Deus ex Machina

On the long relationship between religion and technology.

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“Employ these new technologies to make the Gospel known, so that the Good News of God’s infinite love for all people will resound in new ways across our increasingly technological world!”

These could have been the words of Johannes Gutenberg or Billy Graham. In fact, they belong to the current pope, Benedict XVI. He spoke them last month in anticipation of World Social Communication Day, an annual event intended to spread the Good News of God’s infinite love using mass media outlets. The message this year was mostly for the kids: “Young people in particular, I appeal to you: Bear witness to your faith through the digital world!”

Catholics aren’t the only Christians connecting on the Web. When it was created in 2007, GodTube — an alternative to YouTube created for Christians and since renamed tangle — was the fastest-growing website in the U.S. Two years later, it’s just one of millions of such sites where people of Christian faith can find each other, date, discuss scripture, promote business, and debate the effects of technology on believers. There’s christiananswers.net and biblegateway.com, which lets you search Bible passages in over 100 languages (Always wanted to say “The Lord is my Shepherd” in Tagalog?), the rather moderate jesusfreak.com, churchbud.com, .net, .org…. You get the idea.

That Christians have so eagerly embraced the Internet is no surprise. It is at the heart of Christianity to use whatever means necessary to extend the community of believers. This includes technology. “The fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them…for that is not what they do,” the philosopher Stanley Fish recently wrote in The New York Times. Likewise, technology doesn’t have to be based on faith to be at its service. The word of God will be spread to all nations of the world before the world ends. It’s right there in Matthew 24:14. Though Isaiah 44:9-20 tells Christians not to worship the devices humans make to ease the struggle of life, it doesn’t say Christians can’t keep working both toward perfection and better tools with which to achieve it. The Internet makes proselytizing easier. I think Paul would have been pleased as punch to find an Internet café in Antioch. And that is what technology has always provided — techniques for making the things you want to do in life less hard.

This attitude was epitomized by the Shakers, with their singular blend of progressivism and utilitarian elbow grease. “Science on the farm and in the household will turn life’s drudgery to pleasant occupation,” says the Shaker Manifesto. “Hands to work, hearts to God” is a more well known tenet. God’s work, for the Shakers, was not meant to be toil, but was instead what brought one greater spirituality. Their rant against the mindless drudgery of most paid labor was tied to a belief in the personal satisfaction of doing your own work. Technological advancements in labor (i.e. “science on the farm”) made work easier to do. The easier work was to do, the more that could be done. The more work you do, the closer you move to God.

Originating from the teachings of an 18th-century single woman promoting self-sufficiency as the way to God’s grace, the Shakers’ heuristic approach created a religion that not only embraced technology but actively encouraged innovation. Under the guidance of Mother Ann Lee, they vastly improved (if not outright invented) the circular saw, the clothespin, and the wheel-driven washing machine. They were the first to distribute seeds in packets. One of their greatest achievements was the invention of the flat-bottomed broom, which may not seem like the pinnacle of technological achievement unless you’ve actually tried to tidy up with one of those old-fashioned wispy numbers — you’d do more with your bare hands. Technological advances were also linked to the Shakers’ belief in gender equality, “woman and man citizens, equal in wants, duties and functions, conjointly making the laws, and unitedly administering them.” Better technology made it possible for men and women to share duties in the household, in the church, and on the fields. It made work more efficient and left more time for prayer. It was the promise of the early Industrial Age, taken back to the farm and to the church.

According to the Torah, it was Noah who would relieve men of blood, sweat and tears with techne. He was like a Jewish Prometheus. “This one will bring us rest (Noah means ‘rest’) from our work and the toil of our hands,” Genesis 5:29 states, meaning that God created Noah for this specific purpose, to teach people how to improve the tools they use to till the soil. This had been the dilemma of humanity since that little incident in Eden —  out of paradise and into the desert. Noah would usher in a new age of prosperity, where people could more easily use the Earth for their benefit. Of course, the new age wouldn’t come until 600 years and one really big flood later. The point is that, for the Jews, man’s first great technological accomplishment was the Ark that gave the world a fresh start. Furthering the case that God gave people the power of technology to improve life, we skip to the next part of the story, Genesis 9:20-21, in which the second great technological feat of Noah was to build himself a vineyard, make some wine, get drunk, and pass out nude. L’Chaim! For a contemporary nod to Judaism’s marriage of technology and alcohol, you can visit the kosher speakeasy behind the Temple Beit Israel, the Second Life Synagogue.

Bruni’s sketch of the moon’s movement.

 

And speaking of boats, Islamic doctrine has long inspired technological advancement in shipbuilding, navigation, and a wide number of other fields. Muhammed al-Idrisi, the 12th-century Andalusian scholar and cartographer, created some of the most useful and startlingly accurate maps of the ancient world. And there was the polymath al-Biruni who, excelling in many areas of applied and theoretical science—contributed greatly to the fields of geography and mapmaking; he established, for example, the technique of measuring the Earth using three coordinates to define a point in three-dimensional space. Using advanced techniques to chart the distances between cities was a particular specialty. His estimated radius of the Earth wasn’t ‘discovered’ by the West until the 16th century.

With detailed trade routes and meticulously tracked mariner’s charts, one might argue that it was simply intellectual curiosity or the thirst for empire that drove these innovations. Yet an important chapter in the Koran — Surah 22, which proclaims that “the people shall observe Hajj pilgrimage” — offers another theory. Travel wasn’t always so easy. First of all, you had to know where Mecca was in relationship to where you were. A well-charted map, then, was essential to fulfilling the basic requirements of the faith. Second, you had to get there, so you needed good navigational equipment. Muslims invented all kinds of compasses, clocks, and astrolabes, including the compass dial, which was the world’s version of GPS for centuries. Its inventor, Ibn al-Shatir, developed it initially not just to help find the direction of Mecca, but to help track the times of the Salah prayers (the ones that are performed five times a day) at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

The technological ingenuity of the Islamic Golden Age in all areas of knowledge is both tremendous and unsurprising. As the Koran encourages Muslims to appreciate the splendor of all Allah’s creations, it does so by encouraging them to actively study the material world: “Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the benefit of mankind…are signs for a people that are wise.” (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:164)

It’s good to remember that the movement now synonymous with opposition to technology was started by a secular band of English textile workers in the early 19th century whose leader was a fictional working class hero named Ned Ludd. Pissed off by chronic unemployment, the Luddites blamed their plight on the Industrial Revolution. They demonstrated their annoyance by systematically destroying factory machinery, burning down mills, and making death threats to politicians. The Luddites had more connection to Left-wing radicalism than religion. Ironically, as Luddites attempted to wrest the power of the individual working man from the hands of machines by burning them, groups like the Shakers empowered themselves by making their own.

The ongoing relationship between technology and religion is complicated. Just as some of the world’s great religions have produced scientific advancements in the name of faith, they have also sometimes thwarted those advancements that challenge religious doctrine. But that is not a problem unique to religion. The realization that technology and ethics may sometimes be at odds belongs to secular thinking as well. The claim that technology moves forward and religion moves backward simply doesn’t stand up to the facts. A prerequisite for actually making the world better is believing that the world can and should be made better. For thousands of years now, religion has been arguing exactly that. • 18 June 2009

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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