Technology and Armageddon: Does Christian Prophecy Shape the Dreams of Our Scientists?

Technology and Armageddon: Does Christian Prophecy Shape the Dreams of Our Scientists?

David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Alfred A. Knopf. 1997. 273 pages, $35.00

One of the most dubious and yet fascinating stories in the Christian canon is the account of the end of time as told in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. Borrowing from Jewish traditions, the unknown writer of this grotesque masterpiece of visionary literature describes the end of the world in imagery that has endured through the ages. Written toward the end of the first century of the Christian era and encoded so as to disguise its attack on Roman power, the book embodies imminent expectations of a world-wide cataclysm. This will be an apocalypse or “unveiling” of a higher reality that will bring time to a stop. Over the centuries official Church doctrine played down the teachings of Revelation, yet its prophecies have always attracted the half-educated, the powerless and the desperate haters of authority. Its visions of Armageddon, the last battle between good and evil, of the destruction of the material world, and of the final triumph of the righteous in the heavenly City of the New Jerusalem are vivid enough, and they constitute a doctrinal melodrama, a theological grand guignol of memorable proportions. In fact the Book of Revelation’s assurance of fearful punishments for the wicked, its obscurantist babble about the dragon, Satan, being chained up for a thousand years (the millennium), its ravings about the beast (anti-Christ) and the false prophet, continue to lend themselves to the worst kind of half-baked pseudo-prophecy among believers.

One might doubt that such a text has any connection with the developing dreams of western society’s scientists and technologists, their desire to make a better world for humanity, yet Professor David F. Noble in his new book The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, attempts to link the millennial dreams of Christian mythology with the aspirations of western technology through the ages. Today more than ever, he assures us, technology is saturated with such apocalyptic dreams (or nightmares), and the goals of the space scientists, the cybernetic designers and the genetic manipulators are still being shaped by them.

Historical buttressing of this surprising thesis takes up the whole first half of the book. As Professor Noble tells it, despite the existence of Jesus the carpenter and Paul the tent-maker, Christianity at first had little use for the practical arts. It was only in the ninth century of the Christian era that the tool-naker and the organ builder, the practitioners of medicine and architecture — the whole array of “mechanical” practitioners — began to see their work accepted by theologians as “distinct, dignified and divinely inspired.” More significantly, according to Professor Noble, the mechanical arts, like the old-established liberal arts, began then to be linked to the Christian mythology of salvation and the end of time: technology in fact became an important part of the process of realizing the millennial dream of creating the Kingdom of God on earth.

Part I of Professor Noble’s book is an exhaustive — and for this reader an exhausting — documentation of this link between the mechanic arts and Christian salvationism, tracing its evolution through medieval Europe to nineteenth century America. Along the way, he points to supporting evidence: in the seventeenth century England of Francis Bacon and the Puritans, who thought that “each step in the conquest of nature represented a move toward the millennial condition,” in the Masonic ideology which exalted God as the Great Architect and Adam as the patron of geometry, and in the myth of the American Adam, who — as the writers of the time suggested — would create “an earthly millennium of perfect harmony in the new world Eden.”

Mr. Noble, however, seldom stops long enough to elaborate and qualify his thesis. Although he is a seasoned academic with several good books to his credit, in this section he rushes forward with an almost unseemly haste and a singlemindedness that is well nigh obsessive, piling quotation upon quotation, almost as if he had to defend his ideas at a Ph.D oral examination. Alas, this presents us with a “fortress job” that leaves little room for the complex speculation that would actually enrich his insights and amplify his thesis. As a result, the informed reader is likely to become uneasy and to raise some questions. For example, Mr. Noble assumes that the religious aspects of western technology are fully explained by its link to Christianity “for Christianity alone blurred the distinction and bridged the divide between the human and the divine.” But is this the whole story? What about the connections between the human and the divine and between mythology and technology in the Greco-Roman culture that was so influential on medieval and Renaissance Europe? Though they made him lame, the Greeks accepted the smith-god Hephaestus into their pantheon, while the Romans linked their impressive technology in a thousand ways to the numinous power of religion. What about the part played by heretical and arcane movements, by the alchemists, for example? — arguably these helped give technology its aura of religious power, quite apart from Christian salvationism. What about the writings of Aristotle and the Islamic science and technology (the water-wheel, paper-making, the windmill, the compass) that Europe borrowed and used almost against the grain, because of lingering superstitions and the fear of disturbing the divine plan of creation? Surely we could better understand and evaluate the ideological linking proposed by Professor Noble if Christian Europe’s acceptance of technology were placed in a more trenchant historical context?

