01/03/2015 03:45 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 10) - The Noble Lie

"The Noble Lie," known also by its Latin name of "Pia Fraus," was another theory students considered in their study of the Bible. In ancient times, the theory goes, there was so much violent crime that leaders despaired of controlling it. Murder, rape, theft, and lying were so rampant that mankind was destroying itself. So the leaders invented the story that the gods, angered by this lawlessness, had appeared and given them laws to insure moral behavior. If people disobeyed these commands, they would be punished both here and hereafter. This threat terrified people into obedience since it was the gods themselves who had given these laws. The leaders lied, but for a noble cause -- to save their people from extinction.

Comparative religionists might view this theory in the following way:

Country/City, God/Angel, Recipient, Law/Scripture, Date
Egypt, Thoth, Menes, Laws, c. 3040 BCE
Mesopotamia, Shamash, Hammurabi, Code, c. 1750 BCE
Israel, Yahweh, Moses, Ten Commandments, c. 1280 BCE
Sparta, Apollo, Lycurgus, Constitution, c. 700 BCE
Rome, Egeria, Numa Pompilius, Laws, c. 700 BCE
Arabia, Gabriel, Muhammad, Koran, c. 610 CE
New York State, Moroni, Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon, c. 1830 CE


I gave the above chart to students and asked them to interpret it in different ways. After a few minutes, they offered four interpretations:

1. These Gods/angels gave these laws or scriptures to all the recipients.

2. Only one God/angel in different guises appeared to all the recipients.

3. Only one God/angel appeared to only one of the recipients.

4. None of these Gods/angels appeared to anyone.

Students thought that Number One was possible, but that few in the West would accept it because most believe in only one God.

Number Two was also possible because God could have adapted himself to each culture.

Number Three was likewise possible, although every culture would view itself as the only recipient.

Number Four embodied the Noble Lie.

As an example of how one historian saw the Noble Lie as maintaining order in the ancient world, I quoted Edward Gibbon's celebrated passage from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful."

I then asked students to critique this theory, based on their nine-week study of critical thinking and the classical Greeks. Their response was that it was only a theory since there was no empirical evidence to support it. It was also a fallacy of origins, which presumed what might have given rise to these religious codes, but, again, presumption was not fact but groundless speculation, which purported to explain what transpired in some mythical past, yet offered no proof.

Were the theory true, would it have been morally justifiable for the leaders to lie to their people? Some thought that it wasn't, because lying is always wrong and that this behavior could degenerate into habitual deceit. Others thought that it was justified because it was the lesser of two evils - a lie is better than the destruction of a people.

Did the Ten Commandments deter crime today? A few students thought that they did, given the high incidence of crime, while most thought that fear of prison and loss of reputation were the more likely deterrents.

I mentioned Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion, which discusses the therapeutic need for the belief in God and an afterlife to give humanity hope and meaning in an unjust world. Some students rejected that these beliefs were illusions and dismissed Freud's view as either an "ad hominem" or a fallacy of origins, since he equated the psychological motives for holding these beliefs with their alleged falsehood.

Other students claimed that people believe in God and an afterlife only because they are conditioned to do so from childhood, but that they could just as well be conditioned not to believe them.

Others felt that these two beliefs served the needs of the powerful to have people bear up under poverty or oppression, thereby making religion a means for controlling a population. Others dismissed this reasoning as an ad hominem or a fallacy of origins because the promotion of religion to neutralize rebellion doesn't disprove the claims of religion, but simply illustrates the political uses to which religion can be put.

Could people act morally if they thought there weren't a God and an afterlife? Some students felt that most people couldn't, whereas others disagreed. Atheists lead moral lives, and believers in God still commit crime.

Others thought that crime had more to do with poverty or environment than with religious beliefs. Growing up in a culture of violence or war would predispose some to act in criminal ways, but others cited that the wealthy also commit crimes in times of peace. Human beings were too mysterious to be pigeonholed into neat little theories.

What about the theory of determinism -- that people lack free will and are compelled to do things over which they have no control. Some saw this as only an excuse for wrongdoing, while others thought that determinism would undermine the legal system, which assumes the ability to choose freely between right and wrong.

If there was no free will, would government publicly admit it since criminals would claim that they were forced into crime by an inner compulsion? Students felt that no government could afford to make such an admission.

Would that mean that the belief in free will is a Noble Lie? Students weren't sure.

Was something wrong because society says it's wrong, or does society say it's wrong because it is wrong? (Long silence, so I rephrased the question.) If God exists, are certain actions wrong because he says they're wrong, or does he say they're wrong because they are wrong? (No response.)

If it's the first option - that things are wrong because God says they're wrong, does that mean that they aren't wrong in and of themselves, but only because God says they are, and that he could just as easily have said the opposite? (No response.)

And if it's the second option -- that God says certain actions are wrong because they are wrong, does that mean that God has no say in the matter at all, but is simply telling us that right and wrong exist independently of his saying so? Put another way, is God forced to go along with something that has already been decided by the nature of things and over which he has no control? (No response.)

I concluded class with the following reflections. Do you see how all of these questions are interconnected -- the Noble Lie, its justifiability, the survival of a society, the Ten Commandments as a deterrent against crime, free will and determinism, the nature of right and wrong, responsibility before the law?

They are among the many questions that have been argued about for centuries, and an education entails knowing about these controversies, and about how the Bible fits into this broader cultural conversation that has been going on in the West since before the Greeks.

These are questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human in this or in any century. The Bible keeps these questions alive, not so much by the answers it gives as by the many questions it provokes in the reader, questions which are rarely if ever raised in our modern world.

Any book that does that is well worth the reading.