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Feb 12 2012

How the Bible drives technology

There’s a fascinating story over at the Atlantic about the impact of the Bible on science and technology. And it’s not what you’d think.

Over the past several decades missionary groups like the Wycliffe Bible Translators have sometimes been among the first visitors to remote cultures to learn those cultures’ languages — and to do some pretty thorough (though often amateurish) ethnographic study: after all, you can’t translate the Bible into a language until you understand not just the linguistic vocabulary of a people but their cultural vocabulary too. (The whole discipline of anthropology has deep roots in Christian missions.) That this study is done for explicitly conversionist purposes makes the Wycliffe translators, and other Christians who do similar work, immensely controversial; but the bodies of ethnographic and linguistic knowledge they have amassed are remarkable.

The main focus of the article is about the latest development in this trend: Christian missionaries working to create Bible translations in people’s native languages, that are accessible via cell phone. In the process, they’re solving unique technical problems that mainstream cell phone apps never bother to tackle, due to the lack of a profitable market.

It’s quite a paradox. On the one hand, it shows that believers can do legitimate scientific and technological work when they put their mind to it. And yet, ironically, their success in such fields only highlights their failures when it comes to the message they’re working so hard to share. If they only thought more clearly about their own faith, they could save themselves a lot of work. And yet, if they failed to do this work, how much would we lose?

6 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    Heh, it reminds me of how the Mormons have amassed a tremendous genealogical archive in order to do their weird baptism for the dead thing. Think of all the problems we could solve if we could only convince a few million people that it’s a matter of grave theological import!

  2. 2
    E.A. Blair

    I read a newspaper story (in the Chicago Tribune, I think) many years ago* in which a Christian missionary who had been working among a native people in the Amazon basin lamented on how difficult it was to preach the bible to a people who had no concepts in their language for war, sin, murder or evil.

    The thought of someone corrupting such an innocent culture nearly brought me to tears. On the other hand, further contact with western-style Civilization will teach them all about those ideas eventually. While my linguistics degree inclines me to appreciate the work the religious translators have done in recording numerous language which have become extinct or are heading in that direction, I deplore their motives. At least the natives weren’t forced to give up their own languages.

    *This was pre-web. I have done many searches along the lines of “south america missionaries teaching bible to people without war” but have had no luck tracking down any references. I invite anyone with better search skills to give it a try and post any positive results here. I’d like to be able to cite this.

  3. 3
    Randomfactor

    Reminds me somewhat of the medical/surgical advances spurred by the research and development of Dr. Richard Gatling.

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    I really wouldn’t consider that to be driving technology very much. Correct character rendering is a good thing, but this is so narrow, and applies only to “smart” devices, which is even narrower. To say that the Bible drives technology is rather generic and expansive.

    The same was said of European movable type and printing, but that’s like saying monasteries preserved knowledge. The Bible and its worshipers helped destroy cultures and technologies and hide knowledge in the first place.

    The linguistics is kind of nice from an outside perspective, but the better way to get any culture’s written characters correctly implemented digitally would be to provide access to the necessary computing power for people in these cultures. (And an open platform would be best.) Instead you have this religious (or commercial) imperialism doing this for its own benefit, not the benefit of the peoples in the target cultures.

    1. 4.1
      Surgoshan

      I’m also not seeing much science being done here. Are they putting extra legs on things and then blowing them up?

  5. 5
    peicurmudgeon

    It’s not driving technology in any comparable degree that porn has. Besides, I don’t think religion has slowed the progress of engineering the same way it has some other pursuits.

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