Religion v. Technology

 

J C G

April 22, 1999

 

Ethics and the Internet

Religion 185.07

Professor Wendy Robinson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This paper takes an explorative look at how our technologically enabled society has used technology to change its perspective on religion. From creating new mystical forces in our lives, to changing the way we look at more traditional religions, t he increasing impact of technology is changing the way humans perceive their environment. I will build off of the insights that Erik Davis has explored in Techgnosis, and provide several examples of this changing perspective.

 

 

It would seem, at first consideration, that religion and technology have little to do with each other. Having a PC or an internet connection doesn't bring me closer to God, nor would these technological things provide with support for faith, or de nial of doubt. Likewise, one wouldn't normally admit that praying to God or faith in a holy scripture would provide technological benefits-- my printer isn't going to work better, nor will these things keep a webserver from crashing. Both technology and religion are commonly considered to have impact in the breadth of a persons life, though the impact on each other seems tenuous. However, when we take a closer look at these two facets of humanity, we find that the two are growing more and more interloc ked, and sometimes even interchangeable.

Before we even delve into this topic, we should definitely set some ground rules, and define some terms. When we speak of religion', we could mean a hundred different things. I choose to think about religion as a formalized belief structure, with answers for unknowable conditions, and a faith in the unknown. This could be embodied in a modern western theological religion s uch as Christianity-- it provides explanations for the unknown (a loved one's death, or natural disasters), answers for the unknown (what happens when we die?), and a God to put faith in. We should certainly not limit this definition to Christianity, nor even western religions. We would be wise to recognize any belief structure such as these as a religion of some sort. This is the more abstract religion' that I would choose to talk about at this time, for it allows us to discuss a more generalized religion.

Likewise, we should choose to figure out what we mean by technology'. Technology is a wide ranging, mutating, manifestation of modern culture. If we think about the highway interstate system that we have in the United States, is that technology? I would certainly doubt it, though to the Army Corp of Engineer s who designed and constructed it earlier this century, it was most certainly a technological achievement. When did it cease to be technology? One indicator of how non-technological the highway system is would be our common description of a new technolo gy, the internet, as The Information Superhighway . Over time, this technology has become so embedded in our way of life, so taken for granted, that it faded into the background. Now, we don't even notice the highways that exist, but rather, we take notice at the absence. These former technologies mig ht best be described as infrastructure, the base off of which new technologies are developed. But this still doesn't answer the question of what is technology?', we have only identified that if something is technology, it will not maintain that status forever.

In the vein of vague definitions, it might be best to simply describe technology as new manifestations of humanity's cleverness. The internet is a wonderful example of clever people figuring out how to share information. This isn't quite enough t o describe it though, perhaps we can also narrow our current working definition to publicly accessible technology, or even popular technology-- that which has impact upon the population at large. From this working definition, we can push forward, and try and understand how religion and technology are interacting and affecting each other.

 

TECHNOLOGY AFFECTING RELIGION

In the fifteenth century, Johann Gutenberg changed the world with the introduction of the printing press, and the new proliferation of bibles. This was one of the first examples of information dissemination on a mass scale, and it had repercussion s on society at large, as well as religion specifically. The Enlightenment can be seen as one of the results of this dissemination (granted, it had a two century delay), as information began to be more available and tenable. No obvious parallel can be i nferred in today's information revolution, at least not yet. Jon Katz, a popular online persona, comments, the Enlightenment never really ended, just took a breather until the Digital Age, (http://slashdot.org/features/99/03/28/154238.shtml) stating that there are many revolutions in thought that are happening in the current climate of information technology. There's no comp arable breaking of the dominant religion with the internet becaus e there is no dominant religion.

Katz also states, Today, this Orthodoxy is shaped by smaller, if deeply entrenched institutions - journalism, politics, academe, powerful companies. (Ibid) If we look back to our working definition of religion, we might actually be able to understand these as religions. Today, we are taught that what we read in the newspaper, or see on TV is true, or as truthful as can be at the present time. We b elieve in the truthfulness of what we are told, and are told about things that are unknown to us. We can draw similar comparisons to politics, academics, and even corporate powerhouses. They all embody belief structures of some kind, and relate to the p opulation at large in a manner similar to a religion. Katz would have it that these things are the religions of the modern world.

