To many people, technology and religion are very different animals. Technology, after all, grows out of science and hard evidence; religion is based on faith. Yet in W. Kent Fuchs, dean of Cornell University’s college of engineering, the two are intertwined. In the mid-1980s, before completing his PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, Fuchs (pronounced “fox”) earned a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. While a professor at Illinois, he moonlighted as a minister. This unusual second job taught him that community-building and communication are just as important in the development of new technologies as they are to the health of religious congregations.
Now in his third year as Cornell’s engineering dean, Fuchs is taking the skills he honed in the pulpit into the technological arena. His facility as a communicator, for example, has helped him develop and garner support for an ambitious 10-year strategic plan that includes new research thrusts in biomedicine, sustainable energy, and complex systems. And Fuchs believes that Cornell’s 12 engineering departments should engage with society at large, just as a church must engage its surrounding community. Last November, he signed an agreement at Tsinghua University in Beijing that is among the first to let U.S. and Chinese universities share students and intellectual property. “My faith really makes me understand the importance of taking technology and making it of use and benefit to society,” he says. “Not just to improve the U.S. economy, but to promote global health, to bring up the standard of living worldwide.”
Fuchs says that he is able to bridge the worlds of technology and religion effectively in part because he believes they have common goals: improving society and transcending human frailty. Religion helped give birth to the information age through the printing and dissemination of sacred scriptures and other texts. Now, says Fuchs, information technology is repaying the favor, improving people’s understanding of world religions. Fuchs points out that advances in computing and digital communications have made religious texts available to larger audiences and have helped create new tools for analyzing languages in the Bible. Religious websites and chat rooms are exploding in popularity and are increasingly being used by churches for recruiting.
Of course, religious beliefs can also conflict with technological progress. “Technology is like religion,” Fuchs says. “It can be of enormous good to society, or it can be misused.” One possible example: the current debate over whether the U.S. government should fund research on embryonic stem cells. But on this issue, Fuchs sits squarely on the fence. Stem cells could potentially help society, he acknowledges, but there are “issues around unborn children and abortion.” He says he hasn’t confronted the problem yet in his work, and that he wants more information before he makes up his mind. “That debate is really healthy,” he says, “as we look at what’s really best for society and individuals.”
Fuchs believes, though, that scientists should try to align the technologies they develop with their faith. That’s especially important for biomedical fields like cloning that touch on issues of creation or immortality. Similar quandaries, albeit more speculative ones, arise in the information sciences. Take the idea, popularized by the futurist Ray Kurzweil, of downloading the contents of a person’s brain onto a computer to preserve thoughts and memories for eternity. Fuchs is skeptical about the prospects for that sort of digital afterlife. “I don’t believe we can emulate [personal immortality] with technology,” he says.
But Fuchs is optimistic about his work and his role in society, in part because he believes that there is a better life to come after our physical bodies expire. Will there be technology in the afterlife? “I certainly hope so,” he laughs. “I think there will even be colleges of engineering.”