Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Shrewd Men’s Religion

Galileo_Galilei_2by Revilo P. Oliver

AN ARTICLE in a magazine at which I glanced the other day repeated the trite and hackneyed denunciation of the Inquisitors in Rome, who forced Galileo (pictured) to recant his belief in Copernican astronomy and thus gave him an opportunity, if tradition is to be trusted, to mutter his immortal E pur si muove as he was being led away to prison in which he was for a time confined, despite his recantation of the heretical idea that the earth moves around the sun. Everyone deplores the ignorance and bigotry of the ecclesiastical Inquisitors who thought they could refute the heliocentric astronomy by penalizing persons who admitted belief in a scientific fact that inevitably was soon acknowledged by all men with even a tincture of education. The common opinion about the Inquisitors probably is only evidence of the naiveté with which professions of dogmatic belief are commonly judged.

The chances are that the Inquisitors — or at least most of them — were intelligent men and were themselves convinced that the earth does indeed revolve about the sun. As intelligent men, however, they knew that the Jesus-business would become intellectually bankrupt as soon as it was proved that the Jewish Savior’s daddy wasn’t up there, a mile or so above the clouds, and couldn’t have stopped the sun to give his pet Jews more time to slaughter Semites. It was too late to discard or revise the Old Testament, and when its stories were exposed as tall tales told by ignorant witch-doctors, the jerry-built structure that had been erected on such quicksand would collapse and disappear. They were determined to keep their salvation-business going as long as they could to protect their handsome incomes and possibly also to maintain a superstition they really did think requisite to avert the disintegration of civilized society into an anarchic chaos. It is quite likely that if there were a life after death, the ghosts of those Inquisitors would be astounded to see organized societies still functioning, centuries after sane men everywhere had accepted the irrefragable proof that the earth does in fact revolve about the sun, and even more astounded to see their religion and its witch-doctors still flourishing and daily coaxing or squeezing millions from their childishly credulous customers, who never weary of hearing their favorite bedtime stories about Prince Jesus and King Yahweh and how they will, some day soon, live happily ever after.

We tend uncritically to believe professions of belief, especially when they concern such solemn matters as religion. It is true that men, if they are Aryans, very commonly do put into words what they in fact believe, with or without some prudent concessions to vulgar opinions, but it is also true that men, even Aryans, may perceive, as Jews do by racial instinct, that words can be used to conceal thought and to manipulate the gullible masses for their own profit. It is highly probable that in no class of society has scepticism and disbelief been more common than among the professionals who profit from religion and know the techniques by which faith is induced. Sorcerers cannot believe in their own magic, and the power of words and pretense is, after all, a kind of magic.

The first Earl of Shaftesbury has the reputation of having been the most adroit politician of the Seventeenth Century, at least in England. He certainly was, throughout most of his career, the most adroit in discovering that his religious faith always conformed to the dogmas of whatever church would advance his own interests. After one mutation of his faith, a lady of rank asked him what he actually believed. “Madame,” he said urbanely, “all men of sense are really of but one religion.” So the lady asked, “Pray, my Lord, what religion is that in which men of sense agree?” And the Earl made answer, “Madame, men of sense never tell.”

Benjamin Franklin is said to have quoted the Earl’s exemplary prudence with approval. And Benjamin D’Israeli appropriated Shaftesbury’s sagacity and put it in the mouth of a character in one of his novels. One suspects, however, that most of the contending theologians and ambitious princes of the church, in all centuries since the outbreak of Christianity in the decadent Roman Empire, would have been in complete agreement with Shaftesbury and each other, had they had his whim to be candid for a moment.

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Source: Liberty Bell magazine, April 1985

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