Politics and Religion Are Technologies

A friend of mine found this TED Talk by searching for my pet keywords: religion and technology. It’s from 2003, which gives it a fascinating distance from us today with respect to the topic. It’s forever ago in terms of technology, but it’s yesterday in terms of religion. I think this talk almost speaks my language, but not quite. I’m with him when he says that religion and politics are technologies, but I think he frequently strays into saying that they’re the same technology, which bothers me.

He starts off by saying that reconceptualizing politics and religion as technologies makes them “subject to kinds of questions that we regularly consider in the space of conceptual design.” I don’t know what “conceptual design” means, but he seems to be saying that these are technologies because they are “tools” for changing our environment, specifically our internal environment. So far so good, according to my definition of technology. But I don’t think he ever gets around to defining the feature sets of these two technologies and how they differ.

In fact, he ends up presenting the world of 2003 — a pretty heated time for religion, politics, and interactions between them — in terms of a defining technical problem, a “great confrontation” between “Islam and democracy.” So he’s edging closer and closer to treating religion and politics as equivalent, and his conclusion — which isn’t much of one — just melts into politics. He reduces diversity within a religion down to political differences, and the only ways out of the morass that he mentions are political ways. In other words, the religious problems he alludes to remain entirely unsolved.

The missed opportunity here was to examine the dramatic technological differences between religion and politics. There are clearly tons of interfaces between them, but the programming behind those interfaces is differs wildly on either side. I’ve written about this before in a post called “Why I Don’t Talk about Israel and Palestine on the Internet,” which is slightly outside the scope of In Real Life. My point on this website is just that religion and politics are written in different programming languages, even though they operate on some of the same problems. When their interactions cause conflicts, solutions require two different kinds of expertise at once.