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Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention

Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention

by David F Noble

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Arguing against the widely held belief that technology and religion are at war with each other, David F. Noble's groundbreaking book reveals the religious roots and spirit of Western technology.

It links the technological enthusiasms of the present day with the ancient and enduring Christian


Arguing against the widely held belief that technology and religion are at war with each other, David F. Noble's groundbreaking book reveals the religious roots and spirit of Western technology.

It links the technological enthusiasms of the present day with the ancient and enduring Christian expectation of recovering humankind's lost divinity. Covering a period of a thousand years, Noble traces the evolution of the Western idea of technological development from the ninth century, when the useful arts became connected to the concept of redemption, up to the twentieth, when humans began to exercise God-like knowledge and powers.

Noble describes how technological advance accelerated at the very point when it was invested with spiritual significance. By examining the imaginings of monks, explorers, magi, scientists, Freemasons, and engineers, this historical account brings to light an other-worldly inspiration behind the apparently worldly endeavors by which we habitually define Western civilization. Thus we see that Isaac Newton devoted his lifetime to the interpretation of prophecy. Joseph Priestley was the discoverer of oxygen and a founder of Unitarianism. Freemasons were early advocates of industrialization and the fathers of the engineering profession. Wernher von Braun saw spaceflight as a millenarian new beginning for humankind.

The narrative moves into our own time through the technological enterprises of the last half of the twentieth century: nuclear weapons, manned spaceexploration, Artificial Intelligence, and genetic engineering. Here the book suggests that the convergence of technology and religion has outlived its usefulness, that though it once contributed to human well-being, it has now become a threat to our survival. Viewed at the dawn of the new millennium, the technological means upon which we have come to rely for the preservation and enlargement of our lives betray an increasing impatience with life and a disdainful disregard for mortal needs. David F. Noble thus contends that we must collectively strive to disabuse ourselves of the inherited religion of technology and begin rigorously to re-examine our enchantment with unregulated technological advance.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Perhaps the most persistent view of the relationship between science and religion in modern culture is one of conflict. Noble, professor of history at York University, Toronto, sets out in this book to resolve that view by demonstrating the compatibility of science and religion. Noble begins by indicating the intimate relationships between science and religion in both preoccupation and language: "Artificial Intelligence advocates wax eloquent about the possibilities of machine-based immortality and resurrection." In his first section, titled "Technology and Transcendence," Noble narrates the history of Western religious response to the mechanical arts to show the ways in which the focus on the divine likeness of humankind became an end for both religious and scientific activity to achieve. Here he points to alchemists like Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa, scientists like Isaac Newton and natural theologians like Joseph Priestley as examples of scientists and religionists who combined science and religion in quest of human perfectibility. In a second section, "Technologies of Transcendence," Noble examines the contemporary conversation between science and religion and points to some of the darker sides of the quest for transcendence and perfection through science in the advent of atomic weapons and genetic engineering. Through clear and precise writing, Noble provides a lucid guide through the history of the relationship between science and religion. (Sept.)
Library Journal
For social historian Noble (history, York Univ., Toronto), Western culture's persistent enchantment with technology finds its roots in religious imagination. Despite their varied guises and pursuits, science and technology suggest nothing more than our "enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation." The pearl of great value is Noble's contention that science and technology aren't guilty of amorality: that was never the intent. Rather, he claims, new technologies aren't about meeting human need; they transcend it. Salvation through technology "has become the unspoken orthodoxy." Such is the new Gnosticism. This is a dense, fascinating study of technology and Christianity. Not satisfied with easy equivalencies, Noble challenges the idea of post-Enlightenment science as a secular brave new world and quietly offers that what we're really hoping for is our reentry into Eden. Recommended for science and religion collections.Sandra Collins, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Lib.
Howard P. Segal
A most significant work that deserves a wide readership...A groundbreaking account of the religious roots of Western technology...For Noble, the "religion of technology" is not a metaphor but a fact of life...Noble shows how major Western technological advances have routinely been invested with religious significance. -- Howard P. Segal, Nature
Jeni Miller
David Noble takes on the two most powerful belief systems of our times -- religion and technology -- attempting to show that they are, in fact, one. -- Jeni Miller, The Nation
Kirkus Reviews
Noble (History of Science/York Univ., Canada) argues that the apparent dichotomy between science and religion, between the physical and the spiritual, is an artifact of recent history. He examines nearly 2,000 years of Western history to support his thesis.

Noble (A World Without Woman, 1992) cites two early impulses behind the urge to advance in science and technology: the conviction that apocalypse is imminent, and the belief that increasing human knowledge helps recover knowledge lost in Eden. For example, Columbus's writings show that he believed the Orinoco to be one of the rivers of Paradise and expected the End Times to come within a century or so. Indeed, the metaphor of a return to Eden runs through the writings of advocates of science, exploration, and technology from the earliest days. Isaac Newton's religious studies, which seem such a puzzle to moderns, grew out of his belief that, by understanding the divine creation, man fulfills God's plan in preparing for the millennium by perfecting himself. Priestley, Faraday, Clerk-Maxwell, and other giants of Anglo-American science shared his millenarianism. Evolution, which decoupled science from religion, led to a restatement of the millenarian vision as a secular quest for perfection, one that underlies scientific enterprise from NASA to the Human Genome Project. But, says Noble, without the religious underpinnings from which it arose, the quest for perfection leads to technical progress for its own sake—and to Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and other horrors yet to be unveiled. Only by demystifying science and by depriving its practitioners of their quasi-priestly status can we rehumanize it and turn it again to real human needs. Densely argued and supported, but well within the grasp of the nontechnical reader, Noble's thesis is fascinating and in many ways convincing.

An important document—and inevitably a controversial one—in the current debates on the role of science in society.

Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.58(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.19(d)

Meet the Author

David F. Noble is Professor of History at York University in Toronto. Currently the Hixon/Riggs Visiting Professor at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, he has also taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Drexel University, and was a curator of modern technology at the Smithsonian Institution. His previous books include America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism and Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation.

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