18. Reflections on Technology: Substitutes for Traditional Religion

Knowledge and comfort are not enough to lead a sane life.  Hence the inadequacy of science and technology to satisfy all our needs.  As art and literature and music respond to our aesthetic longings, religion comes to our aid on the spiritual and emotional planes.  For seeing meaning and purpose in life, and to answer the most profound – and often unanswerable – questions regarding life and death and rela­tionships most people need the religious experience of one kind of another.

The raw intellectual strength of science and the enticing powers of technology tend to shake off the supports on which religious faith rests.  This has led to a spiritual emptiness that is at least as serious as economic distress and physical labor.  It is often such emptiness that pushes one to wasteful alcoholism, pathetic drug abuse, and destructive crimes.

What is the alternative? One way is to go back to the traditional religions with even greater fervor.  Yes, one may recognize the logical flaws in their world picture, and one may grant that science has the right explanation for atoms and galaxies, and that technology can pro­vide us with all the conveniences and coziness we need.  But even science has to admit­ sometimes that it does not know everything, and technology has led to nuclear wars and to air pollution.  So what is wrong with embracing that old time religion which was good enough for our much wiser ancestors, like Moses and Paul and their likes in other traditions?  The only way to combat the intellectual onslaughts of modern science is to reject logic and reason as the sole paths to knowledge, and to claim eternal validity for holy books on the ground that there are other modes of knowing.  With this spirit, many have gone back to their former religions, pro­claiming in their absoluteness even greater conviction than ever before.  Thus, fundamentalist religions have been gaining more and more followers.

Others have chosen apparently different routes.  They have embraced many new cults and more ancient religions that have become within reach during the past few decades.  According to one estimate there are in the U.S. some 1000 different religious groups claiming sizable membership.  The emergence of religious cults is not a new phe­nomenon in human history.  Any insightful person, endowed with some qualities of leadership, can, in principle, attract a throng of confused lay people and reveal to them his or her version of Ultimate Truth.  As long as there are enough bewil­dered individuals in the world, whose faiths in the religion of their parents have been shaken profoundly, there will always be new cults and religions, for these provide alternative paths, even if these are not any more convincing (from an objective point of view) than what are already available.

Psychologists and sociologists have pointed out that some aspects of modern technological societies are especially conducive to the propagation of some kinds of cults and religions.  For one thing, a drastic consequence of life in our megalopolises is a sense of impersonality and loneliness.  In the stress and turmoil of  mechanical existence one is often lost in a crowd, routinely performing the daily jobs for the periodic paycheck that helps one clear the bills.  Intense personal contacts are rare, and friendships tend to be thin.  The sense of belonging to a community, so essential to the social animals that humans are, is seldom fully satisfied. Conflict in values bet­ween parents and children arises at an early stage, and one feels rejected and ready to explore new things.  The age old question of the meaning of life keeps popping up at every moment of disappointment or frustration, and there comes a point when one is prepared to accept any answer as long as it is consoling.

Then again, the present confusions of the spirit are caused not only by our science and technology, but equally by the traditional religious institu­tions of Western culture where science and technology arose in the first place.  Therefore, it is felt, one must search elsewhere for true wisdom:  for peace, tranquility, and revelation.  At the same time, recognizing, in the true spirit of productive capitalism, that re­ligion may be transformed into another lucrative enterprise, some imaginative indi­viduals have founded religious institutions with corporate efficiency, investing the vast amounts they suck from the simple-minded into real estate and fisheries.  So we have the interesting phenomenon of religious leaders riding Rolls Royces and residing in palatial mansions.  Through radio, TV and word-processed form let­ters they reach the hearts and homes, the souls and savings of millions.  Their hold on the gullible is the envy of investment firms and movie stars.

Then there are the more sophisticated spiritual innovators whose forte lies in their free use of the phrases and framework of present day psychology and science:  auto suggestion, bio-feedback and alpha rhythm are all part of their vocabulary.  They blend yogic insights with results from modern physics, meditation with modern physiology; they combine abnormal psychology and karma, computers and astrology.  These scientific religionists are more successful among the half-educated who are made to feel that they still respect the enlightened scientific world view, rather than adhere to primitive magic in a refined garb.  For, whatever one may say about frail reason and cold science, it uplifts the ego to imagine that one’s beliefs and practices do not contradict them.


October 14, 2010

Viva los mineros de San José!

On the rescue of the Miners in Chile:

It was a triumph of the human spirit: that those miners subsisted with so little light and nourishment, and yet with so much hope and confidence.

It was no surprise that Omar Reygadas knelt and clutched the Bible.

We rejoice in their return to the open where they can breathe and live like the rest of us, and the relief they brought to their families and friends.

We are grateful to these miners, as we should be to the thousands of others like them all over the world who delve every day into the bowels of the earth to scrape minerals and materials that run our civilization.

We are grateful equally to the many people whose relentless dedication to save those miners ultimately succeeded, and to the latest technology that made the rescue possible. The entire episode revealed the very dark and the very bright sides of industrial civilization.

