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Introduction: Utility, Truth, and Atheism

James E. Crimmins

Résumé

Le manuscrit présenté dans ce dossier s’inscrit dans un corpus plus large : celui des écrits que Bentham consacre aux liens entre l’utilité et la religion, une question qui préoccupe le philosophe tout au long de sa vie. Les textes publiés par ses amis et disciples, George Grote et Francis Place doivent être confrontés aux volumineux manuscrits originaux. En posant la question des rapports de la religion avec l’utilité, Bentham ne peut faire l’économie d’une réflexion sur la vérité de la religion, une approche sous-tendue par ses positions matérialistes. Affirmant à plusieurs reprises l’inutilité de la religion, Bentham peut-il pour autant être qualifié d’athée ? L’article croise plusieurs sources, publiées et manuscrites pour répondre par l’affirmative.

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  • 1  Bentham Papers, University College London, UC, 5, f.1-32, and 96, f.263-341. For a discussion see (...)
  • 2  The most important are An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Of Laws in Gen (...)

1The contributions to this special issue of the Revue d’études benthamiennes shine a focal light on Bentham’s examination of the utility of religion in two periods that span his long and fulsome engagement with religious matters. Bentham first wrote on religion in 1773-4 when he considered entering the debate, which had been raging at Cambridge since 1766 and in parliament more recently, over the relaxation of the terms for subscribing to articles of belief,1 culminating forty or so years later with the publication of Church-of-Englandism and its Catechism Examined (1818), An Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (1822), and Not Paul, but Jesus (1823), the last two published under pseudonyms with assistance from other hands (George Grote and Francis Place, respectively). In between there were many other occasions when religious issues were addressed in the context of his writings on morals and legislation.2 The manuscripts transcribed by the Centre Bentham are a part of a larger body of writing dating from 1783-87, titled “Projet d’un corps complet de législation”. The work discussed by Catherine Fuller, “The Usefulness of Religion to the present life examined”, drafted 1811-21, formed the basis for Grote’s edition of the Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion.

  • 3  See David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain : From Hobbes to Russell (London, Routledge, 198 (...)

2Grote’s volume is one of the most troublesome texts in Bentham’s corpus. In editing this work he made a free use of only parts of Bentham’s extensive manuscripts and employed his own style in rendering Bentham’s arguments, such that it is a matter of speculation just how much of the published book truly reflects the content of the original manuscripts and how much should be attributed to Grote.3 Catherine Fuller has conducted a great deal of preliminary work in reviewing the material that will be published eventually as an authoritative text in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, at which point we will be in a position to see exactly where Grote’s work accords with Bentham’s material and where it differs. Fuller’s essay summarises the chronology and content of these manuscripts. At this juncture, however, there is no reason to think that Grote’s text presents any significant departures from its originating source – Grote’s are sins of omission, it would appear, not misrepresentation.

  • 4  C. Fuller, “ ‘Utility of Religion a subject little as yet examined’—A Survey of Bentham’s writings (...)

3The two sets of writings reveal the continuity and sophistication of Bentham’s criticisms of religion across a span of thirty years. In both, Bentham purports to consider the utility of religious beliefs divorced from considerations of truth, and Fuller in particular stresses that ‘the complex phenomenon of the metaphysical aspects of religion did not interest him.’4 However, it is worth considering whether the utility of religious beliefs could be effectively analysed without reference to their truth. Utilitarians support telling the truth as a rule because it generally produces beneficial consequences. There are occasions when a falsehood has utility value, such as lying to an armed assailant in order to save lives or telling an innocuous falsehood to a child to instruct him in appropriate conduct, but in a society where lying is the norm the consequent levels of distrust would undermine security and hence public utility. In this way, truth and utility are intricately related, making it difficult for a utilitarian to consider the utility of a proposition or a belief without also considering its truth. Accordingly, when discussing the utility value of religious beliefs, there were times when Bentham found it impossible to set aside the issue of their truth status. There were also times when he recognized that in matters of religion truth could not be avoided. So, in the “Preparatory Principles Inserenda” manuscripts of the 1770s, under the heading “Divine Law”, he writes:

  • 5  UC 69, f.107.

