Jeremy Bentham

(15 February 1748 – 6 June 1832)

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher, jurist and legal and social reformer. He is widely regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism – the philosophy that an action is right if it results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people – later developed further by John Stuart Mill.

Social reform

Applying the principle of utility to the pressing legal issues of the day, Bentham pushed for reforms towards greater individual freedoms and argued for equal rights for women, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the abolition of slavery and the outlawing of corporal and capital punishment. He was also an early champion of animal rights.

Examination of religion

Part of Bentham’s utilitarian reassessment of society was an examination of religion and his Analysis Of The Influence Of Natural Religion On The Temporal Happiness Of Mankind (1822) made a devastating attack on the claims of religion to be a force for good.

His approach in his works on religion was one of engagement with the realities of Christianity as a political and social force. Believing there was no evidence for the existence of a spiritual world, and that mankind could possess no knowledge of such a world even if it did exist, he did not engage with theological thought as it was rendered fundamentally nonsensical by his outlook.

Bentham was principally concerned with what he saw as the empirical damage done by organised religion and the reverence shown for its self-serving hierarchy and spurious holy books.

Indeed, he produced a strongly stated critique of the Bible and the great figures of Christian history in Not Paul, But Jesus (1823), where he outlined Jesus as a revolutionary who failed in his plans to gain political power over the Jews, and depicted Saint Paul as a no-less politically ambitious liar, who tried to gain control of early Christian communities even as they were in the process of formation.

Concern for religious liberty

Despite such forthright attacks, Bentham was extremely concerned with the issue of religious liberty, and he defended the political rights of Nonconformists, argued for the abolition of the offence of blasphemy, called for greater freedom of expression and of the press, and promoted the idea of non-sectarian education.

Secularism

He was also a strong proponent of the separation of church and state, explored in his books Swear Not At All (1817), also an attack on subscription to articles of faith and the taking of compulsory oaths, and Church-Of-Englandism and Its Catechism Examined (1818).

Disestablishment made religious faith a personal matter, and allowing freedom of religious observance, rather than stamping out religion all together, was key to Bentham’s vision of an ideal utilitarian society where individuals would be afforded the opportunity to judge what was in their own interests and act accordingly in all areas of their lives.

Legacy

Bentham’s application of utilitarian principles to religion was a landmark in the history of British religious thought and his auto-icon in the South Cloisters of University College London remains, as Bentham envisaged, as a public memorial of his achievements in the world, in rejection of the idea of religious monuments to a fallacious immortal soul.

A plaque commemorates the site of the house where Bentham lived for forty years on Queen’s Square Place, London (now 102 Petty France). Bentham is also memorialised by a statue on the rear of Burlington House, London.

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