Spiritual Technology: The Alphabet and the Rise of Monotheism

[This is the first essay I ever wrote at the college level. I was pressed for both time and length, and never got to fully explore certain aspects of Monotheistic religions and their relationships to the technological environment. But for a first foray into academic writing, I thought it was all right. I got an A, anyway.]

Spiritual Technology: The Alphabet and the Rise of Monotheism


Writing is the foundation of Western civilization. Indeed, the collection of institutions, attitudes and worldviews we think of as “civilized” are inseparable from the social and psychic changes our relationship with writing technologies have engendered. In nearly any context, “civilized” can be substituted for “literate”, with particular preference towards phonetic literacy. It is telling that even Morgan, in a 19th century taxonomy of human societies, listed use of the phonetic alphabet as the only difference between barbarism and civilization (Morgan 2004:63).

As a medium for the externalization and storage of thoughts, the written word is very useful, of course, and has allowed the literate West to preserve and exchange knowledge in ways not possible for nonliterate societies. The most profound effects of writing, however, have little to do with what is written; rather, the sensory changes which the written word exerts on human fields of perception are the true legacy of the Word.

Richard Leakey explains the processes which human technologies augment and act upon:

“The ability to act intelligently in the real world depends totally on the perception of that world. Yet the picture of the outside world you carry in your head is totally artificial. It is created by the mechanics of your brain, the information-collecting systems: eyes, ears, fingers, skin, nose – and memory. (1982:171)”

Each new technology is an extension of one or more human physical attributes or senses (Malinowski 1965:171). As a particular sense or faculty is amplified by technology, its information-gathering role is also magnified – in an environment which includes all previous technologies (McLuhan 1964:24). In effect this creates an entirely new environment, and human societies respond with new technologies in a kind of dialectical feedback loop.

“Any extension, whether of skin, hand or foot, affects the whole psychic and social network”, McLuhan says (1964:19), altering ratios of sensory involvement with our surroundings.  

Three thousand years of alphabet technology – a visual augmentation of the first technology, the spoken word (Leakey 1982:16, McLuhan 1964:83) – has deeply imbedded itself in our culture, giving the Western world a lopsided visual bias that must “see to believe”.

“As an amplification and extension of the visual function,” McLuhan declares, “the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of the other senses of sound and touch in any literate culture (1964:87).”

Religion is a reflection of the fears and hopes of both a society and its individual members. Joseph Campbell tells us that “dream is the personalized myth; myth the depersonalized dream” (1972:19). If that is so, the myths of a society will reflect the stresses of its particular technological amalgam.  

Religion, then, is a spiritual technology, a pressure valve through which we individually and collectively release the stress created by our changing sense ratios. I intend to show that monotheism, where it arose in the ancient world, reflects cultural reactions to the stresses of writing technology, and in particular the phonetic alphabet, as it was gradually adopted by previously oral and pictorial societies.

In an attempt to tie together so many loose threads, I feel it may be most instructive to apply a functionalist perspective to Marshall McLuhan’s concepts of media ecology. Malinowski’s theory of needs overlaps McLuhan in key areas. Humanity’s ability to respond to new environments is its greatest survival mechanism. Technology is both response and environment, and no cultural study is complete without an understanding of the dialectic between humans, their environment, and technological change.

I have drawn on a wide range of fields to support my argument, from history and economics to epidemiology and archaeology. In addition, I believe the myths of the faiths themselves are instructive in understanding the significance of writing’s impact on the thought processes of the oral peoples of the Middle East.

Part III: Theoretical Discussion & Literature Review

The first human technology, and arguably the one which sets us most distinctly apart from other primates, is our highly-evolved capability for language. The externalization of thought into symbols (primarily sounds) was the first technological revolution, and set the stage for every subsequent technological extension.  Linguists, following Noam Chomsky’s lead, have concluded that the human brain has evolved an innate capacity for language and grammar (Deacon 1997:103-104). That, combined with a highly developed social instinct (Leakey 1982:51-52), forms the biological foundation of all cultural endeavors. Essentially, the ability to communicate with each other, along with the desire to do so, was the flint and steel of cultural development.

Like any other life form, humans are biologically driven to extend their influence. We are able to extend the human form not only through genetic reproduction but through learned external media, to a degree unparalleled in the rest of the animal world. The wheel is an extension of the foot, the spear an extension of teeth, and so on.  The second axiom in Malinowski’s “theory of needs” appears to agree with this assessment:

“(E)very cultural achievement that implies the use of artifacts and symbolism is an instrumental enhancement of human anatomy and refers directly or indirectly to the satisfaction of a bodily need (1964:171).”

