The Imprisonment of Belief

What do you think of when I juxtapose Prison and God?

Imprisonment of Belief

Imprisonment of Belief

One thought that comes to mind is the conversion stories of prisoners to Christianity. As a pre-pubescent teenager who went to church and even occasionally youth group, I heard the stories of men — never women — who found God in prison. The chorus rang out, “Of course God must exists if those who in the confines of our rehabilitative facilities can find Him.” Melodic, eh? Bradley Wright, Ph.D, sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, points to the abstract of the book Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars: Prison Conversions and the Crisis of Self-Narrative (Cite) for reasons prison conversions are so popular:

As summarized in the abstract, prisoners converted because:
– creates a new social identity to replace the label of prisoner or criminal,


– imbues the experience of imprisonment with purpose and meaning,
– empowers the largely powerless prisoner by turning him into an agent of God,
– provides the prisoner with a language and framework for forgiveness, and
– allows a sense of control over an unknown future.” (Cite)
All of these reasons appeal to the incarcerated individual, and many of these reasons lead people to Christianity on the other side of the bars. I need only point to the title of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life to highlight this. In essence, Christianity provides hope to prisoners that they are not awful people, they can be redeemed and God loves them. Unfit for society, but not unfit for the Almighty.  
However, I am concerned here with the other side of the proverbial coin. That is to say I am not in this piece concerned particularly with the happiness or pseudo-“purpose” of the prisoners life. In fact, I want to enter the mind of the prison manager.
I want to run the most efficient prison possible. I want to garner social control with the least amount of physical force. Ideally, I would want the prisoners to behave like model citizens without my keen eye observing them at all times. However, from experience, I know the prisoners only behave well when they are under my watchful eye.
Enter the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He presented the idea of the Panopticon as a way to instill maximum social control without having to do much work at all. His architectural design placed a watchtower in the center of a prison with the rooms of the prisoners surrounding it. From the watchtower, the guards could theoretically see every prisoners’ cell and each prisoner would know they could potentially be under surveillance. For Bentham, the importance lied in “that the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so.” The Panopticon assures that no one is going to try anything against the rules because they are always being watched. As modern philosopher Michel Foucault said, “The major effect of the panopticon: is to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” 
The Panopticon puts all the power within the control of the guards. Big Brother. Eye in the Sky. It knows all, sees all. Social control is effectively put in place. Many argue this has effectively been put in place in modern society. 
Now I want to extend this to social control of society. In particular, as the dictator or ruler of a society. It is a bit difficult to put a tower in the center of an entire country or empire and be able to see all. Outside of modern technology, the ability to act as big brother was severely limited. Still, as an emperor or dictator, you want social control. You do not want your people plotting revolution or committing crimes against each other without your consent. How do you enact the Panopticon without the ability to actually enact the Panopticon?

Enter God.

The all-seeing, omniscient and omnipotent God allows rulers to use him as the ultimate Panopticon. Not only that, but because religion provides social cohesion and collective consciousness — see Emile Durkheim — you have a united nation who understands those outside of your religion as other and will want to work towards the good of those with the same belief. When one becomes fervently religious, you may actively work to protect those in your faith from The Other. Conjure up the Crusades or 9/11, it does not matter. 

Philosoraptor makes a good point, and all those who grew up in the Church should know the answer to his question. God and Santa Claus are not all that different. Sing with me:

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re a wake
He knows when you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake.

Be good for God’s sake. But really, be good for your own sake. Religion grew up on this notion. If you do bad thing, God will know, and will punish you for it in the afterlife, if not on earth. So in fact, be good for your own sake or God will punish you. You may be forgiven if you just ask for it — depending on which branch of Christianity you follow, add some penance here — although you did not particularly ask God to watch everything you do in the first place. Remember, also, for quite a while there were the all-but-unforgivable mortal sins. Seriously, why God should care about masturbation, which really provides some serious health benefits? (Cite) Certainly the rulers who first used His omniscience were not particularly concerned with the solo orgasms of their people. Apparently now God is.

I have not proved the non-existence of God. If anything, I have proved the ingenuity of using Him as a social control mechanism. I simply gave an account of what could be called the Imprisonment of Belief. At Least with Santa, there is no fires of hell. Just coal in a stocking.