this, machines and mechanical arts began to be depicted in the monastic illumination of calendars, in contrast to the previous use of solely spiritual images. Other illuminations depict technological advancements aiding the righteous armies of God while the evil opposition is depicted as technologically inferior. It may be here that we see the first tendrils of this attitude shift taking hold and technology becoming an aspect of Christian virtue. Quite simply: what was good and productive in life became identified with the prevailing religious system.
It is important to note that according to the prevailing patristic theology, humans were divine only in their spiritual nature. The body was fallen and sinful, so redemption could be achieved only by transcending the body. Technology provided a means to this by allowing a human to achieve much more than was otherwise physically possible.
Technology was declared by Carolingian philosopher Erigena (who coined the term artes mechanicae, mechanical arts) to be part of humanity's original endowment from God and not a product of our later fallen state. He wrote that the arts are "man's links to the Divine, [and] cultivating them a means to salvation." Through effort and study, our pre-Fall powers could perhaps be regained and thus we would be well along to achieving perfection and redemption.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this ideological shift. Mechanical arts were no longer simply a raw necessity for fallen humans; instead, they had become Christianized and invested with a spiritual significance that would only grow over time.
A new millennium mentality developed, making explicit use of the fruits of technology. Human history was redefined away from Augustine's concept of tiresome and tearful time and towards an active pursuit: attempts to achieve perfection. No longer were people expected to face a bleak history passively and blindly. Instead, people are expected to consciously work on perfecting themselves — partially through the use of technology.
The more mechanical arts developed and knowledge increased, the more it looked like humanity was coming closer to the end. Columbus, for example, thought that world would end in around 150 years from his time and even regarded himself as playing a role in the fulfillment of end-times prophecies. He had a hand in both the broadening of marine technology and raw knowledge development with the discovery of new continents. Both were regarded by many as important milestones on the path to perfection and, hence, The End.Thus, technology was becoming part and parcel of eschatology.
Their attempts to increase knowledge about the world and improve human technology was not part of a dispassionate program to simply learn about the world, but instead to be active in millennarian expectations of Apocalypse. Technology played a key role in this as the means by which humans regained mastery over the natural world which was promised in Genesis but which humanity lost in the Fall. As historian Charles Webster observes, "The Puritans genuinely thought that each step in the conquest of nature represented a move towards the millennial condition."
Antichrist will use these means freely and effectively, in order that he may crush and confound the power of this world... the Church should consider employment of these inventions because of future perils in the times of Antichrist which with the grace of God it would be easy to meet, if prelates and princes promoted study and investigated the secrets of nature.Bacon also believed, like others, that technological know-how was an original birthright of humanity which had simply been lost in the Fall. Writing in his Opus Majus, he suggested the contemporary gaps in human understanding stem directly from Original Sin: "Owing to original sin and the particular sins of the individual, part of the image has been damaged, for reason is blind, memory is weak, and the will depraved."
So for Roger Bacon, one of the early lights of scientific rationalism, the pursuit of knowledge and technology had three reasons: First, so that the benefits of technology would not be the sole province of the Antichrist; second, in order to regain power and knowledge lost after the Fall in Eden; and third, in order to overcome current individual sins and achieve spiritual perfection.
The Royal Society was founded in 1660 for the purpose of improving general knowledge and practical knowledge; its Fellows worked at experimental inquiries and the mechanical arts. Philosophically and scientifically, the founders were strongly influenced by Francis Bacon. John Wilkins, for example, claimed in The Beauty of Providence that the advancement of scientific knowledge would allow humanity to recover from the Fall.
Robert Hooke wrote that the Royal Society existed "to attempt the recovery of such allowable arts and inventions as are lost." Thomas Sprat was certain that science was the prefect way to establish "man's redemption." Robert Boyle thought that scientists had a special relationship with God — that they were "born the priest of nature" and that they would ultimately "have a far greater knowledge of God's wonderful universe than Adam himself could have had."
The Freemasons are a direct outgrowth and excellent example of this. In Masonic writings, God is identified very specifically as a practitioner of mechanical arts, most often as the "Great Architect" who had "the Liberal Sciences, particularly Geometry, written on his Heart." Members are encouraged to practice the same scientific arts not only to reclaim lost Adamic knowledge but also to become more God-like. Freemasonry was a means to redemption and perfection through the
cultivation of science and technology.
A particular legacy of Freemasonry for the rest of society is the development of engineering as a profession by Freemasons in England. August Comte wrote of the role engineers would play in humanity's reclamation of Eden: "the establishment of the class of engineers... will, without doubt, constitute the direct and necessary instrument of coalition between men of science and industrialists, by which alone the new social order can commence." Comte suggested that they, the new priesthood, imitate priests and monks by renouncing pleasures of the flesh.
An example of the first can be found in modern space exploration. The father of modern rocketry, Werner Von Braun, made use of Christian millennarianism to explain his desire to send humans into space. He wrote that the world was "turned upside down" when Jesus came to earth and that "the same thing can happen again today" by exploring space. Science did not conflict with his religion, but instead confirmed it: "In this reaching of the new millennium through faith in Jesus Christ, science can be a valuable tool rather than an impediment." The "millennium" he spoke of was the End Times.
This religious fervor was carried along by other leaders of America's space program. Jerry Klumas, once a veteran systems engineer at NASA, wrote that explicit Christianity was normal at the Johnson space center and that the increase in knowledge brought by the space program was a fulfillment of the aforementioned prophecy in Daniel.
