A Place for Religion in Nanotechnology Debates
by Jameson M. Wetmore
Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final article in a series on the topic of nanotechnology. These previously unpublished articles were gathered by Chris Toumey, University of South Carolina NanoCenter, and are published here with permission. Wetmore here offers up thoughts on how religion ought to play a role in the future decisions regarding the use of nanotechnology.
Some people perceive that there are significant tensions between religions and advanced technologies. This comes largely from the role that religious arguments have played in recent debates over reproductive technologies and biotechnology. In some of these disputes, religious arguments were actively employed in successful attempts to change the direction of US policies. Many argue that the controversial limitations that President George W. Bush put on federal funding of stem cell research were inspired by religious convictions. As nanotechnology has become more visible to the general public, there is a question as to what role, if any, religions will play in its direction.
Dietram Scheuefele and his colleagues have conducted a number of public opinion polls which shed some light on this question. Their research shows that those who identify as having more “religiosity” than others are less likely to embrace new nanotechnologies (Scheuefele et al. 2009, Brossard et al. 2008). How exactly this might play out is at first unclear. One might think that being “less likely to embrace” new technologies means the rejection of new technologies.
To see whether this is in fact the case I analyzed a number of articles written by religious thinkers about nanotechnology over the past several years. My initial findings are that a more subtle interpretation of Scheuefele’s research is in order. A number of religious thinkers have begun to write about nanotechnology, but few, if any, have called for a stop to nanoscale research in general or any area in particular. Some have called for an end to the Transhumanist agenda on ethical and theological grounds, but they don’t single out nanotechnology. For many of these religious leaders, hesitating to embrace a new technology means that they do not accept the idyllic visions and marketing rhetoric that are being used to promote new technologies. Instead they have called for a measured and broad analysis of the implications of new technologies before they are widely adopted.
Starting a Conversation
Unfortunately it is impossible to know what all religious leaders think about nanotechnology (or whether they think anything at all about it). It is very difficult to track what is being said from the pulpit in countless churches around the world. But there are published forums where religious thinkers detail their thoughts on a variety of subjects. This research is largely based on explicitly Christian magazines and journals because they seem to be the most eager to address the topic. Non-Christian positions on nanotechnology are more rare.
Some of the interest Christian writers express is overtly theological. For instance there is some discussion about whether and how the pursuit of nanotechnology might be a pursuit of God-like qualities – like those who built the Tower of Babel. There is debate over whether the story of Babel can serve as a warning of the dangers of actually developing God-like powers or whether such a thing is impossible. In any case, one should guard against the pride and arrogance of attempting to develop God-like powers (Hopkins 2002).
But for the most part these articles focus much more on the local effects of nanotechnology. They have heard the grandiose promises about nanotechnology and implore their readers to consider what the practical results will be. Kenell Touryan, former president of the American Scientific Affiliation, noted that nanotechnology holds the promise of accomplishing great things and responds by asking: “But how will humans make wise use of these advances for the physical and spiritual welfare of all peoples?” (Touryan 2004). Some of the authors ask basic open ended questions to begin to get their readers to think about the possibilities: Who will have access to these new technologies? Will the “haves” get more and the “have nots” get less? What are the potential dangers of nanobots? Should there be a line drawn (and where) between treatment and enhancement of human beings? (Bock 2005; Toth-Fejel 2004)
Touryan and many of his colleagues do not yet pretend to know the answers to these questions. Instead, they implore their readers to think about these issues and to become a part of the broader policy conversation. So if they are not making pronouncements, weighing in on the issues, or even identifying the issues, what are these religious thinkers doing? To a large degree they are outlining a strategy for engagement and beginning to implement it.
Strategies for Engagement
Most of those discussing nanotechnology in a Christian context are not simply yelling at policy makers: “Listen to us! We should be a part of the discussion.” Rather, they have developed a strategy to gather assistance from their fellow believers and to legitimize their voice in the political sphere. Certainly different individuals are employing different strategies, but there are some common trends in these articles that I will outline.
First they usually start by briefly explaining what nanotechnology is, the promises being made for it, and then (sometimes) a brief list of some of the issues that could arise. This is basic information for their fellow believers to begin to explain to them why this is an issue they should be interested in.
Second, religious spokespeople recognize that the quickest way to get marginalized in a discussion about nanotechnology is to appear “anti-technology.” Thus many of them openly reject the idea that religion is fundamentally anti-technology and even quote scripture to give a basis for a religious belief in technology as a positive human endeavor. For instance, in a journal published by the Christian Medical Fellowship in the UK, bioethicist Philippa Taylor (2004) argues:
We need to be clear that biotechnology is not inherently wrong. In fact, technology, generally speaking, is a human good. Humans are technologists by nature and by vocation. After all, we remain under the covenantal obligations to ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’ [Genesis 1:28]. Wise stewardship of our created world requires some form of technology (Taylor 2004).
