Religion is a Gadget

I did not start out intending in my last post to add “religion” to the list of (obsolete) technologies. But I knew exactly what I was doing as I wrote it out. I like very much how religion slipped into the list not as some putative and privileged center of ultimate value or concern but rather more simply as one small thing among several types of technology.

The view here is to look at the thing-like character of religion as a kind of techne –art, craft, technology, or tool. In the classical Greek philosophical tradition, these would include “medicine, horsemanship, huntsmanship, oxherding, farming, calculation, geometry, generalship, piloting a ship, chariot-driving, political craft, prophecy, music, lyre-playing, flute-playing, painting, sculpture, housebuilding, shipbuilding, carpentry, weaving, pottery, smithing, and cookery.” (

Religion as techne represents a kind of art or technology. It has first and foremost to do with physical objects. In Judaism, these would include mezuzah, tefillin (phylacteries), scriptures. First and foremost, the information they encode  (scriptural passages, torat Moshe, divrei Elohim) are written out in black ink on animal parchment or on paper. These scripts are placed within physical containers or wrapped in fabric which are then placed in places –on the arm and the head, on doors and gates at home or in the ark at the synagogue.

Techne generate knowledge as their endpoint. Such knowledge can be practical or theoretical. In more “spiritually and intellectually refined” forms of religion they orient action in the world around that knowledge which is the love of God. In folk religion these techne might be used to ward off demons and other harmful spirits, or, as in magic, to draw down the presence of God and to bend God’s will to human desire.

The problem with traditionalist religionists today is that they don’t necessarily “know” that the technologies they employ and the codes they communicate are obsolete. Maybe the technologies and the ideas are obsolete, maybe they aren’t. Certainly, the turn to archaic wisdom is part and parcel of cultural traditions in the modern west. Picasso and other modernists turned to “primitivist” masks and other archaic forms in the early twentieth century. Works of modern Jewish philosophy (Buber, Rosenzweig, Heschel) would have been inconceivable without this turn to old techne.

At issue is whether an archaic technological apparatus is able to work alongside new, modern and ultra-modern forms of technology and the new forms of practical-ethical and theoretical knowledge and passions they produce. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. To get this right is more of an art than a science.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply