The technologies that humans created throughout history had a variety of influencing factors. The surrounding environment and the availability of natural resources, the ambition and drive for economic growth and prosperity, and even chance and coincidence are just three of many reasons why humans create and innovate. Another component that has had an important effect on human technologies is religion. Religion has played a major role in influencing cultures and shaping social behaviors and governmental policies around the globe. Even though humans created religion, the broad range of beliefs and practices that religion encompasses allows religion to be characterized as almost a natural part of life. Religion has led societies to develop beliefs and ideas about the environment and sustainability, find new forms of communication, and create instruments and perceptions of violence and inter-human conflicts.
There is no exact date to which the formation of religion can be traced to, but it is assumed that the first ideas about religion came to early humans shortly after the time when they developed brains large enough for abstract thought (Ehrlich). In his book, Human Natures: Genes Cultures and the Human Prospect, biologist Paul Ehrlich defines religion as “a set of ideas about supernatural entities, agencies, and possibilities”. Early societies used their own “set of ideas” to form interactions and philosophies about their surrounding environment. Islam, a religion most prominent in the Middle East and North Africa, has many positive views on the environment and the importance of human care for it. The prophet Mohammed believed rain and water had divine powers to resurrect the dead and cleanse the land (Whitbeck). On the other hand, Christianity, the world largest practiced religion, has more mixed outlooks. Branches and sects of Christianity, such as Utilitarian Earth View and No Stewardship, preach against environmental care, and encourage the dominance of man over the environment (DeWitt). The Bible even has passages and messages about the environment being at mans disposal. In the book of Genesis chapter 1 verse 26, it says “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Finally, there have been examples of societies abusing their environment to fulfill their religious practices. In the famous case of Easter Island, there are numerous theories and explanations stating that the environmental degradation of the island by the citizens of Easter Island was due to their religious beliefs about constructing massive stone faces, which needed large quantities of the islands’ limited resources to move and erect the statues (White Jr.). While sets of ideals and various forms of thinking are not normally considered forms of technologies, it is important to understand that technologies develop from thoughts, questions, and reason, therefore religious beliefs can influence societies to create, or not create, tangible technologies that benefit, or hinder, their surrounding environment.
Another aspect of human technologies that religion has shaped is communication. Religion was a driving force for humans to find new means to disseminate information about multiple teachings and practices. In the thirteenth century, Johan Gutenberg invented the first printing press, because he wanted to find a new way to publish his now famous Gutenberg Bible, and produce as many copies as possible for the public. Gutenberg’s printing press was the first to introduce movable type and made printing much less expensive than before (Kroeker). Without religion, Gutenberg might have never had a reason or the ambition to invent the printing press, thereby indicating that religion was the foundation for mass media communications, something that has revolutionized the exchange of information and transformed society. Religion has also played a role in notable scientific discoveries, while at the same time impeding and censoring scientific research. The church, for his belief that the earth was not the center of the universe, persecuted and excommunicated Galileo Galilee. However, it is interesting to note that churches have been associated with academia, and the research and discoveries made by famous scientists such as Copernicus, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton were sponsored and funded by religious institutions (Uyehara). Although religion was not directly the cause of many scientific breakthroughs, religion indirectly guided technological advancement and a change in cultural thinking.
Religions’ role in influencing technology also expands into the realm of warfare and human violence. While there are numerous modern examples of religion being a cause of wars and conflicts, such as the current struggle in the Middle East with the radical Islamic group ISIS, religion was a driving force for many technologies of war, as well as the development of ideas and attitudes throughout the Middle Ages. One of the most notable religious driven wars were the Crusades. The Crusades were battles in the eleventh and sixteenth centuries between followers of the Catholic Church and Islam: with the church aiming to capture Jerusalem back from Islamic rule (Wyeth). The Crusades featured new battle armor that was lighter and slimmer, as well as new style of helmets and shields. The Crusades also introduced the importance of castle fortifications, making the outer walls out of stone instead of wood (Wyeth). Around the same time that the crusades were being fought, Chinese alchemists were trying to find a potion for immortality, in order to live as gods, and ended up accidently creating gunpowder (Ross), irreversibly changing the face of warfare and the course of human history. Religion was a catalyst in changing how nations and groups of people responded violently, and affected the entire way that governments run and interacted with each other.
The ties between religion and technology are countless and dynamic. While religion has been able to allow scientists and government leaders to create some of the worlds most helpful and beneficial technologies, it has also created lethal tools and ideas that showcase the worst in humanity. Disregarding the nature of the technology created, religion acts as a motivating factor within society, driving people to investigate and look for new questions and answers. It is imperative that the complex character of religion, and the importance of technological advancement, and their connection be understood, because as the importance of environmental sustainability becomes increasingly critical, we can use the history of the influence of religion on technology to guide ourselves in the coming years.
DeWitt, Calvin. “Christians and the Environment: How Should Christians Think about the Environment? - Christian Research Institute.”Christian Research Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.
Ehrlich, Paul R. “Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect” Island Press, 2000, pp. 203-252.
Kroeker, By Kirk L. “Interview with the Episcopal Church’s Tom Ferguson.” Technology and Religion. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.
Ross, Cody. “China and Gunpowder.” Middle Ages Technologies. Four Rivers Charter, n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.
Uyehara, Kazuo. :Religion and Technology”. Swarthmore College. 2 February 2006.
Whitbeck, R. H. “The Influence of Geographical Environment upon Religious Beliefs.” (n.d.): n. pag. Geographical Review. American Geographical Society, 10 Apr. 2016. Web.
White, Jr., Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-7.
Wyeth, Will. “Technology and the Crusades.” All Things Late Roman”. N.p., 29 Mar. 2010. Web.