”What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion is always in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry.”
Review Mill’s attitude to religion: authority, creed and the heretic especially in the light of this comment.
J S Mill was especially interested in ‘on Liberty’ with the important social matter of morality and conduct. As these issues are so widely influenced by the dominant religious belief of that time, religion morality is where Mill focuses his attention. As is all to clear from the title quotation, Mill did not share the common view held by the majority in the Victorian ages concerning religion. To fully understand Mill’s view on Christianity, heretics and authority we must comprehend exactly what Mill recognised religion to actually be. Mill comes to a conclusion that religion is to be judged chiefly by the ideal they present of a Perfect Being, who is a guide to conscience. This results in the aspect which most regard as the thing that most greatly divides two beliefs -the presence or absence of transcendental beliefs- being pushed aside and not aiding the choice between two religions (Christianity and the religion of humanity is used as a comparison).
Mill asks us, in ‘Theism’, to look at religion ‘not from the point of view of reverence but from that of science’. Mill wanted to take a look at religion from the outside and tries to assess, (much like empirical philosophers Locke, Hume and Butler) the validity of religious beliefs and practices by principles accepted independently of religion. He draws numerous conclusions on his view on Gods’ benevolence, omniscience, character etcetera (all derived from observation and induction), but this is not what ‘On Liberty’ is concerned with.
Mill’s opening points made about religion in ‘On Liberty’ launches a full attack on the restraints imposed on minds by religion, ‘religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realised’ (p.67, #7). This meaning that religion encourages people not to question and debate what they have been told through the church and the bible; this information quickly can harden in the public’s minds as mere ‘dead dogma’. This ‘dead dogma’ may not be questioned, and toleration of opposing opinions is non-existent. The opinion ‘continues to be felt in undiminished strength, and is perhaps brought out into even fuller consciousness, so long as the struggle lasts to give the doctrine or creed an ascendancy over other creeds. At last it either prevails, and becomes the general opinion, or its progress stops; it keeps possession of the ground it has gained, but ceases to spread further.'(Chpt. 2, #28).
Mill feels that any person without a ‘cultivated’ and ‘educated’ mind accepts this expansion of religion without refute. This blind acceptance results in Mill’s quotation that is the title of this essay. The people do not question religion and therefore it can creep into their minds and influence them just as easily as the revival of bigotry, as they have not had the chance of education and cannot counter what they have heard. Mill sees dead dogma as something that crushes individuality, but it may be said that he is attacking believers and institutions that hold dogma close to them while at the same time the individuality they do have will be shaped by the dogma they live by.
Mill retaliates by claiming it is not possible for these people to have any individuality to be shaped when under the canopy of Christianity: ‘both the psychological power and the social efficacy of a religion; making it take hold of human life, and colour all thought, feeling, and action, in a manner of which the greatest dominance ever exercised by any religion may be but a type and foretaste; and of which the danger is, not that it should be insufficient but that it should be so excessive as to interfere unduly with human freedom and individuality.'(Chpt.3, ‘Utilitarianism’). This may be a little unreasonable; is it not possible that people can believe in God and share the morals of Christianity, yet think for themselves in other departments? I know many Christians who, even though Mill would say have little individuality because of their religion, discuss and debate their opinions as much as any atheist I know and therefore avoid being caught in the trap of dead dogma.
Mill understands that religious toleration has its limits, and a religious believer may well be tolerant about ‘matters of church government, but not of dogma; another can tolerate everybody, short of a Baptist or a Unitarian… a few extend their charity a little further but stop at the belief in God and in a future state.’ (p.67, #7). Mill uses an example of two men who were rejected as jurymen as they admitted they had no theological belief and no belief in a future state. This makes the oath they have to take ‘worthless of a person who does not believe in a future state’.(p.91 #18). This results in the judicial system cutting away at their own foundations; ‘Under pretence that atheists [who take the oath] must be liars, it admits the testimony of all atheists who are willing to lie, and rejects only those who brave the obloquy of publicly confessing a detested creed rather than affirm a falsehood… The rule and the theory it implies are hardly less insulting to believers than to infidels.’ (p.91/92 #18). This conclusion is reached as it follows that that the believers are only prevented from lying by the fear of hell.
Mill was deeply aware of the fact that progression and long term fundamental change was driven by ideas and beliefs rather than legislation and economic powers. Those ideas that prevail, shape the future of the development of societies. Mill saw the church as producing a society that thought themselves were infallible, as their beliefs had never been questioned. To explain the ‘mischief’ this behaviour can cause Mill dipped into various ages to pluck out some examples where a good idea or an original personality has been crushed by the public coercion of infallible beliefs. ‘History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries. To speak only of religious opinions: the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put down.
