Chapter 5:. Technology, Culture and Religion

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 5:. Technology, Culture and Religion

Graduation address delivered at the Christian Medical College, Vellore on 11th Oct. 1993

I must first of all thank Drs. Booshanam Moses and Molly Thomas for their kind invitation to me to be present here with you for this year’s Medical Graduation as your Chief Guest. I deem it a distinct honour to have been so invited.

What shall I say to you on this important occasion in your life when you have finished securing the basic degree in medicine and considering your future course? I am a person belonging to an older generation having graduated in chemistry from the University of Madras in 1935, that is, 58 years ago. But through the years chemistry has changed and I have moved away from it into researches and writings on Religion. Culture and Politics. It has been said that old people dream of the past and young people see visions of the future. So I have been wondering how I could speak some words of relevance to you who are visualizing the future both of yourselves and the world which you enter.

I understand that this is the 51st year of the starting of the MBBS programme and the 46th Graduation Day. I was reading the College Prospectus for 1993 which was sent to me and it speaks of a Tradition laid down by the founder Ida Scudder which has been moulding you through the years you have spent here. I thought I would serve the occasion best by enlarging on some aspects of the relevance of that tradition for the contemporary post-modem world situation. It comes nearest to my own concerns.

The three themes emphasized in the college tradition from the foundation are: modern medical technology, the humanist culture of service and justice to the community of the poor and the needy, and religion as the source of the humanist culture. Building a proper relation between Technology, Culture and Religion was very much present in the mind of Ida Scudder when she founded this academic institution. If I interpret the prospectus of the CMC correctly, the objective of the CMC namely to “impart to men and women an education of the highest order in the art and science of medicine and to equip them in the spirit of Christ for service In the relief of suffering and promotion of health”, that is, the idea of a combination of training in professional skills, moulding the technically trained in a culture of human values and motivation, equipping them to utilize technology to serve “with compassion and concern for the whole person”, the people especially the weaker sections of society, and giving spiritual reinforcement of that culture by the “spirit of Christ” and the motto “Not to be Ministered unto but to Minister” derived from him, goes back in tradition to the founder herself (Prospectus MBBS Course p.5). Of course she could not have realized at that time fifty years ago that some specialized medical technologies could be so fully integrated with the materialistic-mechanical reductionist view of human being and with the profit-consumerist motives that it would be impossible to convert them to the holistic view of human personhood or to be made an appropriate tool for promoting health of poor communities. That awareness has come only in recent years with the destructiveness of technological culture becoming expressly manifest. Today of course medicos engaged in community health services are critiquing high-tech medical technology itself as class-biased and exploitative and call for technologies more appropriate. One should also appreciate the fact that though an institution founded by Christian Missions, considering the inter-religious character of the academic community of the college, the founders emphasized the Christian “values” of self-giving service to the poor and concern for the whole person rather than Christian salvation, thereby somewhat separating the common “culture” and values of humanism of academic community of the college, from the Christian “religion” and thus relatively secularizing it to keep the academic community free from discrimination on the basis of religion.

Of course, for a Christian college it was right to emphasize the special role of Christianity to reinforce the humanist values. But one does not know whether the founders remembered the historical fact that it was the movement of Secular Humanism associated with the European Enlightenment that brought the humanist values of liberty, equality and fraternity to the forefront in the French Revolution and helped Christianity to discover them and their roots within the Christian tradition and the gospel of Christ. The implication is that a dialogue between Religion and Secularism is necessary to keep a culture of Humanism alive. The American democratic constitution came into being and is sustained within the context of such a dialogue between Christianity and Secular Humanism. And if the Indian Constitution begins with affirming the humanist principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice it has behind it the impact of liberal and socialist secular ideologies as well as Renascent Hinduism from Raja Rammohan Roy to Gandhi who absorbed these values and made them part of the Renascent Hinduism itself. And today, the threat to the further development of common humanist culture comes from religious fundamentalism and communalism which deny the reality of religious pluralism and the possibility of a composite human culture reinforced by many faiths and ideologies.

It is the contemporary situation of the relation between Modern Technology, Humanist Culture and Religious Pluralism that I want to highlight today. Here I see two challenges which seem to loom large in the modern world including India which is in the process of modernization; one, of humanizing the technological revolution to serve the poor and protect the ecological basis of life; and the other, of building a secular state and common civil society with openness to religious insights in a situation of religious pluralism. These are challenges to the present generation of youth looking towards making their contribution to the shaping of the future of humanity.

