The Noble Lie-3: The Noble Lie applied to religion »« The Noble Lie-1: The slippery slope from benign to evil

The Noble Lie-2: The Noble Lie as a deliberate political strategy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

One might think that the idea of the Noble Lie existed only in ancient times where access to education was reserved for a small elite. But the proponents of the Noble Lie exist to this day.

A long and fascinating article titled Origin of the Specious: Why do neoconservatives doubt Darwin? by Ronald Bailey that appeared in the July 1997 issue of Reason magazine lays out how leading neoconservatives such as the late Irving Kristol (father of the always-wrong current neoconservative William Kristol) have been arguing against the theory of evolution because of the fear that it might undermine religious beliefs, even though they themselves are often not religious at all and consider themselves pro-science. Such people feel that religion is needed for social stability and must be preserved for that reason alone, even if it is a false belief that might harm scientific advances.

It is worth quoting Bailey at some length:

[Irving] Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, “If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded–or even if it suspects–that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.”

Another prominent neoconservative, Leon Kass, author of Toward a More Natural Science (1985), and a member of the University of Chicago’s prestigious Committee on Social Thought, also believes that evolutionary theory poses a threat to social order: “[T]he creationists and their fundamentalist patrons…sense that orthodox evolutionary theory cannot support any notions we might have regarding human dignity or man’s special place in the whole. And they see that Western moral teaching, so closely tied to Scripture, is also in peril if any major part of Scripture can be shown to be false.”

At the heart of the neoconservative attack on Darwinism lies the political philosophy of Leo Strauss. Strauss was a German political philosopher who fled the Nazis in 1938 and began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1949. In an intellectual revolt against modernity, Strauss focused his work on interpreting such classics as Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. “What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that ‘the truth will make men free.'” Kristol adds that “Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.”

Kristol agrees with this view. “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,” he says in an interview. “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.”

In crude terms, some critics of Strauss argue that he interpreted the ancient philosophers as offering two different teachings, an esoteric one which is available only to those who read the ancient texts closely, and an exoteric one accessible to naive readers. The exoteric interpretations were aimed at the mass of people, the vulgar, while the esoteric teachings–the hidden meanings–were vouchsafed to the few, the philosophers. Philosophers know the truth, but must keep it hidden from the vulgar, lest it upset them. What is the hidden truth known to philosophers? That there is no God and there is no ultimate foundation for morality. As Kristol suggests, it is necessary to keep this truth from the vulgar because such knowledge would only engender despair in them and lead to social breakdown. In his book, On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero, Strauss asserts with unusual clarity that Socratic dialogues are “based on the premise that there is a disproportion between the intransigent quest for truth and the requirements of society, or that not all truths are always harmless.”

Political scientist Shadia Drury, a passionate critic of Strauss, puts it this way: “For Strauss, the ills of modernity have their source in the foolish belief that there are no harmless truths, and that belief in God and in rewards and punishments is not necessary for political order…. [H]e is convinced that religion is necessary for the well-being of society. But to state publicly that religion is a necessary fiction would destroy any salutary effect it might have. The latter depends on its being believed to be true…. If the vulgar discovered, as the philosophers have always known, that God is dead, they might behave as if all is permitted.”

Thus, to preserve society, wise people must publicly support the traditions and myths that sustain the political order and that encourage ordinary people to obey the laws and live justly. People will do so only if they believe that moral rules are divinely decreed or were set up by men who were inspired by the Divine.

Kristol restated this insight nearly five decades ago in an essay in Commentary dealing with Freud: “If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without…let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine–for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish.” [All the bold passages are my emphasis-MS]

In the next post, I will continue the examination of the policy supporting religion as part of the Noble Lie philosophy.

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