The noble lie or royal lie theory of religion is wanting people to believe in and practice some religion that one considers false to make them virtuous. This theory has been advocated by many notable people over the centuries, and there are still many people who seem to accept it.
Unfortunately basing morality on some religious text, especially an old religious text more likely than not leads to a morality that fails to change with the times. Further too frequently following the teachings becomes more important than improving human welfare, see Christian morality for examples.
Nearly 2400 years ago, Aristocles of Athens, son of Ariston, better known as Plato, wrote a dialogue about what would be his ideal society. This dialogue, the Republic (Πολιτεία, Politeia) features a lot of detail about the social structure of that community, but what is especially interesting here is its treatment of religion.
Plato proposed that the stories of his society's religion be banned from his Republic, because they were full of (to him) bad examples like heroes lamenting and gods laughing. He also proposed banning theater because male actors would have to play villains and women, and he proposed that music only be in cheerful and uplifting styles, not in gloomy and depressing styles.
In its place was to be a religion that Plato devised for making the Republic's citizens accept the legitimacy of its social structure, a religion that Plato considered false. The term "royal lie" is Benjamin Jowett's translation of γενναῖον ψεῦδος, gennaion pseudos; "noble lie" is also a common one.
How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke--just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?
What sort of lie? he said.
Nothing new, I replied; only an old Phoenician tale of what has often occurred before now in other places (as the poets say, and have made the world believe), though not in our time, and I do not know whether such an event could ever happen again, or could now even be made probable, if it did.
How your words seem to hesitate on your lips!
You will not wonder, I replied, at my hesitation when you have heard.
Speak, he said, and fear not.
Well, then, I will speak, although I really know not how to look you in the face, or in what words to utter the audacious fiction, which I propose to communicate gradually, first to the rulers, then to the soldiers, and lastly to the people. They are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth, where they themselves and their arms and appurtenances were manufactured; when they were completed, the earth, their mother, sent them up; and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and her citizens they are to regard as children of the earth and their own brothers.
You had good reason, he said, to be ashamed of the lie which you were going to tell.
True, I replied, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honor; others he has made of silver, to be auxiliaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son. And God proclaims as a first principle to the rulers, and above all else, that there is nothing which they should so anxiously guard, or of which they are to be such good guardians, as of the purity of the race. They should observe what elements mingle in their offspring; for if the son of a golden or silver parent has an admixture of brass and iron, then nature orders a transposition of ranks, and the eye of the ruler must not be pitiful toward the child because he has to descend in the scale and become a husbandman or artisan, just as there may be sons of artisans who having an admixture of gold or silver in them are raised to honor, and become guardians or auxiliaries. For an oracle says that when a man of brass or iron guards the State, it will be destroyed. Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?
Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons' sons, and posterity after them.
I see the difficulty, I replied; yet the fostering of such a belief will make them care more for the city and for one another.
Plato’s Republic, Book 3, Stephanus pages 414c-415d, Benjamin Jowett’s translation, online at several places. Plato lived around 427-347 BCE, and he likely wrote his Republic in around 360 BCE.
Plato recommended other systematic lying by the Republic’s leaders, like practicing eugenics under the pretense of randomly marrying people in mass weddings (Book 5, 458c-462a), but that is another subject.
In any case, Plato’s royal lie is recognizable as an allegory of the social order of his Republic, with the gold people, the philosopher-rulers / guardians, on top, the silver people, the soldiers, in between, and the brass and iron people, the common people, on the bottom. Also, being born from the land of the Republic meant that you are to feel attached to it.
Plato's proposal was echoed by other Greco-Roman authors:
... but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry. For this reason I think, not that the ancients acted rashly and at haphazard in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of hell, ...
Polybius (~200 - 118 BCE), Histories, 6.56, tr. W. R. Paton
(Numa Pompilius) ... The removal of all danger from without would induce his subjects to luxuriate in idleness, as they would be no longer restrained by the fear of an enemy or by military discipline. To prevent this, he strove to inculcate in their minds the fear of the gods, regarding this as the most powerful influence which could act upon an uncivilised and, in those ages, a barbarous people. But, as this would fail to make a deep impression without some claim to supernatural wisdom, he pretended that he had nocturnal interviews with the nymph Egeria: that it was on her advice that he was instituting the ritual most acceptable to the gods and appointing for each deity his own special priests. ...
Livy (Titus Livius, 59 BCE - 17 CE), History of Rome, 1.19, tr. Rev. Canon Roberts
... but they are deterred from evil courses when, either through descriptions or through typical representations of objects unseen, they learn of divine punishments, terrors, and threats — or even when they merely believe that men have met with such experiences. For in dealing with a crowd of women, at least, or with any promiscuous mob, a philosopher cannot influence them by reason or exhort them to reverence, piety and faith; nay, there is need of religious fear also, and this cannot be aroused without myths and marvels. For thuderbolt, aegis, trident, torches, snakes, thyrsus-lances,— arms of the gods — are myths, and so is the entire ancient theology. But the founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simple-minded. ...
Strabo (first century CE), Geography, 1.2.8, tr. H. L. Jones
(about India) ... And (the Brachmanes / Brahmans) also weave in myths, like Plato, about the immortality of the soul and the judgments in Hades and other things of this kind. ...
Strabo, Geography, 15.1.59
Likewise, some philosophers, like Protagoras and Carneades, would doubt or deny the Greco-Roman gods, while worshipping them or stating that they ought to be worshipped.
Advancing by 1500 years, we find Niccolo Machiavelli expressing similar opinions. He is best-known for writing The Prince, in which he described how to win in the politics of Renaissance Italy, including very unscrupulous ways of doing so. But when he discusses political goals in Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, he is much more reasonable and civilized than one might imagine from The Prince. But here also, he seems to endorse the royal-lie theory of religion; in Book 1, Chapter 14 of the Discourses, he explains how
The Romans interpreted the auspices according to necessity, and with their prudence made a show of observing religion, even when they were forced not to observe it, and if anyone recklessly disparaged it they punished him.
The auspices were official divinations of the will of the official gods, like watching some sacred chickens. If they pecked the ground, that was considered good luck, while if they did not, that was considered bad luck.
Half a century ago, political philosopher Leo Strauss had advocated a rather elitist theory of government; he admired Plato's Republic for advocating that its leaders tell official lies. He continues to have followers, including some "neoconservatives".
But on religion, many recent and present-day advocates of the royal-lie theory seem reluctant to be as honest as their predecessors. They often hide behind a pretense of "it can't be proved" pseudo-agnosticism and similar obfuscations.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett has talked about "belief in belief" in religion, which is much the same thing, though with prettier terminology.
This article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).