Religion as a Force
Determining the importance of religion in human affairs is a difficult task. If religion can be defined as a belief in and reverence for a spirit, whether supernatural or metaphysical, then we can safely assume that religious beliefs can be influential in the decision making of individuals and societies. So, how has religion affected the development of technologies throughout the course of human history? In considering religion as a partial determinate for technology, a number of historical examples seem to suggest that these commitments have motivated and suppressed advances in technology.
One of the earliest influences of religion came with the revival of city building in ancient Greece. The French historian Francois de Polignac states that the “blossoming of cults in the ninth and eighth centuries BC and the commitment to building sanctuaries for deities” is the cause for this revival. This revival, and the increase in population as a result, led to advances in various technologies. The first advancement occurred in the movement of building materials. Wooden frames and teams of oxen were developed to transport large blocks of stone used in the construction of these buildings. The introduction of the crane significantly reduced the strain on manpower. The introduction of trabeated construction, a combination of vertical columns and horizontal beams, provided a significant improvement to the primitive timber and mud-brick buildings, which were susceptible to the earthquake tremors of the region.
Religion also played a role in architecture and cosmology in Mesoamerica. In the Aztec city of Teotihuacan, religious considerations were taken into account in deciding the location and plan of the city. Most cities were built around a central temple-pyramid.
The Aztec calendar has its roots in religion. The tonalpohualli, or day-count, divides the days and rituals between the gods. Priests used the calendar to determine luck days for such activities as sowing crops, building houses, and going to war. According to Aztec cosmology, the universe is in a very delicate equilibrium. Opposing divine forces are competing for power. This equilibrium is in constant danger of being disrupted by the shifting powers of gods.
Despite the many advances in technology that religion has promoted, it has also served to dampen and, at times, completely halt new scientific innovations deemed threatening. Galileo developed a telescope that allowed him to discover the moons of the planet Jupiter and the phases of the planet Venus. Teaching at the University of Pisa, Galileo was forced to teach the accepted theory of his time, the sun and the planets revolved around the earth. Then Copernicus offered a new heliocentric theory, all the planets revolved around the sun. Through his observations, he was convinced by this new theory and publicly supported it. When the Catholic Church heard of this act, it immediately charged him heresy and required a recantation.
A more modern example is the recent decision by President George W. Bush not to use federal funding for stem cell research. Stem cells have the potential to develop into many different cell types in the body. Serving as a sort of repair system for the body, they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
In a speech given on August 9, 2001, President Bush states, “My position on these issues is shaped by deeply held beliefs,” going on to say, “The issue is debated within the church, with people of different faiths, even many of the same faith coming to different conclusions. Many people are finding that the more they know about stem cell research, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions. I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator” and that “I have made this decision with great care, and I pray it is the right one.”
There is no doubt that religion has played a role in the development and the hindrance of certain technologies. From construction to cosmology and stem cell research, the path in which these technologies have been shaped by the beliefs of the time and will continue to do so in the future.
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.
Ehrlich, Paul. “Chapter 9: The Dominance of Culture.” in Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000. 203-226.
Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 3/22/06webmaster