Liberty Matters

James Mill on Liberty and Governance: The Church of England and the Religion of Humanity


John Stuart Mill suppressed his writings on religion, perhaps fearing their skepticism would alienate his audience and damage the cause of reform. They were only published posthumously. James Mill, though writing anonymously, felt no such reserves. In Schools for All (1812) he lambasted the Church of England and described its officials as a “band of conspirators against the intellectual prosperity of mankind.” Late in life he lashed out again in the pages of the London Review in a double-barreled attack on the doctrines, ritual, and organization of the stated-backed Anglican Church. “The Church, and its Reform” (1835) is also, by implication, an attack on revealed religion as such. For Mill, “the Church of England exists to no good purpose” and is “a viciously organized establishment.” Its priests are the “sworn enemies of the good of their fellow creatures,the enemies of all improvement of the human mind.”” as well as “ The Church, in a word, is (and the word is Mill’s) the “Antichrist.”
In his response to my earlier post, Professor Ball’s finds “nothing in Mill’s essay that suggests he hoped to ‘capture’ the Church of England; this was to be, I believe, an entirely new institution.” I think this observation accurately describes the spirit if not the letter of Mill’s proposal. Perhaps “converted” is a better word than “captured” – it is the word used by Mill himself: “the Church of England might be converted from an instrument of evil into an instrument of much good. ... ” Mill’s “converted” Church would be  led by a “Minister of Public Instruction,” presumably a paid state official (albeit a layman), and comprised of a “clergy, paid by the state.” Admittedly (and this I take it to be Professor Ball’s point) such a Church would look nothing like the Church of England, of for that matter any church then in existence. Leslie Stephen likened Mill’s reformed Church to “a popular London University,” a scheme that “illustrates the incapacity of an isolated clique to understand the real tone of public opinion.”[123] It might be added that Mill and his clique were engaged in shaping opinion, not gauging it. In any case, a university is a university; a church is a church.
This said, there is still something official and rather ominous about Mill’s reformed Church, which is said to embody “the true idea of a State religion.” This is nothing short of what John Mill called “the Religion of Humanity.” (Once more father anticipates son.) Would attendance at such a Church be voluntary or compulsory? “All would share in the religious services of such a church, and all would share in the blessings which would result from them.” Mill suggests that attendance would be strongly encouraged. “We think it of great importance, that all families of a parish be got to assemble on the Sunday – clean, and so dressed, as to make a favourable appearance ...” It is doubtful that Mill would have required attendance, but would possibly rely (as his son did) on shame and other forms of moral suasion. The elder Mill was not unaware of objections to such a plan: “In what parish are the people to be found,getting them to do what, at every step, would be delightful who will submit to all this moral drilling?” Yet if men can be made to conform to the dogmas of an absurd and unnatural religion, one can certainly envision “, and from which they would derive the greatest of all conceivable pleasures, the consciousness, the heart-felt assurance, of rising higher and higher in the scale of virtue and intelligence every day!” Alas, if only it were so!