All the first American astronauts were devout Protestants. It was common for them to engage in religious rituals or reveries when in space and they generally reported that the experience of space flight reaffirmed their religious faith. The first manned mission to the moon broadcast back a reading from Genesis. Even before astronauts stepped out onto the moon, Edwin Aldrin took communion in the capsule — this was the first liquid and first food eaten on the moon. He later recalled that he viewed the earth from a "physically transcendent" perspective and hoped that space exploration would cause people to be "awakened once again to the mythic dimensions of man.
Edward Fredkin, an early apostle and researcher in AI, became convinced that its development was the only hope for prevailing over human limitations and insanity. According to him, it was possible to view the world as a "great computer" and he wanted to write a "global algorithm" which, if methodically executed, would lead to peace and harmony.
Marvin Minsky, who directed the AI program at MIT, regarded the human brain as nothing more than a "meat machine" and the body as a "bloody mess of organic matter." It was his hope to achieve something more and something greater — some means of transcending what his humanity was. Both brain and body were, in his opinion, easily replaceable by machines. When it comes to life, only the "mind" is really important and that was something he wanted to achieve by technology.
There are common desires among AI community members to use machines to transcend their own lives: download their "minds" into machines and perhaps live forever. Hans Moravec has written that intelligent machines would provide humanity with "personal immortality by mind transplant" and that this would be a "defense against the wanton loss of knowledge and function that is the worst aspect of personal death.
If you read the writings of many of the technophiles who work hardest to promote the use of cyberspace, you cannot help but to be struck by the obvious mysticism inherent in the experiences they are attempting to describe. Karen Armstrong has described the mystic's experience of communion as "a sense of unity of all things... the sense of absorption in a larger, ineffable reality." Although she had traditional religious systems in mind, it is worth remembering this description as we look at ostensibly non-religious statements from secular apostles of cyberspace.
John Brockman, digital publisher and author, has written "I am the Internet. I am the World Wide Web. I am information. I am content." Michael Heim, consultant and philosopher, has written: "Our fascination with computers... is more deeply spiritual than utilitarian. When on-line, we break free from bodily existence." We then emulate the "perspective of God", an all-at-oneness of "divine knowledge." Michael Benedikt writes "Reality is death. If only we could, we would wander the
earth and never leave home; we would enjoy triumphs without risks and eat of the Tree and not be punished, consort daily with angels, enter heaven now and not die."
But what should concern secularists and nonbelievers more is the fact that those religious aspirations are not always obviously religious in nature — and if they aren't so obviously religious in the traditional sense, one might not recognize a growing religious impulse within themselves. Sometimes, the desire or promotion of technological progress has stemmed from the fundamental religious impulse to transcend humanity. While the traditional religious stories and mythology (such as explicit Christian references to Eden) may have since fallen away, the impulse remains fundamentally religious, even when this is no longer recognizable to those actively engaged in it.
For all the other-worldly goals of transcendence, however, very worldly powers have benefitted. Benedictine monks were among the first to use technology as a spiritual tool, but eventually their status depended upon their loyalty to kings and popes — and so labor stopped being a form of prayer and became a means for wealth and taxes. Francis Bacon dreamed of technological redemption, but achieved the enrichment of the royal court and always placed the leadership of a new Eden in the hands of aristocratic and scientific elite.
The pattern continues today: the developers of nuclear weapons, space exploration and artificial intelligence may be propelled by religious desires, but they are sustained by military financing and the results of their labors are more powerful governments, more pernicious status quo, and a more preeminent elite of technocrats.
For many, the development of new technologies has been about transcending mortal and material concerns completely. When an ideology, a religion, or a technology is pursued for the purpose of escaping the human condition where problems and disappointments are a fact of life, then it shouldn't be at all surprising when those human problems are not really solved, when human needs are not entirely met and new problems are produced.
This is itself a fundamental problem with religion and why technology can be a menace — especially when pursued for religious reasons. I am by no means a luddite and do not dispute the use of technology. For all the problems which we create for ourselves, only we will be able to solve them — and technology will be one of our principle means. What is required is not so much a change of means by abandoning technology, but a change in ideology by abandoning the misguided desire for transcending the human condition and taking flight from the world.
This won't be easy to do. Over the past couple of centuries, technological development has come to be seen inevitable and essentially deterministic. The use and development of technology has been removed from political and ideological debates. The goals are no longer considered, just the means. It has been assumed that technological progress will automatically result in an improved society — just witness the race to install computers in schools without any consideration of how they will be used, much less any attempt to consider who will pay for technicians, upgrades, training and maintenance once the computers are purchased. Asking about this is seen as irrelevant — and worse, irreverent.
But this is something which we atheists and secularists in particular must ask ourselves. A great many of us are big promoters of technology. Most reading this on the internet are big fans of the powers and potentials of cyberspace. We have already rejected traditional religious mythologies as motivations in our lives, but have any of us missed inherited motivations towards transcendence in our technological boosterism? How many secular atheists who otherwise spend time critiquing religion are actually driven by an unrecognized religious impulse to transcend humanity when they are promoting science or technology?We must take a long, hard look at ourselves and answer honestly: are we looking to technology to escape the human condition with all its problems and disappointments? Or are we instead looking to enhance the human condition, flaws and imperfections notwithstanding?