Firstly, how to make technological developments in the modem world instruments of justice, rather than exploitation, to the poor and the needy in society and also serve to protect and not destroy the ecological basis of the community of life on earth? There is no doubt that the scientific and technological revolution of the modem period has been a tremendous expression of human creativity, It has eliminated distances and created the global community materially. It has given us the knowledge necessary to produce goods and services in abundance. It has given us power for social, psychic and genetic engineering, to control disease and death as well as birth. But as we survey the world situation today, the general feeling is that along with many benefits, many of the promises of technology stand betrayed and there is evidence of a lot of technology having become instruments of exploitation of peoples, destruction of cultures and dehumanization of persons and pose threat of destruction not only to the whole humanity through nuclear war but also to the whole community of life on the earth through the destruction of its ecological basis.

In India’s “ten percent economy” as economist C.T. Kurien calls it, 40 to 50 percent of people are living below the poverty line; and the present pattern of development through globalization with economic growth as the only criterion will lead to large-scale cuts in welfare measures and to the capital-intensive industries under the auspices of the multi-national corporations and consequently to more poverty and unemployment as it happened in Latin America. The dalits, the tribals, the fisherfolk and women who have been outside the power-structures of traditional society and state have become more oppressed through technological advance giving their traditional oppressors more power. Class, caste, race, ethnic and sexist oppressions and violence have become more intense with people getting awakened to demand their just rights. In fact, Narmada, Chilika and other people’s struggles are against technological development which have become inhuman and destructive of not only peoples’ livelihood but also of their self-identities.

There was a time when people thought that technologies were morally neutral and that if peoples’ purposes were changed all technologies could be utilized for the good of the community. There may be some truth in that approach with respect to the earlier stage of the technological advance and probably also with respect to small-scale technologies. Today however many knowledgeable people are saying that many of the high-tech developments have produced technological systems in which the mechanical-materialist view of reality, human greed and ecological destruction are built in; and that therefore a new paradigm of development with technologies integrated with a more holistic understanding of human personhood and peoplehood and recognizing the organic natural and spiritual dimensions of human community are called for. The WCC Conference of technicians and scientists in Boston on the Future of Humanity in a Technological Age held sometime ago, asked for the development of an Ethics of Appropriate Technology. This was of course Gandhi’s approach. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful is a technologist’s restatement of Neo-Gandhism as an ideology of humanized technology.

Since the CMC was started in response to the village women’s situation, it is worth mentioning that today the feminist movement on the whole (as represented by the recent recipient of the Right Livelihood award Vandana Shiva’s book Staying Alive) considers modern science and technology as essentially an expression of masculine chauvinism intent on “raping” nature and woman; and therefore they call for a reorganization of society on the traditional “feminist” principle of production, reproduction and sustenance of all life for saving the future. There may be exaggerations here but there is little doubt that the relation between technology and justice needs to be rethought.

Secondly, how to recognize the religious dimension of public life in a society of many religions and secular ideologies without allowing society to fall into the dangers of religious fundamentalism and communalism? Religious and linguistic and ethnic plurality we always had. But then they lived in more or less isolation from each other. Today what we have is pluralism where the old isolation is gone and we are thrown together to recognize each other and even to relate to each other on an equal footing in a democratic set-up and build society together. Thus religious plurality has moved to religious pluralism which has its own dynamics. We have sought to keep the unity of India as a nation-state in such a situation through the idea of the secular state. It guaranteed freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination in civil society to all but allowed religion to enter vital areas of public life only through the inspiration religion gives to individuals. This framework of unity in pluralism has been developed through the movement of national struggle for independence under the leadership of Gandhi, the leader of Renascent Hinduism and Nehru, the advocate of Secular Socialism. In fact, Gandhi became martyr to preserve India a secular state with equality for all religions under law. The threat to this idea of secularism arises form religious fundamentalism which is afraid of insecurity through change in traditional religious dogmas, ritual practices of purity and impurity in social laws; the threat also comes from communalism which seeks political power for one’s religious community or in the case of Hindutva wants to establish a Hindu state. This communalist path will lead, as Rammanohar Lohia said long ago, to the break-up of India.

Minority consciousness or majority consciousness are dangers to both religion and politics because they arise as defensive reactions stifling creativity. The real struggle in all religious communities is for spiritual reformation opening themselves to enter into dialogue with other religions and with secular humanist ideologies regarding the nature and rights of the human person and the meaning of social justice enabling to build together a new spiritually-oriented humanism and a more humane society. Opening up is the only path for the humanization of religion which will also enable it to communicate its message of spiritual salvation in relation to the humanization of society itself.