Saturday, August 15, 2009

Religious embrace of technology

Well...even the Pope is now on Facebook. Here is an interesting article that talks about the historic relation between religion and technology (or more on the embrace of technology by religions). It starts with the Pope:

"Employ these new technologies to make the Gospel known, so that the Good News of God’s infinite love for all people will resound in new ways across our increasingly technological world!"

These could have been the words of Johannes Gutenberg or Billy Graham. In fact, they belong to the current pope, Benedict XVI. He spoke them last month in anticipation of World Social Communication Day, an annual event intended to spread the Good News of God’s infinite love using mass media outlets. The message this year was mostly for the kids: “Young people in particular, I appeal to you: Bear witness to your faith through the digital world!”

Catholics aren’t the only Christians connecting on the Web. When it was created in 2007, GodTube — an alternative to YouTube created for Christians and since renamed tangle — was the fastest-growing website in the U.S. Two years later, it’s just one of millions of such sites where people of Christian faith can find each other, date, discuss scripture, promote business, and debate the effects of technology on believers. There’s and, which lets you search Bible passages in over 100 languages (Always wanted to say “The Lord is my Shepherd” in Tagalog?), the rather moderate,, .net, .org…. You get the idea.

But no surprise here. This is helpful in social connectivity and proselytizing.
That Christians have so eagerly embraced the Internet is no surprise. It is at the heart of Christianity to use whatever means necessary to extend the community of believers. This includes technology. “The fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them…for that is not what they do,” the philosopher Stanley Fish recently wrote in The New York Times. Likewise, technology doesn’t have to be based on faith to be at its service. The word of God will be spread to all nations of the world before the world ends. It’s right there in Matthew 24:14. Though Isaiah 44:9-20 tells Christians not to worship the devices humans make to ease the struggle of life, it doesn’t say Christians can’t keep working both toward perfection and better tools with which to achieve it. The Internet makes proselytizing easier. I think Paul would have been pleased as punch to find an Internet cafĂ© in Antioch. And that is what technology has always provided — techniques for making the things you want to do in life less hard.
Interestingly, the article also includes Noah's ark and his vineyard as examples of technology for the service of religion:
According to the Torah, it was Noah who would relieve men of blood, sweat and tears with techne. He was like a Jewish Prometheus. “This one will bring us rest (Noah means ‘rest’) from our work and the toil of our hands," Genesis 5:29 states, meaning that God created Noah for this specific purpose, to teach people how to improve the tools they use to till the soil. This had been the dilemma of humanity since that little incident in Eden — out of paradise and into the desert. Noah would usher in a new age of prosperity, where people could more easily use the Earth for their benefit. Of course, the new age wouldn’t come until 600 years and one really big flood later. The point is that, for the Jews, man’s first great technological accomplishment was the Ark that gave the world a fresh start. Furthering the case that God gave people the power of technology to improve life, we skip to the next part of the story, Genesis 9:20-21, in which the second great technological feat of Noah was to build himself a vineyard, make some wine, get drunk, and pass out nude. L’Chaim! For a contemporary nod to Judaism’s marriage of technology and alcohol, you can visit the kosher speakeasy behind the Temple Beit Israel, the Second Life Synagogue.
And of course, several religious requirements for Muslims (direction to Mecca, daily prayer times, lunar calendar) drove developments not only in astronomy and spherical trigonometry, but also in technology required for navigation, etc:

And speaking of boats, Islamic doctrine has long inspired technological advancement in shipbuilding, navigation, and a wide number of other fields. Muhammed al-Idrisi, the 12th-century Andalusian scholar and cartographer, created some of the most useful and startlingly accurate maps of the ancient world. And there was the polymath al-Biruni who, excelling in many areas of applied and theoretical science—contributed greatly to the fields of geography and mapmaking; he established, for example, the technique of measuring the Earth using three coordinates to define a point in three-dimensional space. Using advanced techniques to chart the distances between cities was a particular specialty. His estimated radius of the Earth wasn’t ‘discovered’ by the West until the 16th century.

With detailed trade routes and meticulously tracked mariner’s charts, one might argue that it was simply intellectual curiosity or the thirst for empire that drove these innovations. Yet an important chapter in the Koran — Surah 22, which proclaims that “the people shall observe Hajj pilgrimage” — offers another theory. Travel wasn’t always so easy. First of all, you had to know where Mecca was in relationship to where you were. A well-charted map, then, was essential to fulfilling the basic requirements of the faith. Second, you had to get there, so you needed good navigational equipment. Muslims invented all kinds of compasses, clocks, and astrolabes, including the compass dial, which was the world’s version of GPS for centuries. Its inventor, Ibn al-Shatir, developed it initially not just to help find the direction of Mecca, but to help track the times of the Salah prayers (the ones that are performed five times a day) at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

This is all well and good. But it would have been nice if the article also included at least some examples where the same religions thwart (and have thwarted) adoption of new technology - especially when it comes to medical innovations (the last paragraph briefly touches on that - but doesn't provide any examples). Thus, the interesting question is not that religions happily adopt technology - that is obvious - but rather what kind of technologies make religions particularly eager to accept or reject them. The article is interesting - but it gives a skewed vision of religion and technology relationship.

Read the full article here. Also see these posts Halo 3 around some Churches and Recharging soul points: new religious video games.


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