On Religion and Technology in America
by Evaggelos Vallianatos
Garry Wills, professor of American history and author of Bomb Power, says that the atomic and nuclear bomb remade the country into a National Security State fostering perpetual emergency, secrecy and war.
“Secrecy,” says Wills, “emanated from the Manhattan Project like a giant radiation emission.” Indeed, Wills argues very persuasively that the Manhattan Project turned out to be not merely a “fatal miracle” because it created the “awesome” bomb but also because of the processes it set in place:
“The military-industrial complex, with a poisonous admixture of government and secrecy, had scored a triumph that would show the way to many other governmental activities… The secrecy that had enveloped Los Alamos [building the bomb] would steal quietly across the entire American landscape in the years to come.”
According to Wills, the other inevitable result of the bomb was that it gave the president supreme power. He alone could decide the fate of the world.
The science that emerged from this historical context is so powerful that it has become a kind of religion, a notion dating from the Dark Ages of Christian Europe.
Lynn White studied medieval history for more than 50 years. In his book, Medieval Religion and Technology, he makes huge claims for medieval technology.
First, he says, “modern technology is the extrapolation of that of the Western Middle Ages not merely in detail but also in the spirit that infuses it.”
Second, White argues that medieval technology has been the essential ingredient, indeed the reason behind the domination of the world by Europe and America. But the intriguing element in the argument of White is his emphasis on Christianity inspiring medieval and, hence, modern technology.
At about 830, White says, Benedictine monks advanced technology as part of Christian virtue. And since 830, according to White,
“[T]echnological advance is God’s will… it was axiomatic that man was serving God by serving himself in the technological mastery of nature.”
Because medieval men used science to dominate nature for the glory of their Christian God, White concedes, technological aggression becomes “the normal Western Christian attitude toward nature.”
David F. Noble, professor of history at York University in Toronto, Canada, and author of The Religion of Technology, expands the religious dimensions of science to that of technology, arguing, like Lynn White, on the medieval monastic Christian roots and spirit of Western technology.
He links the American technological enthusiasm to monastic otherworldliness, transcendence, all in the effort of recovering the “lost divinity” of man.
This makes sense not because of any lost divinity of man, but because Christianity and technology are related in America. Faith in technological gadgetry — what Noble describes as “an unrivaled popular enchantment with technological advance” — parallels a belief in the return of Jesus.
Writing in 1997, Noble says:
Religious preoccupations pervade the space program at every level, and constitute a major motivation behind extraterrestrial travel and exploration. Artificial Intelligence advocates wax eloquent about the possibilities of machine-based immortality and resurrection, and their disciples, the architects of virtual reality and cyberspace, exult in their expectation of God-like omnipresence and disembodied perfection. Genetic engineers imagine themselves divinely inspired participants in a new creation.
The engineers of nuclear weapons and those of the space program of America and Russia serve “military ends.”
The boosters of space travel, says Noble, “brought the world but minutes away from mutually assured annihilation.” The civilian leaders of NASA have not abandoned the military ends of their agency, advancing the “militarization” of space in terms of surveillance and the use of weapons.
The same thing happened to the advocates of Artificial Intelligence searching for the “immortal mind.” They are on the payroll of the military and in return they are arming the military with even more lethal weapons and technics of surveillance and control.
They also transfer their technologies to corporations, which, according to Noble, “have deployed them the world over to discipline, deskill, and displace untold millions of people, while concentrating global power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands.”
As for genetic engineers, Noble sees them laying the “foundations for an Orwellian future.”
Nuclear bombs remade the presidency and, indirectly, the national security state. This explains partly why medieval ideas on technology are still alive in America. Both then as now science and technology serve primarily extraterrestrial dreams rather than the public good.
As a result, America continues with its conquest of the natural world. And there’s a tremendous mismatch between human needs and machines in America…
Evaggelos Vallianatos, former EPA analyst, teaches at Pitzer College. He is the author of several books, including “Poison Spring” (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press).