Professor Noble also oversimplifies some of his key concepts. The paradisal image, for example, is not merely or even centrally, associated with the achieving of a new Adam at the end of time; it is rather a myth of “soft primitivism,” one that suggests absolute freedom from the civilized arts and especially the mechanical ones. For centuries the paradisal myth allowed thinkers to speculate about origins rather than conclusions, to look to the past not the future, and it was used to deny the importance of work and technology, not to further them. Nor are Utopias attempts at creating paradise; they are images of the good city as imagined by the humanists. And what about the anti-technological side of millennial thought, one which suggests the destruction not only of the wicked but of the whole of material world? This is a conception furthered by groups anxious to overthrow civilization and deny progress; it smacks of nihilism and of a hatred of the material world, rather than suggesting any adherence to a technological salvationism.

Part II of The Religion of Technology, which deals with the twentieth century and focuses on our new “technologies of transcendence,” makes far better reading than what precedes it. Here, Professor Noble demonstrates that millennial thinking did not decline, nor lose its connection with technology, because of the secularization of our culture. Mr. Noble examines the rhetoric of the nuclear scientists and finds it loaded with millennial images. Ironically, though many of these men were atheistic humanists, their dreams of millennial change often seemed to coincide with those of the fundamentalist Christians. William Laurence of the New York Times, the official reporter of the Los Alamos test, spoke the language of both groups when he wrote: “This rising supersun seemed to me the symbol of the dawn of a new era. . . one felt as though he had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World; . . . if the first man could have been present at the moment of Creation when God said `Let there be light’ he might have seen something similar to what we have seen.” The revival of fundamentalism in America made such rhetoric the stuff of Sunday sermons, and at the height of the cold war Protestant preachers of many denominations came close to welcoming the Apocalyptic End which, though it would destroy civilization, would also serve to usher in the return of Christ.

The American space scientists, too, according to Professor Noble, clothed their technological aspirations in traditional religious rhetoric. Werner von Braun and several of the NASA administrators would have agreed with Jim Irwin of Apollo 15, for example, who confided that “On the moon the total picture of the power of God and His son, Jesus Christ became abundantly clear to me. Apollo 15 explored the surface of the moon with the power of God and Jesus Christ.” Other astronauts compared their spaceships to a cathedral and on Christmas Eve, 1968, the Apollo 8 crew celebrated their mission in the spirit of the season by reading the first ten lines of Genesis to their audience on earth.

In the last two chapters of Part II Professor Noble turns his attention to the scientific researchers who have been developing artificial intelligence and promoting the transformative possibilities of genetic engineering. Many of them, too, it seems, are unconsciously caught up in Christian millennial dreams and see their work as part of the divinization of humankind and the realization of God’s Kingdom on earth. In the “revived Apocalyptic atmosphere of postwar America,” Mr. Noble suggests, the pioneering work of the mathematicians George Boole and Alan Turing, and the organizational drive of men like Marvin Minsky, the hardboiled thinker who developed MIT’s program for the development of Artificial Intelligence, have inevitably became saturated with Christian imagery. Writers like Earl Cox, an authority on the design of the so-called fuzzy logic systems, give away the show, Mr. Noble argues, when they theorize about escaping from our bodies. Even John van Neumann, the father of AI, envisaged Apocalypse, and Rudy Rucker and many other pioneers of artificial life research “remain mired in an essentially medieval milieu of Christian mythology.”

