Deus Ex Machina: The Substitute gods of Secularism

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Voltaire famously observed that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

In the letter written in verse Épître à l’Auteur du Livre des Trois Imposteurs, Voltaire addresses the secularist who desires to abolish God:

But you, faulty logician, whose sad foolishness,
Dares to reassure them in the path of crime,
What fruit do you expect to reap from your fine arguments?
Will your children be more obedient to your voice?
Your friends, at time of need, more useful and reliable?
Your wife more honest? And your new renter,
For not believing in God, will he pay you better?
Alas! let’s leave intact human belief in fear and hope.

In these pithy and energetic lines, Voltaire argues that an absence of faith in God does nothing to enhance the moral quality of either society or the individual relationships that make it up. To the contrary. Voltaire claims that the moral condition of society would decay. Without hesitation he lays at the feet of the secularist (the “faulty logician”) the moral culpability for the disintegration of familial harmony, fiscal honesty, and even spousal fidelity. Any man who desires to rid the masses of faith in God, implies Voltaire, is essentially encouraging them down a path of crime, both petty and criminal.

Voltaire was, of course, a deist, not an outright atheist despite the New Atheists often seeking to claim him as one of their own. His views, therefore, are typical of the popular deism of his time. Deists saw value of faith primarily in its the utilitarian value, and this attitude is certainly reflected in Voltaire’s epistle.

Over and over, Voltaire argues that with no God to obey, and thus no inward conscience to speak to a man about his duties toward others, no matter how bad the man might be now, he will be all the worse for God’s absence. Widespread belief in God, whomever that God might be (deists tended to be more agnostic on that score; Voltaire himself admired Hinduism), must be regarded as a social good by the mere virtue that faith in God serves to elevate man’s conduct.

He goes on to argue:

My lodging is filled with lizards and rats;
But the architect exists, and anyone who denies it,
Is touched with madness under the guise of wisdom.
Consult Zoroaster, and Minos, and Solon,
And the martyr Socrates, and the great Cicero:
They all adored a master, a judge, a father.
This sublime system is necessary to man.
It is the sacred tie that binds society,
The first foundation of holy equity,
The bridle to the wicked, the hope of the just.

The national fabric (and even religions themselves) may be pockmarked with rogues and evildoers – the “lizards and rats” – but the Architect of the system exists nonetheless. Voltaire points out that the greatest thinkers, most significant reformers, and the best legislators of history each recognised the importance a “sublime system” to forward the enlightenment of society. Cicero and the others would have taken extreme umbrage with the New Atheists who argue that religion darkens society.

God is necessary, says Voltaire, because faith in him accomplishes two important tasks. First, it serves to reign in wickedness, and secondly, it serves to provide courage and motivation to those who want justice to prevail. Faith in God has driven the most profound reforms in history, from Wilberforce’s emancipation of slaves in the British Empire, to Amy Carmichael’s struggle against child temple prostitution in India, to the prosecution of war criminals following the Second World War. Most of the greatest charities have been founded by principled, deeply religious people. Thus, faith in God is doubly positive for society.

The first task – putting a brake on criminality – is self-evidently worthwhile and good, because it results in less evil. The second task of faith is not as obvious, but just as vital. Indeed, it may even be more vital than the first. People need reasons to believe in justice; they need to have grounds for hope so that they can transform their moral environment for the better. Faith in God provides that impetus.

Voltaire builds on this theme more in a subsequent verse:

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminences disdain,
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

God is the refuge of the powerless, says Voltaire. When tyrants oppress their weaker fellow creatures, God is the ultimate source of consolation. Where else may a man go? In what else may he trust when confronted with human weakness, evil, hostility, persecution, or aggression? What other hope does the oppressed and dispossessed have, except that his injustice will be avenged by the divine Judge? When a man has nothing, he can at least avoid total spiritual breakdown in the sure knowledge that his tears contain inherent value in the eyes of his Creator.

History illustrates Voltaire’s observation rendered in flesh. Myriad are the stories of oppressed people finding their solace in God, from the Hebrew slaves who cried out to God to deliver them from Egypt, to St. Paul singing hymns in prison. Or the slaves on the cotton plantations, beaten mercilessly and worked on the end of a lash for sixteen hours of the day or more. Had they sought their hope in the material world alone they might have succumbed to abject despair. Or the men and women starving in German concentration camps, surrounded by death and barbarity. These might have been brutalised beyond recovery if not for trusting in the final justice and redemption God would surely bring upon their tormentors, in both this world and the world to come.

For these reasons (and others), Voltaire argues that God is so fundamental and necessary to human existence that should humankind ever find itself without deity above them, they would soon have to create a simulacrum of God just to fill the gaping void. Looking back over the bloodiest century in human history, an age of atheism, Darwinism, and the generalised corrosion of faith, one cannot help see considerable prescience in Voltaire’s observations. From beginning to end of the last century, history has witnessed ideologies venerated like religious creeds; political parties proclaimed as infallible products of destiny; and political leaders elevated to the status of demigods.

