Exploring the Role Religion plays in Thomas More's Utopia
In Utopia, there is a great variety of spiritual belief, and the only condition on this religious freedom is that everyone must believe in some form of God or divine essence (whom they call Mithras) and, for it is an essential aspect of basic human dignity, to believe that humans have a life after death in which their post mortem bliss depends on what kind of people, good or bad, they were in life. In Utopia, the role of religion is to maintain social order through the broad and simple shared belief that the actions of the living have a direct impact on their respective souls in the afterlife; and because this belief alone prevents people from social degeneracy, the details thereof are allowed for the individual to decide.
Early in Utopia, we see how the Christian attempt to apply Christ’s commandments to More’s contemporary England fail for the fact that the inevitable changes that must take place in order to suit archaic conventions to a different time can be taken too far, to the point of justifying immoral actions (23): “I see no other effect of this compliance except it be that men become more secure in their wickedness by it” (23). A good example of this “wickedness” is the death penalty for almost every crime. The book acknowledges that it goes against God to kill, but law enforcement kills numerous people for the slightest infraction (petty theft), and concludes thereby that this situation exemplifies a preference for human law above divine law (11-12). According to the book, human law is not enough to deter criminal intent: “a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or by force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites” (74). Therefore, belief in a divine overseer is enough to maintain social order, while a religion that tries to impose a complicated system of belief (such as Christianity) is less effective. Furthermore, it is only on a spiritual level that religion regulates social order in Utopia; literal correction and punishment is the business of the secular government exclusively. In fact, a priest is not punished for any crime he or she may commit, for judgement thereof is left to God and the conscience of the priest in question.
Thus, religion itself is very basic in Utopia, with variations thereof at the sole discretion of the individual practitioner. However, despite its simplicity, the common belief in a divine (and implicitly judgemental) overseer serves to effectively deter people from resorting to criminal activity.
More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Mineola: Dover, 1997. Print.