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Posted: Nov 16, 2011

Nanotechnology and religion

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Survey research indicates that religious belief will be a powerful influence in shaping public views about nanotechnology, while knowledge about nanotech will be less influential. And yet religious thought about nanotech has received little attention. We know that nanotechnology has evoked a large body of literature on moral and ethical issues, but almost all of this is expressed in secular voices, e.g., those of philosophers, ethicists, and scientists. Religious commentaries about nanotechnology have been much more rare. Now it is worth knowing what religious voices have said about nanotechnology, so that we might anticipate future religious reactions.
In the December issue of NanoEthics, my survey of religious reactions to nanotechnology will be published: "Seven Religious Reactions to Nanotechnology".
We can begin by considering three surveys. George Gaskell and colleagues presented a survey in 2005 ("Social Values and the Governance of Science") which showed that in the US, Canada and the EU, many people trusted scientific experts to lead us through science policy, but this trust declined as levels of educational achievement declined. What replaced that sense of trust? "In the United States, religious beliefs were strongly related to critical attitudes to science and technology", they wrote. A more recent survey in the US by Dominique Brossard et al. ("Religiosity as a perceptual filter: examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology") found that the "strength of religious beliefs is negatively related to support for funding of nanotechnology". Religious apprehensions that developed earlier in response to biotechnology served as a template for reactions against nanotechnology. Knowledge of nanotechnology had little influence on attitudes about nanotechnology.
A third study compared the US and twelve EU nations ("Religious beliefs and public attitudes toward nanotechnology in Europe and the United States"). All had comparable levels of science and technology, and each had a rating on a scale from religious to secular, based on earlier comparative research. The more secular nations found nanotechnology more morally acceptable; the more religious nations found it less acceptable. "Religiosity is the dominant predictor of moral acceptance of nanotechnology", wrote Dietram Scheufele and his team. "Public attitudes toward issues such as nanotechnology are increasingly driven by personal values and beliefs". Scientific knowledge about nanotechnology was distinctly less influential than religious belief.
These studies alert us that reactions to nanotechnology will be shaped by a landscape of values, beliefs, and concerns that were established in people's hearts long before most people heard of nanometers, buckyballs or nanobots. A related point is that the scientific knowledge in people's minds is a weak companion to the strong values and concerns in their hearts.
Because of those considerations, I assembled a collection of seven religious reactions to nanotechnology from a variety of faiths. Four are documents from religious organizations that deliver official institutional positions, namely: a major American Lutheran denomination; the Catholic Bishops Conferences of the European Community; a coalition of German Protestants; and, a Muslim think-tank in the United Arab Emirates. The other three are: a certain line of Jewish thought about technology; a group of Catholic and Protestant who oppose transhumanism; and, a pair of focus groups, one in England and the other in Arizona US.
Two common themes appear in those religious reactions.
According to the first, many religious persons worry that nanotechnology will contribute to re-defining human nature in ways that are amoral or dangerous. This is a sense that transhumanist values are the enemy of religious values, and that nanotechnology, especially nanomedicine, is implicated in a transhumanist agenda. For the second theme, religious persons worry that the control of nanotechnology by irresponsible entities will lead to adverse consequences like inequality or injustice.
In the seven cases I describe, the first theme is reflected, one way or another, in six of the cases. Some religious people identify transhumanism explicitly as the enemy of religious thought. In other cases human nature is discussed without invoking transhumanism per se. There are different ways to discuss threats to our understandings of human nature, and different degrees of intensity for worrying that nanotech will harm our understandings. But six of the seven religious reactions include a concern that nanotech will contribute to changing our sense of what it means to be human, and that this is clearly undesirable.
When religious people conflate nanotechnology with transhumanism, this raises a challenging pair of questions. First, does nanotechnology have a purpose, a meaning, a set of its own values, that are different from those of transhumanism? Second, should it have such a separation from transhumanism? I imagine that debates about this one will constitute a surrogate for the question of whether you are for or against transhumanism.
The second theme appears in one form or another in all seven cases. The question of who controls nanotechnology is part of a larger question of who controls science, or whether anyone controls science.
Note that neither theme is unique to nanotechnology. The question of whether nanotech is tantamount to transhumanism is part of a broader question of whether science should be able to change human nature. Both of these themes express a worry that science is beyond political or moral control.
Two final observations to think about: first, religious belief is likely to be influential in shaping public reactions to nanotechnology, and religious belief about nanotech can be thoughtful and provocative. Even so, secondly, religious reactions are still distinctly small in numbers compared with reactions expressed in secular voices. Religious and secular voices do not have to compete to see which can produce more commentaries on nanotechnology, but it is regrettable that most religious organizations have disregarded the moral and ethical issues involved with this family of sciences and technologies. Our colleague Jameson Wetmore is right when he says that it would be good for religious organizations to consider nanotech sooner rather than later.
At any rate, these seven case studies remind us that those who create new technologies can benefit by listening to the voices of thoughtful religious people.
By Chris Toumey. Chris is a cultural anthropologist in the University of South Carolina NanoCenter. For a pdf copy of "Seven Religious Reactions to Nanotechnology", write to the author:

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