The Religion Machine: Professor Studies Intersection of Prayer and Technology

  • John Lardas Modern, an associate professor of religious studies, examines the relationship between prayer and technology. (Photo provided by John Lardas Modern)

John Lardas Modern, an associate professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College, is among 25 scholars awarded a Social Science Research Council grant in September to pursue new directions in the study of prayer. The two-year project is as part of the organization's program on "Religion and the Public Sphere." Modern, who studies the relationship between prayer and technology, is conducting research for a book, tentatively titled "The Religion Machine," about the "profound role" he says technology plays in the practice and study of prayer.

In this interview, the first in an occasional new F&M feature called "Three Questions," Modern describes his research, examining the ways in which individuals -- religious and secular -- use gadgets or instruments to measure their own prayer and the prayer of others, and how these constructions of prayer have changed over time.

Question: What are the central questions of your research and what do you hope to accomplish through this study?

Answer: This research project is bringing together philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists, and historians to talk about prayer, its significance and the ways in which it can address questions that are basic to humanistic inquiry. The project will explore such questions as: What is the human? What does it mean, if anything, to be human? What are the ethics involved in this line of questioning?  My particular interest, and what I hope to accomplish as a historian, is to explore practices in a contemporary world that possess both a religious and technological valence. One would be hard pressed to deny that technology has not had a profound effect upon piety. But what is this effect? What difference does the presence of our machines make? There is much lamenting that technology is turning us into robots. Others say it allows us to achieve our humanity -- or that we are already robots. An iPhone might make me feel more engaged and smarter. It can also be an addiction. Whatever roles machines play, they are intimate. They are definitive. They are also opaque.

In this study, I will examine the immense power that machines, gadgets, devices and networks have in our knowledge of the world, and what role technology plays in the human life. I will ask: What role does technology play in allowing individuals to be religious? How do we convince ourselves, and particularly others, that we are religious -- or not? And what role does technology play in allowing those decisions to be made?

Q: What technologies are you examining?

A: I will be conducting three case studies: 1) the Roman Catholic Rosary, 2) Scientology's Electropsychometer, or "E-meter," and 3) brain imaging machines as they relate to the discourse of cognitive science. I am particularly interested in how prayer gets mechanized and the particular pathways that enable prayer to be thought of as a means to an end. What does one hope to gain from prayer? How does one measure the results of prayer and how does it change over time? Hovering in the background of all these prayer machines is the question of what it means for us to have become so dependent on gadgets large and small.

I will be looking at the ways Catholics use the Rosary to cultivate piety within and how these beads have prompted change in the way Catholics practice and are invested in their faith. I also will examine how the use of the Rosary has changed since the Catholic Church released new guidelines through Vatican II, loosening institutional hierarchies and consolidating ecclesiastical authority. I also will examine the E-meter, a central measure within the religion of Scientology in which members cultivate their true selves. An early version of the E-meter has nobs and a needle and two cans that you hold onto. It creates a current that runs through you. You find your equilibrium and then you have a conversation. The goal is to find places within you that are blocked or congealed, made fuzzy from the traumas in this life or past lives. When triggered by certain words, these blocks create resistance in the current. The goal is to explore the mind, find the blocks, and to get rid of them. And finally, I will be visiting a number of cognitive science laboratories in order to get a first-hand look at how religion is studied and measured.

Q: How did you become interested in this topic?

A:  My interest in this book came through my investigation of Scientology. In my first book, "The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs" (2001) I ended with an image of William S. Burroughs and Scientology and his experience with the E-meter. Burroughs was someone who wrote a lot about the limits of self-expression. After completing my most recent book, "Secularism in Antebellum America" (2011), I returned to my Burroughs shelf. His 1960s fiction pushed me to think more about Scientology and the light it sheds upon the late 20th century.

I have an abiding interest in the notion of religious freedom and the idea that we are free to be religious as long as it does not impinge on others. Religion, according to this model, is supposed to be a private thing happening in our heads, and because it is private, we are and should be free to believe whatever we want. That's a nice principle, but that's not how people live their lives. That is not how belief comes about. There is a disconnect with what blueprints are in our history books and the way in which religion plays itself out in a world of passions and politics and MRI machines. Prayer, of course, is bound up in the notion of religious freedom. And so, too, are any number of machines.

I am interested in telling a story about prayer in the 20th century as it reflects upon the way in which we as human beings have come to relate to technology and how we have become interested in that relationship. This, of course, begs the question of what is technology in our lives. As when Karl Marx speaks of capitalism or when Emile Durkheim writes about social life, technology, too, demands the language of religion in order to be adequately addressed.

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