Technology and religion:
Islam, Christianity and materialism
E. Schuurman (2007)
Emeritus-Professor of Reformational Philosophy
Universities of Delft, Eindhoven, Wageningen, The Netherlands
The Western world and the world of Islam share a history, but they also differ greatly. The rise of terrorism has once again made us fully aware of that. In these tense times I would like to consider a ques- tion that is rarely raised today, yet which may be very relevant and very revealing: What attitude do these two worlds take toward technology?
When you examine this question in historical perspective you cannot get around the religious background of technology – both in the Isla- mic world and the West. This theme is very popular today: there is a renewed interest in the vitality of religion around the world and in the arguments regarding its influence on culture (Habermas, 2005), and – this afternoon – especially in the historical development of technology.
Let me be clear about what I mean by the term religion. When the media pay attention to religion, they usually treat it as one of many factors or variables in human life, distinct from, say, sport, politics or science. However, if we look carefully at religious communities and various types of societies around the world we can see that religion is not just a typical function or variable among others, but is rather the root from which the different branches of life sprout and grow and by which they are continually nourished. Religion is of radical and integral importance: it concerns the deepest root of human existence and integrates human life into a coherent whole.
My exploration will consist of the following steps. Firstly, I shall briefly sketch the history of technology in the Islamic world, after which I shall try to clarify the background of the mounting tensions between Islam and the West. We shall review several Islamic ideologists in whose thinking science and technology play a large role. Islamic critique of technology comes from two sides: from the spiritual, peace-loving Muslims, and from the radical, violent branch of Islam. I shall try to clarify the challenges this poses for the West by looking at the internal tensions in Western culture itself. These turn out to be related especially to technology.
The tensions have been present for a long time already, but they have been growing in intensity, ever since the former Christian culture was secularised under the influence of the Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason). This intellectual movement, would have nothing to do with religion, yet has an integrating effect of its own nonetheless, and its relation to Christianity became increasingly strained.
The Enlightenment represents the religion of the closed material world that is blind to the non-material dimensions of reality. I say this in order to help us gain insight into the nature of the tensions between Islam, Christianity, and Enlightenment-movement in connection with technological development. This will enable us to analyse the problems accurately and give a starting point to lessening our cultural quandaries.
Both the critique of technology provided by Christian philosophy and the critique of technology found in Islam, challenge Western culture to change. A turnabout is needed in the West’s dominant cultural paradigm – in the ethical framework within which Western culture is developed. Such a turnabout is crucial, because we are dealing with worldwide problems. It may also lessen tensions with several cur- rents within the Islamic world.
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