Mill may have discarded his religious bias when he shuffled off his vestments to become a secular saint. He did not, however, discard his class bias. Among the key subjects to be taught in his Church of Humanity is political economy, viz., “the laws which determine the rate of wages – from ignorance of which rise most of [the working poor’s] contentions with their masters, as well as the other evils which they endure.” Such instruction, Mill contends, is “the best of all modes of reconciling them to that inequality of distribution which they see takes place, and which there are people ignorant or wicked enough to tell them, is in all violation of their rights, because it is by their labour that everything is produced.” Is this aspect of Mill’s curriculum education or indoctrination? By enlisting education in defense of economic inequality Mill makes Marx’s point for him – ideology is the handmaid of class interest.[124] 
Finally, I’d like to address remarks made by Professor Ball on Comte and the Religion of Humanity. In an earlier post I did not mean to suggest that either James or John Mill embraced Comte’s version of this religion of the future. John clearly rejected the illiberal and authoritarian elements (as well as the bizarre ritualistic trappings) of Comte’s creed, but he did not reject the idea of a Religion of Humanity itself. This is where I appear to differ with Professor Ball. Yes, Mill did unequivocally condemn the untoward features of Comte’s Religion of Humanity in Auguste Comte and Positivism. Yet the first half of that work is filled with praise for the idea of a Religion of Humanity. Consider the following passages:
1. [W]e venture to think that a religion may exist without a belief in God, and that a religion without a God may be, even for Christians, an instructive and profitable object of contemplation.[125]
2. If we honor as we ought those who have served mankind in the past, we shall feel what we are also working for those benefactors by serving that too which their lives are devoted.[126]
3. That the ennobling power of this grand conception [the Religion of Humanity] may have its full efficacy, we should, with M. Comte, regard the Grand Etre, Humanity, or Mankind, as composed, in the past, solely of those who, in every age and variety of position, have played their part worthily in life. It is only as thus restricted that the aggregate of our species become an object of veneration.[127]
4. We, therefore, not only hold that M. Comte was justified in the attempt to develope [sic] his philosophy into a religion, and had realized the essential conditions of one, but all other religions are made better in proportion as, in their practical result, they are brought to coincide with that which he aimed at constructing.[128]
5. This is our conception of the moral rule prescribed systematically disciplined in self-mortificationby the religion of Humanity....  It is as much a part of our scheme as of M. Comte’s, that the direct cultivation of altruism, and the subordination of egoism to it, far beyond the point of absolute moral duty, should be one of the chief aims of education, both individual and collective. We even recognize the value, for this end, of ascetic discipline, in the original Greek sense of the word.... We do not doubt that children and young persons will one day be again; that they will be taught, as in antiquity, to control their appetites, to brave dangers, and submit voluntarily to pain, as simple exercises in education. Something has been lost as well as gained by no longer giving to every citizen the training necessary for a soldier[129]
Clearly, Mill did not abandon the Religion of Humanity, nor entirely reject Comte. Indeed, he considered Comte a greater philosopher than either Descartes or Leibniz: “We think M. Comte as great as either of these philosophers, and hardly more extravagant. Were we to speak our whole mind, we should call him superior to them.”[130] Recall that these passages were published in 1865, late in Mill’s career. There is no evidence that he retracted them in the last years of his life. And so we find a basic continuity in the views of Bentham and both Mills in this feature of their thought: from Bentham’s Hall of Fame it is but a step to James Mill’s Reformed Church and but another to John Mill’s Religion of Humanity. But what of the idea itself? As it mutated from Bentham to père Mill and from père Mill to fils Mill it appears to have gained in rigor. James Mill would engage in “moral drilling” while John would extend such drilling to “ascetic discipline” and “self-mortification” (Hair-shirt anyone?) Whatever the envisioned details, the idea of a Religion of Humanity is problematic on a number of levels. As a contemporary scholar has observed:
The Religion of Humanity is Mill’s solution to the Hume-Tocqueville conundrum [the desire to replace religion mixed with the fear of the consequences], for it will retain the ennobling function of religion while banishing superstition. Nonetheless, the solution is not so much unstable as useless, for as Hume says especially clearly, a religion that is appealing to philosophers will for just that reason have no purchase on the sentiments of humanity at large.[131]
[123.] Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarians, vol. 2  (London: Duckworth, 1900), p. 62.
[124.] As Robert Fenn observes, “socialism is to be conquered by a little adroit brainwashing.” Moreover, Mill’s remarks in “The Church, and its Reform,” are “in complete or near complete contradiction to his remarks on property elsewhere [History of British India], which note the historical development and justification [rationalization] of property.” For Marx history ceases with communism. “For Mill, history ceases once the level of bourgeois development is reached.” James Mill’s Political Thought (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987), p. 93.
[125.] Complete Works, vol. 10 (1969), p. 332.
[126.] Ibid., p. 334.
[127.] Ibid.
[128.] Ibid., p. 334-35.
[129.] Ibid., p. 339.
[130.] Ibid., p. 368.
[131.] Ronald Beiner, “John Stuart Mill’s Project to Turn Atheism into a Religion,” in Civil Religion: A Dialogue in the History of Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 267.