Hythloday turns now to his last topic: the religions in Utopia. All over the island, and even within a given city, people worship different deities, from the sun to great heroes of the past. However, most Utopians, and the wisest, believe that God is eternal, incomprehensible, and inexplicable, dispersed throughout the world as power and virtue. He is the creator of all things and the end of all things. All Utopians, despite diverging opinions on the form God takes, nonetheless agree that there is one chief and principal Supreme Being, the maker and ruler of the world, and this Being they call Mithras (a Persian god, worshipped in Rome as the god of the sun). Utopians are more and more turning away from superstitions and joining the majority in their beliefs.
One of the most distinctive features of Utopian society is its religious freedom (something Thomas More the man actively repressed). However, the deeper suggestion here is that the Utopians understand all gods to be images of one common truth. (Unsurprisingly, given More’s Catholic convictions, this truth sounds like what’s endorsed by Catholic theology.) The Utopians apparently find the majority’s idea of God most compelling, however, for they are adopting it of their own free will.
When Hythloday and his companions introduced Christ’s doctrine, laws, and miracles to the Utopians, a surprising number were inclined to receive it. This may have been due to divine influence, but also to the fact that Christ advocated collective ownership of resources, as is practiced in monasteries and convents. Many Utopians received baptism while Hythloday was there and wanted a priest to perform other Christian sacraments.
This passage in Utopia reads almost like Christian propaganda—the best people in the world immediately open their hears to what Thomas More believes to be the best religion in the world. However, Christ is an important touchstone for Utopia’s vision of a society without property or class, and for the devout More to present Christianity as anything less than correct would be unthinkable.
The Utopians are tolerant of all religions, but they do not permit people to condemn other religions. In Hythloday’s presence, one newly baptized Utopian began to condemn as wicked and devilish all religions but Christianity; he was promptly exiled for sedition and for raising up dissent among the people. Religious tolerance was instituted by Utopus himself when he observed how religious disagreement caused strife among the natives of the island—and was what enabled his conquest of them in the first place. For the sake of peace, he established a law protecting religious freedom. People may attempt to convert others to their religious opinions with gentle speech, but not with violence and hurtful words. The punishment is exile or bondage.
Thomas More the man was a devout Catholic who, during the Reformation, tortured Protestants and approved of burning them at the stake as heretics. It is darkly ironic, then, that his utopian vision should be one in which people who condemn other religions are subject to exile or bondage. One reason the Utopians honor religious freedom is practical: religious disagreement causes strife in a commonwealth, which leaves them vulnerable to invaders.
Utopus reasoned that religious freedom promotes not only peace, but that it is part of God’s will. God must desire diverse forms of worship and honor, as he inspires different people with different religions. Moreover, even if there were only one true religion, its truth would eventually convert everyone without violence or force anyway. If people could speak intolerantly of other religions, however, it is quite likely they would defame this one true religion, just as weeds overgrow corn.
Even if More the man agreed with Utopus’s line of reasoning here in principle, in practice he could not or would not pursue it. This is one of the most powerful of the many ambiguities regarding Utopia that are necessary to understand when reading the text.
Utopus did decree some limits on faith: no religion should declare that a man’s soul perishes with his body, or that the world is governed by chance. The Utopians believe, rather, that good deeds are rewarded, and bad deeds punished, in the afterlife. The irreligious, or atheists, in Utopia are not punished, except in being excluded from all honors and offices, as well as being generally despised. This is because the Utopians are convinced that, if one does not have religion, one will necessarily mock the faithful or break the country’s laws. Atheists cannot argue their views among the general public, but they are encouraged to argue with priests, in the hopes that they will see the madness of their irreligious ways.
Utopus seems to affirm the immortality of the soul and providence, among other things, not because he knows these to be true, but, more pragmatically, because people who believe such things conduct themselves more virtuously. Or so he thinks, anyway. Only atheism brings with it negative consequences in Utopia, although we might contest the Utopians’ belief that atheists are necessarily more antisocial than anyone else. Recall Hythloday’s claim, after all, that the Utopians’ virtue ethics could survive a lack of religious grounding.
Contrary to the atheists, there are heretics in Utopia who believe that the souls of animals are immortal, but these people are allowed to speak their minds and they share all the liberties other Utopians do. However, all religious Utopians believe that human souls especially are predestined for great happiness in the afterlife.
The Utopians do not permit mankind’s dignity to suffer, but they do not mind if the dignity of other animals is inflated. No reason is given for the Utopians’ belief in an afterlife other than as a practical incentive for good conduct and a high ideal.
Consequently, while the Utopians lament sickness, they do not lament death—that is, unless someone dies unwillingly. They take unwilling death as a bad sign that a soul fears punishment in the afterlife. Someone who dies an unwilling death is buried, but people who die willing, happy deaths are celebrated, praised, and cremated. The dead person’s virtue and good deeds are remembered to encourage virtue in others, and the dead are thought to be invisibly present among the living, which gives the living courage.
Because the Utopians believe in an afterlife, they do not fear death (at least in theory). An unwilling death, however, suggests that someone either has unfinished business on earth, or that they do not authentically believe in an afterlife, both of which would trouble the Utopians. The dead pragmatically serve as good examples and sources of spiritual courage for the living—even death can be used for practical purposes in Utopia.
The Utopians despise and mock people who try to predict the future, like soothsayers. However, they do believe in supernatural miracles, which they consider to be the works of God; indeed, miracles are said to be common occurrences in Utopia. In times of great need, Utopians hopefully and confidently pray for divine aid, which is often granted to them.
Because God and His providence are unknowable, it is vain to attempt to foresee future events. Miracles are a commonplace reality in Utopia—perhaps More the author is suggesting that the Utopians truly deserve miracles as rewards for their excellence.
