Religion, Technology and Globalization


In the new millennium scientific discoveries and their applications in technology will occur at a rate unprecedented in human history, and their influence will be global. What contribution could the religious traditions of the world make to the future of technology and globalization? My examples come mainly from Christianity, but I will note some parallels in other traditions.

Concern for the Environment

Many religions, including Taoism in China, Zen Buddhism in Japan, Hinduism in India, and Native American and African cultures have emphasized harmony with nature and respect for all forms of life. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have drawn a sharper line between human and nonhuman life. The biblical verses giving humanity dominion over other creatures have often been interpreted as justifying unlimited exploitation of nonhuman nature. But recent authors have pointed to neglected biblical themes that can be recovered today. Stewardship of nature is called for because the earth belongs ultimately to the God who created it. Celebration of nature is prominent in many of the psalms; it goes beyond stewardship in affirming the value and diversity of nature in itself. Sacramental views of nature attribute even greater value to it, holding that the sacred is present in and under it. For example, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy and Celtic Christianity have said that all of nature can be a vehicle of God's grace. The meditative practices of mystics have typically led to the experience of unity with nature. Such views would encourage us to examine the impacts of our technologies on the environment without neglecting urgent human needs that are dependent on the sustainable use of natural resources.

Commitment to Social Justice

The words of Amos in ancient Israelcall us over the centuries: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everrolling stream." The church's record in practice has been very mixed. The same tradition that accepted slavery in the 18th century was a major factor in the abolition movement in the 19th century and the civil rights movement in the 20th. Issues of justice arise in relation to technology because its benefits and its risks fall very unevenly on different segments of the population. If we relied on the free market alone, people downstream or downwind of a factory would bear a disproportionate burden of risks. Toxic waste dumps are almost always located near poor rather than affluent communities. Children in inner city schools have far less access to computers than those in suburban schools, which perpetuates poverty in a day when computer skills are a key to better jobs. The digital divide between rich and poor countries is of course even more striking. Church groups have been active among the nongovernmental organizations working for social justice at sessions in parallel with recent UN conferences on global issues. In the new millennium religious traditions could be a strong voice for policies designed to make sure that the poor of the earth are not left behind by new technologies.

Human Dignity and Freedom

Most religious traditions have upheld the value of the individual and personal responsibility for our actions. In biblical terms, each person is "a child of God." But science today shows us that our freedom lies only within a range of genetic constraints. Studies of identical twins suggest that for many behavioral traits genetic factors account for roughly half of the variation. We are strongly influenced but not determined by our genes. Biotechnology gives us immense power over the human future which we must learn to use wisely. I have no objection to cloning Dolly the sheep in order to produce new drugs for medical purposes. But the motives for cloning a human being seem more dubious. Think of the burden of expectations that would be placed on a cloned child produced from the genes of just one parent. Of course the Bible does not say "Thou shalt not clone," but it does uphold values relevant to decisions about cloning such as human dignity and the importance of the family.

A Realistic View of Human Nature

The biblical tradition is idealistic in its affirmation of creative human potentialities. Through technology we can use our God-given intellectual capacities to promote human flourishing. But the biblical tradition is also realistic about the abuse of power. Individuals tend to seek power and institutions rationalize their own self-interest, whether in corporations, labor unions, governments or religious institutions. Some people today are optimistic about technology, focusing on its potential benefits. Others are pessimistic, pointing to ways in which new technologies threaten people's jobs and the environment. Between the optimists and the pessimists are the contextualists who claim that technology is an ambiguous instrument of power whose consequences depend on human choices and social institutions. I suggest that the biblical view of human nature would lead us to side with the contextualists. It would lead us not to oppose technology but to seek to direct it toward the basic needs of all people. Advances in information technology and biotechnology will lead to novel possibilities we can hardly imagine today, but we must have the humility to acknowledge human fallibility and environmental constraints that can be modified but never ignored.

A Vision of the Good Life

Religious traditions encourage us to respond to human suffering and to seek a world in which physical needs for food, housing, and health can be met. But these traditions also assert that beyond our physical needs, true fulfillment is found in spiritual growth, personal relationships, and community life. American culture encourages us to try to fill all our psychological needs through consumption. Self-worth and happiness are identified with the products we buy. Television advertising holds before us the vision of ever-escalating consumption. We must of course seek substantial growth in consumption among low-income families around the world if basic needs are to be met. But religious faith can speak to the crisis of meaning that underlies compulsive consumerism. Unqualified reliance on technology as if we’re the source of our salvation can become a form of idolatry.

Let me ask then what contribution religious traditions might make to current policy choices about technology and globalization. The primary role of religion in society is to encourage individuals to see their lives in a wider framework of meaning and to motivate them to act in response to the needs of others. Particular policy choices require difficult judgments about economic and political issues on which thoughtful people may disagree.  I can indicate the direction of my own thinking while urging each of you to bring together the insights of your own tradition and your understanding of the current global situation.

