Church HistoryCulture

Religion is Downstream of Technology, Part 1

It is often said, and usually attributed to Andrew Breitbart—though he certainly wasn’t the first to say it—that politics is downstream of culture, and that culture is downstream of religion. But a brief look at the dynamic changes of the period spanning from the late 18th century to the early 20th century (sometimes referred to as the “Dynamic Age”) suggests that, in fact, religion (or at least, religious form and expression) is downstream of technology, with culture and political economy fitting somewhere in between.

The 503rd anniversary of the Reformation occurred this past Saturday. Martin Luther’s reformation, of course, would have been impossible without what was, perhaps, the most significant technological innovation of the past half-millennium, the printing press. Andrew Pettegree’s phenomenal study, Brand Luther, demonstrates how Luther’s intuitive grasp of the new medium propelled his reformation across Europe by instigating a grassroots element to the movement. Doubtless, the rising literacy rates coinciding with the surge in print materials on offer influenced religious practice of the 16th century. The connection between modern individualism and the Protestant uprising is often overplayed but there is something to it. It would be a bit much to say that the printing press plus Luther privatized religion absolutely, but, with a Bible and Lutheran tract in every household, new, private aspects of religious life were introduced. As much as Reformation-era analogies have to offer to the present thesis, the Dynamic Age more closely tracks with our own. That is, the predictive quality of the period, perhaps, because of proximity, has more to teach us about the interaction between rapid technological advancement and religion than Luther’s day—albeit germ of some of the trends surveyed here can be located several centuries prior.  

The first installment of this series will briefly sketch the history of the Dynamic Age. Subsequent parts will more closely examine the ideological ramifications of technological advancements of the period—though the Marxists exaggerate this aspect to a fault and the exclusion of intervening causation, environment does affect thought and, by extension, religion. The episode serves as a warning to us today as we live through our own dynamic epoch and witness the effects of technology on religious form and practice. In short, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are adapting technology to our own preconceived needs and proclivities. Everything, rather, points to us being adapted to technology, our needs and proclivities being conditioned by it, and, thereby, our religious expression and practice being conformed to the technologically possible and desirable. This bodes especially ill for western societies saturated with consumerism and lust for ease and safety. Like so many things, the pandemic has shed light on these tendencies, but we will come back to that later. 

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The rapid technological innovation and concomitant industrialization of the so-called “Dynamic Age” strained pre-existing institutions and thought alike, especially in Europe. Expanding economies, precipitated by technological advancement, across the continent produced a host of externalities. C.E. Black and E.C. Helmreich, in their history of 20th century Europe, remarked,

A survey of the history of Europe during the first half of the twentieth century reveals a wide variety of controversial problems. It is nevertheless a sound generalization to say that the central source of unrest has lain in the contest between the traditional political ideals and institutions centered in sovereign national states, and the economic and social realities that have to an increasing degree come into conflict with the European state system.

Had it been possible for the peoples of industrializing nations to continue in their economic and technological progression whilst remaining, harmoniously, within their traditional institutions and way of life, the 20th century would have been much less eventful. Alas, as we now know, that was not to be the case, and the fate of Europe was worse for it in more ways than one. The dynamism of the age depended on disruption. 

The expansion of production in nearly all aspects of the economy of Europe via, inter alia, the conversion of coal and water power into steam and electricity, and the emergence of machine-driven manufacturing rocked the daily life of everyone connected to the then increasingly globalized market. Unprecedented scientific advancement in agriculture marked the 19th and 20th centuries as well. Fertilizers, machinery, crop rotation and variation, improved breeding of livestock, radically changed the industry.

The expansion of material wealth—though it took nearly a century for it to meaningfully trickle down– and improved medical treatment bolstered life expectancy and slashed infant mortality rates. Increased population rates—the population of Europe in 1800 was around 188 million, but 1900 it exceeded 400 million—and industrial production created a need for larger imports of agricultural goods, which led to massive growth in international trade. At the same time, the industrialization of agriculture, the increase in manufacturing, the expansion of wealth, and the spike in trade led to urbanization, a flight to the cities. In the 18th century, less than a quarter of the population of France occupied towns of over 2,000 residents. By the dawn of the 20th century, about 45 percent did. In England, urban population rose from one half to three quarters in half a century. German: 36 percent urban in 1871; 60 percent in 1910.

