One unavoidable rite of passage for children growing up in Singapore is a trip to the Haw Par Villa. Built by the brothers who invented Tiger Balm, the main attraction is the gardens, filled with statues depicting scenes from Chinese and Buddhist mythology, particularly the Ten Courts of Hell, whose graphic scenes demonstrate to impressionable minds what will happen to them in the afterlife if they misbehave.
But Chinese culture is not unique in the idea that the evil will suffer posthumous punishment. The Greeks had Tartarus, the deepest realm of the underworld where the wicked suffer for eternity. Hinduism has Naraka, where evildoers are tortured in one of 28 different hells, depending on the exact nature of their crimes. Dante spends the first 33 cantos of his Divine Comedy on a detailed description of the Christian hell. Throughout history, societies have found it useful to believe in a place of final punishment and in those who staff it.
The decline in Christian belief in the west is well evidenced. In the UK, for example a 2020 poll found that only 43% of Britons believed in a higher power, down from 78% in 1957. But spare some sympathy for the Devil: a 2013 poll found just that 18% of Brits believe in him.
There has been no shortage of people rushing to fill the gap left by the absence of God. From Asian traditions bowdlerised for a Western audience to New Age beliefs in crystals and spirit guides, there are many options for those who no longer believe in God, but rather wish they did. Who, though, will step up to take the place of Old Nick?
For some, such as historian Tom Holland, the genocides of the twentieth century render the need for a mythical embodiment of evil moot: “Who needs the Devil when there is Adolf Hitler?”
Well, according to economists Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary, we all do. Barro and McCleary argue that there is a correlation between a growth in the belief in Hell and economic growth in developing countries, even when church attendance remains constant. Belief in Hell, they claim, is independent of belief in God and it is specifically belief in Hell that boosts economic growth.
There is, however, one outlier in Barro and McCleary’s work—the Islamic world, which has a high prevalence of belief in Hell, but lower economic growth. They speculate that this is because the economic policies enacted by those states tend to be less business-friendly than those elsewhere. For the benefits of belief in Hell can be counterbalanced by other societal factors such as government policies and infrastructure. Data from Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology suggests that London’s murder rate between 1300 and 1340 was about 4.5 per 100,000 residents compared to its current level of 1.6. Mediaeval London was far more religious, but the state also held far less power. It would be 500 years before the city acquired a police force and longer still before the invention of modern forensics. Belief in Hell is additive to state capacity.
Trust is vital for a successful society. We need to be able to depend on others to behave well, and to do what they say they will. Law enforcement exists to deal with egregious breaches of trust but there are countless daily opportunities for minor misdemeanours that lead to an overall corrosion of trust.
In a society with only earthly authorities, such misdeeds can be very tempting, if one believes one can get away with them. But, for societies that believe in the Devil, someone is always watching. Judgement is inevitable, and Hell all too possible. Like the Dark Knight, the Dark Lord punishes those who slip through the authorities’ net. He may be the embodiment of evil but—if we follow Max Weber’s argument that some beliefs inspire behaviours that are socially useful—as the eternal prison warder, he is also the ultimate promoter of good.
To illustrate the importance of this, consider Don Giovanni. At the end of Mozart’s opera—subtitled Il Dissoluto Punito (“the libertine punished”)—the eponymous protagonist is dragged down to Hell, having avoided the earthly authorities, despite being a seducer, rapist and murderer. Traditionally, this scene has been an opportunity for directors to flood the stage with grotesque demons or pyrotechnics.
By contrast, in Kasper Holten’s 2014 production for the Royal Opera House, when the fateful time comes, the scenery, projected on to screens at the back of the stage, slowly fades out, leaving Giovanni alone in the dark on an empty stage. Eternal torment has become oblivion.
The idea of Hell as nothingness has ancient roots—it was considered the ultimate punishment in ancient Egypt. However, it contrasted with a fully imagined afterlife for the worthy—in Aaru, the Field of Reeds where Osiris reigns. Oblivion is a threat because there is an alternative.
In the modern, secular world, people no longer believe in the alternative. In 1787, most audience members would have believed that Don Giovanni’s fate flowed directly from his actions. He escaped punishment by the authorities, but he could not escape Hell. Only 33% of Britons now believe in the afterlife and in divine retribution.
If there is no life after death, oblivion is not a punishment: it is the natural order of things. Nothing one does in life will change that fact. Death may not have lost its sting, but the Devil has.
However, if he has played a useful role in society by promoting trustworthy behaviour, we should want to replace him. But how?
Since the Devil has traditionally functioned as a method of discouraging behaviour that might elude punishment by the state, one way of replacing him is to expand the state’s reach. This was the approach taken by the totalitarian communist regimes of the Soviet Union and East Germany, which relied on networks of informants. By 1989, the Stasi had more than 189,000 inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (“unofficial collaborators”) on its books—and these were just part of a larger informal network. An estimated two million people informed on their friends and neighbours. The Stasi maintained files on six million citizens—over a third of the population. East Germans knew that there was always someone watching.
The Stasi chiefly concerned itself with political crimes, such as insufficient loyalty to the Party. Modern-day China, on the other hand, uses technological mass surveillance to police morality. The country’s social credit system is an attempt to gauge the trustworthiness of all the citizens and reward or punish them accordingly. Life is made easier for those with a high score—they can rent bicycles without a deposit, for example—while those lower down the scale face an increasing number of sanctions, which range from exclusion from certain hotels to reduced job prospects and travel bans. By 2019, 27 million airline tickets had been denied to those deemed untrustworthy.
In Shanghai, failure to visit your elderly parents regularly can lead to a decline in your score, while in Beijing eating on public transport can lose you points (gluttons are banished to the third circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno). In Suzhou, failing to pay your mobile phone bill on time can cost you (greed lands you in the fourth circle), as can not picking up the take away you have ordered. None of these things are illegal, but they are immoral.
As barrister John Moulton has argued, the “domain of Manners … covers all cases of right doing where there is no-one to make you do it but yourself.” It is the land the Devil has traditionally patrolled. In communist societies, by contrast, what Moulton calls “Positive Law” expands into the territory in which, in a less authoritarian society, “all those whom the Law cannot reach take refuge.”
China has many of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world, as measured by the deployment of CCTV. But, although less extreme in this than China, the UK—which ranks surprisingly low on the social trust scale, given its relative wealth—is not immune to the watching business. London has the second highest number of cameras per square mile and the third highest number per head of population in the world. With one camera for every ten residents, the average citizen’s image is captured an estimated 70 times per day. According to Clarion Security Systems, the number of government cameras has increased by 238% over the past decade. And the surveillance extends to cyberspace. Britain’s proposed Online Safety Bill may force websites to monitor “legal but harmful” content, which would traditionally have been subjected merely to informal standards of politeness.
Britain’s low levels of trust have not turned it into an island of lawlessness and immorality because its institutions remain strong and can enforce the law through the police and courts. However, trust is still a quality that we should expect the state to promote and now that the traditional approach is no longer tenable, more technological methods must suffice. When the Devil stops watching us, government often starts.
John Adams, the second president of the US, outlines the dilemma: “Our Constitution was made for the government of a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to any other.” If you believe that threats of punishment are always necessary to keep people in line, you may end up resorting to government overreach to compensate for the loss of belief in the Devil. We may decide that we prefer the devil we knew.