Technology and Religion?

I was going to comment retrospectively on Tom’s post about the Bible and “proper” understanding, but Paul and Tom and Phil far outdid anything I’d be able to cobble together.

So instead, I’ll summarize the article about technology and religion that I sent in to my editor.

In the opening paragraphs, I try to sketch the extent to which technology permeates contemporary culture. While one can imagine a hermit who eschews all fabricated advantages, or a bleeding-edge early adopter who embraces all technologies without hesitation, the vast preponderance of religious adherents fall into a middle area that accepts some technologies and rejects others, very often without careful analysis.

I then begin by proposing a very rough characterization of religious faith that repudiates the material world in favor of the spirit, and religious faith that endorses the material world as an expression of the human spirit. Such a convenient taxonomy might shed some light on religious attitudes toward technology, but it occludes mediating positions or religious perspectives that construe technology in itself as indifferent, but concentrate on its effects on believers.

I call attention to technology’s propensity to foreground its advantages and to suppress its costs. The capacity to drive across town to obtain a take-out pizza constitutes a delicious benefit of automotive transportation, but that benefit occludes the chain of dependency, pollution, and exploitation that produce and sustain the car. While advocates of technology can concentrate on the vast advantages that technological devices bestow, religious thinkers will want to keep a steadfast eye on all the labor, spoliation, waste, and pollution on which technologies depend.

Moreover, technologies insinuate themselves into their users’ lives so as to constitute aspects of their own identity. A musician senses the familiar instrument to be an extension of her or his own self; a driver does not simply operate a car, but feels with it (and responds to its traumas and triumphs as though they involved the driver’s own self. Indeed, sometimes technological devices become appendages of their users (glasses, for an external example, or a pacemaker for a life-sustaining internal device).

As technology shades into personal identity, though, we encounter the perplexing zone where organic identity and technological identity become difficult to parse. A copious literature explores the zone where “robots” and humans interact in ways that call into question the artificiality of the android and the humanity of the biological person.

(Here I note in passing a point I owe to Chris Locke — that especially in the field of “artificial intelligence,” technology comes with the hereditary influence of its progenitors in the military-industrial complex, and the apple rarely falls far from the tree.)

The conundrum of technological humanity, the cyborg, often evokes the suspicion that the technological aspect of something (or someone) is not real. I’ve been asked more than once if certain of my friends are “real friends” or “online friends.” But no matter how you slice it, online interactions involve reality in some way or another; they are actual interactions, not hallucinations or fantasies.

We need to take seriously the religious significance of technology (and the technological dimensions of religious life) in part because the two have always been intertwined — from Stonehenge to temples. St Paul relied on the virtual presence made possible by letters to communicate with far-flung congregations; the buildings and appliances that serve religious purposes may involve digital technology as well as mechanical technology.

If machines can approximate humanness, and digital reality remains nonetheless real, though, what shall we say about technological spirituality? I take several paragraphs to explore the meaning of “religious behavior” in a digital online environment. Can toons pray? Can toons participate effectually in religious ritual? What criteria apply to the legitimacy of spiritual interactions online? Can one really be married in an online ceremony? (Are the toons involved married, but not their users?)

In a section that sends long roots back to my earliest arguments with David Weinberger, I insist that the internet doesn’t constitute a place — but (showing, I hope, a respectful appreciation of what he’s taught me since then) I underscore that the two-dimensional non-spatial nexus is not like any other two-dimensional entity with which we’re acquainted. Our near-instant access to the limitless extent of the expanding Web, and the fact that the Web interacts with time very differently from the ways that conventional spaces do, enrich the online environment with (non-literal) depth that three-dimensional spaces lack. The difference of the digital world approaches constituting the “sufficiently advanced” condition that Arthur C Clarke equates with “magic”; and since comparativists have long submitted that magic and religion are formally indistinguishable, we may fairly suggest that the Web offers users a magical, religious environment.

So to sum up, it is with good reason that people say both “God is in the details” and “the Devil is in the details.” Either way, it’s the details of technology that pertain to religious evaluation (and the details of religious particularity that will determine the status of technologies). As religions have struggled with whether to permit musical instruments, electrical lights, or other technological affordances, they will gradually come to terms with digital technology, in ways that vary according to the technology and the religion involved.

(Here’s a full PDF of the essay draft as submitted.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *