Surveillance and God: religion as NSA-style Big Brother

Growing up, before I had the terrifying pleasure of reading We, 1984 and Brave New World something unnerved me about the disembodied, omniscient and ever-watchful eye of the Judeo-Christian God. I couldn’t quite place it. Something just didn’t seem right. Later, many things didn’t seem right. But the idea of an ethereal, omniscient entity hovering troubled me the most.

What I knew is that this deity had a voyeurism problem. It was, if you will, a creep. The maxim “mind your own business” didn’t seem to apply to this eternal, cosmic being. He had a sort of pathetic and pathological infatuation with his human beings; expressing far too much anger over who they diddled, when, why, what they ate, who should live, who should die, and so forth.

When one is introduced to dystopian fiction, such as the works of Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley (to name the big three), the idea of a dystopian, surveilling divinity finally melts away, if it still managed to exist at all. This is to be expected. Why fear something so insubstantial when a very material force (government) exists, insinuating itself into our every day reality? This god is no longer of any concern—it has been replaced. Or, this god is only a concern insomuch as it can be used by those to enforce their own sado-masochistic impulses on others. And when one sheds the baggage of religion, opting for reason and understanding, that emptiness is replaced elsewhere: in society, groups, collectives, friends… the state. Ideally, that spiritual liberation should transmute itself into the individual. Not all are of such strong mind.

Perhaps, in discussing state surveillance programs and culture (like the NSA ‘s PRISM), we should turn our gaze away from the state and back toward religion. Specifically, the Abrahamic holy texts and dogma. Before there was mass state surveillance, there was the Judeo-Christian-Islamic surveillance of the entire Earth. And though the Christians, along with Muslims, certainly helped spread their variation of the Abrahamic god, it would probably be best to start at the source: the Hebrew Bible.

In this book lie the beginnings of an NSA-style, Big Brother. A text that could help people rationalize and accommodate widespread surveillance. A book that, like a country, demands faithful, religious devotion and obedience. When political leaders tell voters that individuals like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are traitors, are they not demanding an extreme form of worship from them that closely parallels the dogma derived from the Abrahamic holy texts? Instead of devotion to a God, politicians instruct voters to worship the fatherland (an earthly equivalent to the Heavenly Father), currency, greed, capital, corporatism, materialism, environmental destruction, and, finally, their own power?

As it turns out, human beings are fantastic imitators of divine surveillance. The paradox is that instead of merely replicating the divine penchant for keeping watch, our ancestors—the Hebrews, in particular—gave watchfulness or surveillance a divine and universal authority. In sort, we created the very document that allows us to be nosey, which is then magnified to the nth degree in matters of the state.

While I think early religious brainwashing conditions some people to accept a lifetime of surveillance (whether it emanates from neighbor or state, and anywhere in between), I do not think that these passages are prophetic code for 20th and 21st century Big Brother. I leave that to the New World Order conspiracy theorists, who believe God is actually an alien. I do, however, believe that passages detailing an ever-watchful deity were seized upon very early in the Judeo-Christian tradition by cynical tribal and, later, national leaders.

Certainly, there are Christians, Jews and Muslims of the moderate, liberal, and even radical sort (violent and non-violent), who are quite opposed to any type of state surveillance. Still, they accept divine surveillance. But, this type of believer is not the subject of the article. It is the indvidual who is rather indifferent to mass surveillance. The “let them spy on me, I have nothing to hide” personality type.  

With that in mind, a brief survey of the all-seeing eye of God is in order. Shall we begin with Psalm 139? It is as good a passage as any in considering the universal peeping tom.

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. 3 You comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. 5 You have hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it…23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting…” (New King James Bible)


More Psalm (32:8): “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” Sounds familiar. Do right, not because it is an excellent thing to be virtuous, but because an all-seeing eye will know if one does wrong and punish accordingly. And there is more surveillance language in Psalm’s pages. Verse 32:8 reads, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you,” while verse 44:21 reveals a God intent on gathering information: “Will not God himself search this out? For he is aware of the secrets of the heart.”

We could keep going with Psalm, and we shall: “The LORD looketh from heaven; he beholdeth all the sons of men.” (Psalm 33:13) Or, “From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind;from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth—he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do… the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love.” (Psalm 32:12-22) Considers everything they do. Might as well be talking about internet user activity, mobile texting and conversations, and ubiquitous CCTV.

Then, of course, there is Proverbs 15:3 (KJV), which states, “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” The International Standard Version replaces “beholding” with “observing,” which is a bit more menacing. But not as creepy as 15:3, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place.” If that is not terrifying imagery, I don’t know what is.

To fully document the instances in which God, or the Lord, watches over his flock would require an ongoing series; and we haven’t yet passed out of the Hebrew Bible and into the Christian Old Testament. But, no harm in profiling a few more Biblical verses on global NSA-style espionage. 2 Chronicles has a very fine verse on surveillance, which reads, “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him. Herein thou hast done foolishly: therefore from henceforth thou shalt have wars.” (2 Chronicles 16:9)


And here are a few other choice Biblical excerpts of an ever-watchful Lord, just for shits and giggles (including some from the New Testament):

  • “No thought can be withholden from thee.” (Job 42:2)
  • “[F]or His eyes [watch] over a man’s ways, and He observes all his steps. There is no darkness, no deep
    darkness, where evildoers can hide themselves.” (Job 34: 21-22)
  • “For mine eyes are upon all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes.” (Jeremiah 16:17)
  • “God … knoweth all things.” (1 John 3:20)
  • “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
  • “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” (Hebrews 4:13)
  • “Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy…” (Psalm 33:18)
  • “When thou shalt hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep all his commandments which I command thee this day, to do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD thy God.” (Deuteronomy 13:18)
  • “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.” (1 Peter 3:12)
  • “For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” (1 John 3:20)

A few Koranic verses revealing Islam’s eternal watchman? Absolutely.

“Indeed, your Lord is in observation,” writes Mohammed in 89:14. Elsewhere, Mohammed calls Allah the “all-knowing,” as he does in 38:40: “And the sun runs on its fixed course for a term (appointed). That is the Decree of the All-Mighty, the All-Knowing.” In The Elevated Places, 7:200, Mohammed writes, “seek refuge in Allah; surely He is Hearing, Knowing.” It is not too far to travel from God’s security to the warm refuge of the state; provided one is observed.” Or, in Tbe Cow 2:77: “Do they not know, then, that God is aware of all that they would conceal as well as of all that they bring into the open?”

More Allah surveillance in The Cow:

  • “Unto God belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth. And whether you bring into the open what is in your minds or conceal it, God will call you to account for it; and then He will forgive whom He wills, and will chastise whom He wills: for God has the power to will anything.” (2:284)
  • “Whether you conceal what is in your hearts or bring it into the open, God knows it: for He knows all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth; and God has the power to will anything.” (3:29)
  • “No more is the Apostle bound to do than deliver the message [entrusted to him]: and God knows all that you do openly, and all that you would conceal.” (5:99)
  • “Oh, verily, they [who are bent on denying the truth of this divine writ] are enshrouding their hearts in order to hide from Him. Oh, verily, [even] when they cover themselves with their garments [in order not to see or hear].” (1:5)

For a time, the Abrahamic God gave the United States of America legitimacy, as it did many nations before it. Early American politicians, whether Protestant, deist and even (ironically) atheist, could count on a divine power backing the grand revolutionary experiment. Now, the US and, indeed, all other countries are quite beyond gods. State power is so great that none but America’s Christian extremists like Michelle Bachmann invoke the divine.

Again, these voyeuristic verses, and the many others like it in the Abrahamic holy tests, aren’t prophetic code for technologically-enabled mass surveillance. They do not predict programs such as the NSA’s PRISM. Though it is possible that some fringe-dwelling Christians, and even some moderates, raised on the glorious and surreal ultra-violence of The Book of Revelation (imaginative writing), are probably busy drawing parallels between Biblical prophecy and America’s international surveillance program. But, that is to miss the point.

The authors of the Hebrew, Christian and Muslim religious texts sought to legitimize power and control. And, as as we have seen so often throughout history, the human need to know, to gather intelligences on friends and foes alike, amplifies and insulates all systems of control.

Perhaps it is time for research into whether religious people are more or less likely to accept surveillance. My guess it is the former instead of the ladder.