Review – Willem B. Drees (ed.), Technology, Trust, and Religion: Roles of Religions in the Controversies on Ecology and the Modification of Life

Willem B. Drees, ed., Technology, Trust, and Religion: Roles of Religions in the Controversies on Ecology and the Modification of Life (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2009), 320 pp. 

Reviewer: Whitney Bauman


This edited volume should be read by all those interested in questions related to technology and planetary becoming.  It is appropriate for courses in technology and ethics, philosophy of science, religion and science, and religion and ecology.  I also suspect that many non-academic persons interested in the ways in which politics, technological development, religion, and ethics intersect will benefit from this volume.  Laid out in four main parts, this book deals with humanity’s relationship to the rest of the natural world, religious responses to ecological crises, the debates over technological modification of life, and the politics of how we might deal with a future that includes humans and our technologies as part of a planetary community.  As is the case with most edited volumes, some chapters are more relevant than others.  However, unlike most edited volumes, on the whole, this one makes relevant and coherent contributions to all four of the areas it aims to explore.  In this short review, I only offer highlights of the four main sections.

In Willem Drees’ excellent introduction to the overall text he discusses three “layers” of technology that are dealt with throughout the text: the material, social, and psychological (12).  Many books deal with the material-ecological consequences of technology but too few deal with the social and psychological consequences.  It is in these latter two “layers” of technology that ethical, philosophical, and theological issues emerge.  The introduction also lays out the overall tone of the book, which is one of attention to the ambiguous, political, historical, emotional, ethical, and religious contexts of newly emergent technologies rather than complete embrace (technological positivists) or total rejection (Luddites) (15).  With this contextual approach to the changes in humans and the rest of the natural world brought about through technological advances, the book begins to address each of the four areas mentioned above.


Our Technological Human Condition

Contrary to the thesis of secularism, this section begins with a rejection of the idea of “the secular” which is opposed to “the religious” and instead argues that science and the secular have themselves become the new horizons of meaning and experience (31).  In the restructuring of what is sacred, rather than a disappearance of the sacred in the modern world, science and technology themselves have become “autonomous,” “sublime,” and sacred (36).  Arguing along similar lines as Bruno Latour, the author suggests that science must again become secularized or political.  In this similar vein of politicizing science and technology, “nature” itself must be understood as a category that is always and already co-constructed. We are inhabitants of a “technosphere—a place that itself is an artifact, designed and technologically manufactured by humans” (41).  Akin are the Haraway claim that we are cyborgs (48) and live in “nature-cultures,” Philip Hefner’s understanding of living in “techno-nature” (49), and Bill McKibben’s suggestion (among others) that there is no more “pure nature” since nature is always co-constructed and includes technology and human beings.  Technology, though not only human, is one defining aspect of human becoming. As such, “What we need, then, is a perspective that is able to reconnect us, our culture, and our technology to the natural environment in which we are embedded” (48).  The third chapter deals with the hopes and fears associated with the future of technological development, using the emergence of the Internet as an example.  From Bacon’s New Atlantis to the recent large hadron collider, science and technology have always drawn from and employed religious metaphors of hope and salvation.  Technology “is thought to have powers that go beyond human capacities and it holds the promise of delivering what we long for” (60).  On the other side of that, of course, are the fears that are associated with the unknown consequences of technology (to which I will return below).  It is important to note here that these hopes and salvific elements play a huge role in technology transfer, funding, and expansion.  For these reasons, they should not be left out of a full consideration of the ethics of technology.


Religious Resources for the Ecological Crisis

This section begins to explore one major source of ethical reflection on our relationship with other humans and the rest of the natural world, namely, the world’s religions.  Chapter 4 provides a good overview of the work that has been done in “religion and ecology” over the past 40 or so years.  This includes ecological principles found in Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Christianity, etc., but also in newly emergent spiritualities (religious naturalisms) such as the Gaia hypothesis and Deep Ecology.  Chapter 5 then challenges the idea that nature becomes disenchanted (entzauberung) through the Enlightenment and modern science.  The author argues that there is a re-ordering of value (a re-enchantment of sorts) that takes place through what has been conceived of as “the Death of Nature” (Merchant) rather than dis-enchantment.  “Driving away the mountain gods does not reveal the mountain to be an inert place devoid of any sacred power.  Rather it reveals the mountain to be harboring a new form of sacred power, that of coal” (116).  Thus, the destruction of the rest of the natural world is not because of disenchantment but the “enduring power of ‘secular theologies’ to subordinate human interests to irrational ideals,” such as the domination of nature (117).  Similar to Latour’s argument that “we have never been modern,” so here, nature has never been disenchanted.  Chapter 6 is a critique of the “imago dei” tradition of theological anthropology.  The author argues that the imago too often narrows the circle of moral concern to the human sphere with disregard for the rest of the natural world.  What is needed is a transformation in theological anthropology to the “Mitgeschopflichkeit” or co-created tradition.  Drawing from the history of this concept with a special focus on Phil Hefner’s understanding of the created co-creator, the author argues for a new understanding of human beings as working with God and creation toward a better future (135).  Finally, this section ends with a reflection on the methods of “religion and ecology” and argues for a theology of “emplacement” in which nature is a text (151).  In this framework, historicity, context, and transcendence of both are important: “God appears in the unity of transcendence and immanence that coexist in the way that humans participate and discover order (in light of the perspectives of science, humanistic concerns, etc.) in the places of nature around them” (155).