Weak reasoners in morals, by a kind of instinct, take shelter behind the altar. Yet not even this shall save [them]. Mankind is too deeply interested in the display of those truths which [they] would keep concealed ..., to make it pardonable to desist from the pursuit. The Sanctuary is in its own nature common ground, unless where fenced about by Intolerance which it can never be but by the help of Usurpation ... No foreign arguments are needed to set against [their] doctrines: to expound is to expose them: to confront them is to confute.5

4In the light of such pronouncements, it would be surprising to find Bentham entirely circumventing the issue of truth in the two sets of manuscripts that form the subject-matter of this issue of the Revue, particularly when he turned to the question of the utility value of the supposed rewards and punishments of futurity.

  • 6  “Délits Religieux”, UC 98, f.115-17, below, pp. 61-64.
  • 7  “Délits Religieux”, UC 98, f.110, below, pp. 57-58.
  • 8  “A Fragment on Ontology”, “Essay On Logic”, and “Essay On Language”, dated 1813-14, with additions (...)
  • 9  Bentham also identified “spirituality” as a fictitious entity, and condemned it as “an engine in t (...)
  • 10  See Bentham’s analysis of miracles in Not Paul, but Jesus, by Gamaliel Smith(London, 1823), Chs.13 (...)

5In the final sections of the earlier manuscripts, headed “Impossibilité de concilier le Théisme à la fois à à l’utilité et à la vérité”, Bentham concludes that only punishments inflicted in the present life actually serve to prevent offences, implying that this is because posthumous penalties are a myth and therefore an unreliable sanction in guiding moral conduct.6 And, he concluded a section headed “Athéisme”with the statement : “En niant donc l’existence de cette vie future on fait tout le mal que l’on pourrait faire en niant l’existence du créateur du monde.”7 In manuscripts written in July 1815 for “The Usefulness of Religion to the present life examined”, he discussed the truth of religion in relation to the proposition, previously delineated in his writings on ontology, logic and language, that for fictitious entities to have a meaning they must be reducible to real entities.8 Bentham concludes that the idea of the soul can only have a meaning in the same way we view the mind, as a bundle of fictitious entities existing and operating through the medium of a living body. When the body ceases to exist then, like the mind, so does the soul cease to exist, making the idea of posthumous pains and penalties unintelligible.9 When Bentham turned his attentions to the supposed truths of revealed religion, and the religion of Jesus in particular, he questioned the verity of miracles and prophecies.10 It would seem, therefore, that in determining the utility value of religious beliefs he could not ignore the fact that an important element in their disutility lies in their falsehood.

  • 11  See Fuller, p. 65, below.
  • 12  Bowring, X, p. 70.
  • 13  The Oxford English Dictionary definition.
  • 14  “Délits Religieux”, UC 98, f.110, below, pp. 57-58.

6Bentham explicitly rejected the rational for the “noble lie” or “double truth” view of the utility of religion,11 such as one finds Machiavelli condoning in The Discourses (Bk. I, Ch.12) and suggested by Voltaire (one ought not to speak irreligion in front of the servants lest the order of society be overthrown). This is the argument that religion is a valuable aid in producing moral conduct, so even if one does not believe its doctrines it is necessary to pretend that one does and to reinforce the general apprehension of such doctrines. Contrary to this, Bentham follows Helvétius, arguing that while the religious sanction may at times be of use to the legislator as an auxiliary sanction to the moral and political sanctions, overwhelmingly it has a negative utility value and thus morality would be best without it. As Bowring recorded Bentham saying on one occasion, “Morality may well say of religion – whenever it is not for me, it is against me.”12 Moreover, even if religion could be shown to support utilitarian outcomes, it is not necessary for moral conduct since worldly sanctions suffice. In this respect Bentham was certainly a “moral atheist”, one who holds that actions are right or wrong, good or evil, without reference to God; thus the appropriate sanctions for moral actions have an entirely natural or worldly source.13 In short, the moral atheist maintains that it is entirely possible to be Godless and still moral, and the irreligious are perfectly capable of moral conduct based on worldly considerations.14

  • 15  The sections headed “Atheist” in the mss. from 1783-7 (“Délits Religieux”, UC 98, f.110-12, below, (...)

