Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, Ecotheology 11.2 June 2006

Beyond Secularist Supersessionism: Risk, Religion and Technology

Niels Henrik Gregersen
Issued Date: 24 Feb 2007


Influential 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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DOI: 10.1558/ecot.2006.11.2.137


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