THE RELIGION OF HUMANITY
Having had the rather rare fate in my country of never having believed in God, even as a child, I always saw in the creation of a true social philosophy the only possible base for the general regeneration of human morality, and in the idea of Humanity the only one capable of replacing that of God. (John Stuart Mill)
THERE WAS widespread interest in the religion of humanity during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. This “religion,” which was supposed to promote a widely shared, communal, anti-individualistic morality without the aid of conventional religious belief, attracted Mill's interest, and his growing belief in its utility from the 1840s onward had far- reaching implications for his evaluation of Bentham and James Mill and their version of utilitarianism; for his political agenda, including his plan for moral regeneration; and for his views about the value of liberty and for the argument of On Liberty.
Mill discovered the religion of humanity in the writings of Auguste Comte, where it was presented as a novel conception of ethics and social life. It held up duty as an ideal and sought to fundamentally change motives and habits to generate widespread altruism—a word invented by Comte. The goal was to discourage selfishness by making private motives coincide with the public good. This was to be achieved by teaching an authoritative morality and deterring violations of it through moral education and the application of social pressures. Mill found this secular religion appealing, not only because morality was divorced from supernatural religion, but for its being a radical alternative to the pervasive selfishness he discerned in commercial society and mass culture.
Although Mill found the conception of a religion of humanity in Comte's writings beginning in 1848, there were affinities between it and his political thought as it evolved from the late 1820s when he became deeply dissatisfied with Benthamism and adopted fundamentally different ideas. (This does not mean that he did not continue to speak the language of Benthanism and seek to combine the old ideas with the new.) The new opinions appeared most clearly in a series of newspaper articles in 1831 called “Spirit of the Age.” In them he endorsed the St. Simonian distinction between transitional and natural states of society, labels for which,