Religion is a defining characteristic of human societies, independently created across the globe and influential on world cultures. In Human Natures, Paul Ehrlich describes how religion plays a role in the stratification of society and its wide range of effects on human development. Technology has certainly not been outside of the powerful influences of religion, and there is an interesting and complex relationship between the principles of religious institutions and the direction of technological advances. Throughout history, religion and technology have had various effects on each other’s growth, and their current relationship could have important implications for the future of the environment.
According to Ehrlich, religion was created in part to explain phenomenon that confounded humans and to provide spiritual stability. Since science attempts to concretely explain natural processes and discover the laws of the universe using the scientific method, it obviously conflicts with many religious beliefs. In fact, science has invalidated beliefs held by the church such as the creation of man, the Earth’s geography, and structure of the solar system. Science has also explained other occurrences, like lightning or rain, which were once explained by religion. Although religious beliefs have conflicted with science, they usually have only indirectly limited the advancement of technology. Technology’s role in society has always been to expand on human capabilities or to make existing tasks more efficient, thus there has always been demand for the development of improved technology in spite of the incongruity between religion and science. It is religion’s influence over culture that accounts for most of its obstruction of technological advancement.
As Ehrlich explains, religion has astounding power over culture and public opinion. These religious beliefs served both as an impediment on scientific research and as a catalyst for technological pursuits. For instance, during the Inquisition, the church persecuted Galileo for his support of Copernicus’ theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Such actions by the church, as well as others, created an atmosphere of censorship that ultimately inhibited scientific research. In addition, if religious beliefs provide explanations for the unknown, there is less demand for a scientific explanation. For example, some thought that there was no need to research medical techniques because a higher being controlled the health of the sick. In these ways, religion has suppressed technological advancement through the conflict between the church’s views and science. However, the cultural effects of religions also cause demand for new technology. The Western expansion into the New World and the colonization of other territories was partially a result of the concept that Christians were superior to other less civilized societies. This religion-induced exploration prompted the development of better navigation devices, improved transportation, and more deadly weapons. Thus, although science and religion contradict each other at times, religion can also fuel cultural demands that require technological advancement.
There are also many historical examples of technology developed specifically for a religious institution. In an interview with TechNewsWorld, Tom Ferguson, a PhD in theology and church history, explains that religion helped create more efficient forms of communication. The Christians replaced the scroll with books because they were more mobile, efficient, and durable. Similarly, moveable type was created in the 16th century in part to reproduce religious texts, a technology that changed the fundamental structure of how religious ideas diffused. In addition, engineering and architectural advances were often precipitated by the desire to build magnificent places of worship such as temples, pyramids, and ziggurats. It is also interesting to note that traditionally, academics were associated with the church. Therefore, religious institutions sponsored many scientific discoveries and scientists such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, and Robert Millikan were all involved with the Christian church. Hence, it is important to note that religion precipitated technological advancement both through its affect on culture and its direct demand for new inventions.
Currently, many religions are learning to cope with modern scientific knowledge, so technology and religion are interacting in new ways. Pope John Paul II helped to bridge the gap between religion and science by accepting previously renounced theories such as evolution and the Big Bang. Since society as a whole is more scientifically aware than in the past, many are finding ways to interpret religion in a way that is not contradictory to science. Modern technology is also shaping how religion is changing. In the PBS episode, “Can Religion Withstand Technology?” Muzaffar Iqbal, the founder of the Center for Science & Islam, proposed that the increasing role of technology in our lives is widening the gap between people and their connection to God, and that it is causing people to be drawn more towards religion. Additionally, as Ferguson points out, advancements in communication, such as the Internet, allow for greater access to religious dialogue and information. Consequently, religious leaders are finding new ways to reach larger audiences and to take advantage of new technological mediums of communication. The necessity of religions to accept and utilize current technologies and the current relationship between technology and religion show that even now, each is strongly influenced by the other.
Religion’s role in society may become even more important because with more advanced technology, questions of ethics and the application of technology are becoming more significant. Perhaps the most critical application of future technology will be on the conservation of the environment and building a culture that embraces a sustainable lifestyle. Religion has always played a role on how humans view the environment, and the potential for religious institutions to teach respect for nature could play a major part in a cultural change towards environmental consciousness. Whereas Christianity promoted the concept that God gave man Earth to use and manipulate, many current Christian churches are now advocating using caution and foresight when dealing with nature. Although religions can have an important impact on conservation, as noted by Michael Williams in, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis, the more conservation oriented religions of Buddhism and Confucianism could not halt deforestation in China - they even created demand for pine trees for their use in calligraphy ink. Even though religion is not the sole answer to our environmental problems, its influence over culture could alter how technology is used to either further deplete our resources or to diminish our impact on our surroundings.
In conclusion, the relationship between religion and technology is neither simple nor concrete. The many ways in which the two interact make it difficult to make a single statement regarding their coevolution. Not only has religion restricted the pursuit of scientific knowledge, it has also been a major contributor and the cause of several technological breakthroughs and advancements. The future relationship between religion and technology could even affect the lifestyle and sustenance of humankind against the backdrop of environmental degradation. Thus, it is critical that we try to understand the historical relationship between religion and technology so those concepts can be applied to our current and future development as a society.
“Can Religion Withstand Technology?” Closer to Truth. Public Broadcasting Service. July 10, 2006.
Ehrlich, Paul R., "Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect" Island Press, 2000, pp. 203-279.
Ferguson, Tom. Interview. “Technology and Religion: An Interview with the Episcopal Church's Tom Ferguson.” By Kirk L. Kroeker. TechNewsWorld. March 9, 2004.
Williams, Michael. "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 102-142. ISBN 0-226-89926-8, Cornell SD 131 .W53 2002.
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