To be human is to be religious. There are simply no exceptions. Maybe in a future post I’ll choose to defend that statement, but for now I’m just going to let it stand. The religion of choice for much of modern civilization we might vaguely call the religion of progress. It is a system of beliefs and attendant practices (rituals and ethics) organized around the abstract principle of “progress.” One of our very favorite ways that we make this principle concrete is through the creation and use of technology.
One of the truly unique skills that human have is the ability to fashion and use tools to enhance their creativity and their work. More than any other created being, humans have the capacity to blend together the artificial and the natural. I believe this is one of the manifestations of the image of God. Our ability to reason and to create is a gift from our Creator.
But I’ve been feeling uneasy lately. I’ve just become a bit of a technological curmudgeon. Maybe it’s because of my age. Maybe it’s because I see how addicted my middle schoolers are to screens that I then recognize my own addiction. I don’t know. I hear about self-driving cars, delivery by drone, virtual reality, Alexa, and on and on and on, and I’m just starting to wonder at what point the artificial starts to swallow up our humanity. There is actually an entire field of study now devoted to cyborg anthropology. All of this progress is celebrated, and I’m sitting over here in the corner wondering where is this progress leading us and will we like it when we get there?
This uneasiness caused me to start to wonder – how is technology functioning religiously? If it’s true that we are all inherently religious, how does the creation and use of technology operate as a religion in our lives? Here is my best shot at an answer:
- Technology promises to non-judgmentally deliver us from our sins (which are more properly understood as inconveniences) and fix our brokenness (technology as therapy). There is nothing that cannot be fixed by technological progress (a technologism of the gaps?).
- Technology is always an amplification of its creators (our greatness and our wretchedness). True transcendence through technology is illusory (like the idol makers of Isaiah’s day). Babel is a better expectation for technology than Eden. That won’t stop us from trying to find transcendence, meaning, and importance through technology.
- Technology has become a cultural institution with hierarchies of leaders and gurus (Steve Jobs anyone?), sacred places and times (Seriously, if you were a time traveler from 600 years ago and you saw the structure pictured above, what would you assume happened inside?), acts of wonder, evangelists and converts, and even denominations (Are you a Mac or a PC?). During the next Apple event or CES, observe them through the lens of religion.
- There is an almost categorical imperative in participating in the technological life. We have difficulty imagining life before or without the use of the latest technology. A person without a smartphone might as well be Amish.
- Technology is a priest of the secular trinity of consumerism, individualism, and materialism.
- Technology disembodies us and separates us from each other and the world. Connections are now merely technological (a new spiritualism?). Our own intelligence is becoming artificial intelligence. Our own reality and connectedness is becoming a virtual reality.
- We are fearful of technology’s power ultimately to judge us. We live in fear that what we’ve created will someday destroy or usurp us. Our media commonly expresses this fear through the creation of dystopic futures with machines taking over or mankind ruining the world through technology. We are quietly pessimistic about the promises of technology.
- The more mechanistic our world becomes, the more mechanistic we come to regard our own existence. (We are all cyborgs now.) You become like that which you worship. This is where technologism and naturalism go hand-in-hand. We have come to understand our own nature in purely mechanistic terms. There is little difference between our brains and the micro-computer that we carry in our pockets.
- Technology is a restless god – always offering a changing list of promises, commands, curses and blessings. Technology is a legalistic religion always changing the expectations for the “good life.” (That three-year-old phone is pathetic. I don’t even know how you live with that thing.)
- Like any idol, technology promises faith, hope, and love but delivers restlessness, angst, and alienation. There is no doubt that technology has improved the quality of life over previous generations and civilizations. But quality of life is not a guarantee of the good life. It’s tough to make the case that cyborg-man is objectively happier and more content than those Neanderthals who lived just a few decades ago.