Summary of Religion of Technology

David Noble in his book Religion of Technology presents the historical development of the religion of technology in the west for the past 1000 years. He presents a rather surprising argument that the development of technology in the west has been based on religion.

He succeeds rather well in presenting fact after fact from each era to support his claim that religion has been the motivator behind every major technological advance in the last millennium. At the outset of the book he states that as we approach the new millennium "…much as we began it, in devout anticipation of doom and deliverance, only now our medieval expectations assume a more modern, technological expression." (p. 3)

He also maintains that those who "…seem to set the standard for rationality…" are "…driven …by distant dreams, spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption." (p.3)

He maintains that the "…link between religion and technology was …forged… a thousand years … back…when the useful arts first became implicated in the Christian project of redemption." (p.6) He quotes Ernst Benz, a Historian of Europe, as saying: "It is one of the most amazing facts of Western cultural history …that the striking acceleration and intensification of technological development in post-Carolingian Europe emanated from contemplative monasticism." (p. 13)

In this age it would be the influence of a court philosopher of Charlemagne’s grandson, -Charles the Bald, John Scotus Erigena. (p. 14). Erigena coined the term "mechanical arts" (p. 15) and rewrote an allegory that held disdain for technology in terms that embrace technological development. (p.16)

"The arts, Erigena wrote, are "man’s links with the Divine, their cultivation a means to salvation." (p. 17) Noble states that this conceptualization "…signaled a turning point in the ideological history of technology." (p. 17)

Noble continues his analysis through succeeding centuries to the present highlighting not only important contribution to technological progress but to the ideology behind it. He mentions another ideological reformer , namely Joachim of Fiore who "…was influenced by the monastic and Church-reform movements, by the crusades, and seemingly apocalyptic conflicts between popes and emperors…Joachim, was convinced that the antichrist had appeared in the human form in Saladin, who conquered Jerusalem in 1187." (p. 24)

Noble states that: "Joachim was inspired by a vision while reading the book of revelation…" to formulate the "most influential prophetic system known to Europe until Marxism," which "ignited the greatest spiritual revolution of the Middle Ages." (p. 24)

Joachim believed in that they are in a period of transition which is the final stage of millennial preparation. (p.25) Joachim followers would use the latest technological advances to build "countless cathedrals" "…which symbolized a new Jerusalem." (p.26)

Roger Bacon, a Franciscan scholar, said that: "…we are not far removed from the times of antichrist." He urged his followers to study Joachimite prophecy in order to be forewarned about history’s final events. He urged the Pope to "…consider the employment of these inventions…" to be used against the Antichrist. (p.27)

Columbus saw himself as "divinely inspired fulfiller of prophecy." (p.33) who studied the works of Roger Bacon and the prophecies of Joachim. (p. 32)

Noble continues to analyze the works of the scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth century and says that they "…sought in the study of nature the recovery of …the true light of early Christianity." (p. 35)

He shows that they continued the belief in millenarianism. In the words of the historian P. M. Rattansi "their social, religious, and educational reform was based on the conviction that the millennium was at hand… the aim of science and the arts was the restoration of mankind’s primal knowledge shared with God at the beginning but lost in the fall. (p. 40)

He also shows that although these beliefs continued on the European continent, England had similar beliefs. "…Protestants as a group believed they were living near the end of the world…" (p. 47.) Francis Bacon, "who is typically revered as the greatest prophet of modern science"(p. 49), through science sought, "…a return to the state of Adam before the fall… a progress back towards Adam." (p. 50)

John Milton wrote "on Education" which was to him a means of redemption and a way to recover the God-likeness. (p. 56) Purtians were the ones who laid the foundation for the seventeenth century scientific revolution. (p. 57)

Robert Boyle and the founders of Royal society of London including almost every important seventeenth century scientist believed in the approaching millennium. (p. 58-59.) Robert Boyle at the end of his life "…sought to explain resurrection in terms of the process of chemical transmutation." (p. 60)

"…the mathematician George Boole had what he described as a "mystical" experience. "The thought flashed upon him suddenly one afternoon as he was walking across a filed that his ambition in life was to explain the logic of human thought and to delve analytically into the spiritual aspects of man’s nature[through] the expression of logical relations in symbolic or algebraic form." (p. 145) Noble quotes his biographer as saying: "It is impossible to separate Boole’s religious beliefs from his mathematics.

