Unitarian Universalism and Hinduism have much in common. Most centrally, we agree that “there is a unity at the core of religious diversity,” says the Unitarian Universalist Association’s web site.
“God can be experienced in many forms, with many faces, but underneath there is one ultimate reality. Like Hinduism, we affirm the personal search for spiritual truth, the idea that all things are connected, and a respect for other religious paths.”
At least partly for this reason, UUs are likely to find much that resonates in Robert Geraci’s Temples of Modernity: Nationalism, Hinduism, and Transhumanism in South Indian Science. Having published the book in 2018, Geraci recently shared its introduction on Academia.edu, which inspired me to read the rest. Reporting on five months of interviews with scientists and engineers in Bangalore, India’s high-tech crucible, Geraci introduces us to a culture that remarkably has found a way to harmonize religion and science, unlike the chasm that splits the two in the West.
Early in the book, Geraci points to the Futurama exhibit of the 1939 World’s Fair where visitors were “architecturally encouraged to ‘move progressively and quickly to toward the secular — that pure category left over once religion retreated to mountains of its atavistic past.'”
Defying this forecast, religion has not retreated, Geraci writes. It will never retreat because, as humans, we have an inborn need to create meaning.
Technology has taken the place of religion for many people, even as traditional religions remained.
“Science might offer no answers to the questions of human meaning, but technology often does. Technology is the locus of many human interests. And in technology, we see active efforts to make the world meaningful. It is in this sense that technology enhances the world even while, in another sense, technology is itself mysterious and incalculable. Technology operates according to principles that we know to be rational and calculable, but its worldly operations — its role in human lives — these are rarely calculable, sometimes irrational, but often profoundly meaningful to human beings.”
Whenever we’re impressed by some remarkable invention, we experience what Geraci describes as “technological enchantment.”
The Slinky gave me my first experience of this phenomenon. At around age seven, the commercial mesmerized me. When I finally got to hold that hefty steel coil, I was amazed, delighted, and, yes, enchanted.
Color television gave me the same sense of “wow.” So did my first experience these other innovations since the early 1960s:
- Etch a Sketch
- IBM Selectric
- Word Processing
- Computer Graphics
- World Wide Web
- EZ Pass
- Flat-Screen TV
Each was an unexpected demonstration of human ingenuity made possible by centuries of scientific advance.
“The more advanced our technologies become, the more mysterious are their outcomes and the more their production exceeds our capacity to understand them,” Geraci writes.
“Technological enchantments are always sources of meaning and value that continue doing the work of traditional religious practice by providing opportunities for community building, ethical reflection, experience of transcendence, and more.”
A Day to Honor Our Machines
Around the 12th century, Hindu warriors were so enchanted by the power of their weapons they invented a ritual to honor them. Then farmers started honoring their plows. Musicians started honoring their instruments. Over time, these rituals coalesced into the full-fledged festival known as Ayudha Puja — the “rite of implements” or the “worship of the machines.”
It has evolved into a moment, writes Geraci, “when scientists, engineers and everyday people allow science, technology and religion to overlap, to become a single practice.”
That’s a challenging fusion that Americans have difficulty achieving. As a culture, we define “secular” more rigidly than do Hindus. In the process, we fail to see in the fruits of our technologies the hand of a Creator that works in mysterious ways that are worthy of awe, wonder, and even “worship,” as religiously potent as that word may be.
Ayudha Puja this year falls on Tuesday, October 4. Let’s think about appropriate ways to observe it.