Paris World Fair 1900: Palais des Machines. Among the major attractions: huge dynamos generating electricity. The quiet spectacle attracts hundreds of men and women staring with a sense of awe at the amazing technology. The reactions on their faces are quietly observed by the American historian and journalist Henry Adams. These reactions are not new: Adams remembers having seen similar attitudes previously on the faces of the pilgrims frequenting the shrines of the Virgin Mary throughout Europe. This leads him to the expectation that the “cult of the dynamo” might one day supersede the “cult of the Virgin”.
About ninety years later, a similar perspective is proposed by the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, who observes the “sacred awe that we experience face to face with nuclear fission” and the “religious complex” that strikes the human being when faced with items such as “television, computers, bikes, and rockets”. In his opinion, the advent of the modern era has not radically changed the ways we interact with our environment, but has rather changed the environment itself. In this case, the modern environment, far from being the result of the “supposed dedivinisation of the world”, becomes instead “a fictional world in which our religious sense incarnates itself” in physical objects that are no longer natural, but are still considered worthy of adoration if used with “joy and fear”.
It is my claim that, contrary to the views of Adams and Ellul, there are no reasons to conceive of an actual replacement of religious objects with technological objects. There has been, at least in the Western mind, a perennial parallel cultivation of scientific awe on the one hand and religious awe on the other, since the awe of the ancient man of science for scientific inquiry is similar to the awe of the contemporary scientist when making an unexpected discovery, and since the awe animating the religious founder or prophet still corresponds to the mystical experience of contemporary famous or secluded religious members, irrespective of the degree of development of science and technology. Although the awe of the scientist is in a way analogous to the awe of the religious founder, the two kinds of awe should not be interpreted as interchangeable.
However, at the same time, even if technological awe is not likely to lead to the complete extinction of religious awe, it may supersede it in popularity. It is undeniable that technology and science have increasingly taken up a greater and greater role in the lives of ordinary people. This makes it seem likely that more people in our century will get to experience technological awe than in prior centuries. The result could well be that fewer people feel drawn to the unique and increasingly old-fashioned experiences of religious awe.
In order for people to experience the fullest form of human life, we should try to check these trends by ensuring that there are opportunities for people to experience both kinds of awe. Society is already taking care of one side of this equation: new technologies are being rapidly introduced into communities all around the world. But what about experiences of religious awe in more technological-oriented communities? Employers such as Google offer many different employee-enrichment programs in their workplaces including opportunities for exercise and artistic expression. It would be my recommendation that they should ensure to include opportunities for religious experience in this suite of enriching activities. In that way these human beings can benefit from both kinds of awe, technological and religious.
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