The Utopians believe that the contemplation of nature is a form of praising God, although some among them forego learning altogether in order to dedicate themselves solely to work and to God, for they think that happiness comes of “busy labours and good exercises.” Such people, known as Buthrescas (from the Greek meaning “very religious”), do hard, unpleasant work willingly.
Given how work-oriented Utopian society it is, it is not surprising that some think the best way to praise God is to rigorously labor in service of the public good.
There are two sects of these religiously hardworking Buthrescas. The members of one abstain from carnal pleasures like sex and eating meat; the members of the other work just as hard but do not abstain from such pleasures, thinking that procreation is a public good and meat is a potent fuel for labor. Members of the first sect are considered holier in Utopia, while members of the second are considered wiser.
The only Utopians who seem altogether unpractical are the holier among the Buthrescas, who give up many pleasures to serve God—yet even they are of great service to the commonwealth. Note that, unlike many European churchmen who abstained from labor, holy people work in Utopia harder than anyone.
There are very few priests in Utopia—thirteen per city, one for each temple—but they are of exceeding holiness. The people elect their priests by secret ballot. Over the priests of each city is set a bishop, and together these religious officials oversee all divine matters and orders of religions; they are also judges and masters of conduct in Utopia. It is shameful to be rebuked by a priest for immoral living. The priests differ from the secular magistrates in that they only offer advice and counsel, whereas magistrates punish bad conduct. The only exception to this is that priests can excommunicate immoral Utopians and bar them from religious occasions. Religious values are instilled in Utopians from childhood.
Just like the Utopian magistrates, the priests are elected to their office and given nothing except what their own virtue and holiness merit. Whereas the Philarchs make sure people are doing their work, the priests make sure that people are living virtuously. Perhaps the priests do not punish bad conduct because their sphere of activity is the human soul, which cannot be truly punished by any other than divine agency. Earlier in Utopia we read of a friar who threatened to excommunicate a joker—Utopian priests, we might imagine, would do no such thing.
Both men and women can become priests in Utopia (although the women elected tend to be old or widows). Male priests take for their wives the foremost women in the country. If a priest commits an offence, their judgment is left to God and to themselves; but priests are so virtuous that few fall to wickedness, and their position is not one of power so much as one of honor, anyway. Utopian priests are also deeply respected abroad; Hythloday recalls how in battle the priests protect enemy combatants from being slaughtered when the Utopians get the upper hand. When the Utopian army retreats, the priests intercept their pursuers and often succeed in making peace.
In Renaissance Europe, only men could be priests—the Utopians, in admitting women to the priesthood, are ahead of their time. The Utopians are so rigorous in their election of public officials that they rarely have occasion to regret their decisions. In addition to promoting virtue in Utopia, the priests serve the practical function of saving lives on the battlefield. This is a case where military pragmatism and ideal holiness come together to benefit the Utopians and others alike.
The Utopian holy days fall on the first and last day of each month and year. The first days are called Cynemernes (from the Greek meaning “dog day,” associated perhaps with the Greek goddess Hecate), and the last are called Trapemernes (from the Greek meaning “changing day”). The Utopians worship in large, gorgeous churches which are intentionally kept somewhat dark so that people focus more earnestly upon religion and devotion. Even though Utopians hold diverse religious opinions, they all worship in the same churches, where what is common to all of them is taught. No image of God is displayed so that people are free to conceive of God as they will. Private ceremonies and practices may be freely held at home.
The Utopians promote religious unity by holding worship in the same churches for all—this creates a more communal environment for worship and, consequently, a more unified society. The Utopians understand the divine to exist on a plane that transcends our own, hence their dimming of the churches. After all, a transcendent god cannot be at all perceived by the senses of sight, hearing, or smell (although in the real world, these things certainly help).
The Utopians worship on Trapemernes days after fasting to give thanks to God; they worship on Cynemernes days to pray for fortune and success in the coming days. Before worshipping on Trapemernes, wives confess their offenses to their husbands, and children confess to their parents. People in quarrels reconcile, because Utopians fear worshipping with a troubled conscience. In the churches, men sit on the right side, women on the left, and in such a way that elders can observe their conduct. The young sit interspersed with their elders for the same reason.
The practice of confessing one’s sins as the Utopians do is distinctive of Catholicism—More the author seems to be insinuating rather propagandistically that Utopian religion is more essentially Catholic than anything else. The separation of the sexes during Utopian worship is presumably meant to neutralize any sexual feelings people may have, making it so they can more purely focus on God.
The Utopians sacrifice no living animals, nor do they think God delights in blood and slaughter—especially because he has given life to animals so that people can live. Incense and candles are burned and prayers are said, not for the pleasure of God, but because such practices harmlessly please and inspire the Utopians. People worship in white clothing, and the priests wear vestments of many colors, not precious but fashioned well with symbolically meaningful feathers interwoven into them.
In keeping with their compassion and respect for life, the Utopians do not sacrifice any animals, which is both impractically wasteful and disrespectful to God as the source of life. Even in religious worship, the Utopians enjoy sensuous pleasures (More seems to have the Catholic practice of releasing incense during worship in mind here).
When a priest enters to begin worship, the people bow down as though God himself had entered. They rise at the priest’s signal and sing praises to God, accompanied by foreign musical instruments. The Utopians’ music is better than the Europeans’ because it perfectly marries meaning and sound. In their prayers, the Utopians acknowledge God to be their maker and the principal cause of all goodness, and they thank him, especially for the benefits he’s showered on their commonwealth. They also pray to join God in the afterlife at his pleasure.
Again, although Utopia is a society of religious freedom, its form of worship seems decidedly Catholic, both in form and content. Thomas More the author is ironically never more divisive in Utopia, perhaps, than in this section on religion.