Monday, 1 June 2009

825 - Religious Technology

Just a thought: what if the religions we build were thought of as a technology? Like fire-creation, or wheels, or ladders. A social machine built when observations about subjective perceptions are applied to objective reality, perhaps, as chemistry applied, with an eye to economics, in the service of a defined need for a flame on demand, results in a match or lighter.

There's a fairly basic statement about religions in Beyond the Burning Times: a Pagan and Christian in Dialogue. Pages 154-5: "Religious traditions are different ways in which human beings have sought to come into greater relationship with the Sacred" (Gus diZerega).

But this begs the legitimate question: what is meant by the Sacred? Many people would say the Sacred does not exist - it's an imaginative overlay on the physical world. It gives us a sense of meaning, but when we say we sense it, what we are sensing is our imagination in the act of interpreting our relationship with the entirely physical world around us.

Better, surely, to interrogate ourselves as to whether the imaginative act is worth it. Perhaps it is misplaced. Perhaps, necessity being the mother of invention, and with our sense of the laws of nature removing the necessity for us to invent supernatural forces to explain the physical universe, our imagination can be directed towards more practical creations - more efficient acts of niche creation, be they home-, leisure- or work- related.

So Gus diZerega's quote is, by itself, problematic. Perhaps it's like saying that ladders and stairs are different ways in which we have sought to reach closer to the moon. In exceptional cases, maybe, we'd admit, by lunatics and artists, but otherwise, no. What they are - or what they have become -are technologies for achieving achievable ends. Cleaning windows, harvesting apples, stacking people up in tall buildings. Religions have reached for the Gods: better, nowadays, use them to instil solidarity, or motivate personal change, or if they are obsolete, use something else.

But here's the thing with technologies, we can only discover what is achievable if we are permitted to entertain the unachievable. In other words, technologies are not, in and of themselves, tethered to the practical. They are free-standing.

Like cogs applied to clockwork, bicycle gears, and automata, or like the ladder waving in the air, seeking purchase on whatever lies within reach. And maybe, although this time it cannot reach the moon, perhaps with new materials and a better understanding of gravitational forces, a moon ladder might be built. Arthur C. Clarke and many later scientists thought so. Technological spin-offs along the way start with the novel that Clarke wrote, which, for a fact, inspired me as a teenager to read, to love science, and to admire engineers.

In the same way, religion could be harvested for its spin-offs - for example, social cohesion, a sense of purpose, legal and political insights, healing (perhaps), the creation of beautiful structures and great paintings - whilst other visions, magic (perhaps), prosperity gospels, theocracies, might be put to one side until societies and science and personal skills caught up.

If it is a technology, it would be stupid to deny religion the opportunity to stand on its own simply because our present capabilities do not support all the visions the technology opens up. It would be stupid, too, not to allow religious technologists the opportunity to develop their ideas. It might well be that knowledge gained might over time be lost and found again, or cached in monasteries, or nations, or particular traditions. And foolish too not to admit that the technology could be used for the equivalent of nuclear weaponry.

Does this chase away superstition? Yes, in that technology becomes obsolete (though who'd choose between a Stradivari and a synthesiser?). Does it stamp out spirituality? No - not if the spirit is equivalent to the flame produced by the match, the apple fetched by the ladder, or the journey completed by bike.

Just as we are warmed by fire, fed by fruits, and lifted by (transported by?) transport to foreign lands, we can be sure that whatever it is that the technology of religion serves, whatever Spirit turns out to be (an everything, a nothing), it benefits us somehow, deeply, because we have built, and build still, the means for reaching and for engaging with it.

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