Hopefully, we realize that there is a difference between journalism and religion, and that it's not just superficial. With a religion, there is an attempt to explain the world as in journalism, but on a more spiritual level. A journalist will des cribe a tragic shooting at a suburban high school with emotion and implicit moral description, but this type of morality is in sharp contrast to the moral framework that a religion would try to instill. One is ascriptive in nature, while the other is des criptive. With this in mind, we might be able to see how the new information climate brought about by technology is challenging established institutions, just as when the printing press brought the bible to a wider readership.

Technology is affecting religion in other ways as well. The emergent ability to search, calculate, and cross-reference texts such as the bible have lead to such discoveries as the Bible Code and other publications of the same nature (http://www.am azon.com/exec/obidos/generic-quicksearch-query/002-1779653-0478066). Online Bibles and concordinances, or even portable electronic versions allow the wired Christian to access the Bible in new and curious ways. Searching for an appropriate verse no long er relies on a strong library of memorized verses. This externalization of memory, which Erik Davis refers to in Techgnosis (http://www.levity.com/techgnosis/techgnosis.html) also has the ability to change how humanity faces any information exchan ge. It may be through the digitization of familiar things, like the Bible, that many people will become comfortable with new technologies.

If we expand the context of the conversation beyond mainstream religions, we would also see significant changes in how other religions spread their presence and get themselves known. Wiccans (http://www.wiccan.com) announce their presence online w ith over a hundred sites listed on Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com), with everything from FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions and Answers) to listings of festivals and historical reference. Information that used to be difficu lt to share and spread due to publi c opinion are now freely distributing online. Potential members, or just curious web patrons can observe the information that is published, pursuing contact information if so desired. This allows for spreading influence of the Wiccan culture without the public outrage that often accompanies real world' Wiccan activities. Through this technology, this religion is able to reach out to those interested without upsetting the moral majority greatly.

Similarly, Yahoo! lists more than fifty categorically organized faiths or practices. Beyond this, we also find cult activities flourishing on the internet. Most of us remember the Heaven's Gate (htt p://www.psicounsel.com/hgintro.htm) cult that ac hieved notoriety when the group of 39 web developers committed suicide together. Mockery also abounds, in the form of the Cult of the Dead Cow (http://www.cultdeadcow.com), the Church of Beavis Christ (http://www.oxy.edu/~vernoy/church.html), or Jesus's homepage (http://thrill.to/christallmighty/). All of these religious (or mockery thereof) perspectives can be spread effectively and efficiently through the internet.

Another interesting aspect of technology affecting religion is with respect to the coming millennium. Most of the fear that I hear about the upcoming year 2000 is with regard to the y2k bug', rather than the religious hysteria that would normally accompany such a significant year change. At the first millennium (1000 c.e.), there were great numbers of people and groups of people believing that it was the end of the world. What cons titutes such significance in a numerical anomaly is perhaps beyond my understanding, but I would have expected there to be greater angst from a religious reference point, rather than the heightened nervousness from a technological error. With the two pos sible problems arriving and exhibiting themselves at the same moment in time, the two events are surely inviting paranoia about the complexity of the coincidence.

Technology has been influencing many different aspects of religious activity, though it has not effectively changed the way we are spiritual human beings. I doubt if anyone would believe that their spirituality has been affected directly by techno logy. Technology, in this directed consideration, only allows us to realize the potential that has always been present in the human psyche. The increasing availability and dissemination of information, thanks largely to the internet, has helped those wh o are inclined towards religion to realize their inclinations.

RELIGION AFFECTING TECHNOLOGY

The first thing to consider how religion and religious tendencies have been affecting technology and how we relate to it would be to discuss the y2k bug', and the millennial implications of the coincidence. Jay Abshier, a y2k specialist for Texaco, commented that Y2K can't be the end of time-- it's too obvious, (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.04/texaco.html) which provides an interesting backlash to the fear and apprehension about the y2k bug. Ellen Ullman, a writer for Wired Magazine, des cribed it as simply an engineering trade-off, and a good one. (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.04/y2k.html) Though the y2k bug is potentially in a wide array of systems, a bug of this sort would normally only meet with distress amongst business pe ople worried about the bottom line.

