Religion as a Noble Lie

By Guy W

In The Republic Plato described a city whose population were divided into categories or classes. Plato said that the rulers had a duty to tell "The Noble Lie" that their position in life was not due to circumstances within their control but through the intervention of God, e.g. you're poor because that was God's plan. Plato believed that the lie was necessary to keep society stable. "In Plato's mind, The Noble Lie is a religious lie that's fed to the masses to keep them under control and happy with their situation in life. Plato did not believe most people were smart enough to look after their own and society's best interest. The few smart people of the world needed to lead the rest of the flock, Plato said. And The Noble Lie had to continue. (1)"

This belief of Plato's is remarkably similar to the views held by University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss who believed that deception was an integral part of politics. Like Plato he believed that society should be hierarchical. However, unlike Plato who was concerned about the moral character of those in power, Strauss said that "those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right-the right of the superior to rule over the inferior." Strauss believed that while the elite were able to comprehend the idea that there is no morality, the masses could not comprehend this. If they did then society would be led into nihilism and anarchy. Like Plato, Strauss viewed religion as a necessary myth to keep the people in control. "At the same time, he stressed that religion was for the masses alone; the rulers need not be bound by it. (2)" A member of the elite would therefore pretend to follow a religion but privately he would not believe.

The belief of hierarchy and concealment of truth is found not only in the teachings of Plato and Strauss but also in other religions like Scientology. In Scientology there are different levels. At the lowest level, members are taught one thing and when members progress up the levels they are taught at a higher level. At a higher level members have been taught that what they learnt initially was false-a necessary lie. This is the Scientology belief of the knowledge gradient. Some people at lower levels (the masses) are not ready for higher levels of knowledge (the fraud of religion) because there is "too steep a gradient."

Adam Curtis's controversial documentary The Power of Nightmares: Rise of the Politics of Fear (a 3-hour-long documentary that can be watched online at Google Video for free) shows that many of the disciples of Leo Strauss are neoconservatives who are in power today. Curtis believes that the neoconservatives are desperate to spread not only the myth of religion but they were also desperate to spread the myth of nationalism, to endow the USA with religious properties, and to give the country a destiny to spread freedom and fight evil. Curtis believes the neoconservatives spread this myth so that the people would be given meaning to their lives.

The idea of a noble lie is seen at a smaller scale in the tradition of Santa Clause. The lie of Santa Clause is used in a similar way to the way that Plato and Strauss claim religion should be used by the elite. Adults spread the lie of Santa Clause among young children to give them something to hope for. The lie keeps them happy because of the promise of gifts. In a similar way that religion uses threat and reward in the form of heaven and hell to motivate followers not to sin, the lie of Santa Clause uses the threat of withdrawal of gifts to motivate young children to behave well. As young children grow up, they realize the truth but nevertheless they are likely to pass on the lie to their own children. Perhaps this is how leaders evolve. When an ordinary person moves up the social hierarchy and becomes a leader, the truth about religion may dawn on him. As a parent may tell the child the truth about Santa Clause as the child grows up, the elite may tell the new leader the truth about religion. As the parent continues to spread the lie to his children so too the leader may pass down the lie of religion to the people.

(1) Google Answers: Plato's Noble Lie

(2) AlterNet: Leo Strauss' Philosophy of Deception

(3) Google Video: The Power of Nightmares

To view references, copy and paste the line into Google and perform the search.

Title: Religion as a Noble Lie

Summary: Essay explores Greek philosopher Plato's idea that religion is a necessary and noble lie spread by the philosopher-kings to the people.