It also showed how, in the face of a tragedy like this, all normal human beings are linked together through the intangible bond of our humanity: so different from the madness that willfully  plans and perpetrates mass murder: which too is a human potential

This was an unusual near-disaster that cost more anxiety, more faltering hope, and more ardent prayers than any other in recent memory.

We wish the miners the very best in their recovery from this horrendous suspense and suffering.

October 13, 2010

Like everyone who cares for India, after reading world-wide reports on the poor, not to say shoddy preparations for the event, I too was concerned about how the Commonwealth Games would start and unravel, and I too secretly prayed that things work out well before the appointed hour.

When I saw the opening day celebrations on TV, I felt that my prayers (as those of millions of others) were answered, indeed more than what I had expected. It  was one fantastic display of color and culture, of talent and training. It turned out to be a truly ecstatic moment for the people of India and for all who are affiliated to it. I am not sure if ever before in recent history, the hearts and souls of millions of Indians had swollen with such legitimate pride. I was tickled to tears of joy, seeing the spectacular performance with a tempestuous welcoming song and dance. It was such a delight to watch the lad on the tabla in utter joy. The show revealed the considerable cultural richness of an ancient civilization which, with all its faults and frailties, stands today with head held raised high and well poised to meet the challenges of the new century.

Coincidentally or otherwise, prior to the start of the games, there appeared a scathing piece on India in the New York Times (by Pankaj Mishra) which reported  that “public spaces across north India were flooded with policemen and paramilitaries” (for fear of the impending High-Court ruling on the Babri-masjid controversy), spoke of migrant laborers who were “the parents small and thin and dark, and (of) the children with distended bellies and rust-brown hair that speak of chronic malnutrition,” and sympathetically referred to the insurrection in Kashmir where “Defying draconian curfews, large and overwhelmingly young crowds of Kashmiri Muslims have protested human rights abuses by the nearly 700,000 Indian security forces there.” It is not clear for whose edification or instigation this article was written and for what purpose:  it might have served a cause if published in India, but why broadcast this now for readers in the United States, just on the eve of the CWG? What was accomplished by this?  Also, the day before the games officially started, the CBS 60 Minutes program chose to air Melinda Gates’ worthy charity work to prevent polio in  Delhi slums which, the reporter said, were frozen in the middle ages. Could they have not waited a couple of weeks before airing this commendable instance of American generosity towards the wretched of the world?

I grant that there are more than a few grains of truth in these contextually ill-timed news reports. Like many informed Indians I don’t entertain the naïve conviction that  India  has licked all her problems for good and that Indians are riding fast on the horseback of progress to become first in the world. Nor do I share the vanity of some Indians who are not shy of proclaiming to the world their superiority vis-à-vis other cultures, races, and nations. But let us suspend criticisms of caste and corruption just for a while, for the country has something good to celebrate now.

This is what I will say in this context:  India has enormous intellectual, moral, material , spiritual, and man-power potential which, when properly channeled and adequately exploited, will make her scintillate among the civilized nations of the world. The democratic framework, multi-ethnic variety, and religious openness are among her great strengths, and the envy of pathetically tottering neighbors. These were amply and amazingly illustrated on the opening day of the CWG. In the midst of so many frustrating problems all over the world, an event like this is most welcome. It uplifts the spirit of the people, reveals what India is capable of when her resources are not even fully  coordinated. It shows the world in positive and non-hurtful modes what the nation can accomplish. Given that the opening day celebrations were successful beyond expectations, with speedy last-minute constructions and clean-ups, and that too in the context of ill-wishers all too ready to thwart and bad-mouth the nation’s jubilance, the organizers of the event certainly deserve the commendations and  heart-felt congratulations of all people who harbor goodwill towards India.

October 5, 2010

17. Reflections on Technology: Jolts to Traditional Values

One may legitimately ask how technology could be blamed for some of the social problems mentioned above.  In answer, we may first point out to the correlation bet­ween the advent of a complex technological society on the one hand and the recorded increase in the number of cases of social problems on the other.

One can, moreover, see that indirectly modern technology and science have also had some serious impacts of traditional beliefs and values.  To begin with, no matter what theologians say and the Churches declare, the common man in inclined to think that science rather than the Scriptures are to be trusted when it comes to the matter of ex­plaining and interpreting the world.  This already shakes the very foundations of religious beliefs.  When a child gets sick, most parents take it to the doctor or to the hospital rather than to the priest or to the preacher.  Sinner or no sinner, all patients do get cured by the same medication.  This casts some doubt on the formerly held notion that we suffer because of our past misbehavior and evil thoughts.  As a result, the moral constraints of earlier times – which depended largely on imagi­nary unhappy aftermath for proscribed indulgences – are also being removed.

Then again, science and technology have not only diminished effort and ailment, but also increased possibilities for pleasure and excitement.  But an important charac­teristic of physical pleasures is that one not only tires of them soon, but often craves for more, and for heightened levels of excitement.  This leads to more search and to greater restlessness.  Easy excitement is provided by chemical stimulants; hence the drive for drugs.