Ullman also notes, Y2K has challenged a belief in digital technology that has been almost religious. But it's not surprising. The public has had little understanding of the context in which Y2K exists. (Ibid) A situation that caused problems similar to what some are predicting from the y2k occurred in 1991 when AT&T's entire telephone switching network went down. A programming error caused negative feedback loops that were self-destructive, and en ded up tying up the entire system, disrupting normal telephone usage. Unlike y2k, no one saw it coming, but the worst side effect was that people were mad that their phone lines went down for a couple hours. Maybe a few business deals got lost or botche d because of inability to communicate, but no outright travesty. Similar disruptions will likely occur with the transition into the new year, with similar minimal effects, yet everyone is afraid of so much more.

I've discussed the situation with several friends and acquaintances, and the overwhelming majority admit that they're not afraid of the technology failing (it would be tolerable if there were only brief problems), but rather the fear lay in the pos sible panic that people would derive from the incident. Hysteria about the end of a millennium is definitely a contributing factor.

This is also evidence of another effect that Neal Stephenson described in a commentary In the Beginning was the Command Line. (http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html) In this es say, he describes the division between technologically lit erate and illiterate people:

Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterrane an Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world, it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. ...Morlocks, who have the energy and intell igence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom.

This is a rather condescending view of the world (by Stephenson's admission), though it does imply a few interesting parallels to our current study.

We can begin to draw parallels between a technological system and a religious one-- the Morlocks or programmers run the show and hold all the information, sharing it with those that will pay for it or honor them in some way, just as Catholic monks were holders of the knowledge of God's will in Europe earlier this millennium, preaching the knowledge to the hoi polloi. The Eloi, or those who aren't enlightened, are at the mercy of the Morlocks to provide them with something beneficial. The Eloi are acting with faith that the Morlocks know what they're doing, and simply accept the metaphors and simple descriptions of the complex inner workings of technology. This blind faith in technology, coupled with the reality that no technology is perfect, is a large reason why there very well could be a problem with y2k, or even any other technological failing.

In many circumstances, technology is also perceived to be a path to utopia. This pattern draws from the religious promise of a heaven if the correct behavior is acted out here on earth. Likewise, if we use technology correctly, we find ourselves being promised a panacea for all the worlds problems. The 2b1 foundation, funded by Nicholas Negroponte, has a brief description of its mission statement, There is a new force in the world: the growth of cyberspace. Inherent in this force is a breakdown in barriers of geography, age, economics, gender and culture, (http://www.2b1.org) in which the foundation alludes to the technology of cyberspace providing us with the way to destroy evils inherent in age, economic, gender, or cultural discrimination. Though this seems to be a ver y wonderful ideal that could very well happen, I believe it is wise to look at this statement, and others like it with the history of our western culture in mind.

From Howard Rheingold's Virtual Community (http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book), to almost anything that Wired Magazine prints or puts on its website, there is a common view of technology providing us all with some sort of salvation and transit ion into a better world. We can accomplish this by behaving in the right ways online, supporting the right things, and allowing things you disagree with to operate with your tolerance. With virtual communities developing with a blind eye to everything t hat we may find prejudicial, surely we can all develop cyberspace into a utopia where everyone can find the things that interest them, interact with those people who share the same interests, etc. This seems like a veritable heaven, and all we have to do is behave appropriately, and we'll end up there eventually.

Robert Duvall, a professor of Computer Science (http://www.cs.duke.edu/~rcd) commented to me while discussing this topic, any sufficiently sophisticated technology is essentially magical. I would even derive from this statement that sufficiently sophisticated technology is indistinguishable to the layman from magic. With this interesting point of view, we find even more evidence for technology acting as the focal point for religious beh aviors. All that is necessary is for some Morlock to instill suggestions that religious behavior is acceptable, and for some Eloi to accept this. I can't help but remember several occasions when someone has come to me for help with their computer, askin g but when I do this, it normally works, when they are just accepting the faith that if they follow the rules they were told, that it would work. They had faith in the way the computer worked, and they were coming to a Morlock to gain his spiritual guidance.

CONCLUSION

The opening statement of this paper was that first impressions would seem to indicate that religion and technology would not seem to be closely linked. However, when we consider more general definitions of religion' and technology', we find that the two are closely interlocked. With many of the points raised in this paper, it should seem naive that we would even consider religion and technology to not be linked. As technology pushes forward, I feel that religion and re ligious behavior will follow along with it, however, not the reverse. The relationship between religion and technology is being lead by technological change—established religious systems are merely struggling to keep up. However, it is the basic nature of religion (as a belief system for the unknown) that will still be around no matter how far technology advances.