St. Francis Xavier University philosophy professor Will Sweet says technology has contributed to a breakdown of community. The result, he says, is that many people are not being challenged for their actions: `The computer doesn't say what I am doing is wrong.'
From The Ottawa Citizen, p. 3, Tues., Dec. 28, 1999

By Bob Harvey

Technology has always challenged religion, says philosopher Will Sweet.

``The difficulty now is that everything is being challenged. Giving up your faith isn't the answer. If you're a person of faith, you have to respond intelligently.''

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century helped launch Protestantism, and break the Roman Catholic Church's hold on western Europe. In the 17th century, Galileo proved the earth revolves around the sun and the Inquisition sentenced him to house arrest. In the 19th and 20th centuries, archeology and carbon dating shattered some believers' idea the earth was created between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

At the dawn of the 21st century, says Mr. Sweet, technology's challenges to faith come at us from every direction: the Internet serves up pornography, the media spread other religions, and cryogenics offers the possibility of a kind of eternal life.

On the wall of Mr. Sweet's office at St. Francis Xavier University are framed copies of some of his 11 earned degrees, including three doctorates. He grew up in Ottawa, so two of those three doctorates are from Ottawa's Carleton and St. Paul Universities, and the other from the Sorbonne in Paris.


``Technology is not value-neutral, because the people who develop technology have values,'' says Mr. Sweet. ``The technological world view sees nature as purely an instrument to be used to satisfy human wishes, and sees human reason as way of harnessing the environment.

``It doesn't think that whatever religions represent is real.''

Mr. Sweet says there are thinkers like Jacques Ellul who see technology as a sign of Man's fall from grace, and believe that paradise was a paradise without technology. ``That's not my view at all. The things that humans create are signs of our own creativeness, but we shouldn't let ourselves think that we're the ones in charge.''

Mr. Sweet is a churchgoing Catholic, and his long list of publications includes many on metaphysics, post-modern religion, and God as an object of philosophical argument, as well as technology and religious belief.

In the West, where technology is especially visible, it is oriented to the individual, and one of the results is a breakdown of community and social structures, he says. ``Technology is a great leveller. The idea of hierarchy, the idea of authority just doesn't have the same sort of purchase any more. Authority now has in some cases to be earned, because technology can always challenge whoever is in authority. Bill Gates is now the wealthiest man in the world, but somebody could come along five years from now and become the wealthiest person.''

Technology reinforces whatever trends there are in culture, simply by spreading new ideas faster and more widely than ever before.

Among the trends reinforced by technology: individualism, optional religious commitment, and the notion of choice in religion. ``It can be communicated by travel, or by television, where you can easily see a dozen different cultures in any week.''

In the 18th century, philosopher Immanuel Kant said ``two things fill the mind with ever-increasing admiration and awe: The starry heavens above and the moral law within.''

``You can see that,'' said Mr. Sweet, ``because you can imagine at the end of the 18th century you look up at the sky and see the magnificence of the heavens, and imagine something greater than you are, and it's regular and orderly. But now we live in cities, and you can't see the stars at night. The opportunity to encounter the transcendent is removed from us.

``Nature is always mediated through television or computers. It is not encountered directly.''

Mr. Sweet says many of his students have a similar lack of understanding of what Kant had to say about the moral law within. The starry heavens are supposed to remind us that there is something greater outside us and that we don't set all the rules. But today, we have so many choices, and if technology is our god, then we will buy into any new trend that comes across the Internet. We have a radical awareness of our own autonomy.

``The technological age says there are options. If you have sex with this woman, you don't have to have a child. You don't have to stay with this wife. You can think of sexuality as something you do for fun, and it's separated from context in which sexuality used to take place. It has become a shopping mall kind of thing.''

Technology has also contributed to the breakdown of community, says Mr. Sweet. We can order up our own choice of television program almost at will, or microwave our own dinner. We can work alone, eat alone, recreate alone and participate in a religious service vicariously on television.

Because community has broken down, in the workplace, in religion, in universities, and even in the family, we get few challenges to our actions. ``The computer doesn't say what I am doing is wrong, or a mistake.''

