On the relationship between religion and technology: Quarrelling with Yuval Harari

Posted Oct 10, 2016 | New Media Project

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By Nick Buck

Yuval Harari’s recent article in the New Statesman, “Salvation by algorithm: God,technology and the new 21st-century religions,” invites considerable reflection on the nature of religion and the development of technology. Though not outright hostile to religious belief, even if he sees little future for historical world religions, Harari poses clear challenges to all religious traditions.(1) At the heart of the article, Harari provokes a number of questions about the relationship between religion and technology that deserve reflection.

Harari begins the piece by suggesting Silicon Valley is “the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective.” This is the case, he argues, because technology innovators offer “new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology.” Many of the age-old promises religions have offered, “happiness, peace, justice and eternal life in paradise,” are reportedly being offered by the tech industry.

As part of his case, Harari provides a general understanding of religion, with historical religions in view, that emphasizes social impact rather than belief. “Religion,” he asserts, “is a tool for organizing human societies.” Its social function serves to legitimize “human norms and values by arguing that they reflect some superhuman order.” Harari makes this claim by drawing a distinction between religion and spirituality, the former which is a social force and the latter a journey of personal and/or existential self-realization. Because he sees religions as being fundamentally social forces, he is so bold to claim that they actually “have no fixed essence.”

Harari then claims that, “New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods.” This reveals the heart of his argument about the complex relationship between historical religions and technology. He makes the case they have both been powerful social forces that maintain the capacity to shape and direct the development of private and public life. They have and can continue to help address social problems and provide hopeful solutions. And while they are often seen to be in conflict, they need not be, if only the world’s historical religions embraced their social purpose and became more flexible about things like doctrine. 

The reality is, Harari seems to say, that humans will always find ways to legitimize norms and coalesce around certain forces; religion, in this sense, is inevitable. However, which religion(s) will survive and thrive in the future has to do with how an existing religions incorporate or adjust to the development of technology. He warns that if the historical world religions don’t adjust appropriately, they’ll be replaced – a process he understands already to be happening: “If you want to meet the prophets who will remake the 21st century, don’t bother going to the Arabian Desert or the Jordan Valley – go to Silicon Valley.”

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Upon initial reflection, I find Harari’s definition of religion overly simplistic and instrumental, and something similar could be said about his definition of spirituality. However, I think he gets something wrong about these two that is more than definitional. Granting the definitions he makes for the sake of argument, Harari misses something significant about the relationship between religion and spirituality and what they might offer a technologically advancing world.

Harari is right, and his analysis is at least partially in concert with recent social theory, to recognize religion’s liturgical and social power in shaping daily practices and collective life. He is also correct that religions can serve to grant legitimacy to certain claims on authority. However, I would argue a constitutive element to some religious traditions are their very commitments to tradition that resist Harari’s progressivist analysis of culture. While he sees this only as a burden, an obstacle that merely serves to stifle development, I am not so sure.

Religious traditions, at their best, preserve not uncritically the content of great wisdom traditions. Many religious thinkers have argued, as Mirsolav Volf recently has, that religions are often the bearers of some of the most compelling visions of human flourishing.(2) At the same time, religious traditions offer embodied, communal practices and rituals that ground spiritual life. Harari’s sketch of the relationship between religion and spirituality essentially misses this organic connection between the two.

My contention is that there is something more abiding and ancient about what it is to live a life of human flourishing, to live the good life, than Harari recognizes. Exploring the nature of the good life includes a dialectic between the great religious and wisdom traditions and the contemporary context. Harari seems overly committed to the latter at the expense of the former. It’s precisely this dialectic, a dialogue between the past and the present, that relies upon seasoned and lasting wisdom and tradition.

Here consideration of religion’s relationship with technology emerges anew. As I see it, the question always before us as technology advances is something like, how can technological advancement contribute to human flourishing or the flourishing of the world? Such a question depends upon great historical religious traditions to preserve, cultivate, and evoke so much of the world’s collected human wisdom. As I argued above, I don't think the relationship between religion and such wisdom is incidental.

Without a dialogue with the rich resources of human experience, a monologue with the present risks overlooking perennial issues and insights about the nature of human existence, power, and community. A future without these concerns is unavoidably a threat to them. Technological advancement is never a per se good. It does not come with a conscience, moral or otherwise. Development ought to be encouraged, but it must be harnessed and directed. That task is on us, and religious traditions - with their deep wells of wisdom about things like value, social justice, and meaning - provide many of its most vital resources.

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Notes:

(1) I use the inelegant and overly broad category of ‘historical world religions,’ despite its problems, to quickly refer to the number of religious traditions that currently exist and are recognized widely as such. As can be seen, the problems with this phrase don’t preclude its helpful usage.

(2) Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (New Haven: Yale, 2015).


Nick Buck is the associate director of the New Media Project.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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