Review of David F. Nobles’ “The Religion of Technology”
Review of David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. NY: Knopf, 1997
Noble’s general claim is that religious visions have propelled an interest in technological achievements. I suspect that a more accurate reading would see a human interest in technology receiving a post factum justification by whatever popular culture could provide. Because the culture of the West has been Christian for so long, whenever there was a possibility of technological improvement, those favoring it made sure to show that true religion supported it. Otherwise they would be suspected of “worldliness” and even magic. In fact, some of the late medieval thinkers most interested in technology and science had to defend themselves against the charge of irreligious philosophizing. Naturally enough, they then had to provide reasons why their work was godly instead of ungodly.
In general, the technology seems to have preceded the supposed religious motivation. Lynn White’s famous essay on the impact of Christian thought on the environment described a number of important technological advances that preceded the place Noble chooses as his first major instance of a religious justification for technical development. The invention of the horse collar, the increase in windmills, techniques of glass-making, and a few other major technological developments preceded Joachim of Fiore’s proposal that as the end of the world approached “knowledge would increase” or that he and his contemporaries were in the age of the Holy Spirit.
With the Reformation and Enlightenment religion lost some of its public power over areas of human thought. Science and industry and trade became more “secularized.” Freemasonry indeed celebrated technology, but it also represents a loss of the old religious traditions, a half-way house towards Comte’s secular religion.
By the twentieth century Noble has to scrambled to sustain his thesis. He has limited success with atomic weaponry, managing mainly to show that Oppenheimer used religious imagery. He succeeds in showing that the engineers associated with the space program, as well as a number of the astronauts, were clearly religious, and even happy to connect their space work with their region. Even here, however, I have some doubts _ he does not give the reader a basis for knowing what proportion of engineers and astronauts made this link with their religion.
The question of proportion is important also with the last few chapters. Though Noble cites religious-sounding words of some biologists, he does not provide a basis for estimating how much of the various genetic and other projects are really connected to religious ideas in the minds of most of the relevant people. This includes those who propose the projects, provide the funding, and do the work.
In brief, I think the conclusion one may more safely draw from history is that in religious times technology will be justified on religious-sounding grounds, whereas in less religious times it will not be. The evidence that Noble provides does not justify claiming any more than that. The book is interesting because it raises some issues about potential relations between religion and science. The relevant question today would be whether there is any intrinsic connection between religion and the continuously growing human ability to devise techniques for manipulating the stuff and patterns and forces of nature to serve human interests. What has often been called “worldly” by Christian theologians is now, as in the past, sometimes called part of the general intent of God. Liberation theologians focus on transforming social – economic – political arrangements, but nonetheless also celebrate the new human position as the being who can increasingly make creation serve human values through the control of disease, the production of adequate food and shelter, the concentration of nature’s energy to produce electric and other power. In these postmodern times, many voices, including religious ones, complain about human domination of nature. But not all religious voices are on their side. Mike Barnes
Michael H. Barnes, Alumni Chair in the Humanities Professor, Religious Studies, University of Dayton. Dayton, OH 45469-1530