John Stuart Mill on the “religion of humanity” (c. 1858)

John Stuart Mill

The English utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) thought that many of the functions of religion could be better served by directing one’s emotions and desires towards the ideal of the unity of mankind and a respect for the general good which he termed the “religion of humanity”:

If, then, persons could be trained, as we see they were, not only to believe in theory that the good of their country was an object to which all others ought to yield, but to feel this practically as the grand duty of life, so also may they be made to feel the same absolute obligation towards the universal good. A morality grounded on large and wise views of the good of the whole, neither sacrificing the individual to the aggregate nor the aggregate to the individual, but giving to duty on the one hand and to freedom and spontaneity on the other their proper province, would derive its power in the superior natures from sympathy and benevolence and the passion for ideal excellence: in the inferior, from the same feelings cultivated up to the measure of their capacity, with the superadded force of shame. This exalted morality would not depend for its ascendancy on any hope of reward; but the reward which might be looked for, and the thought of which would be a consolation in suffering, and a support in moments of weakness, would not be a problematical future existence, but the approbation, in this, of those whom we respect, and ideally of all those, dead or living, whom we admire or venerate.

John Stuart Mill wrote 2 essays on religion in the mid-1850s, just before the appearance of On Liberty (1859), which he did not publish in his lifetime because he feared it would bring the wrath of the Church down on his head. He and his father James thought that people could be educated to channel their religious sentiments into a more general love of “humanity” as a whole and the general good which would be free of dogma and superstition. In these passages he wonders out loud why so many people in the past, especially the Romans, have had such ardent love of “patria” (country) that they were prepared to die for it and in the process kill other people who also loved their own countries in the same manner. Mill’s proposal was to enlarge our concept of what “our country” is to include “that larger country, the world”. If this expansion of feeling and sentiment could be achieved people would direct their “outward good works” to helping others wherever in the world it was needed and this, he argued, would create “a better religion than any of those which are ordinarily called by that title.”