Existential Fear in a Secular Age
Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and John Paulos have written best selling books subjecting religion to the rigors of science, testing, evidence and logic. The belief in the sky god was never able to withstand such a compelling analysis. The borders of faith have shrunk inside many people’s lives. Those who describe themselves in surveys and polls as atheist continue to remain a minority in most Western countries. It may be that many people nominally remain under the cloak of religion. Strip away the cloak and the reality is they have all but in name abandoned faith in the sky god. But the rituals of faith continue like a steam locomotive. We love the experience of ritual—the sight, the smell, and the ride with fellow passengers. We temporarily close our eyes to the fact that other forms of transportation have long ago overtaken us.
What is the evidence for this covert loss of faith in religion to supply satisfactory answers to the large existential questions about death? It is found in the rise of government as an alternative manager of fears. The second bow in the string religion brought was the fear of being a sinner, doing wrong, angering the sky god. The old violin has lost both strings. Our existential angst goes unanswered by faith and no one worries much about being a sinner. Guilt, like sin, is a word no longer functions to keep anti-social behavior in check.
The old hierarchy of fear managers—monks, priests, rabbis, ministers—historically have claimed jurisdiction over ministering to our existential fears for centuries. As absolute faith in religious answers no longer is comforting to a growing mass of people, who have switched allegiance to the scientific method, a gap has opened. Our secularization has brought about a great leveraged buy-out of the fear business. The private sector has co-ventured with the government in the acquisition, data mining, storage, and analysis of big information business.
The new secular clergy are organized around the language of mathematics as the church once used Latin for their elite. Mathematicians are our new cardinals. Their algorithms communicate the sacred and the secret. Outside the inner sanctum of Government, a large, private group of lay novices are often ex-clergy who shuttle back and forth from public to private, and vice versa.
In gaining control over the fear business, governments and their private partners have found an effective way to expand and consolidate power. The medieval role of the Church found that fear of the sky god’s wrath was effective to control kings who ruled under its grace in Europe. History teaches an important lesson about those who claim the mantle of fear managers—power, whether religious or secular—takes our fear of the ‘other’ and our fear of death to serve their own interests. Like the church before our secular age, the population has been excluded from the modern process of fear management. The new secular priesthood determines, in secret, what actions work best in the war against fear. Fear needs a face. Fear needs an enemy. In religious times, it was the devil; in secular times, it is the terrorist, who have brought us to the edge of the apocalypse; it is these people who haunt us and make us fearful.
Secular governments have learnt what large religious institutions have known for centuries—the masses will abandon claims to civil liberties and rights in return for guarantees that the enemy, the non-believer, whether within or from the outside. They have no issue with giving a free hand to officials and private contractors waging this war against fear. Priesthoods rely on magical thinking. To defeat the enemies who cause fear, all-out war is necessary. In this worldview, there is no choice but to permit the authorities to collect metadata, mine it for threats, and pursue those threats by all available means.
Institutions that work in the fear business are not only good at data mining—math as the new Latin gives them a huge edge—they are also adroit at understanding the psychology of the faithful. The reality is that people are highly vulnerable when it comes to fear. They want to be cleansed of fear. Churches no longer offer a sanctuary to repress these destabilizing emotions. We are witness to a great shifting of the guards as religious institutions are going the way of the manual typewriter. In the digital age, the amount of fear has increased at the same rate of Moore’s law for computer speed. Fear increased with our information about the dangers of the world. The uneasy anxiety of the masses demands something to be done to contain their fear.
In response to that demand, we are witnessing the results—a huge, spawning intelligence gathering empire, one justified and tailored to managing the globalization of fear. Intelligence agencies in America gather, store and process metadata about millions of ordinary people’s personal messages hovered from their email, telephone, social networks who had not been accused of any crime. The majority of those people have no problem with the government keeping information about their lives. They feel they’ve done nothing wrong. It is only people who would harm them or kill them that should be worried.
Don’t tie the hands of the fear managers, let them mount their steads, draw their swords, and vanquish the bad people from our existence. In the religious realm, heaven is on the side of the righteous. For the modern, secular population, heaven requires mass storage facilities, algorithms to mine the huge amounts of data. This new secular church, and the vast network of lay novices, operates under the watchful eyes of hundreds of thousands of the workers with the sacred task of monitoring those who generate fear. They are our representatives of righteousness—the high priests who have been granted top-secret clearance—the vanguards to guard us against the fears once the preserve of sky god and his representatives.
Our secular masters have become the new class of priests and new digital, technology installed as the sky god who sees all, is everywhere, omnipotent, and watching.
We use our new technology like prayers, believing that it will allow our secret clergy to acquire patterns, knowledge about probable associations and outcomes, and prevent a crime before it happens and identify the criminals before they commit a crime. In the ancient days when religions played a central role in people’s lives, we had to wait until a criminal acted, investigated for evidence to catch him, and extracted a confession after having caught him. In our secular, technological age that process from the steam locomotive age is no longer convenient.
We live in a new age, one in which fear propels us to allocate resources to identify people who are, or possess the potential, for violence, aggression, and brutality. We no longer rest at night knowing the sky god keeps their primitive impulse in check. Just as we have begun to have serious doubt that the sky god is waiting on the other side of death. We are alone, troubled, insecure, short-lived creatures and seeking shelter in a violent species on a rocky planet, trying to get by day by day.
This new secular regime has crept up on us. We blinked. One moment it suddenly appeared. We are all part of the congregation. Dismantling the new clergy, or effectively controlling their actions, won’t happen easily. And for a reason—we yearn not for freedom or liberty, but seek security from the terrible uncertainty of meaning to lives without the sky god, and the oblivion we confront in our death. As with all great religions, the day will arrive when one among them follows Martin Luther by challenging the right and authority of the digital Leviathan over our lives. We wait for that edict as it travels at the speed of light through cyberspace to offer a secular order where the clergy cedes power to the congregation it serves. Only then will there be any chance for a reformation.