Belmont Club

The Last Atheist

A man named Alexander Bard may be typical of the new believers. The Guardian explains: “It is two years since Alexander Bard founded a new religion called Syntheism in which he claimed that the ‘the internet is God’”.  He got the idea at Burning Man.

If Saint Paul had his vision on the road to Damascus, Bard had his “while spending the night lying next to a beautiful naked actress at Burning Man  …  digital natives under 25 now see “the online world as the real world and the real world as a reflection of the online world,” says Bard.

It’s easy to see why Bard should think that.  The Internet nearly has three of the traditional attributes of divinity: omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. Although the Internet isn’t omnipotent yet, it is already quite powerful, and not inconceivably on its way to full potency.  Actual omnipresence is further along; probably only a few decades away.  Soon enough everyone will be surrounded by the Internet of Things (IOT).  Household appliances, self-driving cars, sensors embedded in every item — including our bodies — will talk to each other and report on us.  There will be nowhere to hide. Every square inch of the planet will be covered by drone hot spots in the sky owned by Google or Facebook, the better to knit things together.

Omniscience has already arrived, as the subscribers to the Ashley Madison website have discovered to their cost.  Thirty-three million users of the partner-swapping website have had their names, email addresses, fantasies and in some cases nude photographs published online for anyone to search. “Hackers have released the details of 33 million Ashley Madison profiles. Are you tempted to search for your partner’s details?” asks the Guardian.

Whether you search today or in a thousand years the most horrifying, despair inducing thing about the Ashley Madison event is that the nude picture never ever fades away.  To paraphrase Hebrews 4:13 “nothing in all creation is hidden from the Internet’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of them to whom we must give account.” Jared Fogle, the former pitchman from the Subway sandwich chain, actually thought he could keep a secret of his interest in underage girls from cellphone tower logs, website records, text message archives, hotel surveillance cameras, etc, etc.  He was wrong.

Police say they also found messages on Fogle’s cellphones showing he offered prostitutes in Richmond, Virginia, Kansas City, Missouri, and Las Vegas a finder’s fee to set up him with minors. …

The woman claimed she had a sexual relationship with Fogle after meeting him at a Subway function. But she grew uncomfortable when Fogle asked her to advertise herself on Craigslist for sex with other men so that he could watch …

The woman alleged Fogle also sent her lewd text messages requesting a meeting with her underage cousin. “When can we find a time for me to talk to your cousin?” Fogle asked in May 2008. Fogle later added: “Any more news with your cousin?” and “Tell me what u think about when u think of the three of us all together???”

Even Hillary, a person  who is much more powerful than Fogle, found out very quickly there were powers vaster than hers; that in the nature of things there is always a copy of emails somewhere else because there’s a  “to” and a “from” that is nonlocal to her machine.   Try though she might for so long as one working path existed to somewhere else, her secrets would tend to flow to that somewhere else. In the words of Clinton aide Jennifer Palmieri, “she didn’t really—that’s the thing, she didn’t really think it through.”

The result was that her deeds were always recorded externally.  They traced themselves upon the larger system and threatened show up at any time, much as Doctor Faustus awaited dread the footfall of Mephistopheles.   He couldn’t erase the record either.

see, where God
Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!
No, no!
Then will I headlong run into the earth:
Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbor me!

No, it will not harbor Faust, nor will it harbor thee.  Even in the bowels of the earth, even there doth the drone of Amazon and Facebook abide.  The Europeans have already tried to re-establish the sacrament of confession through the Right to Be Forgotten.  “The right to be forgotten is a concept discussed and put into practice in the European Union (EU) and Argentina since 2006.  The issue has arisen from desires of individuals to ‘determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.'”

Of course the Internet doesn’t actually forget.  It simply puts records where only people with the power to jail you can access them.  One is tempted to ask Alexander Bard, he of the Syntheist religion,  why the Internet should be God and not Mephistopheles?  After all it’s hard to tell them apart. The very same Internet which has indelibly recorded the sins of Ashley Madison subscribers hosted Ashley Madison.  The very self-same Craiglist files adduced as evidence against Fogle simultaneously helped him locate the objects of his desire.  The server which allowed Hillary to traffic in whatever she trafficked is the record of her acts.

At least where the Internet is concerned, both God and Mephistopheles share the same keyboard; the interface that leads you to damnation equally offers absolution. Several commenters on Twitter asked Planned Parenthood how they were certain  the fires in hell weren’t waiting for them.  It’s a fair question. Where does that tab go? a concern that arises less from the dim memories of Sunday School than the much more recent and gnawing suspicion that something somewhere is always listening, always recording, ready to demand an accounting.

Maybe the only modern public figure sufficiently alert to the danger was former president Bill Clinton. Understandably Bill had every reason to avoid meeting the devil and took pains to avoid him, at least on email. The Atlantic wrote that the former president reportedly almost never sent messages electronically. “The William J. Clinton Presidential Library claims to have just two emails from the former president in its trove of 40 million emails from the Clinton White House. … The president had a reputation for being more interested in face-to-face communication than his vice president, Al Gore, who was constantly on the computer in his office, according to several accounts.”

But then Bill was always smarter than Al. He probably guessed that the less you let on, the longer you’d survive.  By contrast, Alexander  Bard who borrowed the word “syntheism” from Greek syntheos, is insufficiently wary.  He thinks that “humanity creates God” – as opposed to the “God creates humanity” is a safe basis for 21st century religion.  It sounds like he hasn’t widened his acquaintance with humanity much beyond the naked actress.

Syntheism is all about is, [Bard] believes, that the internet is actually going to overturn our sense of ourselves as individuals. It teaches us, rather, that our value is as social nodes in the networks created online. Bard dismisses those who see the internet as creating a culture of narcissism as “completely missing the point”.

Of course they are missing the point; and so is Bard.  The digital sea is bigger than any single individual: even Bard, even Hillary — and therefore a potential threat.  Things tend to acquire a life of their own. For example, just yesterday Charles Lane, writing in the Washington Post noted that Europe is slowly but surely expanding the scope of euthanasia, like a sort of Planned Parenthood program for old people.

What’s noteworthy about euthanasia in Europe, though, has been its tendency to expand, once the taboo against physician-aided death was breached in favor of more malleable concepts such as “patient autonomy.”

“What is presented at first as a right is going to become a kind of obligation,” Belgian law professor Étienne Montero has warned.

In 2013, euthanasia accounted for one of every 28 deaths in the Netherlands, three times the rate of 2002. In the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, one of every 22 deaths was due to euthanasia in 2013, a 142 percent increase since 2007. Belgium has legalized euthanasia for children under 12, though only for terminal physical illness; no child has yet been put to death.

The United States, like Europe, is aging, with all that implies for the spread of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders. If pressure rises for more doctor-assisted death, Lerner and Caplan insist, “physicians must remain primarily healers.”

“Part of the problem with the slippery slope,” they write, “is that you never know when you are on it.”

You never know how way leads on to way.  Forget about hell for a moment.  How do the officials of Planned Parenthood know they’re not going to be euthanized? Since a complete description of the state of the network is nonlocal, it follows that if the Internet is God then no one individual is completely in control, which is a scary thought for some people.  Bard probably missed that point but not Bill.  Not Bill.

Maybe someday I’ll meet the great man, the last atheist, the final holdout from the religion of syntheism and I’ll ask him. Who knows but he may incline his head the better for me to hear and rasp out: “Bard always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of Google. Well, I believe in God and the only thing that scares me is the Internet.'”  And we’ll sit there waiting, but I won’t ask him who he’s waiting for.


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