You often hear educated unbelievers claiming that religion is nothing more than a social tool used by those who hold power to keep the uneducated in line. While it’s tempting apologetically speaking to go off on that suggestion, it may be that there is some truth to it in terms of some kinds of religion. In Book IV, Chapter 32 of the City of God, Augustine writes:
…The demons can only get control of men when they have deluded and deceived them; in the same way the leaders of men (who were not men of integrity, but the human counterparts of the demons) taught men as true, under the name of religion, things they knew to be false. By this means they bound them tighter, as it were, to the citizen community, so that they might bring them under control and keep them there by the same technique. What chance had a weak and ignorant individual of escaping from the combined deceits of the statesmen and the demons?
Augustine surely has in mind here the simple fact that Plutarch (A.D. 46-120) noted in his Life of Numa Pompilius several centuries earlier. Numa (d. ca. 673 B.C.), the second of the legendary seven kings of Rome prior to the foundation of the Republic in 509 B.C., was believed by the Romans to have reformed and reorganized their religion into the shape it would have for the rest of their history. Plutarch writes of Numa’s work:
When Numa had, by such measures, won the favour and affection of the people, he set himself without delay to the task of bringing the hard and iron Roman temper to somewhat more of gentleness and equity. Plato’s expression of a city in high fever was never more applicable than to Rome at that time; in its origin formed by daring and warlike spirits, whom bold and desperate adventure brought thither from every quarter, it had found in perpetual wars and incursions on its neighbours its after sustenance and means of growth, and in conflict with danger the source of new strength; like piles, which the blows of the hammer serve to fix into the ground. Wherefore Numa, judging it no slight undertaking to mollify and bend to peace the presumptuous and stubborn spirits of this people, began to operate upon them with the sanctions of religion. He sacrificed often and used processions and religious dances, in which most commonly he officiated in person; by such combinations of solemnity with refined and humanizing pleasures, seeking to win over and mitigate their fiery and warlike tempers. At times, also, he filled their imaginations with religious terrors, professing that strange apparitions had been seen, and dreadful voices heard; thus subduing and humbling their minds by a sense of supernatural fears.
While I do not concede the skeptical notion that religion’s civil functions mean that religion is nothing but a method of civil control, one can perhaps see from this why Marx would say that religion is the opiate of the masses, and why Gibbon would say that in the later Empire all religions were considered equally true by the people, equally false by the philosophers, and equally useful by the politicians.