If you believe in a cosmic tyrant, you’ll demand a local one?


It’s difficult to live in Egypt these days without a clichéd reference to George Orwell every now and then. Given the above photograph, which was taken recently outside Morsi’s trial, it’s almost an obligation to ominously quote this all too prophetic line from 1984:

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

True, the army boot in this picture is not actually stamping on the girls – it’s worse than that. Depicted here are parents using (or rather, abusing) their children to reflect their own masochistic desire to be stamped upon: to utterly and irreversibly submit themselves and their families to an institution that is inherently authoritarian and violent. The regional perception of the shoe as particularly insulting (if hurled or directed at someone) is a testament to just how ferocious this self-debasement is.

Worse still, this is not a minority sentiment. You don’t need a degree in Middle Eastern Studies to note our historic and all too ongoing desire to worship and deify our rulers, to merrily lube ourselves up as we bend over to tyrants time and again.

This disposition is obviously in no way limited to Egyptians, and there’s no doubt that it arises from a complex set of historical, cultural and economic circumstances that the current masses are all victims of.

Still, I can’t help but notice a worldwide correlation between this submissive tendency and another one: the tendency to believe that the universe is governed by a cosmic tyrant, a.k.a God, as traditionally conceived. I’d like to argue that the more a population believes in such a cosmic tyrant, the more likely it is to demand a local one that mirrors him (it’s always a “him”, of course). Likewise, the more a population rejects this view of God, the more they’ll reject worldly authoritarianism.

To reframe this claim in the form of a question: If you believe in a cosmic tyrant, to what extent are you more likely to accept, and even demand, a local one?

First, what do I mean by a cosmic tyrant? A tyrant is an oppressive ruler that has absolute control in a way that is unrestrained by laws – historically, these characters tend to also boast about how merciful they are. Any honest reading of the Bible or the Quran will see God depicted in exactly this way, albeit on a cosmic scale: an unrestrained governor of the universe who will use torture on a massive scale (i.e. hell) if people refuse to obey him, and yet who ceaselessly boasts about how merciful he is.

In the case of the Quran, perhaps this portrayal is best conveyed through this particular proclamation: He punishes whom He pleases, and He grants mercy to whom He pleases … (24:21). This is surely the embodiment of the concept of tyranny.

I imagine most believers reading this have a softer view of God than this one, and that’s good. But this does not change the fact that most Egyptians implicitly see God as a being with no moral qualms about eternally torturing vast numbers of people because they failed to submit to the fundamentally authoritarian laws he is imposing on humanity.

boatI’m not arguing that this view of God necessarily leads to authoritarianism at a political level. But, superficially at least, it’s easy to see how it might. After all, if you think that this is how a perfect being goes about governing things, surely it would be a good idea to strive to mirror that perceived perfection in how you govern your own community.

And that was surely the case in medieval Europe, when the belief in the divine right of kings helped formally justify the existence of tyrants who ruled in the same kind of whimsical, self-glorifying way that God was believed to conduct himself. It is no surprise that this form of governance was first intellectually challenged – initially in the lead up to England’s “Glorious Revolution” and later in the American and French revolutions – at a time when science was making it more and more difficult to understand the Bible literally. A less literal Bible allowed for the possibility of believing in a less brutal God, since it created the leeway necessary to interpret things like hell figuratively. To that extent, it’s no coincidence that this shift away from a brutal God correlated with a rejection of absolute monarchs.

Nowadays, we can see that the societies that have abandoned the traditional view of God as a tyrant tend to have populations that are less likely to accept being ruled tyrannically (I address the seeming exception of China and North Korea below). From the relative atheism of Scandinavian countries, to the greater religiosity of the US, to the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia, to everything in between, there is a clear correlation between a people’s (often implicit) belief in a cosmic tyrant and their acceptance, and even demand, of a worldly one.

But what about China and North Korea? Though officially unreligious, the status of their leaders is clearly religious. Kim Il-Sung is constitutionally held to be the “Eternal Leader”, with titles of esteem such as “Sun” and “Heavenly Leader”. In the same way that the Trinity makes no sense, this eternal leader is also held to somehow be his son Kim Jong-Il (whose birth reportedly caused winter to turn to spring), and now presumably his grandson as well. Like some ancient civilizations, this dynasty has effectively convinced its population that it is God, rather than a mere representative. Likewise with Mao Zedong, the “never setting sun”, as he is still regarded by some. The devotional cult he contrived is difficult to distinguish from the one surrounding Jesus till this day. The extent to which this cult may have waned in recent decades correlates with a respective reduction in the overt brutality of the Chinese government.

Ultimately, I admit this is all somewhat simplistic conjecture. To be clear, the argument here is not that belief in a cosmic tyrant directly causes the acceptance of a worldly one, nor that the existence of a worldly tyrant causes belief in a cosmic one (though, if I had to guess, I’d say the cosmic tyrant was invented in order to help justify the rule of local ones). As I’ve suggested, it’s difficult to divorce all this from the historical, cultural and economic circumstances of each country.

And yet, it’s still temping to assert that this desire of many Egyptians for a paradoxically benevolent dictator that stamps on their heads can only really arise in the context of also believing in a God that is similarly paradoxical as a merciful tyrant that one must eagerly bow to. If your idea of a perfect being is that he is authoritarian, why would you demand anything else from a worldly leader?

Based on this, here’s my wager: the day we truly reject authoritarianism in Egypt as a form of governance will coincide with a threshold of the population rejecting the implicit view of God as a cosmic tyrant. More specifically, the day that a majority truly rejects torture and oppression will coincide with a time when a similar majority holds that things like hell and Judgement are figurative, while “divine commandments” are really just polite suggestions.

In the meantime, I expect a lot of cognitive dissonance will continue to plague us as we try to unsuccessfully reconcile wanting to be politically progressive while remaining traditionally theistic.