Secularization, technology and computers 
by Svein Sando, B.D. and B.S.
The German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985)
tries to use gnosticism as a way to understand secularization. An
important part of modern secularized society is technology. In
what way can Voegelin's view help us to understand relations
between technology and gnosticism, and thus between technology
The classical gnosticism
Gnosticism in its classical form, is a "system of cosmic
redemption" . The created world is "a prison
from which there is no escape, unless the liberating act of the
transcendent God and his helpers opens up a way on which man (...
the divine spark) can escape." The world is
evil and is often said to be created by an evil God  , the Demiurg. He is not the same as the
transcendent God that sends us helpers and redeemers, who can
guide us to the secret knowledge that can free our spirit from
our bodily prison. In opposition to the Christian 'salvation by
faith', gnosticism has 'salvation by knowledge (gnosis)'. Since the creator is both evil and has not sent
the redeemer, the Christian belief in bodily resurrection is
denied in gnosticism. Dualism is thus an
important element of gnosticism: good vs. evil, light vs.
darkness, soul/spirit vs. body:
"My mind which was in my body snatched me away from my race.
It took me up to the top of the world, which is close to the
light that shone upon the whole area there. I saw no earthly
likeness, but there was light. And my mind separated from the
body of darkness as though in sleep". 
Eric Voegelin's view on gnosticism and secularization
Voegelin's interpretation of the modernity as a Gnostic
overcoming of the too ambitious Christian project of faith in the
yet unseen world to come.
He seems to argue along following lines:
A linear view of history begs the question about the meaning
The early Christianity challenged the antiquity by abolishing
the cyclic view of history and replacing it with a linear view.
This raised the question about the meaning of history. The
Christian answer is that God will make a new world, populated by
those who are saved into this new world through faith in Jesus
Christ. The disciples of Jesus expected this (the parousia) to
happen in their time of living (Acta.1.11).
Faith is a too uncertain project for most people
When faith is the core of salvation, then uncertainty, at
least psychologically viewed, will became a major challenge to
the believers  (Hebr.11.1). In a society
where Christianity is the only option, there will be at least
some people who will judge this faith-project as too ambitious.
Hence, ways of overcoming this uncertainty will be welcomed.
Gnosticism offers knowledge instead of faith
Gnosticism is one such way of replacing faith with knowledge.
Historically it has probably existed alongside with Christianity
all the time. There are a lot of points were Christianity and
gnosticism coincide, or that some think they may coincide. There
were made several attempts to merge Christianity and gnosticism,
but the majority of the leaders in early church objected
successfully to this mixture.
Augustine de-divinized society by means of the
The biblical canon consists of some scriptures (e.g. the
Revelation) that may be interpreted in support for a this-worldly
realm reigned by God, the so called millennium (Rev.20). This
was, however, by some influential church fathers (e.g. Augustine)
condemned as heresy. The parousia was put into some distant
future. The Incarnation was used to de-divinize the society in
that respect that the only divine "points" in this world was
Christ's pneumatic presence in the church. 
Joachim of Flora re-divinized society with Trinitarian
This Augustinian view seemed to dominate until the thirteenth
century, when Joachim of Flora used Trinity to make a symbolism
by which he could start re-divinization of the society. His
concept of the three historical ages has governed "the
self-interpretation of modern political society to this day." 
Re-divinization is a way to give profane history a
Joachim's system is a way of finding the meaning of the
history of a strongly growing Western civilization. A profane
history has according to Augustine no direction and meaning at
all. "It is waiting for the end ... of an age that grows old."  Re-divinization is a way to cope with this
problem. If human society shall play a positive part in a divine
setting, then one can speak about some meaning in what happens.
It is aiming at some divine goal. Voegelin makes a point of the
fact that these early attempts to re-divinize society -
immanentization of meaning11 - had some positive meaning because
the connection with Christianity was intact.
Re-divinization and immanentization without God destroys the
meaning of history
As this process of immanentization of society continues into
the renaissance and down to the enlightenment, the link to
Christianity became weaker. When God vanished, the meaning of
history was lost at the same time, Voegelin argues. When the future is unknown, then the goal is lost,
and any talking about meaning of history in nonsense. Why people
nevertheless continue to speak about the meaning of history, has
to do with a strong wish to overcome the uncertainty of the faith
 , as mentioned above.
Secularization is Gnostic immanentization from enlightenment
and to this day
Voegelin uses the word "secularization" of the second phase of
immanentization that started with the enlightenment. At this
stage, God has left all his divine attributes to human being, and
He himself remains unreachable in his transcendence. Later, God
is not only unreachable; he is dead. We have murdered him
(Nietzsche)  . The
Christian eschaton is replaced with a search for a this-worldly
perfect society, like the Marxist's utopia or Hitler's Dritte
Scientism and positivism is the strongest Gnostic movements
Comte's positivism is also considered as a Gnostic immanent
salvation. Positivism matches scientism and
the technology that (we think) controls the environment, the
standard of living etc. Scientism is
regarded as "one of the strongest Gnostic movements in Western
Six characteristics of the Gnostic attitude 
Voegelin gives six checkpoints to recognize Gnostic
- Dissatisfaction with present situation.