This continued well into the eighteenth century as well. "James Clerk Maxwell, the mathematician who gave Faraday’s theories enduring and useful mathematical expression…" was "…a devout Christian…." who "…studied the Bible and commentaries…and wrote his own daily prayers." (p. 71-72)

Freemasonry "…embraced the Baconian vision of "Solomon’s House," …" who followed "…the tradition of Andrae, Comenius, Hartlib and Boyle." (p. 73)

John Theophilus Desaguliers was a fellow of Royal Society, a Newtonian natural philosopher and the third grand master of the English Grand Lodge. (p. 74-75)

"The Freemason believed that their special knowledge was heaven sent…" "Freemasonry was thus the dynamic force behind the ‘encyclopedias,’ ‘the diffusion of light of knowledge,’ and the promotion of the ‘useful arts and crafts.’" (p. 77)

"[A] man rose to higher and more ornate and mystical status within a lodge because of practical virtue."(p. 77) Noble writes that "…Freemasons passed on the legacy of the religion of technology to modernity’s ‘New Man.’" (p. 79)

Comte, who is considered as the father of sociology, according to Noble, "…reproduced… the millenarian mentality of the middle ages." Noble quotes Comte as saying: "We [positivist] are the true successors of the great men of the Middle Ages." (p. 83)

Also Comte comes up with a slight deviation from the standard millenarian ideology by taking it to the next step. Noble says:

Positivism was aimed at "awakening in all the noble desire of honorable incorporation with the supreme existence," and thereby attaining a "perfecting unity" with the Great Being, which would bring about mankind’s "ultimate regeneration" –the "reconstruction" of "our whole nature," "the ultimate condition," the "definitive form of his existence," "the normal state" (p. 84)

This ideology coupled with the beliefs of Decartes about the purity of the thinking mind would provide the basis for current ideology of many of those who are involved in Artificial Intelligence research.

It is also worthwhile to note that many of these scientist lividly ‘saintly’ lives in poverty, such as Comte did (p.85) as well as Isaac Newton (p.64) and Boyle. (p. 60) It is interesting to note also that Linus Torvalds the inventor of Linux is not rich and the NYTimes of 12/14/99 mentioned that it would hurt his image to be rich as well. Also Tim Burners Lee inventor of WWW and HTML (Father of the Web is also not a rich man.) He however has a nice "job" at MIT media center.

He also shows that Bacon’s ideas were transferred to the United States as well. Columbus himself viewed the new world as a paradise on earth. In the chapter entitled the New Eden he states that Edward Johnson in 1628 solicited volunteers to colonize New England as a chance to re-make paradise. The American was described as the "eternal Adam."(p.89)

Samuel F. B. Morse, Father of the telegraph, "…was a generous benefactor of "churches, theological seminaries…" etc. (p. 94). George Babcok, leading mechanical engineer, had said of George S. Morrison, a prominent railroad engineer…a leading bridge builder…, said: "He is the priest of the new epoch." (p. 95) The American Socialist Edward Belamy, whose father was a Baptist minister, wrote a best selling work of fiction that described a technological utopia. (p. 98-99) Later on in life however he would a more sobering work, Equality, in which he describes the craze for technological progress without any derived benefit as irrational compared to the middle ages. (p. 100)

Noble continues for four more chapters that are about the following topics:

In his conclusion Noble states that: "The thousand-year convergence of technology and transcendence has thus outlived whatever historical usefulness it might once have had." "If the religion of technology once fostered visions of social renovation, it also fueled fantasies of escaping society altogether." "…simply, the technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival."(p. 208)

He recommends " that we "alter the ideological basis of the whole system." "… to embrace a new our one and only earthly existence." (p. 208) quoting Lewis Mumford.

Essay by: Muhammad Hozien

Religion of Technology PageHome PageE-mail: Muhammad Hozien