Wednesday, October 2, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What is the Real Worldview of Silicon Valley? The Theology of the Church of Techno-Optimism
A brilliant article appeared in recent days at The New York Times by Margaret O'Mara. The headline in the article, "The Church of Techno-Optimism." O'Mara is professor of history at the University of Washington at Seattle, and she's author of the new book entitled, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.
O'Mara starts by asking, "What are Silicon Valley's politics?" She raises an interesting question. She points to an historical reality, and that is that in 2016, "Democrats and Big Tech were tight allies." She pointed out, "Nearly all the money donated by tech employees to presidential candidates that year went to Hillary Clinton, who road-tested her economic message in speeches to crowds in Silicon Valley."
The occasion of the article in The New York Times is to argue that that was then and this is now. Long, long ago, it seems, back in the distant memory of 2016, Big Tech and the Democratic Party were basically the closest of friends. This was reflected, as is pointed out here, in the financial giving, overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in general, and for Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee in particular.
But this is now. O'Mara writes, "Four years later, nearly all the 2020 Democratic candidates assail these same companies as wealth-addled monopolists." There's really something going on here. The leadership of the Democratic Party has turned openly critical of Big Tech. We need to step back and ask the question, why? We're going to answer it slightly different than Margaret O'Mara does in this article.
For one thing, I want to point out the basic observation that Big Tech is big business. The Democratic Party and its leading representatives in the 2020 race have identified corporations in general big business as the problem. Often even describing business America, corporate America, as the enemy. That doesn't work if you're going to isolate out Big Tech, because right now Big Tech is the biggest of big business.
And it's not just Bernie Sanders, running openly as a Democratic Socialist, it's not just Elizabeth Warren. It's also candidates such as Pete Buttigieg, and even Andrew Yang. Yang is, as the article notes, himself a tech entrepreneur. And Pete Buttigieg was actually able to raise a good deal of original cash, even ongoingly for his campaign, from the leaders of Big Tech. But, you have Buttigieg being critical of Big Tech now, and even Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur himself, critical of the very business that made him rich.
So does this mean that conservatives and Republicans are now pleased with Big Tech? Well, that's not true either. As O'Mara writes, "Republicans believe tech is pushing a liberal agenda. The Trump White House and Capitol Hill lawmakers have declared that social media platforms are censoring conservative voices. A group of Republican senators seethed," as the article says, “about the labeling of abortion-related content on Facebook." Asking the question, "If this isn't bias, what is?"
Well, there's something big going on here, and it's even bigger than a liberal/conservative or Republican/Democratic divide can explain. And a hint of that is the headline of the article, "The Church of Techno-Optimism."
As O'Mara tries to argue, Silicon Valley does have a political stance, but it is neither liberal nor conservative, nor, she says, is it libertarian. Even though some of the earliest tech entrepreneurs were certainly influenced by Ayn Rand and her novels.
But she goes on to say, the religion, the church of techno-optimism, is the new reality. "The belief that technology and technologists are building the future and that the rest of the world, including government, needs to catch up." I think that in this case, Margaret O'Mara is not only right, I think she's more right than she herself knows.
I think she's right to refer to the church of techno-optimism, because it is an all-encompassing worldview, and it is a driving energy that can only be explained by a certain kind of spiritual argument and dynamic. This is a totalizing worldview. This techno-optimism is not only a new reality in our midst, it is a profoundly religious reality.
And, as you're looking at the article, this Church of Techno-Optimism article in The New York Times, it's clear that there is plenty of evidence that a religion or a church is exactly what this has become.
In the article, Professor O'Mara actually traces the development of the idea and the language of techno-optimism. She says that it first appears in the rhetoric of American politics after World War II. She cites, for example, the title of what she describes as a soaringly techno-optimistic 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, the chief science advisor to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. She refers to the language first appearing in that report.
And, of course, it does. Those of us familiar with that report understand that it was at the end of World War II, and it was in the middle of the 1950s in particular, that the American government turned to big hopes out of high technology, and investment in technology as well.
The big issue here was actually science, this was before you could talk about modern technology in the sense of digital technologies and supercomputing, much less social media. Back in the period after World War II, it was really all about science. The idea that science was the new way of knowing, that science would eventually explain virtually everything, and that scientists, including the proverbial idea of the scientist in the white coat in the laboratory, they were the high priests of a new religion that would deliver on its promises.
Remember that Professor O'Mara is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. She knows the west coast, and she knows this era of American history. She points to this vast government investment, much of it, we might note, through the Department of Defense, and says, "That wave of money transformed the Santa Clara Valley and turned Stanford University into an engineering powerhouse. Dwight Eisenhower filled the White House with advisers whom he called 'My scientists.' John Kennedy, announcing America's moon shot in 1962, declared that 'Man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.'"