Throughout it all, armies of humanists, secularists and atheists have tried hard to promote the idea that God is unnecessary and faith is toxic. Richard Dawkins has ascribed faith the properties of being dangerous and suggested that religious institutions do wicked things to people’s minds (how those institutions should be deemed “wicked” in a godless universe where one man’s principles are not objectively better than another’s, is anyone’s guess). Christopher Hitchens frequently spoke about his discomfort with the idea that God should be constantly watching over human lives. He thundered that the biblical God was nothing more than a celestial dictator. Get rid of him, and live free.

The secularists have offered lovingly painted word pictures of a future without religion, which often have the character of a Utopia in which humanity lives out an endless college experience of learning, engaging in creative pursuits like playing music, and having polite and reasoned interactions with people of other ethnicity and cultures. Scientific solutions could be found to the problem of crime. And soon society would flourish with high-tech answers to all of society’s deepest conundrums. They have argued that without God, human beings would finally be able to proximate to their full potential and nobility. People would be no longer bound in the mental prison of superstition. To paraphrase Stalin, life would be better; life would be happier, with more resources for the material needs of the people instead of the wastage of religion.

In the light of the effects of militant atheism in the Soviet Union and other regimes, such claims practically constitute an article of faith in their own right, if not a new and horrible form of delusion. Still, such a sentiment – and that is all it is, for it is neither rooted in historical nor present reality – is widespread in this age of declining faith.

Yet, for all of the hubris and confidence of the New Atheism, Voltaire’s dicta is finding an almost poetic fulfilment in the modern world. Societies are discovering that the best means of regulating human behaviour is through widespread surveillance, and this is being provided by the technology of mass observation and, more recently, the algorithms to judge human activity. Since most people no longer believe themselves accountable to God, and those who do seldom take their accountability seriously, it is necessary to fill the vacuum with a surveillance system that has some of the characteristics of deity. It is necessary to invent God, although since it is the work of human engineering, it is a cold, impersonal and ultimately merciless transposition.

CCTV cameras are nearly ubiquitous in the United Kingdom, with Londoners being watched by more cameras than virtually any other population in the world. The United Kingdom has embraced politically correct secularism with a degree of enthusiasm that exceeds anything found virtually anywhere else. The subsequent levels of criminality, entitlement, social discord, and crude behaviour have made Britain a true outlier even in Western Europe. This is made it necessary to convert the nation into a monitored state, worthy of the Big Brother regime one of Britain’s native authors dreamt about, not yet a full century ago.

There are 5.9 million CCTV cameras in the United Kingdom, or 1 for every 11 people. Moreover, in an effort to protect themselves from antisocial behaviour, home CCTV cameras are purchased in great numbers by private residents for monitoring their yards and streets. Predictably, this has led to new forms of conflict between neighbours. Some neighbourhoods bristle with cameras as warring neighbours seek to capture each other on film engaging in actionable offences. The volume of such material is staggering. There is now enough CCTV footage captured of neighbourhood disputes for entire TV shows to construct episodes largely around privately captured CCTV footage.

But technology is evolving beyond the old school cameras filming in isolation. A new technology, aptly named “Eye in the Sky” is being trialled in India. This programme uses floating cameras mounted on drones to monitor large crowds in festival settings. The programme will be capable of identifying fights, knife attacks and other altercations through the use of complex algorithms. It will then alert authorities who will be able to respond.

China is going even further in its pursuit of social excellence, by creating a “social credit system” that is not just meant to deter ne’er-do-wells from breaking the law but also exert positive pressure upon their citizen body to be virtuous. Within this system of massive interlinked databases, a person’s every action is monitored by a vast array of interconnected cameras, facial recognition software, online ID tracking and the tracking of personal activities like work and study.

A person’s actions are ascribed positive or negative points. Thus, jaywalking, losing a defamation lawsuit, or not working enough hours will lower a person’s social credit score, while benevolent acts like donating blood or volunteering in the community would boost the social credit score. Only people with a high enough score receive social rewards like foreign travel and access to other benefits.

The potential for governments to shape people’s behaviour and thinking through the means of such a vast apparatus is frightening. Governments – even in democratic countries – already exercise a high degree of control over people’s moral and behavioural comportment, but a social credit system would raise the degree of influence to near total control.

And yet, despite its implications for democracy and its totalitarian character, it is undeniably attractive in the sense that we instinctively recognise that social virtues are far too hit-and-miss in the modern world. In the West, at least, there are very few penalties for objectionable, anti-social behaviours. Whatever the popular view to the contrary, in Western countries people are seldom incarcerated and seldom fined, yet antisocial behaviour (loud music late at night, public urination, casual assaults) is on the increase for which there are few remedies. If the law exercises restraint in the West, it is only because of a residue of the majesty with which it was once invested. And of course, as Voltaire implied, if people think they can get away with something, they will do it.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. It is a tragic irony that this statement should be fulfilled in the most concrete and material terms in the modern world. No doubt Voltaire pictured a collective of godless men inventing a spiritual deity in order to finally bring some order, inspiration, hope, and self-restraint to themselves. He probably did not imagine that humankind would literally turn to machines, computers, mathematical algorithms, and ranking indexes to make people accountable and virtuous. Such is the bitter fruit of godlessness.

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