Utopia: Novel Summary: Book II – Of the religions of the Utopians

There are several different religions in Utopia. Some worship the sun, moon or planets, but the wisest people worship one infinite and eternal God, whom they call Mithras. When Hythlodays party told the Utopians about Christianity, many were eager to convert, and were baptized. Those who did not convert refrained from trying to persuade others against converting. Only one Christian convert was punished: he had loudly condemned the Utopian religion as profane, and those who practiced it as sacrilegious and worthy to burn in hell forever. He was tried and condemned to banishment – not for his religion, but for inciting rebellion. A Utopian law ensures freedom of religion. It was passed by the founder of Utopia, Utopus, who had noticed that the inhabitants were always quarreling about religion. Under this law, people are allowed to try to persuade others to follow their religion, but are forbidden to use violence or to insult those who hold different beliefs. Utopus believed it was possible that all religions came from God, who liked variety.
Utopus did outlaw atheism, which includes the belief that the soul dies with the body. The Utopians view atheism as degrading to the soul. They believe that an atheist, because he does not fear Gods justice, will not hesitate to break all the laws and customs of the country. They do not punish atheists, but they despise them and bar them from public office. Because they believe that good men will enjoy divine bliss after death, they do not grieve when someone dies. But if he was unwilling to die, they are concerned for his soul, because they take it as a sign that the soul was afraid to leave the body because of some guilt. When a person dies cheerfully, they sing hymns while they bury him, and afterwards talk of his good life and worthy deeds. They think that the spirits of the dead are free to visit the living, and hear what is said about them. Divination is dismissed as superstition, but the Utopians have great reverence for miracles, which they believe are effects of the presence of God. They approve of contemplating God in his works.
Certain Utopians believe that divine bliss after death is earned, and neglect learning in favor of doing public service like visiting the sick and repairing roads. Some of these people live celibate lives and abstain from eating meat; others prefer to marry, have children, and do not deny themselves any pleasure. The Utopians revere the first group as more holy, but they think the second group is wiser.
All matters of religion and morals are looked after by the priests. In cases of extreme wickedness, a priest may exclude a person from communal worship, but all other punishments are the responsibility of the magistrates and the Prince. The Utopians think there is no more shameful punishment than being excluded from worship. If the person does not repent, the priest turns them over to the Senate for punishment.
Priests are also responsible for the education of children. The priests believe that the academic detail of the lessons is less important than forming the childrens minds and manners so that they become good people and useful members of society. Both men and women can become priests. If a priest should commit a crime, which is extremely rare because they are chosen with such care, he is not questioned for it: his punishment is left to God.
When the Utopians are at war, the priests accompany the soldiers into battle and during the action, pray for peace first, and then for victory for the Utopians. If the Utopian soldiers are victorious, the priests run into the midst of the action to prevent any more bloodshed.
All Utopians worship in the same temples, since they all agree on worshipping the divine essence. Sects that have rituals peculiar to themselves perform them at home. In the temples, there are no images of God, so that everyone can think of him according to his own belief. Before going to the temple, wives and children kneel before their husband or parents and confess any faults, and ask forgiveness. Thus when they go to the temple, their consciences are clear and their differences reconciled. At the temple, they praise God as the source of all the good that they receive, and thank him for giving them the best system of government in the world and the truest religion. They add the request that if they are mistaken and there is a better form of government or religion, that God should reveal it to them. They pray that they may be received easily into his presence when the time comes for them to die. Then they return home and spend the rest of the day in leisure pursuits or military exercises.
Hythloday ends his description of Utopia by saying that he believes it is not only the best government in the world, but the only commonwealth that deserves the name, since everyone pursues the good of all of the people. This is unlike any other society, where everyone seeks only his own wealth. In Utopia, no one owns anything, yet everyone is rich, as everyone has sufficient for his needs. Hythloday points out that in other societies, there is no justice or equity, for those who do least service to the public, such as noblemen and goldsmiths, live in the most luxury, while those who work hard for the public good, like farmers, struggle to make a living. What is more, when such laborers are too old or ill to work, society leaves them to die in misery.