7The pivotal issue in sorting out Bentham’s atheism, however, is whether there is in his theorizing a basis for rejecting belief in a God. Since all other beliefs associated with theistic religions depend upon the veracity of this fundamental article, to demonstrate the falsehood of the existence of God would be to destroy the grounds upon which all other theistic beliefs stand. Was Bentham an atheist of this kind, one who denied the existence of God?15

8Broadly understood, atheism is that system of thought which is formally opposed to theism. Since its first coming into use, when Socrates responded to the charge of impiety (as related by Plato in the Apology), the term was for a long time employed in a fairly loose manner, as an epithet of accusation against any system that called into question the popular gods of the day. Even in Bentham’s time and for several centuries previously the term was variously applied to sceptics, unbelievers, infidels, heretics, blasphemers, and the impious. So Hobbes, who believed in a divine first cause and a rather eccentric corporeal afterlife, Hume, an absolute sceptic in religious matters, the deists Voltaire and Diderot, who wrote scurrilous accounts of religion and religious beliefs, were each denounced as atheists in their day and after, yet none denied the existence of God.

  • 16  Anthony, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3 vols.(1711 (...)
  • 17  An Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind, by Philip B (...)

9In the early eighteenth century Shaftesbury made an attempt to pin down the meaning of the term (partly to protect himself from being charged with atheism), when he postulated that a “perfect atheist” is one who “believe[s] nothing of a designing Principle or Mind, nor any Cause, Measure, or Rule of things, but Chance …”16 Though Bentham joined Hume in criticising the fallacies of the argument from design, which he described as “completely extra-experiential”,17 he could not be described as an atheist in this sense. Deeply impressed by the scientific and other advances in natural philosophy by the likes of Galileo, Bacon, and Newton, he had no time for the default position “if not God, then fate”.

  • 18  W.E. Gladstone, “The Courses of Religious Thought”, Contemporary Review (22 June 1876), p. 22.
  • 19  UC 69, f.1.

10It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the term “atheist” came to take on the settled meaning it now has, when Gladstone formalized a precise definition: an atheist is “the man who not only holds off, like the sceptic, from the affirmative, but who drives himself, or is driven, to the negative assertion in regard to the whole Unseen, or the existence of a God.”18 To determine whether Bentham was an atheist in this sense we must begin where Bentham begins, with his materialist conception of existence as the basic presupposition of his theory of knowledge. In the “Preparatory Principles” manuscripts – against the marginal “What Things Exist?” – he posits the primacy of the material world as the essence of an objective reality: “I assume and take it for granted, that among the objects or supposed objects that offer or are supposed to offer themselves to our senses, are some that actually exist.” Since he cannot deny that it is he who is writing and that a table exists on which rests the paper containing his scrawl, he refused to consider opposing views of the matter, including Berkeley’s view of immateriality. He simply accepted the existence of the material world “without scruple notwithstanding [that] it has been the subject of so much controversy”.19

  • 20  UC 5, f.23.