- The reason for the dissatisfaction "is to be found in the
wickedness of the worl"".
- "Salvation from the evil of the world is possible."
- The change to a better world must be a historical
- Man's own effort makes this change possible.
- The Gnostic knowledge will come out with "a formula for self
and world salvation."
Comments on Voegelin's gnosticism
Voegelin's six characteristics of modern gnosticism is very
wide. There is a question if not most attitudes in Western
society that are not founded in Christianity (or some other
transcendental world view) are caught up in this strainer. On the
other hand, that is probably exactly his point. To call this
gnosticism may, however, be a bit misleading, since the classical
gnosticism in many respects is hostile to the created world. This
world is wicked, and we should be delivered from it. This original gnosticism is transcendental, but
the modern Voegelian gnosticism is immanent. If this modern
attitude deserves the name gnosticism, it is a secularized form
of gnosticism since it has lost its connection with the
transcendence. Voegelin, however, makes it quite clear that
gnosticism has changed during the centuries. He claims that there
is a continuity from the gnosticism in the antiquity to the
present one  .
Technology and gnosticism
Technology as detachment from nature
A lot of technology can be viewed upon as man's way of
conquering nature or making himself less dependent of nature. Two
examples: Building houses can be looked upon as a way of
controlling the weather in a limited space. After the opening of
the mountainous Norwegian Bergen Railway in 1909, travelers were
less dependent of time of the year and climatic variations (i.e.
nature), than they were by earlier means of transportation
between Oslo and Bergen. 
From a classical Gnostic position, where this created world is
an enemy, the contemporary growth of nature-detaching and
nature-overcoming technology might at first hand be considered at
least as a step in the right direction. We seem to gain
increasing control over our own situation. The human mankind
takes part in its own salvation from the bonds of nature by
collection of knowledge. On the other hand, even if we by
technology increase the detachment from nature, we remain nature
ourselves. The salvation through technology is thus bound to
fail, even from a Gnostic position.
Can Voegelin's model be used on technology?
Voegelin's main interest in looking for gnosticism in modern
society, is to understand political movements. When we try to extend it into an understanding of
technology, we think this is workable of two reasons. First,
because Voegelin himself mentions scientism and technology as an
important Gnostic movement (see above). Second, because modern
society and politics are strongly shaped (determined?) by technology.
Technology and science as gnosticism
As said earlier, most modern attitudes match this Voegelian
concept of modern gnosticism. So does also technology, or rather,
men's attitude towards technology. Most technologies are
developed in order to make the daily life a little less hard. In
this respect it matches the Gnostic frustration over things in
this world (checkpoint #1). Technology (e.g. medical science) is
often looked upon as a way to "repair" malfunctions in nature
(checkpoint #2). Scientism combined with technology (a very
common combination) will seek to find technological solutions to
the evil in this world  (checkpoint #3).
Science and technology do often work under a long horizon of
time. A lot of people think that science and technology someday
will solve the problems of today (checkpoint #4). Technology is
completely man-driven. Any transcendental input or cause has been
excluded since the time of Laplace 
(checkpoint #5). The purpose of most(?) technologies is knowledge
and means to overcome problems or tasks in the daily life in this
world. For people without a transcendent eschaton, this may be
called "a formula for self and world salvation" (checkpoint #6).
We have thus shown that technology can fit into Voegelin's
characteristics for modern gnosticism.
What does this tell us about technology and secularization?
From the above checkpoints, it seems obvious that technology can
serve as means for secularization. The very success of technology
the last two centuries make people think that we are about to
build a perfect society. On the other hand, the dark sides of
technology have been a source for great distrust in the future.
The traditional solution (or hope) to this problem, is to treat
technological problems with more technology.
These, and other, problems within the modern positivist-like
society, have brought a lot of people of the Western societies to
seek solutions in revitalization of spirituality. A major part of
this movement does not see the Christianity as an answer to the
problems, at least not in the traditional forms within the
established churches. From our point of view, it is interesting
to notice that a return to classical gnosticism or similar
sources, is a major part of this new spirituality, this "new
age". In Voegelin's view, this way of
handling the problem will not work, since this is treating
gnosticism with gnosticism.
