Religion is sort of like love – it’s difficult to define, yet everyone thinks he or she knows what it means
- Paul Ehrlich
Many different reasons have accounted for technological advancements throughout history. The motivating factors behind such discoveries range from scientific inquiries to dumb luck. Sometimes the driving force behind the discovery is a cultural facet such as religion. The ideas and practices of different religions vary to a great extent, but there exists some underlying principles that one can attribute to the general practice of religion. This paper will aim to discuss some examples of religion leading to technological advancements and note some possible reasons this occurs.
Ehlrich defines religions as “a set of ideas about supernatural entities, agencies, and possibilities, some of which are held by the vast majority of human beings and by all significant groups” (Ehrlich, p. 213, 2000). That definition describes religion in a philosophical sense. As different religious beliefs and ideals grew, the different concepts of religions evolved into a hybrid of belief and institution. This essay aims to explore religion as an institution, and how throughout history these institutions have motivated (or possibly forced) individuals to go beyond their current capabilities to accomplish innovative technological advances.
It should be noted that the influence of religious ideals can often seep over into other aspects of perceived human culture. For instance, as noted by Ehrlich: human beings are often thought to have an “innate drive or ‘military instinct’” (p. 210, 2000). This possible need for violence or aggression has oftentimes found its outlet through religion. Expeditions such as the crusades, while blanketed in the name of religion, ultimately became more about the extensive violence and devastation they caused then any religious aspect. This essay will not focus on technological influences that may have developed vicariously through religion, such as military technological advancements achieved during a religious conflict. It will solely look at technological innovations that came about “purely” through the pursuit or practice of religion.
Perhaps the most famous example of technological achievement funneled through a religious channel can be found in the pyramids of ancient Egypt. These monumental relics had the religious purpose of ushering the pharaohs into the afterlife. But what has given the pyramids such notoriety is the massive construction effort that went into them. The construction of the pyramids required a massive organizational effort as well as some engineering ingenuity to transport the massive stones into place. Most believe this was accomplished by the use of up to 35,000 laborers and the construction of ramps around the exterior of the pyramid (Encarta, 2008). This extensive, ground-breaking effort was carried out in the name of Religion.
Another interesting cultural example can be found in Rapa Nui, more commonly known as Easter Island. Just as was the case in ancient Egypt, the Rapanui utilized an inventive method of transporting massive stone objects in order to achieve a religious objective. These stone statues, called ahus, were most likely transported by the use of a series of wooden tracks (Pointing, 1992). The Rapanui are thought to have believed that whichever tribe erected the largest number of ahu was superior.
Why were the Rapanui so intent on harnessing gigantic rock slates and transporting them across the island? More generally, why are many human beings so motivated by religion? A possible answer is that religion provides a warm calmness and a way to understand the complex word humans inhabit. So by pleasing a supreme being, humans are provided with a feeling of purpose, safety and perhaps understanding.
The religiously influenced accomplishments aforementioned all have a connection to architecture or engineering. Those are not the only advances that the religious institutions are responsible for. Religion “helped to sacralize–connect to the supernatural–codes of conduct that apparently made societies function more effectively” (Ehrlich, p. 256, 2000). In many societies, the belief in the supernatural allowed leaders to emerge, and thus social stratification to occur. While those with more communal ideals would argue that this phenomenon has been a determent to society, one could say that it is a basic, natural instinct and religion provided many groups of humans with an outlet for structure.
Just as religion can “influence, indeed sometimes virtually determine, the natures of groups and individuals” (Ehrlich, p. 219, 2000), so can it inspire and motivate individuals to accomplish feats never before though possible. This paper only mentioned a few of the numerous technological gains that historically can be attributed to the pursuit of religion. It goes to show what an intense motivating factor religious belief can be, and that when properly motivated human beings can accomplish great things.
I make this assumption based upon the fact that one can find a social hierarchy in many different groups of animals.
Ehrlich, Paul R., “ Ch. 9: The Dominance of Culture” and "Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy" in "Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect" Island Press, 2000, pp. 203-252 and pp. 253-279.
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991. ISBN 0-312-06989-1, McCabe GF75.P66 1992 pp. 1-7.
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