Religious persons today are a threat, but not to public safety as the narrative instructs us. They are a threat to the idea that the state is to be worshipped above all else, to the religion that’s trying to take their place, to the idea that it’s possible to find a compelling and complete sense of meaning outside of the state.
Religious leaders like Artur Pawlowski who question COVID-19 health restrictions are a “threat to public safety.” Or so the criticism goes.
After giving a sermon in February 2022 in Coutts, Alberta, in which he urged trucker convoy protestors to “hold the line” in their efforts to safeguard freedoms, Pastor Pawlowski was arrested, denied bail, and imprisoned for 40 days until the decision was unanimously overturned by the Alberta Court of Appeal in July.
According to the 2021 World Watch List compiled by the advocacy group Open Doors, there were two important persecution trends in 2020: the number of Christians killed increased by 60 percent, and governments used COVID-19 restrictions as an excuse for religious persecution.
Facial recognition systems, for example, were installed in state-approved churches in China, allowing churchgoers to be tracked and punished, and India’s nationalist Janata Party encouraged the persecution of Christians by sanctioning Hindu extremism. In Canada, a country that used to be a safe haven for the persecuted, pastors are being ticketed and imprisoned for holding religious services, and religion, itself, is slandered in the COVID narrative, associated with poor research, misinformation, and right-wing politics.
Our treatment of religious persons seems to be non-fictionalizing Orwell’s totalitarian state, Oceania, in which atheism is compulsory and religious belief is a crime (one of the crimes to which the hero of 1984, Winston Smith, confesses).
In Orwell’s superstate, atheism is not only essential to “the Party’s” absolute power, but it is compelling. According to Orwell’s dystopian fantasy, human life is meaningless because individuals will always die; but by joining the Party, they become part of something more enduring than themselves. Totalitarianism—I use that word intentionally—offers a way to rescue themselves from the threat of absolute nonexistence.
In any totalitarian state (including the one we are inching towards), citizens are divided and polarized. There are the believers and the non-believers, the members and the outliers, the chosen ones and the sinners. The followers believe above all else in the ability of the state to achieve a kind of utopia. They follow the state’s commands, not because of their evidentiary reasonableness but because their commitment to the project requires unquestioning allegiance. The sinners are heretics who stand in the way of safety and purity. What appeal have reason and freedom and autonomy when stacked against effortless and guaranteed immortality?
Today, many people are turning away from personal religion toward state-led science, which is presented as being more sophisticated and more aligned with truth. But totalitarianism is not an alternative to religion; it is secularized religion, as Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt wrote, and its appeal is spreading across the globe at a head-spinning rate.
Totalitarianism replaces personal religion with the idea that we can find meaning not in God but in ourselves, in a group of human beings. “The State takes the place of God,” wrote Carl Jung, “the socialist dictatorships are religions and State slavery is a form of worship.” The slogan of Oceania’s Party, “Freedom is slavery,” could easily be the slogan of Canada’s ruling party today. (And dare I mention the sign above the gate at Auschwitz “Arbeit Macht Frei” [“Work Makes One Free”]?)
In the totalitarian state, the methods of religious enthusiasm and evangelism are deployed to convince the masses that the dream of a perfectly pure, progressive state—a heaven on earth—justifies any limitation of personal freedom. And so, the punishment of dissidents—via mandates, surveillance, imprisonment, and possibly even extermination of individuals or groups—is considered acceptable or even noble.