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—surveilling 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?
In Orwell’s classic novel, Oceania’s totalitarianism rests on compulsory atheism. Oceania is ruled by “the Party,” which forbids religion to its members. 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. Winston Smith muses that the “terrible” thing about the Party is its ability to make you vanish, such that “neither you nor your actions were ever heard of again. You were lifted clean out of the stream of history.”
Yet the Party does not demand atheism of everybody. The “proles”—the proletarians, the workers—are permitted religious belief. As the Party teaches, “proles and animals are free.” Being free from dogmatic atheism, the proles are also free to believe in the intrinsic value of their own intentions and actions, even in the face of death. For the proles, as for the people who had lived before the revolution that ushered in Oceania’s totalitarian state, “a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself.” Thus the proles, Winston observes, had “stayed human.”
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.”
Atheism is also the metaphysical basis of 1984’s totalitarian regime. It underwrites the philosophic understanding of reality on which the Party’s unlimited power rests.
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.
This the Party strenuously denies, as O’Brien labors to teach Winston. “Nothing exists except through human consciousness.” “Outside man there is nothing.” “Reality is inside your skull.” “You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of nature. We make the laws of nature.”
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.”
Unbelief in any external, objective reality gives the Party absolute power over the minds of its members. Or, to put it another way, this unbelief secures the abject intellectual slavishness of Party members, their willingness to accept whatever the Party hands out to them, however absurd it may be on its face, however obviously it contradicts what the Party has said previously. This philosophy is the basis of one of the Party’s other famous slogans: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Since there is no objective reality, the past has no real existence, and the Party can make it be whatever it decides it to be. As O’Brien forces Winston to concede, the past does not exist in any place where one could go and confirm its characteristics. You could try to say that it exists in records, but the Party can revise all records. You could try to say that it exists in people’s memories, but the Party can falsify people’s memories through misinformation and intimidation.
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.
Think about it. Suppose I spill some water on the pavement on a hot summer day. It is gone in just a few moments—evaporated. Can I insist that it was really there? Where is the evidence of it now? If there is no eternity, if there is nothing but ceaseless flux, then every human life—and, indeed, every human civilization and the whole human past—is on the level of that quickly evaporated water. These things appear for a moment and, once gone, no longer exist. Thus we may claim them to be whatever we want, or even deny that they existed at all. Or, to be more accurate, those who have power can impose these claims and denials on the rest of us.
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.