Religious Influence on Technological Development

Martha Hoffman---

            Technological development is not an autonomous process.  It is influenced by other aspects of culture.  Religion, in particular, plays a large role in determining how a society will relate to its resources.  Additionally, by shaping the social structure and moral protocol, religion dictates how much value will be placed on innovation.  The varying degrees of scientific exploration in different regions led to an array of technological competencies.  The western world’s seeming technical advantage, organized social hierarchies, and steadfast belief that their God was the one, true God, created a sense of superiority over other cultures.  This ignited in Europeans a drive to conquer lands and convert the “savages” inhabiting them.     

            There are two ways in which religion affected the development of technology.  First of all it prescribed how men are to relate to the environment.  In Ancient Greece, the story of Prometheus, “shows some reverence for practical invention.” (p.74)  More notably, in Christianity the bible states that man has “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and…over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)  This illustrates the anthropocentric view of the earth as an entity for men to rule over. 

            In medieval Europe, the role of man as a combination between master and steward of the environment was promoted.  As Williams discusses, there was a belief that “the mind and hands of humans gave them a capacity to create their own environment through inventiveness and necessity.” (p.112) This led to the development of a sense of purpose for man here on earth as “God’s helper…in finalizing creation”.  Not only did this thinking cause a rise in technological growth, but it excused, even condoned destruction of forests, and dominance over the environment in general.

            In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger discusses man’s role as steward at great length, claiming that while it is our job to release the potential of nature, we should not operate from the view that we are separate from the world.  Influenced by Christian doctrine (he was raised Roman Catholic and studied the faith for years, source), Heidegger talks about how we view our position compared to technology and nature.  We think we are masters of technology as a means to an end because through technology, we are able to control nature.  “Man is challenged more than are the energies of nature…man drives technology forward.” (p.18) He believes that the capacity to reveal the potential of nature is unique in humans and is extremely important, but that we should look at nature on its own terms.  We can reveal new uses for things, but should not force nature into being an object for us to control.  “Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where…truth happens.” (p.13)  Heidegger does not want us to exercise technological dominance over earth.  Instead, we should use technology in accordance with nature to encourage as many unaffected, cooperative innovations as possible.  This is the meaning of stewardship, and this is what the Europeans believed was their purpose in clearing land and creating new technologies. 

            The influence of the religion-incited technological development was furthered by governmental demands.  For instance, Williams discusses how “the pace and extent of change accelerated as…lords actively encouraged clearing”. (p.118)  The power of the government, however, was derived mostly from religiously inspired social structures—this is the second way in which religion influenced technological advancement. 

            Religion “helped to sacralize…codes of conduct… and it legitimated differences between classes of people (i.e., elites and commoners). (Ehrlich, p.257)  Ehrlich discusses how religion can help to explain the bad luck of one person compared to the good luck of another as the result of god’s judgment of their behaviors.  “Once rules of conduct and economic status had been sacralized, it was easy for religion to assume the role of sanctifying those rules and thus the status of the governing elites who enforced them.”  Therefore, religion and government acted in concert, each helping to maintain the status and influence of the other, as they encouraged expansion and technological development.

            The new technologies of the West, better ships, compasses, etc., afforded—and in some cases necessitated—the ability to explore the world.  Spurred by both governmental and religious expansionist drives, Europeans set off to find new lands with new resources to harness.   When confronted with others, particularly those without technology, they looked down on them, and saw them as savage.  “European travelers in this era viewed their Christian faith, rather than their mastery of the natural world, as they key source of their distinctiveness from and superiority to non-Western peoples.” (p.22)  Adas makes the case, however, that in reality it was discrepancies in technology which led to the feeling of superiority over other societies.  Instead of separating out the influence of technology and religion on our views of other nations, it seems the two are intertwined because our development of technology was largely spurred by the belief that it is our duty and privilege—given to us by god—to improve technologies.  Therefore, our disdain for the innovations of others is derived from our assumption that our inventions are a part of God’s plan.   



Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Man: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Chant, Colin. Pre-industrial Cities and Technology.  Routledge Press, 1999.

Ehrlich, Paul R., Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000.

Heidegger. 5 March, 2006.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology. New York: Harper Perennial, 1982.

King James Version of the Bible: Book of Genesis: Chapter 1. 5 March. 2006

Williams, Michael. Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.


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last updated 3/5/06