Without a family or a church or close friends with a strong moral point of view, we are unlikely to find anyone to tell us what we are doing is odd or peculiar or even wrong, says Mr. Sweet.

He says our innate consciences are still alive, however.

``We've been told that morality is ultimately a matter of personal preference/conscience, subjective choice. People get confused. I talk to students and ask them is there anything absolutely wrong? Some will say, `Maybe torturing babies'. And I say, `Let's not play philosophy class. Do you really believe it's right to torture babies?' And, no, there's still a moral sense. But you have to call people to it.''

Even in the churches, many leaders are questioning the truth of the Biblical text, and their own tradition's teaching. ``If you can't go back to the text, because it is sort of vanishing, and you can't go back to the tradition because it isn't there, where do you go back to?'' Mr. Sweet said.

``I think this interest in the New Age is because they're looking for something and can't find it in the old sources. If I turn on my computer, I can find thousands of places that provide spiritual enlightenment. We've lost all these anchors. Therefore religious belief has changed. If I lose that tradition, that text base, then spirituality is whatever I feel.''

Mr. Sweet says many people see organized religion as an opponent of individual spirituality, but ``I don't think you can have a real sense of spirituality unless you have some sense of community, of tradition.''

How should religion deal with technology and the radical individualism it promotes, I ask?

``Aristotle says a good man doesn't take pleasure in evil things. So in a technological world, if you are a person at sea, then technology is not going to provide any breaks at all. If you are a person of faith it provides a challenge. Religion has to teach people to deal with technology, and by and large it doesn't.''

Mr. Sweet says we still pay attention to experts in economics or science, but we need to start paying attention to moral and religious experts. ``When I'm confronted with an information glut, I need someone to say that's a waste of time, and that's important. And I can see the church playing a role in that.''

He said Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical from Pope Paul VI that prohibited Catholics from using artificial means of birth control, predicted that if we have this technology we will use it, and it will have social consequences. The prediction was accurate, he said: ``It has increased the commodification of individuals; we treat people as objects and means to our own ends, and it encourages people not to make commitments. The technology becomes seductive, and once you have it, there are no brakes on it. If I develop this fixation with porn, what's to stop me? My conscience?

``Hierarchy provides brakes, and sometimes it tells you to do things that you don't want to do, but that's probably a good thing. The church needs to play that role, or else we will just pursue our desires.''

I object. How can the Canadian or American bishops, or John Paul II, keep track, much less react to the enormous volume of media, or the wave after wave of developments in bioethics and a thousand other fields?

``If you're an isolated individual and you're waiting for Rome to give you a call and say don't watch such and such a TV show, then it's not going to happen. But if you're a part of a community of people and realize that religion is not just a small part of your life, then you've got the tools to resist.''

Mr. Sweet says to help their members deal with the changes brought by technology, churches will have to encourage more community among their members, and help the clergy to be more prayerful, more informed and more visible in the schools and other parts of the community.

``Religion can't be lived in a solitary way,'' he says. ``Religion is going to be the last vestige of real community people have open to them, not just with the people around them who are spiritually united, but with a history.

``It provides us with a structure in which faith can be concretely lived. It provides a very real tangible connection between myself and the divine.''


What is the greatest idea of all time, I ask?

The self, says Mr. Sweet. It is a relatively recent concept that began to be articulated around the time of Christ, and became clearer in the 16th century. Until then, people saw themselves as part of a community, and had little concept of their separation from the environment, or perception of choice in life options.

He says technology has changed our perception of the self, by providing more and more ways to distinguish ourselves from others: more career possibilities, more options in family life, and more choices in sexuality and religious belief. Everything becomes optional, and the self becomes entirely distinct from its surroundings.

``This is the frightening thing now. People have so many options, they are at sea, they have lost track of what connects them to other people. We are hyper-aware of our being selves now. That probably explains the sense of anomie people in the West seem to be experiencing.

``Unfortunately, it challenges our human relations, and our access to something other than the purely natural disappears,'' says Mr. Sweet.

``If we don't see God in other people. If we don't see God in nature, what does God become?"