Arnold of Brescia was put down.’ Mill’s first longer example is that of Socrates; ‘the head and prototype of all subsequent teachers of virtue, the source equally of the lofty inspiration of Plato and the judicious utilitarianism of Aristotle’.(p.84 # 12) It is evident that Socrates is regarded highly in Mill’s mind, as is so in many of ours. This was not the case however in ancient Greece as they ‘condemned the man who probably of all then born had deserved least of mankind to be put to death as a criminal.'(p.85 #12). However, even though an organ of authority like the church (or in fact the majority of the public) has the power to suppress potentially truthful and revolutionary ideas truth has an advantage. As Mill points out ‘The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it… [and will] withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.'(p.90 #17)
Socrates is not the only intellectual martyr that features in ‘On Liberty’. Despite all Mill’s attack on religion, it becomes clear in chapter two that it is not God and the idea of faith that enrages Mill so; it is what religion has become in Victorian society. This is revealed as another example is given against public coercion and dead dogma that is resistant to change or progression. Jesus ‘was ignominiously put to death, as what? As a blasphemer.
Men did not merely mistake their benefactor, they mistook him for the exact contrary of what he what he was and treated him as that prodigy of impiety which they themselves are now held to be for their treatment of him.'(p.85 #13) The idea of Jesus, a holy man performing good deeds appealed to Mill, but he disregarded the resolute belief that the Bible is law and we must obey what the church commands. So far Mill has been extremely reasonable with his views; he dislikes a controlling religion that disallows liberty of so many things from speech to opinion. Mill is surrounded by an ‘uncultivated’ society, but with education, complete liberty (based upon the Harm Principle), and freedom from powerful organs of authority such as the church, an original, intelligent society may flourish. Mill wants conscience rather than religious revelation as a means of social control.
Here enters another side to Mill’s attack on the church. He cleverly uses religion to illustrate the importance of liberties of many aspect of life throughout ‘On Liberty’, but especially it is used to convey the importance of not suppressing opinion. In this case both sides are wrong and right in their opinions and in order to arrive at the complete truth both opinion must be argued and debated. ‘Christian morality (so called) has all the characteristics of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; … ”thou shalt not” predominates unduly over ”thou shalt.”… Whatever exists of magnanimity, high-mindedness, personal dignity, even the sense of humour, is derived from the purely human, not the religious part of our education, and could never have grown out of a standard of ethics in which the only worth, professedly realised is that of obedience.’ Mill feels that the church is now becoming an organ to control and suppress, producing a mass of people that will take their every word as gospel. The church commands obedience rather than liberty and toleration. Mill is completely against the Christian moral values of the Victorian times.
He says it is essentially selfish because people only do their duty to reap a reward in the next life – just as people obeyed the church for fear of hell in the next life. Mill understands that Christian morality is an extreme view, containing only something of truth, this bit of truth could be used to correct another’s view point which also contains only partial truth. He says Christian moral values must be supplemented by non-Christian morals so a complete picture of the many-sided moral opinion may be formed as a result of free discussion and debate. Mill sees every opinion as fallible, and Christianity is no exception. ‘If Christians would teach infidels to be just to Christianity, they should be just to infidelity. It can do truth no service to blink the fact…that a large portion of the noblest and most valuable moral teaching has been at work, not only of men who did not know, but of men who knew and rejected the Christian faith.’
Is Mill asking for the impossible? For the Christian church to be dissolved, for people to have liberty regarding opinion, speech and actions and also for them to avoid the sways of others and remain original. Christianity is an institution in which many find immense joy and salvation, comfort and protection. To tell a nation that they are completely wrong and must not take what they think they know about morals and beliefs to be true may further deepen their ties with the church.
Mill believes that education is the key, and the elite, cultured minds can lead the majority into a progressive, cultured society. It is not unreasonable for Mill to recognise that the church is a limiting factor on individuals freedom and wish for that limitation to be removed. – Mill believed a religion could occur if one believed in a theory, idea or anything not necessarily involving a deity. Bentham and Mill shared a basic belief that Christianity was corrupt and authoritative, this lead to the conclusion a new religion should be created. In 1801 Bentham remarked, ‘A new religion would be an odd sort of thing without a name – I propose utilitarianism.’
J S Mill – ‘On Liberty’
Susan Leigh Anderson – ‘On Mill’
A N Wilson – ‘the Victorians’