Industrialization was accompanied by changes in the Western economic system, viz., the rise of modern capitalism, which can be defined most simply by its distinguishing characteristics: private ownership of raw materials and technology of production and trade; accumulation of profits in the form of capital; investment of capital to develop/expand business. A system with these characteristics, naturally, seeks to maximize profit by minimizing costs of production (i.e. efficiency). Tracking along with the expansion of commerce, by the close of the 19th century, some version of capitalism served as the foundation and driver of the industrial system.

The administration of profits and investments fell to banks, corporations, and insurance companies—another emphasis of capitalist economies is not necessarily the minimization of risk but, rather, the minimization of the consequences of risk—and new hybrids of all three. In many ways, the growth and diversification of commerce was matched by a consolidation of financial institutions. Black and Helmreich noted that by the early 20th century, “manufacturing companies and commercial enterprises were forming cartels and mergers on a regional or functional basis, for the purpose of increasing efficiency and reducing competition.” By the turn of the century, these trends were also being applied to agriculture.

As the capitalist system came to full flower—perhaps paradoxically given that capitalism prioritizes private ownership and management of, well, capital—the state assumed a more involved, functional role. The administration of currency, public works, education, social services, and national defense all received increased attention by states across Europe. Hence, state spending spiked markedly, which, in turn, resulted in greater national debt (especially in those states that experienced the greatest population growth).

Again, the European boom in economic activity and profit generally was slow to trickle down. For the average worker, industrialization brought hardship—a reality that should make us sympathetic to radical, reactionary thinkers like Marx and Engels. The consolidation of financial institutions meant that real wealth remained in the hands of but a few. But by 1900 or so (for purposes of periodization), Western Europe was beginning to reap the benefits of the preceding century on the ground level. Not so in the slower-to-industrialize eastern half of the continent. This meant also that literacy rates and access to education climbed at a more deliberate pace as one traveled east. That being said, inequality was present in both east and west.

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The advancements in science, technology, and industry also impacted political and then religious thought. Man’s (apparent) mastery of nature and nature’s god seemed to confirm the Enlightenment (“atomist”) conviction of the mechanical function of the world. The universe became a construction of atoms, germs, cells, and etc. The description of life became its explanation. Scientism and Darwinianism had fully gripped the academy by the advent of the 20th century. The intelligentsia were remarkably, no, embarrassingly self-assured in their mastery of the conditions of their existence. Optimism abounded. Faith in Progress replaced even that in the deist’s clock-winder God.

The so-called hard sciences were just the beginning. Social thought followed quickly on its heels. Darwinist and industrial analogies alike saturated socio-political writings of the period. The positivist movement in jurisprudence came to prominence, discarding the old metaphysics and science of law such that it was little more than a branch of economics (with evolutionary undertones). The priority in legal precedent, per Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., became predictability and functionality, not the discovery of transcendent truth—indeed, the belief in the latter was increasingly and relentlessly mocked.

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The confidence in scientific accounts of the world (the great machine) and human activity alike, as well as the widespread and rising faith in human-material progress, came into stark conflict with established religious beliefs. As Black and Helmreich describe it,

What had once been regarded as the revealed truths of the Bible had already [by the early 1900s], in the minds of many persons, been undermined by the work of scholars [championing higher criticism and comparative studies]… The traditional faith was now further weakened by the general acceptance of a scientific scheme which greatly reduced, if it did not eliminate, the workings of a divine will in the affairs of men and nature.

Indeed, the false dichotomy between scientific inquiry and Christianity—which was walked backward into the medieval period for the sake of propping up the myth of progress—did not emerge until science itself took on religious, which is to say comprehensive, form in the 19th century. If the church had always been the enemy of science, the fuel of Progress, under this skewed narrative, then it could not serve a central function in the new equation. Another organ needed to step in as a priestly mediator of modern religion. No other could compete with the modern state for this newly invented role. Black and Helmreich add, “While the state was taking over many of the social functions formerly performed by the church, the spiritual authority that the latter had inspired was being denied by many influential groups.”