11Overlaid on this materialism is Bentham’s ontology, according to which all general terms or abstractions are “fictitious entities” which only have a meaning if they can be explained in terms of “real entities”. Where ontological analysis fails to establish physical referents for a fictitious entity it can be assumed that it does not exist in a tangible form and thus cannot be known. As Newton – at least in the mind of the eighteenth century – had banished the vocabulary of mysticism and superstition from physical science, so it was Bentham’s aim to rid the moral sciences of the verbal and philosophical superstitions that bedevilled our understanding of human experience. Ultimately, given the nature of his ontology and attendant theory of language, this was bound to mean the imposition on religious thought and writing of an alien human-centred conception of language (and, indeed, of existence), an imposition which effectively stripped religion of its trans-physical content. Indeed, there is a manuscript fragment from the year 1773 which speaks characteristically of Bentham’s aspiration to follow in the footsteps of Newton and Locke, but which is also indicative of the direction of his thoughts on religion. In the process of eulogizing the achievements of these “heroes of the intellectual world”, Bentham pauses to reflect that both men were religious heretics: “fire is not more at variance with water, than was Locke with orthodoxy ... Newton was an [sic] Heretic: the few lost hours which that great man stole from the region of certainty to waste upon the region of unintelligibles led him into Heresy”.20 But, Locke and Newton are not to be lauded for their religious opinions, heretical or otherwise, since they held these despite their great knowledge of the workings of human nature and of the general laws of the universe. It was in this respect that they left “the region of certainty” to inhabit “the region of unintelligibles”. From the beginning, then, science as Bentham understood it – constituted of factually based laws which explain the operations of the world – was antithetical to religion. Since belief in the existence of God is not based on factual observations, this invites the critic to probe further to question whether God, a name intended to signal a “real entity”, exists at all.

  • 21  Schofield, Utility & Democracy, p. 21.
  • 22  James E. Crimmins, “Bentham’s Religious Radicalism Revisited : A response to Schofield”, History o (...)
  • 23 Bowring, VIII, pp. 196n, 198.
  • 24 Philip Schofield, “Political and Religious Radicalism in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham”, History of (...)

12Philip Schofield maintains Bentham’s analysis leaves it open that “God might still have some sort of existence not accessible to human perceptions, though not a sort of existence which human beings would be capable of comprehending.”21 This may appear an elegant explanation, but it is doubtfully Bentham’s view. Much of what Bentham had to say in “A Fragment on Ontology” and in “The Usefulness of Religion to the present life examined” underscores the irrationality of the belief in God. As I explained in a previous essay,22 when referring to God in “A Fragment on Ontology’” as an “inferential incorporeal substance”, he explicitly described the process by which individuals may come to understand or believe in God’s existence, while remaining circumspect about the status of the understanding or belief itself. However, when he concluded that the only alternative to describing God as a real entity would be to label God a “non-entity”, he recognised that this was implicitly contradictory,23 since the name God would then indicate an entity empty of content. Short of declaring this conclusion is a necessary result of the examination, Bentham could not have made the point plainer. Reasonably enough, Schofield acknowledged that in the ontological discussion of God, Bentham “set down a rationale for atheism”,24 but the telling point is that he must have known he had done this and did not attempt to mitigate the fact.

  • 25  Bentham to Jean-Baptiste Say (19 Oct. 1823), The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, XI, pp. 309, 30 (...)

13Wary of the prospect of a prosecution for blasphemy, Bentham routinely avoided making a public avowal of his atheism, but he was not so circumspect when it came to friends and intimates. In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Say, for example, with reference to Not Paul, But Jesus, he states “not a syllable is there in it which I did not think”, but “I did not say all I thought.” There is, he explained, “no need to make any public mention” of his true position, since “each man is master of his own inferences”.25 It is not surprising that Bentham refrained from acknowledging his atheism (few at that time could afford the risk), but the absence of an admission of atheism should not carry much weight when the evidence pulling us in a different direction is so compelling. It should carry still less weight when the philosopher is sufficiently indifferent to the implications of his investigations, not to add a clarification that might make us think differently about his personal beliefs. As masters of our own inferences, we may legitimately infer that, while it may be permissible for one to be rationally agnostic about unobservables, it is not rational to be agnostic about unintelligibles.

