While religion may not be the first topic that comes to mind when thinking about the cultural aspects that have affected the development of human technologies, according to some, religion has not only influenced the development of technology, but lies as the root of the technological and scientific developments that spawned the industrial and the technical ages. In his 1967 article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Lynn White suggests that the Judeo-Christian tradition deeply transformed man’s relationship with nature, and that this transformation in turn gave way to the scientific and technological revolutions. This essay attempts to assess White’s claims, and those posed by other authors, in order to better understand the role played by religion in the development of technology.
White’s article is based on the argument that the Judeo-Christian tradition set the conditions for man’s exploitation of nature in two main ways. First, it created a dualism of man and nature: “although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image” (White 1967, 1205). Second, it called man to dominate and exploit nature: “Christianity …also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (Ibid, 1205). White argues that both of these conditions, the nature/man dualism and the call to dominate nature, were inexistent before Christianity:
“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men; centaurs, fauns and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated.” (Ibid, 1205)
Furthermore, White directly links the Christian concept of natural theology, “[t]he religious study of nature for the better understanding of God” (Ibid, 1206), both with modern science and modern technology:
“Modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology and…modern technology is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature.” (Ibid, 1206)
White’s thesis - that Christianity directly influenced science and technology - is based on the supposition that Christianity radically changed man’s relationship with nature, which spurred the advent of technological advances. This assumption, however, is flawed on at least two levels. First, many pagan or non-Christian societies may have had a closer relationship with nature in theory, but in reality were as detrimental to nature, or even more so, than Christian societies. Second, many pagan and non-Christian societies also developed very significant technological advances.
Easter Island is a great example of a non-Christian society whose religion was also highly detrimental to nature; in fact, religion was one of the main forces that drove to the deforestation of the island and to the later collapse of its society (Garcia-Montufar 2007). The religious beliefs of the inhabitants of Easter Island called for the construction of large stone statues called moai; these required great technological undertakings for their construction and transportation: “ The elaboration, transportation and erection of the statues demanded great amounts of wood, which the islanders obtained by logging a huge palm tree native to the island.” (Ibid) Furthermore, other aspects of the religion of Easter Island also required technological feats that were detrimental to nature: “Burial rituals that involved cremation also required large amounts of lumber for burning bodies.” (Ibid) Little is known today about Easter Island’s religion, but it is certain that it had no contact with or influence from Christianity. As such, even if the religion of the island involved a close relationship of man with nature in theory, this relationship was not achieved in practice; in reality, the religion of Easter Island called for man to dominate and exploit nature, in the same way that White claims Christianity did in the West. Moreover, one does see that religion - in the form of the moai that the islanders had to build - influenced technological advances in the island, especially those having to do with transportation and construction of the statues. These advances still perplex us today. Moai , averaging 14 tons (the largest one weighed 165 tons), had to be transported about six kilometers from the quarry. All this was done without wheels or electric power.
White’s claim that modern technological advances are “at least partly” to be explained by the Judeo-Christian idea of man’s right to exploitation of nature also includes two flaws (White 1967, 1205). First, it continues to ignore the fact that everywhere – not only in Christian societies – man has exploited and dominated nature. Second, it totally ignores the development of technologies very similar to what one might call “modern technology” in the non-Christian world; in fact, it ignores that a significant number of Western technological innovations were derived from those of non-Western societies.
Dick Teresi points out in his book Lost discoveries: the ancient roots of modern science that “Francis Bacon wrote that three inventions – gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and paper and printing – transformed the modern world and marked it off from antiquity and the Middle Ages. They all came from China.” (2002, 326) What is more, Teresi suggests that many European inventions- like adjustable type, antibiotics and advanced maritime technology- were simply copies of ancient ones, “these ancient inventors may have given the West a chance to ‘reinvent’ and rename their innovations.” (Ibid, 366) These examples weaken the argument that technological advances were a result of a Judeo-Christian dogma. Perhaps, the supremacy of man over nature was a defining factor in the development of technological advances, but this was not an exclusively Judeo-Christian phenomenon.
Thus far, it has been demonstrated that Christianity was not the only religion that called for a dominion over nature, nor was it the only religion that called for “modern” technological advances. The question therefore becomes whether the nature/man dichotomy and the development technology were influenced by religion or not. According to the influential twentieth century Christian theologian Emil Brunner, man’s transcendence of nature and technological innovations were not influenced by religion. “Human history begins with the invention of the first stone tool, that is, with technics. It is in the shape of homo faber that man first shows himself as a being transcending nature.” (Brunner 1949, 1) Thus, it was probably an exogenous developmental force, not religion, which resulted in man’s supremacy over nature and in the progress of technology. One could refer to chimpanzees - a species that also uses technology in the form of simple tools – in order to support this hypothesis
This does not mean that religion did not influence the development of technology. The aforementioned example of Easter Island demonstrates that in some societies, religion was one of the formative forces of technological innovation. Other examples of societies where religion clearly influenced technological advances are Ancient Greece and the Mayan Empire. On the other hand, one might currently consider religion as restraining technological development. For example, not long ago Pope Benedict XVI stated that the Catholic Church remains opposed to stem cell research (whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate issue).
Lynn White’s view that religion lay at the roots of the development of technology is therefore a greatly exaggerated one. Religion has in fact influenced the development of technology in many instances, but it is far from being the main cause of modern science and modern technological innovations. White may be right when he says that man’s transcendence of nature led to technology and science, but he is wrong in attributing this transcendence exclusively to Christianity. In fact, religion itself has probably very little to do with this transcendence and with the nature/man dichotomy.
For further discussion of this issue, please consult Kate Sauvain, Ryan Kuker, and Sebastian Indacochea’s 2006 essays on this topic: http://fubini.swarthmore.edu/~ENVS2/S2006/CulturalEffects.html
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