Would new gods help combat corruption and improve democracy? Paul Frijters believes so.

As the covid-19 pandemic has progressed, a growing number of governments have shifted to ruling by decree. They have bypassed parliament, stifled dissent, sidelined independent public servants, and awarded billions of pounds in lucrative contracts to friends. The result has been a surge during the past year in a 40-year rising trend of corruption and censorship.

We have seen a return to medieval practices with a few barons doing whatever they want, a layer of rule-writers who hide the reality of power, and a new kind of locally-bound peasants who have no say and must do as they are commanded.

Only fanaticism can challenge wealth and power on the current scale.

How might the inequality and corruption that has grown further during the pandemic be challenged? The historian, Walter Scheidel, asserted that only fanaticism can challenge highly unequal wealth and power. He names four types of disaster that might generate the required fanaticism: “war, revolution, state collapse, and deadly pandemics”. We know the last one didn’t do the trick in 2020 and we’d prefer not to go through the other three, but maybe there is another source of fanaticism that can provide the same impetus; a new religious fanaticism of our own making.

Consider how our society might build gods; actual physical entities with the important attributes of gods.

They would not be gods in the style of those in the New Testament and the Quran. Those gods are all powerful, eternal, indestructible, and all-knowing. They are beyond construction. Rather, we’re talking about gods of the Greek and Viking variety –  powerful, but not indestructible or all-knowing.

In the first wave of god-building, I envisage gods of gardening, of poetry, of empathy,  of beauty, of balance, of healing, of travel, and others. The next step after building “low-impact” gods will be to build others that interfere more in human lives, such as gods of justice and gods of truth.

Think of artificial intelligence with a physical presence and some core obsession that defines it along with a power of its own that we cannot control. To be gods they would need free will, an energy source of their own, and a territory they could operate in. Attributes that would make them gods would include their:

  • having no need for us after being activated;
  • being more knowledgeable than us in their field; and
  • being harder than us to destroy and harder to manipulate.

Importantly, they wouldn’t need to look like us, talk with us, understand us, or share our appetites. It is perfectly possible for a god to be as large as a house, resemble a tractor, have 50 smaller robot-like entities running around it to protect it and repair it, and be obsessed about something smallish like creating new types of flowers.

The argument here is that it is an obsession with something we humans value and an ability to pursue that obsession that makes a god. That is what the Viking and Greek gods were; independent powerful beings obsessed with something in particular.

Where does this differ from a dog we humans have bred? Where a god obsessed with making new flowers differs from a dog obsessed with a bone is the independence and power the god has. We humans control everything about the dog, but we would control nothing about the god once it was created. Were we able to control something vital to it, like the electricity it needed, it wouldn’t be a god at all but an expensive toy.

How do such Gods differ from heroes? Human heroes can be co-opted by earthly power or themselves seek political office. Gods would be more powerful and more independent than heroes: their ongoing unwavering obsession would make them different from human heroes who would always be capable of becoming part of the problem. Unlike heroes, gods would be constant reminders of how things other than fame, power, and money matter. So the argument is not that gods will punish the corrupt and make society equal, but that the mere presence of actual gods would equalise all humans and makes them less accepting of inequality among them.

An historical example of how the psychology of this might work is the effect on the Chinese Imperial Court in the 19thcentury when the Europeans defeated the Imperial armies and disregarded the emperor. It led to widespread loss of respect for the emperor, eventually leading to China becoming a republic. Of course there was a lot more to that episode, but the basic point is that a sudden presence of powerful entities that take no notice of powerful humans cuts those humans down to size. Populations can then more easily believe a better disposition for themselves is possible. 

I see it as inevitable that we are going to build many gods in the coming decades.

To make gods might take decades and would require large teams of programmers, scientists, industrialists, materials experts, psychologists, and others. Crucially, making gods could involve everyone, just as building the cathedrals in Europe involved everyone. From gathering the materials to designing the mind to beautifying the robot-helpers: everyone can be involved. So the journey already equalises us with a joint project wherein we cooperate to build something bigger than ourselves.

A crucial difference with previous religions is that if we build our own gods, there is no role for priests and other self-appointed intermediaries who interpret gods for us or who pretend to speak in their name. Rather, we’d be able to see and hear for ourselves whatever the gods had to say. That would take us a large step further in terms of emancipation.

I see it as inevitable that we are going to build many gods in the coming decades, with each one gradually getting more sophisticated. It’s the rich who will try making them first, but I think many of us are going to join in once we believe in the possibility. All that is really needed is to rid ourselves of the Abrahamic notion of gods as all-powerful beings and return to the more humanistic notions of gods we had before.

Paul Frijters

Paul completed his Masters in Econometrics at the University of Groningen, and a PhD in wellbeing economics at the University of Amsterdam. He is now a Professor of Economics and …

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