Linda Raeder’s study of John Stuart Mill as a critic of religion and, more specifically, of Christian beliefs and morals is heavily researched and densely composed.  Although carefully and gracefully framed, it is too conceptually demanding to please dull-witted movement conservatives or politically correct academics.  Those who disregard this study, however, are missing a devastating assault on an influential thinker whose time is not yet fully gone.  Raeder gives no quarter in going after her stodgy Victorian subject, revered by libertarians (most famously, Friedrich Hayek) as well as by others for his alleged promotion of intellectual freedom.  Raeder shows that this praise is mostly undeserved and trains her sights on Mill’s disdainful view of a deadening past, his fevered hope for a new religion of humanity, and his plans for social reconstruction.  She correctly infers that, by looking at Mill’s evolutionary notion of traditional religion (largely borrowed from his contemporary, French sociologist Auguste Comte), you can catch the drift of Mill’s speculations about the purpose and limits of liberty.  

Raeder’s investigation builds on earlier attempts to penetrate beneath the dreary icon Mill has become, especially among democratic ideologues, and to reveal his persistent unattractive side.  Such unmasking can be seen in the painfully subtle strictures of German refugee scholar (and longtime Yale fixture) Joseph Hamburger in John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control (1999), in Maurice Cowling’s nonstop invective Mill and Liberalism (1963), and in my own recurrent attack, launched in After Liberalism, on Mill as the precursor of managerial democracy.  But Raeder widens and deepens this cumulative attack: She puts at the center of her far-reaching interpretation Mill’s posthumously published Three Essays on Religion (1874).  In these essays, written with the collaboration of his feminist wife, Harriet Taylor, over a 20-year period, it is possible to grasp Mill’s revulsion for traditional religion and his determination to prepare the coming generation for life under scientifically managed democracy.

Raeder rejects the idea, put forth in Mill’s Autobiography, that he was reared without any strong religious beliefs.  She notes that he took away from his childhood the utilitarian conviction of his father, James Mill, and of the bosom friend of James, Jeremy Bentham, that religion represents the erroneous search to explain natural phenomena in prescientific societies.  John Stuart found the same view usefully formulated in Comte’s sociological picture of the development of human consciousness, together with Comte’s elevation of social science to the highest form of practical learning.  Not surprisingly, the younger Mill published a celebratory biography of Comte in 1865, chiefly to familiarize English readers with his “positivism.”  For those who have read Mill’s On Liberty, it should be clear that the “positivist” grid asserts its presence at the beginning of this tract, widely believed to be about the free exchange of ideas.  Liberty is given an instrumental value, in terms of the overall social goal that Raeder identifies in her introduction as the “Millian project”:

Mill was committed both to the destruction of what he regarded as a moribund and immoral Christianity and to the social establishment of what he regarded as the superior morality and spirituality embodied in the Religion of Humanity that he adopted, with revisions, from Auguste Comte.

Raeder observes that what made Mill an appropriate founder of what is sometimes called “secular humanism” was his fixation on religion (a trait he shared with Comte), without a belief, however, in transcendent or divine truths.  From his Autobiography to the second of his Religious Essays, “On the Utility of Religion,” Mill floods his reader with vague impressions of religiosity, even describing Christianity as a “precious gift” and Jesus as a “sublime man.”  Raeder is right to perceive in these seemingly pious gestures either vacuous sentimentality or a ploy to trick the unsuspecting into acceptance of a scientifically grounded “Religion of Humanity.”  While Mill, like his lapsed Catholic friend Comte, relished some aspects of received religious tradition—in particular, as both men observe, their power to elicit obedience—each intended to strip away its metaphysical essence and to infuse it with a positivist substance.  Indeed, Mill, as Raeder emphasizes, found not only revealed truths but nonempirical sources of knowledge to be a hindrance to human progress.  In the scientific, egalitarian, and feminist future he looked forward to creating, everyone would be trained to make the proper and necessary associations among ideas communicated by the senses and subject to verification.  There would be no room for intuitionists or for those appealing to communal custom or to what had been firmly accepted religious authority.

An idea that hovers over this study and is explicitly stated at the end is that “Mill was, above all, a religious thinker.”  The secular humanism that his work nourished reflected his own “animus toward Christianity and, more generally toward the notion of a transcendent source of order and obligation,” combined with the retention of at least some religious sentiment.  Christian culture had left its mark on Mill, but, as a letter he wrote to Thomas Carlyle in 1833 (quoted by Raeder) makes evident, he was not quite sure what he wished to retain of it once it was “gone, never to return, only what was best in it to reappear in another and still higher form, sometime [only Heaven knows when].”

Moreover, what there is in Mill of religion has a mawkish, pietistic flavor.  Unlike the virile Catholic authoritarianism encountered on the Continent and identified even with such freethinkers as Comte and Charles Maurras, a Victorian girliness suffuses Mill’s puerile religious impressions and his comments on Jesus the moralist.  And this vestigial and palpably unmasculine religiosity fits in with Mill’s work, cowritten with Harriet, lamenting the supposed enslavement of the fair sex in 19th-century England.  This, too, may be the kind of link that Raeder is looking for between Mill, the secular humanist prophet, and the present age.  Our feminized politics, no less than our Religion of Humanity (renamed “human rights”), would have delighted Raeder’s subject.  One among other merits of her learned study is that she reveals an unmistakable distaste for both her subject and the world he helped to fashion.  For this bienséance and for her exhaustive, focused research, Raeder deserves our respect.


[John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity, by Linda C. Raeder (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press) 402 pp., $49.95]