Hythloday gives his view of contemporary European society as a conspiracy of the rich enabling them to pursue their own ends. They are supported by laws that they themselves established to protect their own interests. The rich are not happy, however, since their wealth makes them vulnerable to all kinds of financially motivated crimes, such as robbery, murder, and fraud. Without money, a society is free of such crimes and also of a large burden of anxieties. Hythloday believes that the only thing that prevents societies adopting the Utopian system is pride, which prompts men to measure their happiness by the misery of others.
More reflects on Hythlodays account. He thinks that there are many absurdities in the Utopian system, chief among them being doing away with money, without which all the magnificence and splendor “which, according to the common opinion, are the true ornaments of a nation,” would be quite taken away. However, More adds that there are many things in the Utopian system that he would like to see adopted in European governments, though he is not hopeful that this will happen.
This section on religion confirms that Thomas More, a devout Catholic who was martyred by an emerging Protestant regime for his beliefs, was tolerant of differences in peoples beliefs but saw social and political disunity as an evil. Utopians have freedom of religion enshrined in law, and they have different beliefs. But everyone shares a common belief in the basis of all their religions: a God who is the source of all good, and the immortal soul, and thus they are able to worship together. No one is allowed to force his beliefs on anyone, thus removing the danger of the violent quarrels between sects that divided many European countries in Thomas Mores time. It is suggested, however, that Thomas More believed Christianity to be the superior religion, by the fact that many Utopians choose to convert when Hythlodays party tells them about it.
Critics note that the differences between the Utopian religion and the orthodox Catholic religion match those reforms that were being suggested for the Catholic church in Thomas Mores time. The would-be reformers include Erasmus, Thomas Mores friend. Hythloday emphasizes that the Utopian priests are extremely pious and few in number; reformers of the Catholic church attacked what they saw as the excessive number of priests and their lax moral and spiritual standards. Some reformers wanted to see fewer images of sacred figures like Christ and the Virgin Mary, as they thought it distracted worshippers from a pure understanding of God; Utopian churches have no such images. It is not clear whether Thomas More supported such reforms.
One radical way in which Thomas More was years ahead even of the reformers was in allowing women priests in Utopia. Most Christian churches began to ordain women as priests only in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and as of 2006 the Roman Catholic church still holds out against the practice.
The character Mores comment that there are many “absurd” things about Utopian society is much disputed by critics, who disagree about whether the author Thomas More wrote Utopia as a non-serious fantasy or as a serious manifesto for an ideal society. However, what follows this comment gives an important clue. The character More mentions as the foundation of all the “absurd” aspects of Utopia their living in common “without the use of money.” The absence of money, he says, would remove all nobility, magnificence, and splendor, “which, according to the common opinion, are the true ornaments of a nation .” The insertion of “according to common opinion” distances the author from this view and makes it ironic: while the conservative character More reflects conventional European prejudices in finding Utopian ideas absurd, the author Thomas More recognizes that this is only the “common opinion” in a corrupt society. The fact that the author Thomas More does not elaborate on why the character More dismisses Utopian systems as absurd suggests that he does not agree with him. If the author Thomas More did agree with the character More in this, he would expound the arguments against Utopian systems.
In Utopia, Thomas More presents with conviction and passion a picture of a state where nobility and magnificence, far from being the “true ornaments of a nation,” are scorned, and nowhere does he give credence to the opposite view. He makes clear that these superficial vanities are valued by the “common opinion” of less enlightened and more destructive societies, but the very fact that those societies are less enlightened and more destructive throws their values into disgrace.
In truth, Thomas More needed to claim that Utopian ideas were absurd in order to protect himself. He was a close advisor to King Henry VIII, a statesman, and a renowned lawyer, and thus he was careful of his reputation and safety. Hiding behind a veil of irony and his fictional conservative namesake “More” was the way he chose to stay out of trouble.