381. Preponderance of the great (VI)
There is an old saying—old but nonetheless true—derived from an observation by Gibbon, he of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that runs roughly as follows: “For the Roman citizens at large all religions were equally true; for the Roman philosophers all religions were equally false; and for the Roman magistrates all religions were equally useful.” There have always been atheists; and the practical atheists have been the smarter magistrates—the magistrates who rule. A practical atheist does not reject religion in public; rather, he thinks about how useful that religion is for his purposes. Before Rome, there was Thucydides in Greece—whom Nietzsche would have us emulate—and he cast a sceptical eye on ineffective prayers to the gods when plague gnawed at his city. Atheism is as old as religion itself.
Even the roguish atheist Voltaire said that he would prefer that his servants believed in God, lest they slit his throat in the night and steal his goods; perhaps that says more about Voltaire’s ability—or lack thereof—to judge character than anything else; even Voltaire was a “magistrate”, not a “philosopher”. Actually, we can only be atheistic about the supernatural and metaphysical claims in religions: man needs beliefs; and supernatural or metaphysical beliefs are easily swapped out for liberalism, Marxism, and so on. Only the truly autistic or those who can force themselves into that mindset for a time can be pure atheists—“philosophers” in the Gibbon schema.
About 15% of the population enjoys sufficient intelligence and character to think for themselves; perhaps fewer if corruption has grown acute. Within this group probably less than 0.5% are “philosophers”—in our day, scientists—who seek a logically consistent worldview that corresponds to observed reality and do so with an “autistic” disregard for social beliefs. The rest are “magistrates”—lawyers, engineers, and actual judges—who are interested in social management, in whether the state’s religion is socialism or Christianity. The remainder population needs religion, in the broadest sense, to navigate the world; otherwise it is too complex for them to understand—they cannot think for themselves.
In recent centuries, a movement has arisen—a movement that used to be called “free-thinking”—that holds that everyone should think for themselves, even though this is not possible. This movement pretends to forget what the ancient magistrates knew: let the old widow pray to Athena or Mary if she wants, her wretched sons only support her and stop her from burdening others because there is a social sense that the gods curse those who abandon their parents—today Athena, tomorrow Mary; so long as the religion serves the republic’s stability it is fine; and so we magistrates go to the temple to set an example.
Free-thinkers fall into two groups: the first, more marginal, group consists of very intelligent but impractical people—the nutty professor who can solve complex equations but has claw-like uncut fingernails. As intelligence increases practicality decreases, so that very high intelligence is probably selected against: you become too abstract and die because you walked off a cliff while lost in thought. This type naively advocates “free thought” because they forget not everyone has the brain power to think for themselves; possibly they have deluded themselves through brilliant abstraction into egalitarianism.
The second and more significant group is actually malicious; they know that low-status people literally believe in religion and use the truths encoded in old religions to navigate reality. This group recommends that everyone “thinks for themselves” because it heightens class distinctions; either because the lower orders protest in a low-class way to defend literal religion (snake-wrangling preachers and the like), or they believe what the “free-thinker” says and then demonstrate, through disastrous choices, that they cannot think for themselves; perhaps, for example, they adopt really credulous beliefs about UFOs—and this extenuates the class divide and inflicts harm on the lower orders, the infliction of harm with impunity being one way humans demonstrate social status.