That's a statement not only of scientific optimism, but of a certain kind of scientific determinism. Science is going to determine the future, the question is, who is going to determine the science? And, of course, it's presented as an all-encompassing worldview in which there is even an eschatology, this forward arc of progress and the happy new world that science and technology are going to deliver.
But Professor O'Mara points out that the mood shifted in the 1970s. Military spending ebbed, she notes, and government expertise fell out of favor. Even the science advisory council was disbanded by President Richard M. Nixon. But then she notes there was another big change, and it was largely unnoticed, or at least underrated at the time.
"And in the 1980s, a new generation of technologists came into their own. The men and women who built companies like Apple and Atari still believed in technology. Place a computer on every desk and enable networked communication, they believed, and you could remedy society's failures and injustices."
But here's where the article gets really interesting from a Christian worldview perspective. "But they often had radically different politics from the Republicans who led the Valley's first high-tech wave."
Later in the article, Professor O'Mara actually gets to an even deeper point. She talks about techno-optimism evolving alongside the two major parties. But the techno-optimists didn't like the small government conservatism of President George H.W. Bush and, here's what's really important, they rejected the social conservatism represented by the Republican Party. That's a huge part of what's going on here.
You have a new morality because you have an entirely new way of looking at the world. And, even as there is this massive investment in social and cultural liberalism coming from Silicon Valley, it is not tied to a coherent political philosophy. It is tied to an overarching religious commitment. This religion of techno-optimism.
One of the points that Professor O'Mara makes is that when you are looking at the big figures in Silicon Valley, many of them have spoken openly of their disdain for all political parties, for politics in general. And here's where we need to understand what's fundamentally happening. Those who are committed to this new religion of techno-optimism believe that technology, their technologies, are so revolutionary that technology will deliver on the promises that experimental science could not. And you also have the idea, indeed the religious faith, that this kind of technological progress will eventually solve all human problems. And the techno-optimists seem to believe if they can't be solved by technology, they just can't be solved.
You have a kind of almost Messianic fervor coming from some of these figures. The article cite Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg talking about, "bringing the world closer together" by Facebook. And Professor O'Mara notes that in doing so, he is simply repeating the kind of techno-optimism that had even pre-existed Mark Zuckerberg. "He is building on a decades-old belief system, supported by lawmakers of both parties, which holds that networked computers are tools of liberation, even," she notes, "if it's not entirely clear who is being liberated from what."
Those who are the adherents and prophets of the church of techno-optimism have a before and after understanding of history. Even as Christianity has a before and after understanding of history based upon the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just look at the calendar, before Christ, Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. But the techno-optimists are looking at before high technology and after high technology. That's their great divide. And they are absolutely certain that in this new technological age, technology is all that really matters, and technology is our only hope.
Their frustration, that is the frustrations of Silicon Valley and beyond, is that no political party seems to understand them, the poor things that they are. But as you notice, this is also, and this isn't in the New York Times article, these areas dominated by the workers and the leaders of the church of techno-optimism, Silicon Valley and beyond, they also turn out to be some of the most highly secular and non-Christian regions of the country as well. One religion displaces another.
Most of the readers of The New York Times looking at this article are likely to be most interested in the political dimensions, but Christians looking at the very same article and thinking about its argument understand our primary interest is the theological dimension of this article. No doubt, the prophets and the high priests of the church of techno-optimism don't even think they have a theology, but, let’s remember, we know that they do.
The Failure of the American Elites: American Values Wither
Next, I want to turn to another very important article, this one recently published at The Atlantic by Derek Thompson. The headline, "Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?" Thompson writes, "The idea of American exceptionalism has become so dubious that much of its modern usage is merely sarcastic. But when it comes to religion, Americans really are exceptional. No rich country," he says, "prays nearly as much as the United States, and no country that prays as much as the U.S. is nearly as rich."
He talks about America's unique synthesis of wealth and worship. That, in his words, "has puzzled international observers and foiled their grandest theories of a global secular takeover." What he's talking about there is the fact that the early prophets of secularization argue that as a nation became wealthier, among other aspects, it would become less religious. That has actually proved to be true throughout much of the world. Much of the European world in particular, also nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Not so much the United States, or at least not so much until now.
But then Thompson's writing his article to talk about now. He writes, "But in the early 1990s, the historical tether between American identity and faith snapped. Religious non-affiliation in the U.S. started to rise, and rise, and rise. By the early 2000s," he writes, "the share of Americans who said they didn't associate with any established religion, also known as 'nones' for no religious affiliation, had doubled. By the 2010s, this grab bag of atheists, agnostics, and spiritual dabblers had tripled in size."
Now, we have been tracing this very development — the breaking of what he calls the historical tether between American identity and faith. But it's not just faith, it is specifically the Christian faith that has, in his words, “snapped.”
