John Stuart Mill, and His Liberalism, Were Not as Secular as Often Assumed

February 7, 2019 | John Stuart Mill
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While the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill is remembered by both admirers and detractors alike as the epitome of rationalist, secular, utilitarian liberalism, Timothy Larsen argues in a new book that the author of On Liberty had a complex spiritual life and, even if not a believer in the strict sense, was openminded about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Larsen, writes James K.A. Smith in his review, also makes “a wider argument about the alleged incompatibility of liberalism and religion.”

Mill’s legacy was effectively “edited” by his philosophical and political disciples, excising any hint of religious life. One would never know from the canon in our philosophy departments, for example, that Mill wrote an appreciative essay on “Theism.” Nor would many realize that his closest friend at the end of his life was the Protestant pastor in Avignon who buried him with prayer. Nor would these heirs know what to do with the inscription on the tomb of his beloved [wife and collaborator] Harriet Taylor that pines for “the hoped-for heaven.”

The selective inheritance of Mill crammed him into a particular cultural mythology—one that proclaims political liberalism as the devotion we adopt when we’ve outgrown the backward pieties of religion. And this is a story told both by liberals and conservatives, who both seem to have a stake in a supposed antithesis between Christianity and liberalism. . . .

Mill, Larsen shows us, “was the kind of ‘secular’ figure who read theological treatises appreciatively.” For his entire adult life, when the introverted, isolated Mill gave himself over to relationships and friendships, they were often with devout individuals—the Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice, a treasured friend, for example, as were intimate circles of Quakers and Unitarians. . . . Mill’s A System of Logic was published by the house now known as SPCK—the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge—and Mill was always delightfully surprised by how enthusiastically his books were received by religious leaders.

Most significantly, Larsen offers the first close reading of Mill’s “Theism” essay that this philosopher has encountered—which says more about our philosophical curricula than it does about Mill. In this late text, published posthumously, Mill arrives at a position that philosophers today would call “probabilist theism.” After assessing the evidence, Mill judged that there was “a large balance of probability in favor of their being a Creator.”

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