Questions Concerning Technology (And Religion)

I’m turning now to writing a chapter for a college-level introductory textbook on religion. My chapter raises issues pertaining to “Technology and Religion.” I’m working with a swarm of ideas; I raise the topic here since readers of this blog include some who know more than I about both topics and many who know more than I about one or the other — I’m very interested in feedback.

I plan to point out that the present pace of technological innovation heightens our awareness of technology’s role in life — hence all the more acutely, its role in religious life, which genreally tends toward the traditional or the timeless — cultures have been dealing with technological change all along. Religions have been evaluating technologies for their spiritual implications for ages, and have simultaneously been devising specifically religious technologies. (Two cases in point: question of musical instruments in Christian worship, and role of prayer wheels in Tibetan Buddhism. More examples would vastly enrich the chapter, which will otherwise follow my idiosyncratic tendency to drift toward abstraction and theory.)

Other points I’ll try to work in:

  • With specific reference to digital technology, if “code is law” (Lessig, citing William Mitchell), what account does one offer of spiritual “freedom”? (Does that make hackers into digital apostles?)
  • Might technology reflect a sort of practical theology of mechanical culture?
  • To the extent that technology entails a reallocation of power, to what extent is that reallocation consensual and benign, to what extent is it coercive and destructive?
  • How do intuitions about the nature of the the self/soul intersect with technological prostheses? When I drive, I sense the car to be a semi-sensate extension of my being; many of us refer to our computers as “outboard brains,” and the feeling of devastating loss when a hard drive fails or a computer is stolen bespeak a more powerful connection than solely that to lost property.
  • Many religious questions involve divergent assessments of material and non-material realities (along with divergent means of distinguishing them, etc.). Can we draw any conclusions relative to religious expressions that affirm the goodness of material creation and their assessments of technology, or religious expressions that deny the goodness of material creation and their assessments of technology?
  • To the extent that technology involves amplifying convenience or comfort (hence removes its users from the labors attendant upon obtaining, producing, maintaining objects of our attention), does technology then constitute an interruption of our relation to our environment (and is that a bad thing)?
  • What is the relation of religious expressions mediated by digital technology — say, in a “virtual” environemnt — to religious expressions in a physical environment, and on what basis does one make that evaluation?

I’m sure there’s more that ’s not occurring to me at the moment, and I don’t know how the chapter will flow, but these are the points that press on my authorial awareness this morning.

(Yes, I’ll make some bibliographic suggestions, including Heidegger’s “Question Concerning Technology,” Ray Kurzweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines, Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure. . . . Others?)

Mark says:

I’ve been thinking about some of this…
Quentin Schultze asks some good questions: [in] Hasbits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age

I also like Jacques Ellul’s “76 Reasonable Questions to ask about any technology.”


[Thanks, Mark! I’ll point to Ellul, for sure, and will look at Schulze (I have a vague recollection of having seen it, perhaps in proofs, but I haven’t read it carefully).]

Michael said:

Good afternoon,

I saw your post and thought I’d drop a short comment.

My idea is this; most people have more faith in technology than they do in God.

People take it on faith that planes won’t fall out of the sky with them in it, or that the x-ray won’t kill them, or that the devices a doctor uses to keep them alive during an operation will work. They don’t research wing lift and engine forces and completely understand the equations of flight, they simply BELIEVE it will work. They trust technology with with their lives in a way that very, very few trust God to protect them.

Some have this kind of blind and complete faith in religion, but most don’t. When faced with hard choices, many turn to technology rather than God to solve their problems.

To me, this is often missed in the science vs. religion discussions that surround teaching evolution. Deeply religious people can have complete faith in the scientific method in 99% of what it produces, but in the 1% that comes into conflict with their worldview, they side with religion.

Perhaps I am looking for logic in belief, which is likely a fool’s errand, but it a question that I can’t seem to resolve in my mind. How do ‘true believers’ balance their faith in God with their faith in science and choose which path to follow.

Have a good week,


[Thanks, Michael, great to hear from you! I hadn’t factored in the sense of the word “faith” or “belief” — I’ll have to think this over more.]