Taylor emphasizes that technology is not just compatible with religion, but rather an integral part of religious practice. This helps to answer two concerns. First, it is a message to fellow believers that technology is an important arena for them to think about and be active in. Second, it is an attempt to explain to those who promote nanotech that religious input into science and technology policy need not be confrontational. It is not going to be simply an attempt to stop their work.
The next step in rallying the troops and carving out a voice for them is often to stress that technologies are not value free. Technologies can be used to promote certain values and inhibit certain other values. Many of the religious speakers argue that people and technology together shape both technological and social futures. Donald Bruce (2005), Director of the Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland argues that a “technology reflects [the] values and goals of the society within which it emerges and, in turn, it may alter the values and aspirations of that society.” This message is, again, meant for two audiences. For those promoting nano it questions the idea that nanotechnology will automatically lead to unmitigated good. By bringing people back into the equation, it emphasizes the idea that the technology will not magically achieve society’s goals. People must direct it. For those fellow believers it is an attempt to explain that just because there are complicated technical issues, they still can have input into the process. It is an attempt to empower them in a field they may be reluctant to enter.
After establishing the importance of technology in the world and its values, many of these groups call for early engagement. I personally find this argument very familiar because it is at the core of the theoretical approach that guides the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University – Dave Guston and Dan Sarewitz’s (2002) idea of “Real Time Technology Assessment.” The basic idea is that if you want to work to ensure that science policy is directed at the most useful ends, you need to engage science as it is being done.
Some of those interested in religious involvement in nanotechnology call for a very similar engagement. They call for the implications of technologies to be assessed before they are integrated into the world. As Philippa Taylor puts it:
The introduction of a new technology often follows a common path – first its development behind closed doors, then the winning over of the public with predictions of life-saving advances, then finally, a regulatory regime to fit the already completed package. Clearly it is much better to have regulatory regimes set up earlier in the process (Taylor 2004).
This is a call to action now. It argues that the “wait and see” or “we’ll vote with our dollars” approaches will not be effective. It is an attempt to convince both scientific and religious audiences that this must be done sooner rather than later because the effectiveness of the participation will suffer if there is delay.
Finally they attempt to carve out a political role for themselves in the discussion by laying claim to an area of expertise. They argue that religious thinkers should play an important role in these regulatory regimes because religions have a tradition and have claimed authority over ethical questions like: What does it mean to be human? What is human good? and other metaphysical questions which they claim science cannot answer. Donald Bruce explains:
Traditional presuppositions hold that there are moral or societal bounds which restrain what may be technically feasible in intervening in the human condition. These limits are drawn from the insights of the religious and cultural traditions, philosophy and theology, the arts and humanities, and the social sciences (Bruce 2005).
Bruce and others contend that while religions are not the only group that should have a say in complicated moral questions, they should certainly be one of the important voices in the discussion.
With this basic message developed, many of the Christian thinkers then offer some ideas on how to spread the message. Many of them put forward something similar to the following three-step process. First, these issues need to be discussed with other church members and other religious thinkers – which is what most of these articles (see May and April issues of Covalence) are intended to do.
Second, they emphasize that in order to engage in the conversation in a legitimate and informed way, religious thinkers must understand the science. Nearly every article gives at least a brief explanation of what nanotechnology is, and encourages further investigation. For instance, ethicist Thomas Pearson (2006) simply, but strongly, argues that “If you don’t know the science, you can’t do the ethics.” In a sense, the argument is that if a religious thinker wants a scientist to listen to his or her expertise, he or she must have a basic understanding of the science first. Those who have already tried to engage scientists and politicians in the ethical aspects of their work have learned the very important lesson that if one makes a mistake in describing nanoethics or postulates a technology that few scientists think will ever be possible, they are dismissed without a hearing. Whether this is fair or not (and scientists might be similarly criticized for not understanding ethics or religion), it is an obligatory passage point in order to not be marginalized.
And third, religions need to engage with these issues in the broader society through creative methods. Many techniques for doing this are posited. For instance, in a presentation to the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation – A Fellowship of Christians in Science, Kenell Touryan (2004) (a nuclear and renewable energy scientist, and then president of the ASA), encourages Christian scientists to:
a. Develop supplemental texts for high school and college students that “add the ingredients of the real world missing in secular texts.”
b. Help to establish ethical standards for scientists and engineers by developing and participating in commissions.
c. Participate in decision-making bodies at the county, city, state, and federal levels to directly influence policy.
d. Recruit and mentor graduate students to guide them to address the issues.
e. Develop systems of communication with international groups to spread the message even farther.
In essence these religious thinkers believe that religious thought can play an important and even necessary role in the development of science and technology. They acknowledge that there are great things that can be done through research, but believe that guiding these efforts with ethical reflection is very important. They implore their fellow believers to play an active role in considering the practical effects of nanotechnology research and engage with decision makers. In turn they are asking decision makers for a seat at the table.
