Review of David F. Noble’s “The Religion of Technology”

Review of David F. Noble’s “The Religion of Technology”

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A review of David F. Noble. The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Alfred A. Knopf.

In an earlier book, A World Without Women, historian David F. Noble, a professor of history at York University in Toronto, had argued that the roots of modern scientific technology are deeply intertwined with the misogynism of medieval clerical culture. In The Religion of Technology he digs even deeper, finding the ultimate foundations of the modern “religion of technology” in the longing for new creation that ultimately goes back to the Bible, but which assumed a dangerous surge of voltage during the Middle Ages.

Monastic otherworldliness, of course, is one expression of what is usually called “religion,” or what the author politely refers to as the quest for “transcendence.” The religious urge to “go beyond” is in Mr. Noble’s estimation a troublesome and ultimately dispensable instinct, leading men to hate women, earthlings to escape from earth, and humans to forsake efforts toward a more “humane” existence.

Instead of being intrinsically inimical to modern science, however, the atavistic religious urge to transcend the world, as mediated to modernity by monks of the Middle Ages, is actually science’s very nursery. Had its founders not been energized by intense religious longing for a better world than this one, Noble contends, it is doubtful that they would ever have embarked upon their journeys of discovery. Nor would modern technological adventurism have led this planet to the brink of disaster.

At the vanguard of the monkish march that translated ancient religious longing for perfection into the driving spirit of modern technology are the now obscure figures of John Scotus Erigena, court philosopher to Charles the Bald, and the 13th century apocalyptic reformer and Cistercian Abbott Joachim of Fiore. Most of the great explorers and scientists at the beginning of the modern period simply fell in line behind these medieval bearers of earth-despising, new-world-seeking fervor. Fired by the same religious passion for what lies beyond the given world, modern and contemporary geniuses have invented ever newer realms, whether geographical or cognitive. By now these domains have become familiar to us, but currently the obsession with “virtual reality” and genetic engineering is seeking–through the same sublimated “religious” world-discontent–to “transcend” and escape the earth in newer ways.

Christopher Columbus, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, along with many other modern innovators, were all products of the medieval religious discontent with the givenness of the world. Auguste Comte, the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and more recently the personnel of NASA and today’s cyberneticians–all alike have been borne along by the swell of an ancient religious tide amplified by the “transcending” escapism of medieval monasticism.

The Religion of Technology is an informative work, and it makes a convincing case that there is a deeper connection between religion and the modern emergence of science and technology than we usually realize. This idea as such, however, is by no means new. In Science and the Modern World Alfred North Whitehead, for example, had argued that medieval theology prepared the soil for modern science’s deep trust in the rationality of nature, a much more substantive kind of influence than Mr. Noble brings out in his eagerness to debunk religion as the source of technological escapism.

Moreover, while the book is nicely written and compellingly presented, the author’s main thesis is logically flawed and theologically simplistic. Mr. Noble does not disguise the radical secularism that underlies his entire project. The book, he says “is offered in the hope that we might learn to disabuse ourselves of the other-worldly dreams that lie at the heart of our technological enterprise, in order to begin to redirect our astonishing capabilities more toward worldly and humane ends.”

Fair enough, but having demonstrated that the ambiguous modern scientific and technological enterprise has its origin in something as ignoble as religion, Mr. Noble apparently expects us to join with him in disowning it. In addition to being an egregious example of what logicians call the genetic fallacy–evaluating something on the basis of its origins rather than its inherent merits–his understanding of religion is unnuanced, condescending and unfair to most people who call themselves religious. The terms “religion” and “transcendence,” as he wields them, almost invariably resemble what would better be called “idolatry” and “escapism”–perversions of religious trust rather than the purifying quest for the infinite, for ultimate truth, beauty and goodness. A case could just as easily be made that it is secularism’s banishing of any sense of a real infinite, and not the religious quest for it, that has propelled modernity on its idolatrous search for finite and ultimately self-destructive substitutes.

The promotional material for this book presents it as a contribution to the study of science and religion. In fact, however, it is a scarcely concealed, and ironically modern, diatribe against religion, with almost nothing to say about the more robust connections of faith and theology to scientific knowledge.