This “enhancement” of our faculties also numbs our sensory involvement with the environment, creating psychic and social stress as the human body is removed by degrees from direct experience (McLuhan 1964:98). The introduction of each new medium into a social system upsets the ecological or cultural equilibrium, not dissimilar to the introduction of a micro- or macroparasite into a host, and “tends to provoke compensatory changes throughout the systems so as to minimize overall upheaval (McNeill 1976:7).” Malinowski, too, notes the profound cultural changes that result from struggle for equilibrium:

Whether in the form of invention, or as an act of diffusion, a new technical device becomes incorporated into an already established system of behavior, and produces gradually a complete remolding of that institution (1964:41).”

So those technologies which provide a survival advantage to a society eventually become part of the cultural fabric, imbued with social and psychic significance. This constitutes a kind of symbiosis, one which preserves and propagates both the technology and its users. The adoption of agriculture, for example, fundamentally altered human interaction with the environment. The surplus of food from agriculture initiated an explosion in the numbers of agriculturalists, and an acceleration of technologies in an effort to cope with the lifestyle changes this wrought.

In humans, our survival instinct is complicated by contemplation of our own mortality. We watch our family members die, and as we grow up, we learn that we too, must grow old and die. Spirituality can be defined as an effort to dispel the stresses of the environment, of which inevitable death generally ranks high on the list. It is my view that spiritual technology comes out of a desire to communicate with, and thus curry favor with, the sources of environmental stresses.

“Prayer,” said 17th century poet George Herbert, “is reverse thunder.” What counts as “thunder”, then, is the particular mix of environmental stressors, which include climatic, biological, and social factors that populate the daily sensorium of a particular society. Each new technology soon becomes part of this pantheon of factors, reacting in a dialectical fashion to its environment and creating new stresses of its own.

In this context, the community plays a vital role in prayer. The social instinct allows the individual to identify himself with the group, giving him a permanence he could never achieve alone (Campbell 1973:383). Group rituals reinforce this common identity, channeling the psychic stresses of the environment into an external force, one made in the image and likeness of the group. Campbell affirms the role of religion as a technology for collective stress release:

“The whole society becomes invisible to itself as an imperishable living unit. Generations of individuals pass, like anonymous cells from a living body; but the sustaining, timeless form remains. By an enlargement of vision to embrace this super-individual, each discovers himself enhanced, enriched, supported, and magnified (1973:383).”

Nonliterate societies tend to have a holistic, all-encompassing worldview (Schlain 1993:150-151) which lends itself to animist religions, in which every part of the external world contains a life force with which the individual can interact (and thus, influence). A fluid, present-centered view of time implies a flexible pantheon of deities or powers which may be added or dropped as needed (Goody & Watt 1963:310-311). The act of writing, Goody and Watt say, creates a fixed sense of time and imbues the environment with a solidified permanence:

“The pastness of the past, then, depends on a historical sensibility which can hardly begin to operate without permanent written records (1963:311).”

Writing is an extension of not only the spoken word but of memory. Thus it amplifies the significance of what is written as events worthy of social memory. All else can be forgotten. For literate cultures, the universe begins and ends with the Word.


Tell him that we have fucking reprogrammed reality. Tell him that language is a virus and that religion is an operating system and that prayers are just so much fucking spam. Tell him that or I’ll fucking kill you.

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods

The first known writing systems appeared in the 4th millennium BC, among the nascent city-states of Mesopotamia (Leick 2001:5). The earliest versions of Sumerian writing consisted of simple wedge patterns on clay tablets, and arose out of a need to record the surpluses of animal and plant domestication (Innis 1950:30), a technology which was reshaping human behavior in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere. Surpluses of food meant permanent settlements, and walled city states built to defend the newfound wealth (McNeill 1976:32-33). Conflict arose as never before, and both work and war became realities. It is perhaps significant that Cain, a farmer, commits the Bible’s first murder.

Religious life reflected a utilitarian aim, as the priest-kings and their subordinates combined political, economic, and religious duties, as Innis shows:

“Lists, inventories, records, and accounts of temples and small city-states suggest the concern of the god as capitalist, landlord, and bank (1950:31).”

