Beyond Secularist Supersessionism: Risk, Religion and Technology
Keywords:Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, risk, Martin Luther, Blaise Pascal, John Wesley
AbstractInfluential sociologists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens are well known for contrasting a ‘pre-modern’ surrender to divine fate, a ‘modern’ will to control, and a ‘late-modern’ risk-awareness. This grand narrative, however, is both simplistic and misleading. For risks are often hybrids of natural threats and cultural choices. Accordingly, late-modern societies continue to concern themselves with external dangers (such as tsunamis) while relying on technological assistance for coping with the subsequent crises; both ‘premodern’ and ‘modern’ approaches to risks are with us today. Moreover, Beck and Giddens fail to see that self-reflexive religions continue to nourish a risk-willingness among citizens in hypercomplex societies. Risk-awareness in fact emerged in the horizon of Renaissance lifestyles and Reformation theology. As soon as the religious securities offered by law and church regulations were abandoned, ‘trust’ in face of uncertain futures became the new central value within the religious system. In early modernity, salvation was understood as the ‘attunement’ of human freedom to a divine providence that itself was perceived as a source of contingency. The article thus points to some of the religious resources for risk-awareness in the theologies of Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Blaise Pascal. In a more constructive vein, it is argued that risks tend to cross the boundaries between natural conditions and technological interventions. Acknowledging this hybridity of risks, it is argued that technological risk assessments should take into account the qualitative features of risks. For, after all, the question, what a risk is, cannot be separated from the question, for whom the risk constitutes a serious threat.
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