It was 112 degrees and I was trying to cool off by floating in the Red Sea for an hour. Because of high levels of evaporation, the Red Sea is one of the most saline bodies of water in the world. Bad for the eyes, but good for buoyancy. I had been in Yemen for about nine months and a heat rash was rampant on my body. The salt levels irritated my rash, but the 80-degree water did cool me off a bit. All in all, there was no way to be comfortable in Hodeidah, Yemen Arab Republic in the summer if you were a Peace Corps volunteer without access to air conditioning. But I was trying.
I was floating on my back, bobbing in a small swell 100 feet off shore. I had the strongest feeling that someone was watching me, but when I looked at the beach there was nobody there. That was not surprising, since Hodeidis go inside for a siesta every summer day. Between 12 and 4 in the afternoon it is just too stinkin’ hot to be up and active. Shops close down, people move inside, and the city grows quiet. The people who are out in the world move close to buildings, like furtive cats, trying to keep to the narrow bands of available shade. Of course there was no one on the beach, watching me.
Yet I could not shake the idea that someone was staring at me. And whoever it was was not just watching me, but scrutinizing me—drilling right down into my soul. By this point in my life I was no longer a practicing Catholic, but I was not yet a practicing atheist. In fact, it was at precisely this point that I became a practicing atheist. I allowed myself to think that maybe it was God I was feeling staring at me. And He wasn’t just watching from the outside; He was right there in my secret heart, watching from the inside and eavesdropping on my motives and wishes and fears as I felt them. But in the next moment I allowed myself to take the next step and to consider that maybe it was really just me that was watching…that it had been just me all along…that God had never even noticed me. Or, even more likely, that God did not even exist.
I was a bit breathless with the thought. It felt quite transgressive to even think it. I had gone to 13 years of Catholic school. I had been an altar boy. Christ, I had prayed for the stigmata. What if God had heard my dismissal of His very being?
In the years since my reverse-baptism that day in the Red Sea, evolutionary and cognitive psychologists have started to tackle the question of just where religious belief comes from. Jesse Bering, in his book The Belief Instinct, discusses some theories and concludes that the urge toward belief is a trick of our genes that has proven remarkably useful and stable. For human society to function well it is helpful for members to have a strong sense of right and wrong. If people can control their own basest instincts, society doesn’t have to expend a lot of resources policing itself. The thought that someone is watching is adaptive.
Bering begins his book with a confession about breaking the prize faux-Faberge egg of a neighbor when he was a 7-year old. He was fairly certain God saw him do it. My illustrative confession would be of discovering where my dad kept the key to his fake Model-T coin bank and then breaking in every once in a while and stealing lots of quarters whenever I needed money. I knew my father did not see me do it, but I knew just as certainly that my Father did see me. As I kneeled up on the altar on Sundays I would bargain hard with God for forgiveness. To this day I have not told my father about these thefts.
So here it is 25 years later and still I have the sense that someone is watching me. Not just watching me, but judging me. In spite of my devout atheism, it still feels like God sees me when I’m sleeping and when I am awake. I have always assumed that everyone had this same sense built right in. Reading Bering’s book has confirmed my feeling. There is a lot of research that, taken together, supports the idea that humans as a species have an urge toward belief and that this urge is part of the glue that can hold people together in a society. And a big part of this urge toward belief is that we have the feeling that someone is in our heads with us, watching and judging. Nothing we do is truly secret.
NPR had a series on Morning Edition this past week that explored the shift away from organized religion in the United States—especially among people under 30. While listening to the series I was reminded of my own declaration of faithlessness as I floated in the Red Sea all those years ago. I had declared, in effect, my independence from God and the tyranny of his judgment. Yet I still feel that seemingly-external gaze drilling down, assessing, weighing, and passing verdict. To give just one somewhat embarrassing example: to this day when I want to fantasize about another woman, I have to first kill Erica off in my imagination. Most often, I have her die in a tragic skydiving accident or I have her leave me for a young academic hotshot, leaving me free to be naked with another woman. I engage in these crazy ethical gymnastics because a judge is watching.
My daughter has grown up without an organized faith. She has a sense that there is a God, but she has inherited enough parental skepticism to call herself an agnostic. She has also grown up surrounded by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting, and smartphones. She is 13, so not yet a member of the Twenty-something generation featured in NPR’s series. But listening to the interviews in the series and watching how she lives her life in the digital world have started me wondering: has growing up digital had any effect on who it is we feel is inside our heads and hearts, eavesdropping on our deepest secrets?
I always thought of that entity as God, (before I threw God out). Even then, it still feels a lot like God to me. Have digital denizens replaced God with the vast digital crowd of Friends and Followers? Rather than assuming God is judging them for what they think and feel and say and do, (even when no one is watching), do they imagine how their Facebook friends and tangential digital acquaintances would comment on what they think and feel and say and do? I grew up in the Church and went to Catholic schools until college. This mass of experience shaped my theory about who that inner observer was. Does growing up immersed in devices and apps that promote sharing every scrap of information about ourselves shape just who we think that inner observer is? Have we replaced God with Facebook Friends and Twitter Followers? And is that why it is so important for us to have hundreds of people “care” about us in this way? And if so, how does that affect the things we do?