But what makes Derek Thompson's article so interesting is the fact that he points back to a specific time, the early 1990s, when this snap happened. And America took a surprising and often unnoted turn. Why the 1990s? And what does that story mean?
He says, "This story begins with the rise of the religious right in the 1970s." He points out that by 1980 the Republican social platform was "a facsimile of conservative Christian views on sexuality, abortion, and school prayer."
He says, "This marriage between the religious and political right delivered Reagan, Bush, and countless state and local victories. But," he argues, "it disgusted," these are his words, "liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics."
Well, is that true or is that false? Certainly in some sense it's true. Even as you did have the rise of conservative Christianity as a potent political and cultural force in the 1970s, in the 1980s, and even as that movement delivered on many huge electoral victories, it turns out that underneath the politics, the culture was changing in fundamental ways that were apparently not reachable by, or even driven by, politics.
But the second point that Derek Thompson makes, going back to the 1990s, is the end of the Cold War. How would that explain an increase in secularization? As he says, "It may have felt unpatriotic to confess one's ambivalence toward God while the U.S. was locked in a geopolitical showdown with a godless Evil Empire. But,” he says, "in 1991, however, the Cold War ended." And with the end of the Cold War, there was no longer a patriotic duty to believe in God as a clear contrast to the godlessness of Soviet Atheism.
Now again, is that a good argument? Is that a capable or cogent argument? Well, it turns out, I think it is, at least when it comes to a kind of cultural Christianity. No doubt, there were many people who held to a certain kind of cultural Christianity because they associated it with American patriotism, with the need to hold a united front, an American front, defending liberty and freedom around the world, and to do so in such a way that was clearly presented as the antithesis of the godlessness, the official atheism of Soviet Communism, with all of its crushing of the human spirit.
But the correction I would want to make here is that I don't believe anyone who was a genuine believing Christian, with any kind of deep or substantial spiritual or theological commitment, was affected in any way by the end of the Cold War. This would refer, however, and biblically-minded, Gospel-minded Christians need to understand this, this would refer to and help to explain how so many who were merely culturally Christian, they fell away when the cultural pressure was against them, and when there was no patriotic necessity to at least act like and pretend that one was Christian.
But then you also had the argument that comes from Derek Thompson that the next geopolitical foe wasn't, however, a godless state. "It was a God-fearing, stateless movement: radical Islamic terrorism."
But there's an even deeper level that's addressed here, although briefly in this article. Derek Thompson cites Christian Smith, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, has done important work on these very changes. And Derek Thompson points to his work and goes on to make the argument, "Most important has been the dramatic changes in the American family. The past half century," he writes, "has dealt a series of body blows to American marriage. Divorce rates spiked in the ’70s through the ’90s, following the state-by-state spread of no-fault divorce laws. Just as divorce rates stabilized, the marriage rate started to plummet in the ’80s, due to both the decline of marriage within the working class and delayed marriage among college-educated couples."
In worldview analysis, there's a lot of material in this article. The first point is that the article even exists, as written by Derek Thompson and published at The Atlantic. It is really interesting that the cultural elites still want to understand what's gone on in America. And at least one of the pressing questions is, how did America all of a sudden become so secular?
But even as this article by Derek Thompson is important, a previous article that he had published also at The Atlantic just a few days earlier, also points to a fundamental reality we need to note. This article, published on September 5, 2019, has the headline, "Elite Failure Has Brought Americans to the Edge of an Existential Crisis." The subhead in the article, "The nuclear family, God, and national pride are a holy trinity of the American identity. What would happen," he asked, "if a generation gave up on all three?"
Now, the background to this article is the massive research that was published recently in The Wall Street Journal, I discussed it thoroughly on The Briefing, in which the worldview of millennials was defined as becoming increasingly secular, yes. Also less committed to patriotism and to the support of the American experiment, and less committed to the family, less inclined to expect to have children. So, no babies, no faith, no flag. Indeed, as Derek Thompson points out, that is a huge change in the millennial and so-called Z generations.
But it is really interesting to look not so much just at the article that was published at The Atlantic, but that headline that assigns the blame for this to elite failure. That's not actually a thesis that's played out as much I wish it had been in this article. It is indeed a very thoughtful article, both of these pieces by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic are.
But the point I want to make is that this wasn't an accident. When you have a headline here about elite failure that has brought Americans to the edge of an existential crisis, and he makes reference here to the background of the opioid crisis, hopelessness, especially at working class America, and all kinds of cultural meaningless that seems to be driven through just about every generation in the culture, a cultural crisis related to the millennials and generation Z, but he writes here about elite failure. The headline of the article, "Elite failure has brought Americans to the edge of this existential crisis."