Babylon’s cuneiform marked the beginning of history, for it was the first attempt at a uniform written language. The tale of the Tower of Babel in Chapter 11 of Genesis regards such uniformity and control in secular hands with suspicion. No wonder then, that the jealous deity scattered the tower’s builders with a lapse in communication.

As the populations of the city states grew and specialization increased, pressure was exerted on cuneiform to express a broader range of ideas. Ideograms, such as wavy lines to represent water, began to be incorporated into a growing toolkit of symbols (Leick 2001:69). In Egypt as well, image-based writing slowly evolved from pure bookkeeping to express more complex spiritual concepts. This meant in many cases the gradual incorporation of signs that represented sounds (Innis 1950:26), though these were most likely mnemonic devices for oral learning (Leick 2001:69).

Religion in the city-states was usually an admixture of agricultural polytheism and state-sponsored monolatry, with one god-king reigning supreme over both the people and the pantheon. According to Max Weber, strong centralized kingships in the Fertile Crescent, who wielded the concentrated power necessary for large-scale irrigation works in arid agricultural environments, contributed to the view of a unitary deity with similarly concentrated power (Kalberg 1994:567-568).

However, the knowledge of writing was a closely guarded secret. It is telling that Thoth, the Egyptian god responsible for scribes and writing, came to be regarded as the god of magic by the 16th century B.C. (Innis 1950:22). The stratified nature of writing technology was inseparable from the stratified classes of bureaucrats in the Ancient world (Goody and Watt, 1963:314). It was preserved as a secret ritual, and was the key element in an incredibly conservative ruling class, which, like many of the writing styles of these ancient societies, remained virtually unchanged for centuries (Goody and Watt 1963:315). So at best, the elites of these pictorial societies were literate, while the masses beneath them retained their oral (and aural) sensibilities.

The conservative nature of non-phonetic writing (for which symbols only exist which are thought important enough to symbolize), say Goody and Watt, makes it likely that phonetic literacy would have taken root outside the boundaries of the great non-phonetic kingdoms (1963:315). So it is not surprising that the Phoenicians, Semitic traders on the Western and Northern frontiers of the Assyrian and Egyptian empires, respectively, would develop and spread the world’s first phonetic alphabet across the Mediterranean beginning around 1200 B.C.

The Phoenician abjad (an alphabet lacking vowels) could be adapted to any language with minimal effort. And it was; Goody and Watt call the alphabet “the most extreme example of cultural diffusion; all existing or recorded alphabets derive from Semitic syllabaries developed during the second millennium (1963:316).” The Phoenicians’ southern neighbors, the Hebrews, received the abjad as a promethean injunction and experienced a flowering of nascent nationalism, made possible in part by the decline of Egypt (Innis 1950:54), and perhaps by the unification of Yahweh and El into one being. The key to this common identity, Weber says, was the shift to monotheism inspired by the gift of writing:

“As a consequence of the covenant between Yahweh and the peoples of the twelve tribes of Israel and Judea, this mighty god could not be simply a functional, tribal, or local deity (Kalberg 1994:570).”

Weber claims that what set Hebrew religion apart was a “contractual relationship” between God and His clients, which “despite numerous analogues, is found nowhere else in such intensity (Kalberg 1994: 569).” Innis suggests that the Hebrew emphasis on the sacred nature of the word reflects a reaction against the Egyptian and Babylonian emphasis on architecture and sculpture. “The written letter replaced the image as an object of worship,” Innis says (1950:53).

In any case, stone tablets imply a certain permanence, of moral lessons that were locked in from generation to generation, literally “carved in stone”. It is no coincidence that the Jews are known as “the People of the Book”. Ian Young notes how often God is depicted as a writer:

This conception of God as the writer par excellence probably reflects the prestigious connection of writing with government, priesthood and nobility (1998:247-248).”

 The mental exercise of abstraction present in the Middle Eastern religions, namely the conception of one infinite deity paradoxically without physical form, is a ritualization of the same process necessary for reading. Phonetic literacy involves the reduction of the physical world first to a series of sounds, which is to say spoken language. From there, the sounds are further abstracted into discrete visual symbols. Now completely divorced from the physical world, these are arranged in ways that, with the proper training, reconstruct symbols representing the physical world. The commandments against worshipping other gods and graven images imply an obsession with abstracting reality to the highest degree possible.