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Notes

1  Bentham Papers, University College London, UC, 5, f.1-32, and 96, f.263-341. For a discussion see James E. Crimmins, Secular Utilitarianism : Social science and the critique of religion in the thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990), ch.3.

2  The most important are An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Of Laws in General (a new edition is pending in the Collected Works), and Deontology. Étienne Dumont’s Traités de législation civile et pénale, 3 vols.(Paris, 1802), may also be added to the list, though with some caution, since Dumont toned down portions of Bentham’s reflections on religious matters.

3  See David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain : From Hobbes to Russell (London, Routledge, 1988), and my review of this work in Utilitas, 5/2 (1993), pp. 337-40 ; Crimmins, Secular Utilitarianism, pp. 208-12 ; Philip Schofield, Utility & Democracy : The political thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 186-87 ; and Catherine Fuller, “Bentham, Mill, Grote, and An Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind”, Journal of Bentham Studies, 10 (2008) : http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/journal/cf_reln.pdf.

4  C. Fuller, “ ‘Utility of Religion a subject little as yet examined’—A Survey of Bentham’s writings on the utility of religion p. 65, below.

5  UC 69, f.107.

6  “Délits Religieux”, UC 98, f.115-17, below, pp. 61-64.

7  “Délits Religieux”, UC 98, f.110, below, pp. 57-58.

8  “A Fragment on Ontology”, “Essay On Logic”, and “Essay On Language”, dated 1813-14, with additions 1821, in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the superintendence of his executor, John Bowring, 11 vols. (Edinburgh, 1838-43), VIII, pp. 193-338. Henceforth Bowring.

9  Bentham also identified “spirituality” as a fictitious entity, and condemned it as “an engine in the hands of impostors for dragging in dupes.” Fuller, p. 71, below.

10  See Bentham’s analysis of miracles in Not Paul, but Jesus, by Gamaliel Smith(London, 1823), Chs.13-14.

11  See Fuller, p. 65, below.

12  Bowring, X, p. 70.

13  The Oxford English Dictionary definition.

14  “Délits Religieux”, UC 98, f.110, below, pp. 57-58.

15  The sections headed “Atheist” in the mss. from 1783-7 (“Délits Religieux”, UC 98, f.110-12, below, pp. 57-59) do not resolve the matter, since here Bentham is principally concerned to defend the “freedom of dissent” (110). This was an abiding element in his criticisms of laws that constrain the expression of opinions on religious matters, and in particular constraints on atheists declaring oaths and from giving evidence in English courts. See, for example, “Subscription”, UC 5, f.1-32, and 96, f.263-341, and “Swear Not At All :” Containing an exposure of the needlessness and mischievousness, as well as anti-Christianity, of the ceremony of an oath (1817), Bowring, v. 187-229.

16  Anthony, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3 vols.(1711 ;6th edn. 1737-8 ; rept. Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 2001), II, p. 6.

17  An Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind, by Philip Beauchamp [ed. George Grote] (London, 1822), pp. 97-8.

18  W.E. Gladstone, “The Courses of Religious Thought”, Contemporary Review (22 June 1876), p. 22.

19  UC 69, f.1.

20  UC 5, f.23.

21  Schofield, Utility & Democracy, p. 21.

22  James E. Crimmins, “Bentham’s Religious Radicalism Revisited : A response to Schofield”, History of Political Thought, 22/3 (2001), pp. 494-500.

23 Bowring, VIII, pp. 196n, 198.

24 Philip Schofield, “Political and Religious Radicalism in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham”, History of Political Thought, 20/2 (1999), p. 280.

25  Bentham to Jean-Baptiste Say (19 Oct. 1823), The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, XI, pp. 309, 308.

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James E. Crimmins, « Introduction: Utility, Truth, and Atheism », Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 6 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 février 2010, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : http://etudes-benthamiennes.revues.org/70 ; DOI : 10.4000/etudes-benthamiennes.70

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James E. Crimmins

Huron University College, The University of Western Ontario

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