Resistance to Religious Impact
So what has been the response to these efforts? For the most part I have not found a great deal of response. Most likely this is because religious efforts are in their infancy. They have yet to say anything provocative that enrages anyone and their voices likely haven’t been heard much beyond their fellow believers. But there has been one proponent of nanotechnology who has responded in a rather marked way.
William S. Bainbridge is co-director of Human Centered Computing at the National Science Foundation and one of the architects of U.S. federal funding of nanotechnology. He is also an avid proponent of transhumanism – the idea that the next stage of human evolution will result from joining humans and computers. Transhumanists are working toward a future where technologies enable people to expand their memory, their mental processing power, and ultimately live forever, if not in the traditional human form, perhaps in some sort of brain/machine interface.
Bainbridge is particularly concerned that religious activists, or people acting with religious arguments, will thwart the Transhumanist effort and other research programs. He has written a few articles on the topic. One, ironically titled “The Transhuman Heresy” (Bainbridge 2005), was published in the Transhumanist Journal of Evolution & Technology. The article details a questionnaire that Bainbridge administered to determine if theists were more likely to reject Transhumanist ideals than Agnostics. He found some evidence that that was the case (although he doesn’t explain why only a quarter of agnostics think that that one of the Transhumanist goals of “having one’s mind scanned into a computer” is a good idea).
In a second article, “Cyberimmortality, the depth of Bainbridge’s fears become clear. He frames religious groups as controlling a market that is “vulnerable to invasion by firms offering more-effective products based on advanced technologies (Bainbridge 2006:26). He interprets the “religiously-based movement” to ban human reproductive cloning as a warning to transhumanists and believes that religious thinkers could be a barrier to their goals. The final words of his article sum up his thinking rather succinctly:
The authors of the Bible did not know that the Earth is a planet in orbit around the Sun, that the genetic code is carried by DNA molecules, or that the work of the brain is carried out by neurons. As our own ignorance diminishes, there is no guarantee that anything of the biblical worldview will survive. Yet, there is also no guarantee that religion will accept a graceful retirement rather than battle cognitive science to the death.
In essence Bainbridge declares a preemptive war on religion. There is no room for negotiation. Rather he urges Transhumanists to develop strategies to preempt any interference. For instance, he discusses things like passing laws making it illegal to “unplug” downloaded humans.
While this is likely an extreme example that paints a rather dire picture, it demonstrates that those who exercise a great deal of control over the development of nanotechnology believe that religiously-justified input into nanotechnology policy is likely to increase in scope and power. It will be interesting to see how these conversations will proceed.
In reflecting on these efforts I want to offer two conclusions. The first is a rather simple political science argument. If we want to understand how political decisions about science are made, we need to understand the role of religion in those decisions. Increasingly religious teachings are being used overtly by politicians to justify the governance of science. This is a reasonably recent phenomenon and something that will be important to track. As nanotechnology becomes more politically charged, there is a good chance that religious thinkers will have input even at the highest levels of government.
My second conclusion is perhaps more of a question and a tentative answer. Should we welcome these religious voices into the debate? I’m going to tentatively argue yes. I’m not suggesting that we as a nation cede authority to religious thinkers, but why not use them as a resource?
I think Bainbridge’s approach to religion is not just incredibly destructive; it also misses what could be an important opportunity. The U.S. government at least has found it very difficult to address or develop ways to think through the ethical issues involved in science. An attempt was made with the Human Genome Project’s Program on “Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues.” But there has been a significant amount of criticism of that project.
And there has been a concern that the government is not the appropriate place for ethical inquiry to begin and germinate. Governments must certainly make rulings that have ethical aspects. But the conversations don’t usually start with the government. The government is supposed to ultimately reflect the general consensus of the population. At the moment the public doesn’t know what to think about nanotechnology. The conversations have only just begun.
Religious forums, however, have been a place where such early debates have been traditionally held. Many religions have provided a safe space for ethical discussions to take place. We often equate religions with hard line ethical stances and eventually that may be true. But these ethical stances often come only after a lengthy period of discussion. In many ways the articles I have summarized call for just such a discussion.
This may not be a problem-free plan. But I do think it bears considering. If we think that issues of equity, power, and human nature should be considered as we develop new nanotechnological capabilities, we should seek input from groups that have been thinking about such issues for centuries. If we think science should be steered toward the public good, why not tap into the expertise of religious thinkers at least as we begin to think about how nanotechnology could be best used to pursue the public good?
Jameson Wetmore is an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution & Social Change at Arizona State University. His work combines the fields of Science & Technology Studies with ethics and public policy to pursue a recurring question: How do people design and create technological systems, and how, in turn, do these technological systems help to define, reinforce and propagate specific values? As an assistant director of the ASU Center for Nanotechnology in Society, he contributes to developing ways for scientists, policymakers and others to think about the future relationships among science, technology and societies. He may be reached at Jameson.Wetmore@asu.edu
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Covalence, June 2012