The genetic researchers, who it might be assumed would renounce the Christian idea of God the Creator, are similarly evoking and participating in the old Christian stories. The Adam and Eve myth, the imagery of the Grail, the perfectionist dreams of the millenarian writers, as Professor Noble sees it, in many cases guide their discourse and justify their endeavours. Some genetic researchers assume the role of co-creators with God of new life; after all, if God created humankind in the divine likeness, why shouldn’t human aspirations and creativity result in living beings, these to be engineered “on behalf of God, not out of human hubris?”

Unfortunately, Professor Noble concludes his book with two diversionary arguments, one of them dubious and the other rather irrelevant to his main thesis. In the first of these he attempts to connect millennial dreams and technological aspirations with social oppression. Apart from the American example, however, his evidence is so sketchy that it will convince no one. The second argument brings in the issue of gender and suggests that the technological millennium is an obsession of the patriarchy. There may be a case here, but if so, Professor Noble should have integrated it with his central exposition.

Much of the above, however, makes fascinating reading and one must be grateful to Professor Noble for raising these issues and for challenging the complacent notion that science is a purely secular enterprise, one that has purged itself of all religious aspiration and purified and objectified its discourse. Despite this, I find his main thesis fundamentally flawed. First of all, he is far too selective and forces his ideas at many points, ignoring aspects of religion that do not fit in with his fundamental notion. The apocalyptic stories which betray the dangerous power of a religious mythology in a secular society are only one aspect of Christianity; there is also the Christianity of St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa — and many other cases in which religion, both as ideal and as program of action, can be seen to support the ameliorative concerns of humanists.

More pointedly, Professor Noble seems to have a very one-dimensional view of how mythology works; in fact he seems to think that we can do without it, an absurd notion, contradicted by the ideas of thinkers like Vilfrid Pareto, Thomas Carlyle, William James, Henri Bergson, and C.G. Jung. All these men argued, from different perspectives, that humankind has a basic need to clothe its existential nakedness in mythology. In fact, as Professor Noble’s own research helps to show, some kind of myth underlies almost every human action, even the most overtly rational and scientific. Humankind acts according to implicitly accepted stories, some of which may be consciously disavowed, seemingly outdated, or apparently in conflict with the deeds they inspire. Yet none of this prevents these stories from shaping and defining our human actions. There is no such thing as mythlessness; indeed, the idea that society can do without myths is itself a myth. Nor are the great myths merely lies; as the ancient writer Sallustius stated: “Myths never happened, but always are,” that is, they are deep truths which we ignore at the risk of mental and spiritual impoverishment. Even the millennial dreams of the Christians and the technologists exist to fulfil some basic human need; like all myths they are quite capable of being perverted, but nowhere does Professor Noble examine them in depth or attempt to understand the reasons for their existence, a process that would have served the reader much better.

Professor Noble’s way of controlling the negative aspect of mythology seems to be to wish it away. He writes that we “must disabuse ourselves of the other-worldly dreams that lie at the heart of our technological enterprise, in order to begin to redirect our astonishing capabilities toward more worldly and humane ends.” But surely the radical improvement of the human condition would not be furthered by the substitution of a flawed and dubious “rationalism” for our treasured stories, surely it does not hinge upon a return to 19th century ideas of the absolute value of material progress. On the contrary, such a goal can best be realized by a more complex reading of such myths. We need to activate techniques that help us separate true vision from megalomania and corrupt desire; we need to practice modes of self-analysis in order to gain a surer knowledge of how and why symbolic stories function to guide our lives. One of the reasons the scientists and technologists described by Mr. Noble become victims of their own enthusiasms (en-theos = a god within) is that they focus too strongly on instrument knowledge, justifying this with mythological programs which they unconsciously distort — often taking them literally — to serve their basically material ends. All the well-intentioned academic humanism in the world will not do much to change this. What we need to combat it is a strong moral vision accompanied by a clearer perception of the roots of our drive for power and of our need for belief. Above all, we need a deeper understanding of our perennial quest for knowledge at the boundaries of nature and history.

If Professor Noble had more closely examined the tensions and contradictions in the concepts he relies on, if he had probed the mythological roots of technology with more skill and precision, he would have written a more complete and more convincing book.

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