My helpful mother-in-law Pat adds,

Does “time” enter into this?
Quoting M. L’Engle from the ELO story today:
In November 2000, she told an interviewer for Religion and Ethics Newsweekly that suffering and grief are a part of life.
“In times when we are not particularly suffering, we do not have enough time for God,” she said. “We are too busy with other things. And then the intense suffering comes, and we can not be busy with other things. And then God comes into the equation. Help. And we should never be afraid of crying out, ‘Help!’ I need all the help I can get.”

My personal feeling about playing the violin is that the violin and bow are not any form of technology in my hands. It feels as if the violin and I are one, involved with God in creating music that flows with a life of its own. I can practice and put energy into the preparation but at that mystical moment when all fits together, the music comes from somewhere beyond me. It’s awesome and humbling and certainly a religious experience in my book.

Playing piano or organ has some of the same elements but somehow the violin is a stronger image (and feel) to me.

with love
Pat : )
[Lovely points, Pat! With regard to the first, time is absolutely pertinent to the topic — since technology in so many respects serves to “save time” (also, of course, to “pass time” or more darkly to “kill time”). Technology amplifies the differences in time among different cultural settings; where farms are cultivated through manual labor, “time” carries a different cast from places where traders make electronic transactions around the clock. So technology and time interact powerfully, with significant religious ramifications.

Madeleine L’Engle touches on another aspect of the topic, for technology tends to minimize our reliance on outside agency (as long as the technology is working): thanks to my refrigerator, (time-saving) microwave, telephone, internet-connected computer, and various delivery technologies, I could remain secluded in my quarters for days at a time. Of course, all this technological power simply masks our increased neediness, since now we’re relying not only on farmers and merchants, but on technology providers and maintainers, and on the technology on which all of them rely. As a subsistence farmer, the technology I’m counting on may all be manually constructed and maintained; but if I were a network sysadmin, my whole way of life would depend on technologies that I could only partly construct or maintain; technology conceals, but does not obviate, our need for help.

And for the last, the violin still remains a technological artifact; it’s a made thing, not a musical mushroom or resonant stone (and I’d argue that even found objects deployed for music-making partake of the technological, but that’s a separable issue). But yes, the interaction of musician and violin gives the impression of becoming an extension of the musician’s own being. And an accomplished musician is surely not stopping to deliberate and make choices about which notes to strike, which fingers to move where. At what point does the technology effectively become part of the human operator’s own identity?

To which point, Mary reminds me:

I’m having lots of thoughts about your post concerning the textbook chapter, but not much time to comment today (and when I went to the site, I have managed — ONCE AGAIN! — to lose my typekey registration [Not using it, just entering comments manually, sorry]). Anyway, before I forgot, I wanted to note that in terms of questions about where the body ends and machines begin (something implied in some of your musings), I have always really liked John Hockenberry’s essay in Wired, back in 2001.

[Thanks, Mary! And I heard Dan Gottlieb touch on some of these matters in an August broadcast of “Voices In The Family” about “virtual worlds,” too. I didn’t say anything in the post about “virtual,” since I don’t believe it’s a helpful category — but I expect that I need to spell that out in the chapter (which seems to be getting longer and longer as my friends leave helpful comments).]

Finally, for now, Matthew offered:

You asked for examples of specifically religious technologies. I immediately thought of orthopraxy and the precision newer technologies can offer. This might not fit, its more a religious use of existing tech, but I used to work with a Muslim who set his watch alarm to remind him when it was time for the daily prayers. A quick google turned up a version that plays the entire call to prayer (the link tries to play audio without asking):

Other random thoughts that I haven’t even googled: surgical tools and techniques for Jewish circumcision rites, astrological tools to measure/predict events in the sky (Stonehenge = early religious technology?), and printing technology – from Gutenberg to tomorrow’s leaflets.

[All quite apposite, all quite helpful. Stonehenge will almost certainly make its way into the chapter, as itself a technology and as (presumably) technologically-afforded; the builders got the stones there somehow, arranged them somehow, which “how” presumably entails some technological application or another.]

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