Religion as Motivation for Technology

Ryan Kuker

Evolutionary forces combined to produce many different religious forms.  Despite the form, religion stabilized social structure, which facilitated the complex tasks required to support larger populations.  Religion played a decisive role in architectural, surgical, and warfare technology.

Religion permeated many levels of city-planning in Greece.  Founding a city usually required the consultation of an oracle.  Although ‘all public buildings were dedicated to the gods, and contained shrines’ (Chant 1999: 64), Greeks put a disproportionate amount of effort into the construction of their temples.  The Greeks even created ‘a system of gears and pulleys that was operated by expanded air from a fire on the altar to open the doors of a temple’ (Chant 1999: 75).  The Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis dedicated to Athena, exemplifies architectural progress driven by religious factors.  The Parthenon ‘relied on dry-stone building techniques’ (Chant 1999: 66), which were a significant improvement upon the timber and mud-brick construction of other public buildings.  The combination of vertical columns and horizontal beams, which were considerably sturdier than arches, carried the heavy roof structures and provided additional protection against the earthquake tremors of the region.  Furthermore, defense of sacred buildings was a prime consideration for the Greeks.  Religious factors instigated the building of defensive walls, an arduous and expensive task.

Architecture was also fundamental to Mesoamerican civilizations.  Massive structures pervaded urban design as cities were ‘built around a central temple-pyramid’ (Adas 1989: 337).  Because temple-pyramids were a statement of worthiness, Mesoamericans searched to improve upon the designs of earlier periods.  The Mayans ‘discovered that if lime-stone fragments were burning, the resulting powder mixed with water made a plaster of great durability’ (Adas 1989: 341).  They used this limestone fill to construct magnificent ceremonial buildings and palaces.  The Mayans also ‘interconnected building complexes with causeways’ (Adas 1989: 341) and enhanced building acoustics.  Structures of great height and width demonstrated commitment to the pantheon for the Aztecs.  Exceptionally high platforms satisfied their desire to be close to the gods.  Placement of structures was integral as alignment for religious rituals required complicated celestial observations.

Quarrying and transportation were among several technological systems involved in construction.  Quarrying was labor intensive, but the crane and pulley increased productivity.  Based on devices from the Assyrians, the Greeks fine-tuned the crane and pulley system with intricate gears in order to lift heavy columns and stone blocks.  Using column drums as rollers and designing a cradle system with large wooden wheels, the Greeks were able to transport heavy blocks greater distances.  Greek and Mesoamerican architecture had tremendous symbolic importance.  Although there were no systematic requirements for religious architecture, the universal appeal of religion made religious buildings the most influential. 

The Aztec’s great temple, Temple Mayor, recreated the gory triumph of Huitzilopochtli, the sun, over his siblings, the moon and stars.  Huitzilopochtli was born in an act of warfare and sacrifice.  Temple Mayor was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the god of rainfall, because religion was rooted in daily experience.  Expansion of the empire and agriculture were mainstays of the Aztec economy.  Nourishment for Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc was primarily supplied by captives.  Temple Mayor ‘was the site of thousands of human sacrifices’ (Adas 1989: 343).  The Aztecs used obsidian blades to open the chest of the victims during religious rituals.  Obsidian, a firm volcanic glass, was fashioned into prismatic blades by pressure flaking:


Basically, through precise chipping, the Indians refined a piece of obsidian into a symmetrical blade core.  The actual blade was removed from the core by applying a steady force to a small area of the core.  Known as pressure flaking, this required a force greater than a person’s arm strength, and researchers are not yet sure how the Amerindians did this.  The edge of a well-made prismatic blade can be sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel.  (Adas 1989: 340)


The Aztecs ‘had names for all of the organs, and understood the circulatory system long before William Harvey’ (Adas 1989: 342).  In effect, religious factors were the impetus for extensive experimentation of the human body.  The Aztecs refined tool technology and were well versed in human anatomy.

Religion was intrinsically linked to warfare in Mesoamerica.  The motivation for war was driven by ‘control of territory and resources, strategic geographic positions, honor, and the desire to spread religion’ (Ehrlich 2000: 258).  The Aztecs coupled ‘warfare to the natural cycles’ (Brumfiel 1998) of life.  Although they understood the importance of the methodical variation of cycles, such as day and night, the Aztecs maintained these cycles were ‘contingent outcomes of cosmic struggles where the strong prevailed over the weak’ (Brumfiel 1998).  The sun’s success in its daily struggle depended on sacrificial nourishment.  The Aztecs ‘needed a continuing supply of blood from human sacrifices to honor their militant patron god, Huitzilopochtli, or the universe would perish’ (Ehrlich 2000: 258).  Thus, war was a necessity that evolved into a ritualized conflict.  In order to sustain their own life, the Aztecs relied on improved warfare technologies to capture and sacrifice others.

Religion was ubiquitous, dynamic and it enabled societies to function more effectively.  Greek and Mesoamerican life were conducted within a strong religious context, and their limited resources were used to inspire religious wonder.  Religion was a crucial force in the development of architecture, surgical, and warfare technologies.





Adas, Michael.  “Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance”.  Cornell University Press, 1989.  pp. 1-35.

Brumfiel, Elizabeth M.  Religion and the Aztec State.  Mesoamerican Archaeology.  Northwestern University – Department of Anthropology.  1998.


Chant, Colin.  “Chapter 2: Greece” in “Pre-industrial Cities and Technology”.  Routledge Press, 1999.  pp. 48-80.

Ehrlich, Paul R.  “Chapter 11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy” in “Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect”.  Island Press, 2000.  pp. 253-279.

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