Morality and the Modification of Life

Similar to the efforts of the authors in previous sections to destabilize understandings of anthropology and religion, this section on ethics destabilizes foundational understandings of moral and ethical justifications for actions.  Chapter 8 deals with ethical issues surrounding animals and technology/science, taking a pragmatist, non-foundational approach.  Following the work of Dewey and other pragmatists, the author concludes, “In an ever-changing world, the response to a morally problematic situation cannot be justified by some external and absolute criterion” (173).  Chapter 9 then goes on to challenge ideas of purity when it comes to the ethics and rhetoric surrounding genetically modified organisms.  Religious ideas of purity and of monstrosity are buried within the rhetoric surrounding GMOs.  “Regularly uttered terms and phrases as ‘unnatural’, ‘disgusting’, or ‘playing God’” belie the religious sentiments underneath the heated debates.  Similarly, such rhetoric and ideas shape discussions of technological enhancement and extension of human life.  Chapters 10 and 11 explore the personal, social, and environmental consequences of technologies focused on enhancing human life, arguing that ambiguity marks life in such a way that no easy, abstract ethical decisions can be justified.  Rather, what is needed is a contextual, feminist ethic of care.  “An ethics of care tries to bring distant cases nearer to us by articulating the importance of particular contexts” (232).  Such contextual ethics bring values and beliefs back into the realm of political dialogue.


A Matter of Argument or of Trust?

The fourth and final section of the book examines if and how religion should enter into political debates and dialogues.  Chapter 12 argues that the secular is not neutral and only a strong form of religious inclusionism will ensure a genuine dialogue in the public sphere.  “Secular values, concepts and reasoning belong to a particular moral doctrine and are not independent of a particular comprehensive world view.  As such, secular philosophical doctrines do not provide neutral public reasons” (246).  Chapter 13 goes on to argue that scientists too often take the aloof position that when “the public” disagrees with technological “advancements” it is because there is a knowledge deficit.  Such assumptions mimic the type of foundational assumptions taken by more conservative religious voices.  Rather than taking on the mantel of “expert,” scientists should enter public discussion with humility and in recognition that the future consequences of technological developments are indeed ambiguous and unknown (266).  Chapter 14 deals with the fabric of trust that is needed for democratic dialogue.  Trust is necessary for listening and responding to information, but the act of trust also shapes the way we perceive information around us.  Thus two imperatives of trust in public discussions surrounding technological developments are a) the individual is not to be taken advantage of and b) the trusting person must be accorded full recognition as a moral agent (283).  These two criteria mean that two people looking at the same information can genuinely disagree without, necessarily, one person being wrong and without the need to manipulate the other toward one’s own perspective.  It is on this final point, that of pluralism, where this volume ends.  The final chapter argues that a deep pluralism should be practiced in the public sphere: one that places religious perspectives on par with humanist and “secular” ones.  Such pluralism is not only interested in tolerance and finding common ground, but must also deal with, respect, and acknowledge difference.  “A deeply pluralist conversation does not try to persuade one who differs out of one’s own framework, but enters into a conversation characterized by three things: a positive attitude toward conflict itself, willingness to ‘think with’ the other’s moral language and reference, and openness to change” (301).

As mentioned in my introductory remarks, this volume will be quite useful in a number of courses that deal with “science and religion” and/or “religion and nature.”  Further, the ways in which the volume negotiates difference, challenges ideas of a neutral secular space, and politicizes both religious beliefs and understandings of nature, are most helpful in dealing with bio-ethical issues (broadly defined) in a postcolonial context.  Having said that, the volume could have benefited from a bit more diversity.  Indigenous-, class-, race-, gender-, and sexuality-based analyses of technology produce very different understandings of technological and scientific “development.”  Such perspectives would have modeled the deep pluralism that is suggested in the final chapter.