“Only church leaders possess states without defending them and subjects without governing them.” So said Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in his historical treatise The Prince. Religion, he suggests, is a political necessity, the tool of a ruling class unable to rationally legitimise the massive social inequality of feudal society.
Whilst such a system might seem positively medieval to us now, in the age of the 1 and the 99% and lease-only housing in the capital, it seems that the legacy of ye olde, aristocratic Britannia might not be so remote. Religious states still exist also – Saudi ‘women can’t drive’ Arabia, for instance – and ‘secular’ Britain must count itself as one of only two sovereign states in the world to theocratically maintain the presence of unelected bishops within their political system (the House of Lords). The other is Iran.
But the times they are a-changing, and if the world wars of the 20th century began to erode religious faith in the west, then the proliferation of the world wide web has only exacerbated that process. “Religions have depended on the relative isolation and ignorance of their flocks, forever, and this is all breaking down,” asserts Daniel C. Dennett, the co-director of Tufts’ Centre for Cognitive Studies.
Dennett’s theory is certainly lent support by a recent YouGov poll, which found that “the place of religion in the lives of young Britons is smaller than ever.” Asked by YouGov which figures had any influence whatsoever on their lives, only 12% of British 18-24 year olds said religious leaders influenced them, less than half the number influenced by brands (32%) and politicians (38%), and significantly lower than those influenced by celebrities (21%).