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Jeremy Bentham: Prophet of Secularism

Schofield, TP; (2012) Jeremy Bentham: Prophet of Secularism. South Place Ethical Society: London, UK. Green open access

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Abstract

To speak of a secular prophet appears nowadays to be a contradiction in terms. A prophet is usually understood to be a person who, inspired by supernatural agency, speaks on behalf of that agent and predicts the future. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the philosopher and reformer, pointed out that the original Greek term referred in its extensive sense simply to a person who ‘speaks out’, and in a more limited extent to a person who ‘foretells’. Every politician who advocated a measure that he thought was beneficial, noted Bentham, was a prophet. The term, however, had been appropriated by ‘religionists’, who had seized on its ambiguity in order to further their own schemes and projects. Bentham turned against religion in his early teenage years. Though born into a staunch Church of England family, and though educated at a Church of England university (Oxford), his revolt against religion became apparent when, at the age of 16, he bitterly resented being forced to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England in order to take his degree. He came to advocate religious freedom, and the abolition of all formal connection between church and state. Yet he was reluctant at first to make his hostility explicit. Bentham began An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1780) by stating: ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’ The term ‘Nature’ was nicely ambiguous. For the religiously inclined, ‘Nature’ could be interpreted to mean God, the Creator of the Universe. For Bentham, however, ‘Nature’ referred to human psychology, based in turn on human physiology. In the 1810s Bentham was ready to launch a sustained attack on religion and religious establishments. Many thousands of manuscript sheets written by Bentham on this subject remain relatively unexplored. The Bentham Project has recently begun to transcribe and edit a series of about 1,000 manuscript sheets that Bentham intended for Part III of ‘Not Paul, but Jesus’. The first part of this work was published in 1823 under the pseudonym Gamaliel Smith. The second part, which has never been published, consists in a history of the early Christian Church. The third part is a critique of the teachings of St Paul, with a particular focus on the principle of asceticism (the doctrine that the right action is that which promotes pain and eliminates pleasure). Bentham argued that St Paul’s strategy had been to instil credulity in his followers, to the extent that they would believe anything he told them. Paul had gone on to attack activities that might divert his followers from following his religion, the most important of such activities being the pleasures of the bed and the pleasures of the table. Paul had been particularly critical of homosexual relationships. Bentham argued that Jesus had not condemned such pleasures, and pointed to that Jesus had himself engaged in homosexual activity. The religion of Paul was, therefore, different from the religion of Jesus. The Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, moreover, did not condemn homosexuality, but gang rape. Bentham proposed that all sexual activity that was consensual—whether with oneself, whether with partners of the same or the opposite sex, whether with partners of different species—should be made free from legislative interference. In the post-Malthusian age, non-prolific modes of sexual activity were rather to be welcomed than condemned. In short, Bentham saw sexual morality as a key battleground in the fight to divorce morality and legislation from the influence of religion.

Type:Book
Title:Jeremy Bentham: Prophet of Secularism
ISBN-13:978-0-902368-27-9
Open access status:An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version:http://www.ethicalsoc.org.uk/spes/publications
Language:English
Additional information:Full text made available with permission from the South Place Ethical Society
Keywords:Jeremy Bentham, Utilitarianism, Secularism
UCL classification:UCL > School of Arts and Social Sciences > Faculty of Laws > Bentham Project

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