Orwell, atheism and totalitarianism
“For decades—for centuries, in fact—many allegedly profound thinkers have proclaimed to the world that they were promoting enlightenment and the liberty of the mind by discrediting belief in God and the afterlife. Orwell’s 1984, however, invites us to consider whether such thinkers have really been destroying the basis of freedom and laying the groundwork for unprecedented despotism.”
In a post on Mercatornet, Carson Holloway, professor of political science in Nebraska, uncovered some central characteristics of despotism and totalitarianism, which Orwell set out in his epoch-making work “1984” and linked with “The Party”.
“The very real controversies of America’s 2021 have conjured up the fictional dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984. The right condemns Big Tech as an incipient Big Brother—surveying citizens and suppressing disapproved thought. The left replies that Donald Trump is the true Orwellian threat. After all, he lies!”
“These spirited disagreements conceal an important consensus. Most Americans agree that the totalitarianism depicted in 1984 is bad and that we must beware of letting that nightmare vision become a reality in our own country. Our commitment to preserving freedom, then, invites us to consider the basis of this totalitarianism. In other words, we need to ask: what must the citizens be like to permit such a tyranny to arise?”
What are the characteristics of this totalitarianism?
On the one hand there is atheism: “In Orwell’s classic novel, Oceania’s totalitarianism rests on compulsory atheism. … Religious belief is one of the “crimes” to which Winston Smith, the hero of 1984, confesses under torture—along with sexual perversion and admiration of capitalism. The Party has to forbid religious belief because atheism is both the moral and metaphysical basis of its absolute power.”
“Atheism is the moral basis of the Party’s unlimited hold on its own members because it makes them terrified of death as absolute nonexistence. Like any government, the Party in 1984 has the power to kill disobedient subjects. Party members, however, view death not just as the end of bodily life, but as a complete erasure of their being—their thoughts, their words, their affections, their deeds.”
Then it is necessary to submit to the party:
“In contrast, members of the Party view death as absolute defeat, from which the only escape is total submission to the Party, which alone is immortal. This, as the Party official O’Brien instructs Winston, is the basis of the Party’s seemingly contradictory slogan, “freedom is slavery.” As an individual—“alone” and “free”—the “human being is always defeated,” because “every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of failures.” The only path of salvation, then, is “complete, utter submission” to the Party. Only if an individual can “escape from his identity,” only “if he can merge himself into the Party so that he is the Party,” can he become “all-powerful and immortal.””
Absolute subjectivism is another characteristic:
“The Party insists on teaching its members that there is no external, objective reality apart from subjective human consciousness. This is the lesson Winston has to learn the hard way (under torture) after trying to think for himself. Trying to think for yourself implies that there is something “out there” for you to think about, some “truth” that you might be able to find, on the basis of which you might be able to critique approved opinion.”
The “reality” is consequently determined by the party:
“Because there is no external, objective reality to which all human beings must conform, the Party gets to decide what is “real.” “Sanity,” Winston comes to believe, is “statistical.” That is, sanity means not seeing what is actually there but seeing what everybody else sees, which is what the Party is able to make them see. “Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.'”
This includes defining what belongs to the story:
“The disbelief in an external, objective reality gives the party absolute power over the heads of its members. Or, to put it another way, this disbelief secures the wretched intellectual slavery of the party members, their willingness to accept whatever the party puts in front of them, however absurd it may be, how blatantly it contradicts what the party said earlier. This philosophy is the basis of another famous party slogan: ‘He who controls the past controls the future; whoever controls the present controls the past. ‘”
Holloway concludes: “1984 thus confronts us with a radical and very significant suggestion: without God as the eternal, omnipotent observer, there is no objective reality. Many have argued that without God there can be no fixed moral principles. Orwell’s great work goes further, raising the possibility that without God there cannot even be “facts” in any meaningful, reliable sense.”
And he concludes: “For decades—for centuries, in fact—many allegedly profound thinkers have proclaimed to the world that they were promoting enlightenment and the liberty of the mind by discrediting belief in God and the afterlife. Orwell’s 1984, however, invites us to consider whether such thinkers have really been destroying the basis of freedom and laying the groundwork for unprecedented despotism.”
One thought on “Godlessness, Fear, Redefinition of the Past – Lessons from Orwell’s “1984””
“The Party has to forbid religious belief because atheism is both the moral and metaphysical basis of its absolute power.””
No, obedience and control is the moral and metaphysical basis of the Party’s power. How can a lack of believe in a god or gods make people obey? That’s all atheism is, despite the need of theists to claim otherwise.
Most, if not all, atheists aren’t afraid of death so Orwell screwed up on that. Your post does show how Christianity controls its worshippers, with fear of death, with the requirement of obedience to this god and control given to the people who claim they know this god better than everyone else.
They are quite the Party.
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