Here's the point I want to make, it is not so thoroughly made in the article. This is not merely an elite failure. It's not just a failure of the elites, it is actually what has been produced by the elites getting what they have demanded, a more secular America, an America that is less focused on and far less committed to marriage and the family, an America that is far less religious, far less, yes, patriotic, and far less committed to the family, to marriage, and to having babies, and to raising them.
This isn't just an elite failure, it is that, it is actually the fruit of elite demands. The point made in the headline is that the elites have failed the nation. I wholeheartedly agree with that. But if you're looking at the two words “elite failure,” you need to understand that the elites haven't failed to do what they wanted to do, it is just the fact that they have succeeded, and in so doing, have failed the nation.
The Transgender Revolution Marches On: Gender Confusion on the Rugby Field and in Celebrity Culture
But finally, I don't think there's any greater and more tragic illustration of this elite failure than the transgender revolution. Nicholas Hellen, social affairs editor for The Sunday Times in London, published an article with the headline, "Two strong trans players in women's rugby are driving referees away."
Hellen writes, "Rugby referees are quitting the women's amateur game because they fear rules allowing transgender women to play will lead to serious injuries. Referees," he continues, "say they have been warned not to challenge bearded or heavily muscled players appearing for women's teams."
A color photograph with the article shows one of these amateur women's rugby teams, but kneeling before the rest of the players is an individual identified as, "Transgender player, Verity Smith, with the Rotherham ladies." But Verity Smith in no way looks like a biological female, and actually is presented in the article with a very, very full beard.
But at this point, we simply have to step back and recognize why the rugby referees are being driven from the game. It is because it's no longer really a game. It's not a game or a sport of amateur women's rugby, it's actually now just a free for all, and that has even made the headline news in The Times of London.
It also points out, by the way, that school age boys and girls of a certain age are not allowed to play amongst or against each other because it is considered to be physically unsafe for females. Why did the rules change all the sudden when they grow up and become adults?
Well, the reality is, there are even more fundamental rules, and those rules are established by the Creator who made us male and female, and the kind of picture that appears in this article about the likely demise of women's rugby, is just a sign of the fact that a lot more is going to die in our society because of this revolution than rugby.
But then, just yesterday in The Daily Telegraph in London, there ran another article that explains the elite part of elite failure. The headline, "Dame Helen: Sexuality Isn't Black and White." The Dame Helen in this case is Dame Helen Mirren, the actress. And Jessica Carpani reports, "There is no such thing as binary sexuality, Dame Helen Mirren has said, adding that trans women are women."
And let's just stop for a moment. We're talking about a woman who is immediately identified as, "The Academy Award winning British actress." She's starring in the new series, Catherine the Great. And she's identified by her expertise as an actress, but she's quoted as if she has some expertise in human sexuality and gender, sex, what it means to be male and female. Instead, the actress, who after all has the authority of winning an Academy Award, said that everyone is a "wonderful mix of male and female."
But she went on to say even more, "I came to the conclusion an awfully long time ago that there is black and there is white, and we're all somewhere in the middle in a wonderful mix of male and female. There is no such thing as binary sexuality, when you're male or female, I don't believe that at all." You'll notice something very clever here, she says that she came to this conclusion a long time ago. Just to indicate she was on the right side of history before anyone else knew what the right side was.
But she also points out that if a person claims to be a woman, they're a woman. And, in one of the oddest paragraphs, "Dame Helen added that she was not a trans exclusionary radical feminist. Instead, she said accepts that trans women are women."
So, just deal with it. Here you have an Academy Award winning actress who is going to tell you what it means to be male and female, and that actually there is no gender binary, and that everyone is some kind of wonderful mix of male and female.
And she says this, not even with the authority of the church of techno-optimism or modern science. She says this because evidently a celebrity actress is considered an authority on matters of sexuality and gender. And, the sad thing is, in our society such an individual truly is. That's because we are such a confused people and we are confused about authority and expertise. And we're horribly morally confused as a society, so confused that when Dame Helen Mirren makes a statement like this, it makes headline news and everyone is expected to understand her expertise and authority and get in line, no matter how insane and irrational her statements are.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
In these confusing times, it's all the more clear why I am committed to the Christian worldview education that we offer at Boyce College, the undergraduate college of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And again, I want to invite you, or someone you may know, to attend Preview Day on Friday, October 11th.
You'll have the opportunity to tour the campus, meet our nationally ranked faculty, and learn about our 19 different academic programs. We'll provide hotel lodging for those who attend. Just register online at www.boycecollege.com/visit. Listeners to The Briefing can register for free by using the code: “TheBriefing.”
Again, you can attend Boyce College's Preview Day on October 11th at no cost by registering at www.boycecollege.com/visit, and using the code: “TheBriefing.”
I'll hope to see you there.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from London, England, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.