Reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when I was a kid permanently deformed my prose style so I suppose I have an excuse for abusing the memory of Edward Gibbon by trotting out the following quotation for the millionth time: “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.” My motive in resurrecting this Lazarus is not to attack the religious right, however. In fact, as even a brief Google search verifies, the fundamentalists frequently quote it approvingly themselves and demonstrate in the process a better understanding of what Gibbon meant than the average village atheist. Gibbon wasn’t writing about the spiritual and political atmosphere of the decline, but explaining the rationale of the consistent tolerance followed by the Empire at its height. Gibbon, who was both a philosopher and a magistrate, doubtless approved of Antiquity’s version of multiculturalism. The American theocrats just as obviously despise it along with its contemporary avatars. They are, however, talking about the same thing.
In fact, one could hardly apply Gibbon’s quote justly to either the 5th Century or the 21st. The intellectual classes of late Antiquity, even the remaining Pagans, were deeply superstitious. They may have despised the coarser practices of the Many, but they commonly embraced the notion of reincarnation, poured over horoscopes, practiced magic, and summoned spirits. Even their serious philosophy was theosophy. The erstwhile freethinkers of our own times are no less susceptible to the appeal of irrational religious ideas. Business for alternative forms of medicine, astrology, and memory regression is always good in University towns. The dry and sober rationalism of high antiquity is not much in evidence. Meanwhile, just as the magistrates of the era of the Decline found that fanaticism had political uses, the politicians of our times have rediscovered the motive power of true belief.