The central feature of globalization today is the integration of free markets around the world. Across national lines, the flow of capital, relocation of production, and trade in resources and products are all growing at unprecedented rates, partly because of new communication technologies such as satellites and the Internet. The dismal economic record of communist countries has evoked wide support for free-enterprise capitalism, but the current patterns of globalization have raised problems that have not yet been adequately addressed.

Job Displacement

American workers are afraid of being replaced by robot assembly lines, down-sizing from mergers, or the relocation of their jobs in other countries. I suggest that we must make better provision for severance pay, job retraining, and new job opportunities in the areas affected. Such programs should offer the victims of displacement a hand up, not a handout. In developing countries, lending from development banks should include job training, especially for women who have been excluded from many better-paying jobs.

Low Wages

Some economists have argued that wages must remain low in developing nations in order to attract foreign investment as a necessary first step toward economic growth. They say that these nations must accept pain in the short run for the sake of gain in the long run. But this not only raises moral issues if foreign investors are making large profits on their overseas investments. It also raises practical questions about political stability and democratic institutions when people feel that they have no control over their own destiny. Even if wages are somewhat higher than they were previously, they are likely to remain low if workers are denied the right to form unions. Under pressure from lending agencies, public funding for education has been reduced, which will slow acquisition of the skills needed for better-paying jobs.

Environmental Impacts

The International Monetary Fund has made its loans to developing nations contingent on the promotion of exports above all other goals. This policy has encouraged rapid deforestation, mineral extraction, and the growth of crops for export rather than local needs, without regard for environmental consequences. The governments receiving loans have also been under pressure to reduce their budgets for environmental agencies and health services. To be sure, the World Bank has included sustainability and environmental preservation among its development goals, but only 20% of their structural adjustment loans have included environmental impact assessments. Both the IMF and the World Bank should be required to give more attention to environmental consequences and to work more closely with the U.N. Environmental Program. I believe that we should try to reform and improve these agencies, rather than to abolish them as some critics suggest.

Political Accountability

Within each nation we have recognized that market prices do not include the indirect social and environmental costs of production, so we have introduced legislation through political processes to supplement unregulated market forces. But on the global scene there are no comparable democratic processes. Moreover, globalization has increased the power of economic institutions and decreased the power of political ones. Transnational corporations and banks have more economic power than many national governments. The World Trade Organization operates in secret behind closed doors and it can overrule national environmental and safety standards by claiming that they restrict trade. By focusing on economic growth alone, and neglecting working conditions and other dimensions of human welfare it has in fact making political as well as economic judgments.  I believe that the inclusion of a wider spectrum of participants in WTO deliberations would make it more representative and more accountable.

Transnational Corporations

It is easy to demonize transnational corporations and blame them for all the adverse effects of globalization. But these corporations can indeed contribute to rising standards of living and the spread of innovative technologies. Some companies have taken steps to improve working conditions overseas. Monsanto has said they would waive patents on genetically modified vitamin-enriched rice so it can be more readily available in Asia. The biblical view of human nature would lead us to encourage such creative initiatives, but also to recognize that voluntary measures are not enough in a highly competitive world. Here again, it is only through political processes that economic institutions can be regulated in the wider public interest.

New Technologies

At the outset new technologies are often expensive and available only to the affluent. But with mass production and technological improvements the costs fall and they become more widely available. This occurs through market forces alone, but public policies can promote the wider diffusion of low-cost technologies. The Internet was first developed for military and governmental purposes, and then it was expanded for the benefit of corporations. But more recently it has been used to empower individuals and groups, including dissidents in Chinaand protest movements around the world. In developing nations, urban elites were the first beneficiaries of the Internet, but satellites and cheap cell phones open new possibilities for access even in rural areas. A recent program of small loans for cell phones to 5,000 villages in Bangladeshwill offer new personal and commercial opportunities in one of the world's most impoverished areas.

Strengthening Communities

The global market treats people primarily as consumers, and the global media are a homogenizing influence undermining local cultures. The civil society includes a variety of voluntary organizations larger than the family and smaller than the nation or corporation. They can give a voice to those who feel powerless. We must do all we can to strengthen community relationships. Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, can provide stability at a time of rapid change. They can provide a supportive community to individuals who feel alienated from the impersonal and distant institutions affecting their lives, and they can motivate people to act to further the values they hold.

The photographs of the earth taken by astronauts on the moon showed us our amazing planet as a whole for the first time. Science can help us to understand our planet. Technology can help us to use its resources more efficiently. Religion can help us to share both resources and technologies more equitably. There is enough for every need but not for every greed. Our task in the new millennium is to move toward a more just and sustainable civilization that includes all the people of planet Earth.


Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!