October 5, 1997
In 1896 the scholar and diplomat Andrew Dickson White, co-founder and first president of Cornell University, published two hefty tomes entitled, in typically orotund 19th-century fashion, “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.” One hundred years later another distinguished historian, David Noble (author of the acclaimed study “America by Design”), has published a book that might well have been entitled “A History of the Harmony of Religion with Technology in Christendom.” Which story is true?
The two stories are not, it turns out, incompatible. White’s is the familiar David-and-Goliath drama of intellectual freedom versus ecclesiastical authority. The Inquisition, the Index of Forbidden Books, and other agents of darkness are hauled on stage and hissed, while their victims -- scientists, literary men, and other doughty champions of the light -- are carried off on the shoulders of the cheering crowd. All highly agreeable to the secular liberal reader and, as far as it goes, perfectly accurate.
Noble’s story is less well-known. For the last ten centuries or so in the West, he writes, technological visionaries have consistently spoken the language of Christian millenarianism. They have described themselves, and genuinely seen themselves, not in Promethean or Faustian terms, as encroaching on divine prerogatives, but rather as fulfilling a divine plan. It is true that Saint Augustine, the most influential of the early Church Fathers, was very eloquent about the weaknesses of the flesh and the wretchedness of life here below; and Christians have always been painfully, sometimes obsessively, conscious of Original Sin. But other Christians -- including, it seems, many of the leading scientists in history -- have been just as keenly conscious of the promised Second Coming. These medieval and modern believers share “an enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation” -- Noble’s “religion of technology.”
We are prone nowadays to label almost anything a religion: Marxism, monetarism, Freudianism, vegetarianism, attitudes toward the Internet. Noble disavows such casual analogies. His title “is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense, to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it invokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion, and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather, it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.”
During the early Middle Ages, Noble’s story goes, the theological significance of the “useful arts” changed. Once no more than a distraction from the things of the spirit or, at best, a solace for fallen mankind, they began to be seen as a means to our recovery of Adam’s lost perfection and a sign of humanity’s imminent entry into a glorious New Order. Why this change occurred is uncertain: perhaps because the invention of the horse collar and the iron plow transformed daily life north of the Alps.
It was in the Benedictine monasteries above all that the new technology was baptized. A “veritable medieval industrial revolution” took place there, featuring windmills, watermills, clocks, eyeglasses, springwheels, metal forges, ore crushers, and other devices. Medieval writers like Scotus Erigena and Hugh of St. Victor announced that the end or telos of the mechanical arts was to “restore within us the divine likeness.”
“Restoration” is the key to understanding this new theological current. From its inception Christianity has been fiercely eschatological: the first disciples, remember, expected Jesus to return immediately and re-establish the Kingdom of God on earth. This expectation has been alive, even if sometimes submerged, in the Christian imagination ever since, along with the almost equally potent myth of Adam’s (i.e., humanity’s) original perfection, which the Second Coming is to restore.
As Noble demonstrates, this millenarian hope has taken a remarkable variety of forms. In the writings of Joachim da Fiore, a 12th-century monastic reformer and apocalyptic prophet; of Roger Bacon, the 13th-century Oxford philosopher; of the Italian Renaissance humanists; of Francis Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Newton, and a great many others -- including the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and even the Puritans -- the aim of science and technology is seen as “the restoration of mankind’s primal knowledge, shared with God at the beginning but lost in the Fall.” Even in the high noon of 19th- century positivism, this theme sounds repeatedly. Faraday, Maxwell, Babbage, Boole, Morse, Edison, the followers of Saint-Simon and Comte, the founders of the celebrated Ecole Polytechnique (then the world’s leading engineering school) -- all were ardent evangelical Christians who believed they were contributing to “the recovery of mankind’s original divine image-likeness and dominion over nature.”
So do a surprising number of our contemporaries. According to Noble, NASA, Los Alamos, the Human Genome Project, and the artificial-intelligence community are honeycombed with apocalyptic Christians harboring “unspoken other-worldly aspirations.” Actually, what they do speak about to Noble and other interviewers is alarming enough. The “Rapture [i.e., ascent] of the Saints” will employ nuclear-powered spacecraft, an engineer opines. NASA is “not hung up on the separation of Church and State,” an official remarks. Cyberspace, writes an AI researcher, is “a Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation.” And so on.
There’s much fascinating intellectual and social history in “The Religion of Technology,” though Noble sometimes strains to fit it all into his grand pattern. There’s a political point as well. The techno-spiritual visionaries were not, by and large, democrats. They were (are) a priesthood, supplied and supervised by their temporal masters. This is why technology has always fallen so far short of its benign potential. The schemes of the techno-seers have so often failed to meet basic human needs because “at bottom, they have never been about meeting them. They have been aimed rather at the loftier goal of transcending such menial concerns altogether.”
They have also, of course, been aimed at producing pelf for the plutocrats and firepower for the state, as Noble and others have already exhaustively demonstrated. Profits, power, and fantasies of transcendence -- for a millennium or more this unholy trinity has held science and technology in thrall. Perhaps in the next millennium we will find true religion.