It is also interesting to see that a part of this New Age
movement tries to combine natural science with the new Gnostic
like spirituality. The physicist Fritjof Capra's book "The Tao of
Physics" from 1975 was a best-seller who promoted such ideas. Even if the New Age movement is in
opposition to the Western technical-materialized way of living
and thinking, it finds it possible to take advantage of the very
scientific foundation of the modern society. If this is either
pure opportunism in order to gain disciples among science
admirers, a misinterpretation of science, or there really exists
a common core (a Gnostic one?), is beyond the scope of this
essay. Most physicist however, seem to object to this link
between nuclear science and mysticism. In
search for Gnostic elements in technology, we now turn to
Technology as detachment from nature is very visible in
computer technology. This is seen in at least two respects.
Computer programming is beyond nature
Computer programming is done on a nature-bound platform,
namely the technology of electronics. Once this platform is
working, the rest is completely detached from nature. The rule
for making a workable program is solely guided by logic. There
are in principle no unknown areas, as in other technology dealing
with nature. There are no natural laws yet to unveil. Programming
is beyond the natural sciences. The rules are made by those
programmers who has made the compilers 
Perhaps just because programming is beyond nature, which
normally makes things more or less difficult for us, it is
possible in a relatively short time to make programs that perform
difficult, useful, interesting, timesaving or amusing tasks. A
skilled programmer can nearly act god.
This fits well with the Gnostic concept in both Voegelin's
secularized version (knowledge-heavy and self-made and "godded
man"  ) and the classical gnosticism who is
hostile to nature. This is hardly looked upon as salvation, but
in effect, a lot of people have computing as something close to a
complete lifestyle. Had it not been for the (sad?) fact that the
"computist" have to take some actions on behalf of his body, he
had probably stayed in front of his computer 24 hours a day.
Cyberspace as the mind's detachment from body
The world wide network of computers makes it possible for
people everywhere to communicate with each other. This cyberspace
is a space for minds only. You can communicate your thoughts and
ideas, but not your body. Even if you can communicate very
effectively over vast distances on line, the communication lacks
the visual language of your body. You can choose to be frank and
open, but you are concealed at the same time. The Gnostic
detachment from the body is made possible through cyberspace.
The freelance philosopher Michael Heim 
sees this in view of Leibnitz's postulation about reality as a
network of minds: "The [leibnitzian] mind / body split not longer
seems abstract but erupts in the ergonomics of backaches and in
the irresponsible flames of online chat."
Conclusion and outlook
So far, we have seen that science and technology are used as
means of secularization and even as means of Gnostic return to
non-Christian spirituality. This begs the following questions: Is
all technology Gnostic? If we will fight secularization, should
we then fight technology as well? Is modern technology
unthinkable without a Gnostic basis or core?
Exhaustive answers to these big questions are not possible in
this short essay. Some hints in which direction an answer could
be given, will be given to the first question, if all technology
With regard to my view on technology as detachment from
nature, there are of course examples of technology that should
not be regarded as detachment from or control over nature.
Instruments used in scientific research may as well serve the
purpose of achieving a better understanding of nature. Knowledge
about nature may of course in the next course be used to control
nature, but may as well be used to admire nature or even to honor
the transcendent Creator of the nature. In this respect,
technology does not at all serve gnosticism.
But even if a technology is detachment from or control over
nature, is it Gnostic? Isn't technology in itself rather neutral?
To answer this question, we must be able to judge a technology
from an ethical point of view. We have to ask questions about
intention and effect; about values of the designers, the
manufacturers and the users, just to mention some elements such
an evaluation of a specific technology ought to content.
Take for example the purpose of the users of two technologies.
Why do we build houses? To survive in a harsh nature (as in
Norway) or to build a memorial over human glory and
self-management (as the tower of Babel in Gen.11)? Why do we use
the Internet? To get information in a quick way that we otherwise
would have spent much more effort to get, or as a unresponsible
flight into an "as-if community"  ?
In his essay "Do artifacts have politics "  , Langdon Winner gives an example about some
bridges near New York which with purpose were built so low, that
busses for public transportation could not pass. The reason was
to keep out people that could not afford their own cars. In this
example we see that the technology of bridgebuilding, was used to
make artifacts that during their lifetime promoted some specific,
and in this case controversial, values. Even artifacts are not
always (ever?) neutral.
Some technologies may perhaps be judged as more "Gnostic" than
others in its ability to fulfill Gnostic characteristics.
Gene-technology may be an example of this. It can be used both to
"repair" defects in a malfunctioning nature, and it can be used
to perfect or create new organic species in a god-like manner.
That this self-salvation activity is Gnostic, is however not
obvious. One can defend this from a Christian point of view as
well. The position of human beings as created in Gods image and
as a ruler over the earth (Gen.1.27-28) and made little lower
that God (Ps.8.6), gives support to a view of human beings as
both able to and allowed to take part in creating themselves.
