When Hernan Cortes arrived in what is now Veracruz, Mexico, he was greeted with open arms. He was a greedy foreign invader determined to accumulate as much wealth from the indigenous people as he could, yet because of what the Aztec religion told them about the birth of a white, bearded deity called Quetzalcoatl, Cortes was allowed to have open access to the empire and thus the ability to destroy it. In this way religion facilitated the destruction of the Aztec empire but not just because Cortes looked like an Aztec god. His religion also gave Cortes’ army a far greater advantage in the fact that without religion they would not have had the technology to cross the Atlantic and reach the Americas, conquer the Aztecs, or become a dominant force in the world. Throughout history religion has been a driving force that has unified the technology of a civilization with both positive and negative impacts.
On the first day man created religion, and then he rested. On the second day man created other men to interrupt religion, and those men were given great power over a society. Religion, as an aspect of the culture of a society, has had such a great influence on what is developed because it was able to be a focus for all activity. Those who were deemed to be in charge of religious practices and rituals were looked up to and more importantly listened to, even to a greater extent than the rulers, which they were often themselves. They were able to organize all scientific effort and technological development for one specific purpose, whatever that might have been, and it would all be under a single control. This was important because instead of having ten different people all working on different projects a society could get all the great minds and coordinate them to work towards one goal. This was the case even more so than the development of government because in most cases religion, as a whole, was even more powerful than any one ruler.
The positive ways in which religion has brought about new technology and advances within a civilization have to do with worshiping or trying to understand the gods that they believe in. Some of the greatest examples of this are found in the field of astrology. From the Egyptians and the Greeks, to the Celts and the Incas, religion fostered the desire to understand the heavens. What arose from this was a plethora of tools and machines to better view, record, and measure the phenomenon that they observed and equated with the gods. The Greeks created complex models and instruments for measuring and predicting cosmic events. Aristotle, Hipparchus, and others developed whole concepts, like the geocentric model of the universe, around what they believed Zeus created. Likewise the knowledge and effort that went into building Stonehenge was enormous, and it is widely considered to be a place of worship and a way to tell time by means of the stars.
In all cultures there is a desire to believe that there is a purpose, which can be explained by religion. There is also a desire to understand that religion and therefore the world around them. If the priest tells you that a god made something a certain way then maybe by better understanding how that something works you can better understand, and become closer to, the god.
Religion also fostered many very practical advancements such as engineering, stone working and other building trades. The greatest structures for many civilizations are their temples and places of worship. You may find little evidence of a village every existing but chances are you could locate their church or cathedral of some kind. This is because the people who built them wanted to show that they loved their gods so much, and they where the greatest gods in the entire world, that they deserved, and were going to be built, the greatest temples ever seen. In order for this to happen the people of these towns must have mastered engineering and other building trades. The knowledge and expertise that went into making these structures was largely driven by the desire to worship the gods.
But religion was not only a great force that organized and advance science and technology for the betterment of a society. There were also enormous strides made in the areas of weaponry and the technology of oppression. These helped a society to achieve its goals, but those goals may not have been what was best.
Religion is a very sensitive subject for many people and civilizations. This is because religion is based on something that is deeper than conscious thought. It is based on faith, and people are not going to be easily persuaded to question their faith. So, when there are two or more different religions that both demand the same amount of faith there are going to be conflicts. People are naturally going to assume that their form of religion is correct and in most cases will be willing to fight for what they believe. The first conflicts or “wars” were most probably fought over resources. However, shortly after that people started fighting over ideological differences. There is a natural correlation between the number of wars and the effectiveness with which people can kill each other. Because religion gave people more things to disagree about it also brought about more ways for them to kill each other in the form of weapons and military knowledge. This could be seen as a positive because it did help the civilization that had the technology. But in the larger picture the way in which religion aided the development of new killing techniques had a negative impact.
Religion also fostered the technology of oppression. This cannot be measured in physical tools or devises, but rather a mindset and knowledge of how and why to subjugate people. In the same way that religion created new reasons to kill each other, it also created new reasons for people to be unequal. One group of people was less than another because they did not believe in the same gods, or perform the same rituals. These ideas that certain people were less than others contributed to the practice of slavery and many other forms of persecution. Again this could be seen as a positive advancement for some people because for the society that was doing the persecuting they gained an advantage, but on the whole it was a detriment and a negative impact that religion has had.
Religion has both directly and indirectly affected the course of human history. It has built civilizations and destroyed them. But perhaps its most impressive accomplishment was the effect that it had on technology and the development of new ideas. In this may too it has encountered mixed results. It has helped science and reason as well as useful practical skills. It has also created instruments of destruction and mindsets of oppression. Through all of its positive and negative accomplishments it still remains one of the greatest driving forces behind the development of technology in a society.
Ehrlich, Paul Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect "Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy"
Bennett The Cosmic Perspective chapter 3 p. 67
Chant, Colin, Pre-industrial Cities and Technology "Chapter 2: Greece"
Ehrlich Ch. 11
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