Jeremy Bentham: Prophet of Secularism

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Professor Philip Schofield
Professor Philip Schofield
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Evan Harris M.P. (1965 –
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Conway Hall 26 October 2011. Chaired by Dr Evan Harris and presented by Professor Philip Schofield.

Bentham was a prophet of secularism in the special semantic sense of advocating the secular outlook, as distinct from predicting it. In general, he urged that theology should have no influence over morals and legislation. More particularly, he argued that it should not impinge on sexual morality; and, in this, he emphatically opposed the doctrines of St. Paul.

Bentham’s desire to remove theology from all the main areas of human affairs marks him as a man of the Radical Enlightenment: the intellectual movement which had gained enormous momentum in the decades immediately before the French Revolution, and which was pro-democratic. A key aspect of Bentham’s radicalism was a call for sexual freedom. This was at a time of increasing public demand for freedom in the heterosexual sphere. While fully supporting this, Bentham also, and crucially, sought liberty for homosexuals, at a time when homosexuality was actually still a capital offence in England.

His radicalism extended in two further directions: engaging in historical criticism of the contents of the Bible, thus treating the text as a human document; and presenting the empirical-agnostic argument that, since all knowledge was derived from sense perception of the natural world, there could be no knowledge of the supernatural, even if the latter existed.

Bentham’s secularism involved the moral doctrine of utilitarianism: the view that authentic morality sought to establish the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Because, according to this doctrine, pain and suffering were evils, Bentham opposed moral asceticism—which, he argued, increased pain. He also stood against doctrines which were selective and biased in terms of who should experience happiness: positions which contrasted with the universalism of utilitarianism.

In his attack on asceticism, he chiefly targeted Paul. He regarded Paul’s teachings as in fact the opposite of Jesus’s, and indeed as an attempt to replace the influence of Jesus by his own. Part of this attempt was his emphasis on faith as irrational credulity, regarded as a merit. Another part was his negative view of sexuality—a view absent from Jesus’s teachings. Paul taught that the forgoing of sexual pleasure was the sacrifice which human beings had to make to secure the Divine gift of an everlasting future life of happiness.

By contrast with Paul, Jesus—claimed Bentham—spoke out against asceticism. What is more, Jesus probably engaged in sexual activity, both heterosexual and homosexual. Specifically on the latter, Bentham suggested that there had been strong relationships between Jesus and a young male prostitute, and the disciple John.

Bentham defended the homosexuality of his own day by denying the charge that it reduced the population number. He also denied the charge that homosexuality led to a deterioration in the condition and status of women; he pointed to various countries where homosexuality was widespread, and yet where women were highly valued or respected.

In conclusion, Bentham identified religious prejudice, and not any level-headed rationality, as the source of sexually bigoted attitudes.

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