This however, demands a positive view of the matter and nature,
and is far away from a Gnostic world-escape and should also be
far away from human hybris. This positive Christian view of
nature is however not always obvious within Christianity. There
is a lot of superspirituality that are almost Gnostic in its
hostility to the created world. They confuse the "world" as a
theological entity that should be forsaken, with the "world" as
God's creation. They also seem to forget that the Christian
eschaton contains a materialized new world 
and the waiting for a Christ in flesh  to return. This
Gnostic tendency in parts if Christianity is hardly the reason
for secularization, but it may have contributed to it.
Does Voegelin contribute to the understanding of technology
and secularization? If he is right in his description of gnostic
charachteristics in modernity, then we know what to look for when
judging a technology. The difficulty of determining Gnostic-like
elements as genuine gnosticism is however demonstrated in the
- 0 This essay was written to a course in
"Religion, Secularization and Ethics" held in Trondheim
16-21.okt.1995 by The Ethics Program in Norwegian Research
Council. It was commented by Ellis Sandoz, Prof.of Political
Science, Louisiana State University, and rated as "satisfactory",
but not "entirely successful". He argues among other things that
the six-point checklist "cannot carry the weight of proof it is
called upon to bear."
- 1 So called by Jaroslav Pelikan in The
Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) Vol.1 of The
Christian Tradition. A History of the Development of Docrtine.
The University of Chicao Press 1971, ISBN 0-226-65370-6,
- 2 Kurt Rudoph: Gnosis. 1977 GDR; Engl. transl.
1983 by T.&T.Clark Limited, Edinburgh, ISBN 0-567-09332-8,
- 3 e.g. Irenaeus: Adversus Haereses.
- 4 Rudolph p.56
- 5 See e.g. Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem:
I.24.3: "carne deperditos, quae apud illum non resurgit"
- 6 "The Paraphrase of Shem": VII.1.1, in The
Nag Hammadi Library, Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco,
1981, ISBN 0-06-066933-0, p.309
- 7 Eric Voegelin: The New Science of Politics.
The Univesity of Chicago Press, 1952 (quoted ed. 1987) p.122
- 8 ibid. p.109
- 9 ibid. p.111
- 10 ibid. p.118
- 11 ibid. p.119
- 12 ibid. p.120
- 13 ibid. p.122
- 14 ibid. p.131
- 15 ibid. p.113
- 16 ibid. p.130
- 17 ibid. p.128-129.
- 18 ibid. p.127
- 19 Eric Voegelin Science, Politics and
Gnosticism, Regnery Gateway, Whashington D.C. 1968, pp.86-88
- 20 Cfr. the quotation from The Paraphrase of
Shem in the beginning of this essay.
- 21 Voegelin (1952) p.126.
- 22 About 100 km of the Bergen line is
situated above the tree level. Before 1909, surface travel across
the mountains separating western and eastern Norway was only
possible during the summer time.
- 23 See e.g. Voegelin (1968), p.83
- 24 To the question about technological
determinism, se e.g. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (ed.): Does
Technology Drive History? The Dilemma og Technological
Determinism. MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1994.
- 25 Cfr. Eric Voegelin: "The Origins of
Scientism" in Social Resarch, Dec. 1948. Vol.15 No.4, p.487: "...
science becomes an idol that will magically cure the evils of
existence and transform the nature of man."
- 26 Cfr. his famous remark to Napoleon about
God: "Je n'ai pas besoin de cet hypotèse".
- 27 E.Voegelin (1952) op.cit. p.112. It may
be a coincidence, but it is interesting that Voegelin uses the
phrase "new age" allready in 1952.
- 28 For norwegian readers, cfr. my article
"Fysikken og New Age - et kunstig ekteskap" ("The Physics and New
Age - an artificial marriage?") in Credo - magasin for tro og
tanke. No.8 1989, Credo Forlag, Oslo, 1989, pp.9-13.
- 29 For norwegian readers, cfr. Kristoffer
Gjøtterud: "Kan New Age trekke veksler på et
paradigmeskifte i moderne fysikk?" (Can New Age get arguments
from the change of paradigm in modern physics?) in Mellom
kvanter og guruer. Credo Forlag, Oslo, 1990, pp.78-96.
Gjøtterud is teaching nuclear physics at the University of
- 30 A program that translates english-like
sentences to workable computer code.
- 31 Voegelin (1952) op.cit. p.125
- 32 M.Heim: "The Nerd in the Noosphere" in
Computer-Mediated communication Magazine. Vol 2, No. 1, Jan. 1,
1995, p.3; Found on Internet:
- 33 Michael Heim, op.cit.
- 34 in Daedalus, 109 / 1980, pp.121-136
- 35 Rev.21-22
- 36 cfr. e.g. Acta 1.11, Luke 24.39 and the
whole doctrine of the incarnation of Christ.
This article is shown 18006 times