Religion In A Technical Age – Between What Is And What Ought To Be

It has become something of a tired cliché to pit religion and science against one another. But what often gets left out is an analysis of religion and the technological, and by technological I mean technique. Technique, as defined by Jacques Ellul in his groundbreaking work La Technique, is:

“…any complex of standardized means for attaining a predetermined result … convert[ing] spontaneous and unreflective behavior into behavior that is deliberate and rationalized.”

Ellul continues,

“The Technical Man is fascinated by results, by the immediate consequences of setting standardized devices into motion. He cannot help admiring the spectacular effectiveness of nuclear weapons of war. Above all, he is committed to the never-ending search for “the one best way” to achieve any designated objective.”1

The question that has come to my mind is, has religion today in general, and for Muslims in specific to my concerns, become ‘technicized’? I do not mean religion as a robotic set of rituals; I’m not even addressing rituals per se but more over to what Ellul says about the technical society and more importantly, its technicians: “they are concerned only with what is, as distinct from what ought to be.” Applied to the Muslim community, this has made me ponder as to what extend have we been “technicized”. Another way of saying it is has religious leadership in the Muslim community been reduced to simply “technicians of religion”? We are increasingly asked to take complex things and standardize them for “predetermined results”: “Shaykh, I’m having a, b, or c issue in my life: What’s the litany or dhikr for the solution?” Or: “Shaykh, Donald Trump said x, y, and z, what should we do?” And while these are all fine questions to ask, I feel we that scholars, clergy, and activists, have become obsessed with “what is”, and blinded to the importance of “what ought to be”.

The role of religious leadership, as we as the religious mindset for our community overall, is to always remind ourselves and never forget that while we have to deal with what is, we never lose sight of what ought to be, even if we don’t have the ability to materially manifest it. A religious mindset that focuses on the here and now to the exclusion of the life to come will inevitabley miss its inteded mark: Entering the Garden by the pleasure of God.

So what is a remedy for this possible technicalization of religion? One would be a return to expertise. Muslims should be able to feel comfortable taking advice from those wtih proven credentials and experience without feeling intimidated or encroached upon. Tom Nichols makes a fascinating observation in his article, How America Lost Faith in Expertise And Why That’s a Giant Problem:

“To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.”2

That liberalism (philosophical versus politcal) is one of the most dominant forces informing Muslims today as to the nature of reality and religion would be an understatement. Liberalism, as Sherman Jackson states, is:

“The theoretical rejection of all authority outside the individual (or collective) self casts a cloud of suspicion over … [religious] institution[s] intimately connected to the heteronomous authority of religion.”3

It is this rejection of expertise (external authority) which disadvantages our community in that we’re not able to make use of any potential genius of religious leadership if it is to be reduced to, in the words of a good friend, “a flotation device in case of emergency”. This is akin to Nichols who says of those who, when visiting a medical professional, say:

“Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet.” “Help me beat this tax problem, but don’t remind me that I should have a will.”4

What I’m getting at here is that increasingly the Muslim laity increasingly look to their leaders to simply be the technicians of their religious and spiritual lives, all the while keeping silent about any of the root causes for the maladies they seek counsel for. The irony of this is what Nichols points out to in reference of those Americans who go the doctor to have their leg treated: “More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight” (“what is!”). In other words, “just patch me up, I don’t want to be lectured”; just be a medical technician, not a medical expert. Likewise, in the Muslim context, “don’t lecture me on belief or disbelief, morality or immorality, just (religiously or spiritually) patch me up”. This goes beyond merely not wanted to have outsiders meddle in your personal affairs (the irony that such people bring their private affairs to counselors is not lost on me) and extends to an increasingly virulent form of anti-intellectualism in which, quoting Nichols again, non-experts,

“want to weigh in and have their opinions treated with deep respect and their preferences honored not on the strength of their arguments or on the evidence they present but based on their feelings, emotions, and whatever stray information they may have picked up here or there along the way.”5

Under these conditions, Muslim religious leadership will be reduced to simply being the technicians of religion, reducing all of the concerns for a religious life to an ever more pervasive pragmatism, focusing evermore on a granular “what is”, never even considering “what ought to be”. And it has always been the genius of religion in general, and Islam in specific, that as it negotionates with “what is”, it is always keeping “what ought to be” in its perepheral vision as well as a negotiating partner in regards to “what is”.

Sources

1. Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
2. Nichols, Tom. “How America Lost Faith in Expertise” Foreign Affairs. 13 February 2017.
3. Jackson, Sherman. “The Impact of Liberalism, Secularism and Atheism On The American Mosque” American Learning Institute For Muslims. 4 February 2016.
4. Nichols
5. Nichols

Predominance of Science – Some Thoughts

As has been pointed out numerous times, Muslim scholars from the medieval and so-called “golden age” where practitioners of what we could call science today (something close to it) as well as being doctors in many of the various fields of religious studies. There is much speculation as to why the change in duality has occurred: being a person of science (i.e., dedicated to studying the natural world) and being a person of God. Many look at it as the degradation of society and the collapse of moral infrastructure; the pervasiveness of immorality. And while this may have contributed to it (though I feel this is more symptomatic than it is causal), I feel it has been the atrophy and lackadaisical attitude of religious thinkers and institutions that have been the greatest contributors if not facilitators of this modern demise. I say this because in those pre-modern times, science was mostly a way of exploiting the natural world to some benefit, and was never meant to be theology or even eschatology in and of itself. It was simply a method. But as the genius of religious thinking waned, technology, who was never born for this, was by proxy and de-facto, thrust onto stage as the ever-growing and only means of “knowing.” As religious thinking retreated, it became more and more comfortable in its own seclusion and surrendered its birthright to “tell us” and to “narrate to us.” So when I look out on the youth of today’s Ummah it is not coincidence that so many Muslims have continued to retreat to and swell the ranks of science-based programs (versus the humanities). This exodus is not only based on economic factors (though this does play an important role) but is also grounded in the stark reality that religion, as it is being articulated today, captures little of the imagination of young Muslims. In essence, religion has become boring.

I have been talking with a few colleagues for several years now for the need for a “fiqh of technology.” One of the greatest challenges facing humanity at this point is what is technology, does it have any limits, is it genuinely neutral, and to what ultimate purpose is its use? I can see no other way of answering any of these questions unless we consult religion. As technology pushes us to move faster and faster, fractures our capacity for deep and sustained thought, as its very short shelf life of usefulness makes an even greater quandary for its very long half-lives, as it increasingly wants to the thinking for us, we will increasingly run the risk of not only destroying our natural world, but may in fact be expediting our obsoleteness as Bani Adam. It is clear to me, and I have an itching intuition that it is for many others as well, that technology is not going to solve problems, or even make our lives better in and of itself, if people are not at the top of the thinking food chain. I saw the iPhone 5’s release as a prescient moment where for the first time in long while, a piece of technology truly failed to deliver on all its hype. Yes, people gathered around the block but it was almost as if a small but important balloon had been popped somewhere in the stratosphere (the Heavens?) And perhaps what troubles me the most about all of this, even with the balloon deflated, is what will replace that enthusiasm in technology’s absence? For if it is not a return to religion, I don’t even wish to imagine what awaits us around that corner.

Suggested Readings

  • The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman.
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman.
  • Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education, Neil Postman.
  • Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman.
  • The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul.