4/4/07 New note: I remembered this post from about a year ago and decided to finish it up as best as I could and then post it.
2/29/06 Note: The following is an idea I had almost two years ago. It's a combination of thoughts and ideas and it's not really a 'research' based concept: It's based on what I've read and thinking about what I've read. Interacting, if you will. There may or may not be logical flaws, but my goal is to get the idea out via this entry.
Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault theorized about the 'panopticon' and ideas of building prisons in this manner exist and in some cases have been put into practice.
The idea of the panopticon is simple: a tower is surrounded by a circular structure of prison cells. Due to it's construction, the person in the tower can see the prisoners, but the prisoners cannot see the guard, thus making it possible for the guard to be absent but for the prisoners to believe they are being watched.
Apply this theory to religion. Imagine 'God' is the 'guard' in the tower and we all are the prisoners. As we have no idea whether not he exists, we must act based on our own ideas of whether or not we are being watched.
Theory: Whether God exists or not is entirely irrelevant.
If God is watching you and you act believing that you are being watched, hopefully you will act according to what you believe God will want. That is of course the goal: being rewarded for recognizing you are being watched and acting well.
However, if God is not in the 'tower' watching down and yet you believe he is there, while there will be no outcome, you will continue to act in what you believe is a manner appeasing the tower guard.
Ultimately, however, I believe that whether God exists or not does not really matter: You will act based on beliefs rather than on facts. It is possible to believe in different things through out your life time. Think of the cliche where people are bad for a period, "find God" (or Jesus or whatever) and suddenly become 'good'. Somehow they've been convinced that though they are still a prisoner, the guard has been up in the tower the entire time, watching and judging.
The issue I cannot get passed is atheism: If you believe you are not being watched, what is the reward for acting well? Is it because deep down atheists may believe that there may be some sort of end result if they act badly? What is the impetus for acting 'good'? ('Good' and 'bad' is for another debate). Some may take this idea the next step and say it's impossible for there to be someone in the guard tower, but then why aren't atheists burning people with lighters on street corners?
Perhaps it is the guard that man has put in the tower, whether that be our system of justice in the world or religion. The more local guard, I suppose, is the one feared by the atheists of the world and their only reason for acting within a social structure is the fear of going to jail and being outcasts in society.
new material 4/4/07
I wonder if it's more an opposite for deus ex machina: we've created the "machine" (in the case, "societal norms", etc.) in place of, or "out of", the God, replacing any true divine being with a man-made structure, calling further into question the existence, and now the necessity of such a being. To paraphrase Bentham, this is leaving the "watching to the watched."
Within this lies the answer to my question of Atheism; it's very simple, in fact. Of course Atheists wouldn't go around lighting people on fire because other people would punish them for it. Essentially, in a rather Deist fashion, any God that may exist need no longer function in that capacity -we're here to do the work for it! Judgement is handed out by humans. Punishment, forgiveness - everything is handled without a God being present. Could this account for an answer to the question "If God is so present in the Old Testament, why isn't he around today?" Simply, we don't need a God, we can manage to all of it on our own. God can function as the Deist's Clockmaker, setting the gears in motion and then heading out for a drink, while we continue to maintain the rules.
One example, a horrible example at that, is that of African slavery. To the best of my knowledge, at first, ships and slave traders would go to Africa, enslave and capture those they wanted and take them to a new location. Eventually, according to my professor of African studies, Dr. Mamadou Diawara, "tribe" turned against "tribe", selling out others in order to save themselves. To me, this because an example of the Panopticon in that those who were once "the watched" have become "the watchers", enforcing the rule of others, regardless of whether or not anyone is around. Granted, this idea has a major flaw: if there had been no slave trade, certainly no one would have thrown others under the proverbial bus. However, it does become a construct in which, at the beginning, slave traders had to set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to Africans working with the slave traders to send other Africans off in chains. In the same way, I believe that if ever there was a God, it easily could have stepped back at some point. However, whether or not this actually occurred does not matter as it has on bearing on current conditions.
In this manner then, I believe that religion itself is not important. The guard in the watchtower doesn't care how you respect and obey him. He simply cares that you do. How one is subserviant doesn't matter, just that one is. In that sense, Atheism is following suit: Atheists aren't in trouble for their Atheism, they would be in trouble if they did something to upset the guard. What that is, no one knows. It used to be beliefs, that I feel that has relaxed.
But there are so many things that go on below the surface, it seems. Some believe God in the Watchtower is keeping track until one day, punishment will come. Others believe that they should go on as they feel, regardless of what happens. Perhaps the guard isn't going to get mad. Still others believe that nothing will happen: there is no guard in the watchtower. "You'll pay!" screams group A. "Nothing bad will come of it," group B says. Which one is right, again, is completely irrelevant, partially due to the judgements by others already made (in the place of a God).