Religion and Technology: A Study in the Philosophy of Culture

By Casey, Timothy | The Review of Metaphysics, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Religion and Technology: A Study in the Philosophy of Culture


Casey, Timothy, The Review of Metaphysics


NEWMAN, Jay. Religion and Technology: A Study in the Philosophy of Culture. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1997. ix + 195 pp. Cloth, $55.00.--In this rather brief polemic, Newman proposes to clarify the relation between technology and religion in Western culture. His aim is primarily practical: to promote "intelligent, farsighted adjustments to the relations currently obtaining between particular religious phenomena and particular technologies, or between religion and technology generally" (p. 3). This requires an affirmation of technological progress as the cultural expression of religion's universal impulse to improve the world for humans. Technology is thus taken to be a religious endeavor, and religion, suprisingly, a kind of technology. Both are united in the notion of culture as the amelioration of the human condition.

Given this understanding of culture, Newman finds the modern idea of progress unassailable in spite of its many philosophical and theological critics, whom he blithely lumps together as antitechnologists. While he admits that Jacques Ellul, Langdon Gilkey, and a host of others from Marcel and Heidegger to George Grant and Hans Jonas "deserve a hearing," he is not averse to characterizing them as "reactionaries" and "antagonistic cranks" who engage more in nostalgia and "romantic walling" than in rational analysis. Newman devotes an early chapter to a rebuttal of the antitechnological position and its claims of the desacralization, dehumanization, and idolatry inherent in "Satanic technology." Later, toward the end of the book, he returns to this critique, actually concluding that it "mirrors the pattern of techniques that an educator might employ in trying to free someone from anti-Semitic attitudes" (p. 165). Newman is offended by the antitechnologists, since, in his mind, their targets are not just abstractions like the "technological society" or the "technological mentality" but real, "flesh and blood human beings," who, as well-intentioned producers and users of technology, are simply trying to make our world a better place.

His explanation for this invidious irrationalism and ingratitude is a dualism of Augustinian provenance that is most apparent in the work of Ellul and its puritanical rejection of the material world and the human body. Herein lies the great divide between anti- and protechnologists, with the latter espousing a theology or philosophy more in accord with the Judeo-Christian message of charity and life affirmation. To his credit, Newman is aware of the complexity and the at times contradictory character of this heritage when it comes to attitudes about science and technology, but he chooses to cast his lot with the early modern Protestant worldview associated with the Scientific Revolution and with more recent theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin and Harvey Cox, thinkers, he believes, who "cannot abide too much in the way of tradition, orthodoxy, and stability . …

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