Machiavelli was not a religious believer but believed in the social utility of religion. The question of God, salvation, and the immortality of the soul did not matter to him. What mattered to him was the reality of religion in life and how religion is useful for nations and why a nation’s vitality is tied to the vitality of its religion.
There is a realpolitik outlook concerning religion from Machiavelli’s disposition. Chapters 13-15 of book I deal with the initial utility of religion in states which inculcated in men courage and resolution. During the Siege of Veii, soothsayers proclaimed, “Veii would be defeated during the year in which Lake Albanus overflowed its banks; this made the soldiers endure the hardships of the siege, in their hope of taking the city by storm, and they remained content to continue the campaign until Camillus was made dictator and captured the city after the ten years during which it had been under siege.” Because the soldiers, who were deeply religious, believed in the prophecy that the city would fall, they were willing to endure hardships for ten years and the city finally fell.
Religious people see correlation where others do not. This is their great advantage against those who lack such steadfast convictions. As Machiavelli equally discusses, soothsayers and fortune tellers always accompanied the armies and read the signs of the day—auspices—as to whether the army was to have success. When the soothsayers read bad auspices and reported it, the army abstained from combat. When the soothsayers read good auspices and reported it, the army engaged in combat. As Machiavelli notes, it doesn’t matter whether the signs were accurate in their foretelling, what mattered was that “the auspices serve any purpose other than sending the soldiers confidently into battle, for from such confidence victory almost always result[ed].” For Machiavelli, the practical utility of religion is what matters, not its overall theologies or worldview. As long as religion instilled courage into its believers—especially in the army—it was instrumental to aiding the Romans in their expansion and greatness.
Machiavelli’s more extensive commentary on religion and its benefit in society comes about in the beginning of Book III. Machiavelli understands man as a religious animal. Religion is the origo of man and his polity; that is, religion establishes the founding myth and origin story of peoples and their cities. Machiavelli also admits “all the things of this world have a limited existence”—including states and religions—but the states and religions that are able to persevere the longest are those that honor their origins:
As for the first means, it is evident how necessary it was for Rome to have been taken by the Gauls in order for it to be reborn, and in being reborn, to take on new life and new vigour and to take up once again the observance of religion and justice, which were beginning to become corrupt. This is very clearly understood through Livy’s history, where he demonstrates that in calling out their army against the Gauls and in creating tribunes with consular authority, the Romans failed to observe any religious ceremony.
What Machiavelli reflects upon in the relationship of religion and state is that a state cannot sustain itself without a mythology, a religion, or some sense of consciousness about itself. Throughout history religion provides that sense of self and meaning in the world and has, irrespective of theological reality, a profound utility. The vitality of a state and its people are shown in their respect and reverence for their religions. “[A]s soon as Rome was retaken, the Romans renewed all institutions of their ancient religion, punished the Fabii who had fought ‘in opposition to the laws of nations.”
For Machiavelli, it is not the ethics of a religion that matters. Though he does not look kindly upon religions that praise meekness as a virtue. Instead, Machiavelli looks to religion as instrumental in providing a consciousness and sense of mission and destiny in men. Men who fervently believe in something, anything, will be harder to defeat than men who believe in nothing.
Here, Machiavelli gives his own version of Plato’s myth of the noble lie from the Republic. Plato asserted in The Republic that the functionality of polities depend on some sort of noble lie, some sort of basic myth which its citizens believe in even if it isn’t true. This was Plato’s observation of how polities sustain themselves and any ideal republic needs its mythos. So too does Machiavelli see this truth in the utility and conscionable consequences of religion. Religion provides that common consciousness and mythos to which a disparate polity unites and demands sacrifice from its adherents.
In this regard we can consider Machiavelli “a true believer.” That is, he believes it necessary for people to believe in the Transcendent because it gives men a sense of eternity and sublimity which they are willing to die for (or undertake intense hardships for believing themselves pious and reverent in doing so). States in terminal decline, and people accepting their doom, shun religion—as seen in the Gallic sack of Rome in 380 B.C. States on the rise, and a people vigorous and confident—as seen in Rome’s founding and re-founding—embrace religion with a fanaticism that gives them an edge in worldly matters. And that is why religion is important more than its claims to theology or readings of prophecy.