European churches, from Lutherans to Anglicans to Orthodox, spent much of their time desperately trying to recover their losses. In many cases, this desperation took the form of complicity to the radical parties and causes that emerged. Especially in the case of communism, the relationship was always asymmetrical, with the church being forced to concede at every point of conflict, and then to apologize for said conflict as a threat to Progress of its own making. The repetitious process was intensely demoralizing. 

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Technological advancement yielded industrialization. Industrialization induced urbanization. Urbanization disrupted local communities, their customs, traditions, and religion. The disruption of localism, in conjunction with the state, as a matter of some necessity within a modern market economy, taking on more of a direct role over public utilities, education, and etc., diminished both family and religious attachment. 

As people were uprooted, they looked elsewhere for something to fill the new, gaping holes in their lives, something to re-root them. Enter nationalism (and not the healthy kind discussed by Yoram Hazony). Urbanization and more widespread access to education (which was saturated with the newfound, self-serving faith in Progress) tended to distance people from their former, provincial religious beliefs. The relinquishment of religious authority and psychological and social comfort traditionally administered by the parish created a void. It was, perhaps, only natural at that point that the national state would step in to provide authority, purpose, and belonging (membership), as well as security in a world that was both expanding and changing at a breakneck pace. 

Religious authority is, partially, dependent on the ability to explain the human condition, the ways of the world. As religious institutions were increasingly supplanted by the new conditions of life created by technological change felt by everyday Europeans, they lost their explanatory ability. Which is to say, they lost their authority and trust amongst their adherents. The old narratives proffered by the church no longer seemed to reflect reality. The state’s (and that of the intellectual class) did. And in the instances where church leaders attempted to stay relevant by integrating new concepts of reality and the human situation into older forms of explanation, their attempts, in general, fell flat. Nothing becomes so dated so quickly as relevancy. And when relevancy is tethered to what has been deemed irrelevant at the outset, its expiration date arrives even faster. 

The elimination of many rural (and urban) communities left to the state the duty of governing both public and private life, and then almost without rival. Increased dependence on the state was, therefore, predictable. This one organization came to administer law, education, professional licensing, medical assistance, insurance, retirement compensation, and protection. “Few institutions in the past,” said Black and Helmreich, “had claimed to meet so many of the needs of man in society as did the modern national state, and fewer yet had ever held the loyalty of its members by a stronger emotion than nationalism.” Not even the medieval church could claim such. 

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Religion and other commitments still held sway over people during this period. Indeed, as I recently discussed in an article at Modern Reformation, the 19th century was marked by a spiritual revival and renewed interest in the supernatural. But everywhere, when compared to the role of the national state, they were in relative retreat. Enthusiasm for the spiritual drifted toward decentralized religious expression (what Tara Burton in Strange Rites calls “remixed” religion, a sort of à la carte spiritualism). Intuitive religion, with a premium on personal, private expression flourished under the new conditions, but to the detriment of institutional religion. In truth, the spiritualism of the 19th century marks less a growth in religious fervor than it does a heavy aimlessness amongst communities that formerly leaned on religious institutions. New outlets for religious expression were created out of thin air almost because other, older options were no longer available or feasible. Allegiance to the state experienced just the opposite trajectory in the dynamic age. It underwent a period of stark consolidation and increased confidence, paternalistic trust.

The rise and dominance of the national state was not solely driven by material conditions, of course. Two competing ideologies came to prominence during the Dynamic Age that, in their own way, were conducive to increased reliance on the state. Both liberalism and socialism are ideologies of progress and liberation. In that sense, they stem from the same root convictions. Their difference in the 19th century relates to the class to which they appealed; their difference in the 20th century relates primarily to their application. It is to this that we will turn in the next installment of this series. 

 

Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.

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