Promises, Promises

Our technology works. But all idols do at first.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, February 19, 2001 (vol. 45, no. 3), p. 72.

Like 90 million other Americans, I have a household idol. Like household gods from pagan cultures throughout history, it is small enough to fit in my hand and roughly human in shape—three times as tall as it is wide. And as with all household gods, it promises to serve me if I will serve it. So I feed it regularly—with a kind of invisible food that, I believe, gives it energy and perhaps pleasure. In return, it promises protection, power, knowledge, and even intimacy. My god has been very good to me. And on days when it fails me—when I let it go without food, or make inappropriate demands of it, or the one time when I thought I had actually lost it—I feel pangs of anxiety. At those times I vow to be a better servant of this precious little piece of useful magic.

Every idol is an attempt to gain an edge on the world, to have some leverage over chaos.

My household idol is better known as a cell phone. I feed it with daily infusions of electricity, and it promises me the divine freedom to talk with whomever I wish, wherever I wish. I don’t really mistake my cell phone for a god. Then again, archaeologists tell us that even after the worship of YHWH was firmly established in Jerusalem, Israelites were still cherishing their Canaanite idols.

Much of what we call idolatry in “primitive” societies is simply an alternative form of technology. Idols promise some control over the world. Serve the sky god’s idol properly, and he will reward you with favorable weather. Propitiate the voodoo figurine with the appropriate sacrifices, and you will have control over your enemy. Every idol is an attempt to gain an edge on the world, to have some leverage over chaos. That is, essentially, what technology—whether in the form of cell phones, central air conditioning, or missile-defense systems—promises as well.

Of course, we resist the equation of technology with idolatry. Western technology, unlike idolatry, is based on science’s discoveries about the physical world. True enough—if all that cell phones promised was to faithfully harness the laws of electromagnetism, they would work all the time. But in fact they promise much more. And that’s where the connection between technology and idolatry gets interesting.

For the fact is that all idols appear to work—at first. That’s how they become idols.

Though the details are lost to history, at some point sky-god figurines did seem to deliver what they promised. Why else would they have become revered? We see this dynamic clearly in the case of the small-scale, personal idolatries known as addictions. Every addict knows that the habit initially delivers everything it promises and more. But over time, addictions—and gods—stop satisfying our desires. The idolater gets a bit nervous. Perhaps the idol just needs a bit more loving care. Thus begins a spiral that is all the more demonic for its subtlety. Idols, as Jeffrey Satinover has put it, “demand more and more and provide less and less, until eventually they give you nothing and demand everything.”

So it is not quite enough to say that technology works—the question is whether technology will keep on working. For the answer to that question, consult anyone whose vintage-1989 personal computer is now serving as a doorstop. While it may still function in the literal sense of the term, its ability to deliver on its promises has largely vanished as it has helped to create new desires and expectations—and a more complicated, demanding piece of technology has taken its place.

The truth is that we Western idolaters already tolerate a great deal of unfulfilled promises from our technology. If we were just obsessed with battery life, perhaps it wouldn’t matter. But the beloved automobile, with its promises of autonomy, mobility, and speed, takes the lives of 41,000 Americans each year (9,000 of them children and teenagers), with hardly a whimper of protest. Embryonic stem-cell research promises radical medical advances, asking only that we clone and sacrifice human embryos.

On the scale of the history of human religions, Western culture’s entire 200-year-old experiment with the gods of technology is at its very beginning. Who is to say that in 500 years those gods will seem as benevolent, or as potent, as they did in the 20th century? Over and over again through history, with inexorable logic, idols end up demanding the ultimate sacrifice, even while they stop rewarding us. That ultimate sacrifice is, of course, human beings. Especially the most precious and vulnerable human beings: children.

But that’s ridiculous. We are not a superstitious, primitive civilization. We wouldn’t sacrifice children just for technology’s evanescent promise of a more controlled, worry-free environment, would we?

Would we?