The Noble Lie-3: The Noble Lie applied to religion

(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 place where one hears the argument about the virtues of the Noble Lie is in the case of religion.

Atheists are sometimes criticized for undermining belief in god because some sophisticated religious people feel that even if there is no god, believing in one may serve some good ends by helping people overcome personal adversity, prevent them from doing evil things, and even inspire them to do great things.

Some political thinkers feel that religion plays an important role in maintaining social order and seek to perpetuate religious beliefs even if they themselves are unbelievers. Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) argued that belief in god is a fraud perpetrated on the public in order to sustain a ruling class: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

The recent political movement known as neoconservatism, whose roots can be traced to the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss and whose adherents were a major force urging the US to launch the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now seeks to expand to new wars against Iran and other middle eastern countries, also promotes the virtues of the noble lie. (I have written before in 2006 about Strauss and his belief that only an elite can handle the essential truths about society and the rest must be shielded from the truth by manufacturing consoling lies.)

Ernest Hemingway said that “All thinking men are atheists.” Such a quote may seem to embody the arrogance that atheists are routinely accused of but he is not alone in thinking so. Martin Luther (1483-1546), the leader of the movement known as the Reformation that created the Protestant churches, was convinced that reason and religion were antithetical because faith required the denial of reason. At various times he said, “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” Also, “Reason should be destroyed in all Christians” and “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.” (All quotes from Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 190)

By contrast, atheists like Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) argue that it is reason that enables people to be good citizens, and that the truth must be propagated even if it means undermining cherished falsehoods like religion. “Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack [religion], because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.”

The idea that sophisticated thinkers have always known that there is no god is not new. As John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) said, “The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.” No doubt Mill was influenced by his father who told him, ” There is no God, but it’s a family secret.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 4)

What is new is that atheists are challenging the idea that encouraging belief in god constitutes a Noble Lie. Instead they argue that the truth that god does not exist must be made known to everyone, not just an elite, and are publicizing it widely.

POST SCRIPT: Tennessee Ernie Ford sings 16 tons

Growing up in Sri Lanka without TV, there were many songs that I knew well but had never seen performed. Thanks to YouTube, I keep stumbling over them now. Here’s one about indentured labor that has the now-famous line “Another day older and deeper in debt.”


  1. Tom Maley says

    I remember as a kid listening to that deep base voice “And I owe my soul to the company store.” That store will, in short time, be Wal-Mart.

  2. Scott says

    I’m really surprised that this wasn’t seen as subversive back then. Or was it?

    I really enjoy your blog, Mano. I read it “religiously!” 🙂

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