Indeed, the Koran is another story about the power of words, even more so than the stories contained within. The basic premise of the Islamic holy book is that of a man chosen to be God’s personal stenographer. Whereas the Bible is seen by Jews and Christians as a collection of stories about God, the Koran is considered by Muslims to be directly dictated by God. The words themselves become objects of worship. Many Muslims consider copies of the Koran sacred, and proscribe strict guidelines for how to treat the books. Since Muslims share the Jewish injunction against idolatry, pictorial representations of Koranic verses are forbidden. Thus, the verses themselves are often written in lavish calligraphy, seemingly fetishizing the symbolic words in the Koran beyond their literal meaning.

The Arabic abjad is a descendant of the Aramaic script that was the lingua franca in the fading Assyrian Empire, a relic of the Arameans it conquered and scattered throughout its borders (Leick 2001:258-259). O. Hegyi explores the close dialectical relationship between Islam and Arabic, both of which were developed within a century of each other:

 “In the course of its spread, the Arabic alphabet – aided by conquest, commercial penetration, and the simultaneous propagation of Islam – became second only to the Latin alphabet in regard to territorial expansion (1979:262).” Hegyi takes pains to note that even in Islamic communities with radically different linguistic traditions, the Arabic alphabet is considered an integral part of the faith (1979:266).


There is little doubt in my mind that technologies exert tremendous influence on human behavior, most of it unseen. What is unclear is the degree to which new and old technologies are shaping us (and our older technologies). In an age when the morning paper contains ancient history, the effects of media are tightening around our necks like iPod headphones.

I must admit to a slight feeling of disappointment with the limitations of time and space as regard this paper. I feel as though I was just getting warmed up, when diarrhea of the word processor and a ticking clock foiled my carefully-laid plans for The Perfect Paper. In my historical discussion of the alphabet’s relationship with monotheism, I soon realized with dismay that if I wanted to trace the Greek contributions to the alphabet (namely, vowels) and spiritual technology (the rise of pure logic, Euclidean geometry, and the changes to the Greek pantheon which literacy brought), I would need several more pages than would be polite to turn in. And that’s not even mentioning the alphabet fetishization of the Christians (“In the beginning there was the Word…” and “I am the Alpha and the Omega; I am the beginning and the ending….”), complete with the fragmentation of the Church during the Reformation sparked by the printing press. And writing that much more wouldn’t be fair to my fingers. Or a beleaguered professor.

In the end, I may have picked too broad a topic, but I was wary of trying to take any particular religion out of the context of its historical and technological foundations. I just wanted to show monotheism as an accumulation of logical adaptations to the environment. This paper, like monotheism, seemed like a good idea at the time.

Still, I think I have laid out a theoretical framework with which I may confidently approach a society, its technological toolkit, and its religious tradition with some amount of understanding.

To review:

Human technologies come from the fusion of two of our basic human instincts; the capacity for language and our social instinct. Technologies augment the human form and each other, while changing on every level how we interact with the world and creating an entirely new environment. The struggle to maintain equilibrium in the face of this constant change has given rise to religion, which we can perhaps classify as a counter-medium, but is really a “spiritual technology” for collective stress release.

The problem with this theory of media ecology is that there are so many factors, so many technologies and fluid environmental variables, that it is difficult to conclusively prove anything. At a certain point you might as well be studying chaos theory. But some media, like the alphabet, exert such powerful effects that we can observe their distinct qualities in relief compared with non-alphabetic societies.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the theories of Professors McLuhan and Malinowski dovetailed to a degree that made this paper much easier to write. If nothing else, this indicates to me that media ecology is quite compatible with a utilitarian perspective.  


References Cited

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Campbell, Joseph

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Deacon, Terrence W. 

1997    The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Goody, Jack and Watt, Ian                                                                                                The Consequences of Literacy (in Literacy and Society) in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 5, No. 3. (Apr., 1963), pp. 304-345

Hegyi, O.                                                                                                                   Minority and Restricted Uses of the Arabic Alphabet: The Aljamiado Phenomenon in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 99, No. 2. (Apr. – Jun., 1979), pp. 262-269.

Kalberg, Stephen                                                                                                              Max Weber’s Analysis of the Rise of Monotheism: A Reconstruction in The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 45, No. 4. (Dec., 1994), pp. 563-583

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(1877) Ethnical Periods, in Anthropological theory: An Introductory History. (3rd Ed. 2004) R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, eds. p.63. New York: McGraw-Hill

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Israelite Literacy: Interpreting the Evidence: Part I in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 48, Fasc. 2. (Apr., 1998), pp. 239-253.