Moreover, in an open society where experiences are numerous and the sexes mingle freely and away from their respective spouses in professional contexts, oppor­tunities arise for mutual sharing and attractions.  Outlets from domestic boredom are opened up, and the seeds of marital disharmony may thus be sown.

That is why the ancient prayer pleads with the Lord not to lead one into tempta­tion, which is precisely what technological society does.

October 3, 2010

16. Reflections on Technology: Social Problems

I noted that the problem of spending leisure time could become very serious when technology disengages our attention and energies from exertions for the satisfaction of our basic needs.  If healthy and appropriate alternative channels are not taken advantage of, other kinds of difficulties might arise.

Whether this is a major factor contributing to social confusions or not, the fact remains that many social and psychological problems have arisen in techno­logically advanced societies, and there seems to be a steady increase in the variety and frequency of their occurrence.  Let us consider a few.

Crimes are nothing new in human societies.  Assault and theft, murder and rape, are as ancient as civilization/ Every religion and moral injunction has threats and  punishments associated with moral transgressions.  Generally speaking, in former times, most petty thefts were provoked by dire needs.  Pilferers and thieves often made away with things to satisfy their own physical hunger or that of their families.  Murder and assault were often caused by passion or vendetta.  The crime of rape was generally related to circumstantial opportunities, and punishment for this crime has ranged from mild to very se­vere:  from fines and marriage to the victim (if she was unmarried) to castration and blinding of the eyes.

Statistics released by police bureaus show that crimes of all kinds have been steadily increasing in number all over the world.  In some instances they are committed simply for the thrill of the experience.  Young people from economically comfortable families have been caught in unlawful and destructive acts for no reason but the excitement of doing something wrong, illustrating the misuse of leisure time.  Then again, technical possibilities for crimes have increased consider­ably.  Fast moving get-away cars, silent pistols, high explosives for terrorist at­tacks, cell phones and internet among co-criminals, easy transportation to foreign count­ries, computer embezzlement:  all these technological possibilities have facilitated a great many crimes.

Some have argued that the lurid expo­sure of the female body in advertisements, movies, pornographic magazines, and on the internet provoke sexual assaults. Associated with the public sexual provocations that are the hallmark of modern societies is a heightened degree of promiscuous sexual activity.  Without mak­ing any moral judgment it may still be pointed out that as a result of this the incidence of venereal diseases and AIDS has increased steadily.  Advances in medicine are fortunately alleviating the discomfort and suffering from such diseases.

Another social problem is alcoholism.  The consumption for feast and festivity, as well as the devastating abuse of alcohol are also as ancient as civilization.  But in recent years, the social charms and palatal pleasures of spirits and wines have often degenerated into sad spectacles of serious addiction, drunken driving, and family fights.  Every statistic  indicates that more and more people are drinking more and more, and it is a pathetic sight when immature youngsters recount their experiences and share their wisdom on the problem of ju­venile alcoholism.

Alcoholism is only one instance of a variety of drug addictions from which modern societies suffer.  Once again, this is not an entirely new phenomenon in hu­man culture.  Puffing and sniffing for soaring into hallucinatory heights is an age-old thrill, often indulged in with religious fervor or simply for fighting boredom.  But somehow such experimentations with our consciousness tend to become risky and self-destructive in the context of modern life.  Marijuana and opium could very well be innocuous intakes in a carefree existence in a remote somnolent village with little responsibility and no machines and motors to manipulate.  But in a complex techno­logical society, where our behavior affects others, and every accident prompts alert responses from everybody around to relieve the pain or save the life of a victim, such indulgences cost money and effort.  This, rather than any system of ethics, is the reason why heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and the rest of the addictive kicks are to be listed among society’s problems.

Another social ill which is on the rise in technological societies is the divorce rate.  We may not be sure if, as the adage says, marriages are made in heaven.  But we do know that they can sometimes lead to hell, and divorce is probably the best reme­dy.  Hence its practice in all societies.  But here again, the number of marriages that break up in this way have been increasing over the past few decades.  In the U.S., for example, only 35 out of every 1000 marriages ended in a divorce in 1960.  By 1970 this number shot up to 41 out of 1000.  And by the end of the decade, it was more than 90 out of 1000.  It has only been growing worse since. The adaptability of humans to painful circumstances is well illustrated in this matter.  For, we are now in a stage where divorce is no longer considered to be unpleasant.  Its very commonality has made it acceptable, even desi­rable in instances where, previously, efforts would have been made to resolve the severing problems.  Perhaps the only serious argument against divorce in many de­serving cases would be the potential impact on children that may be involved.  It is in this sense that we call it a social problem.

One may add to this list other items, such as suicide rates, loneliness, psychological ailments, alienation from one’s family, etc.  Social scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, com­munity leaders, governments, all have been concerned with the unpleasant impacts of these problems, and are constantly searching for solutions.

October 2, 1010