Although religion is mentioned throughout Utopia such as when one of the speakers quotes a Bible verse or refers to scripture or a religious practice, it is not until the end of the text that the narrator Hythloday thoroughly discusses the Utopians’ religion. We cannot guess what More’s intentions were in devoting a whole section on religious beliefs, except that More himself was a very devout individual. This book, however, is an elaborate hoax and much of the writing about this fictitious society is satirical; is More, then, being flippant about religious matters by even mentioning them in this text? More, who ultimately lost his own life because of his strong religious convictions, would probably not have included a discussion of the Utopians’ religious beliefs without giving the matter serious consideration. Perhaps he merely wanted to appeal to his readers who would not have embraced a non-Christian society no matter how good and moral they seemed unless the people saw the error of their ways and seemed willing to convert. But knowing the risks that More takes in writing Utopia and the fact that little else in the work seems to be there purely for the readers’ benefit, this appeal for appeal’s sake seems unlikely.
More presents the Utopians as an advanced race that is somewhat superior to that of the average European, but there are many qualities of Utopian lifestyle that many readers of More’s time would have found disturbing. More was Catholic as were a majority of his readers since the Protestant Reformation was still in its infancy during this time. Yet many of the practices and beliefs of the Utopian people would be offensive to many Catholics. For example, the terminally ill are encouraged to commit suicide by the priests “who are the interpreters of God’s will; which ensures that it will be a holy and pious act.” Yet nearly all other aspects of Utopian life are superior to those of most Christian cultures. For example, divorce is permitted, but rarely so and never for trivial reasons. A man may not put his wife away for any “bodily misfortune,” which would presume to include infertility.
The narrator, Hythloday, and his traveling companions introduce Christianity to Utopia and the Utopians are highly receptive to it. They embrace Christianity because of Christ’s teaching and “the no less marvelous devotion of the many martyrs who shed their blood.” This, Hythloday says, impressed the Utopians, but we are not certain as to whether the Utopians embraced Christianity because they were inspired by God or because Christianity already seemed to fit so well with their lifestyle.
Although the Utopians were exposed to Catholicism and accept many of its precepts, the form of Christianity developing on the island of Utopia is more Protestant than Catholic. A person’s decision to believe is highly valued in many Protestant sects and the Utopians’ original commitment is based upon individual faith and belief in the teachings of Christ, not upon a mandate from a higher authority or even from social pressure. Utopians can choose to become Christian or not, and no one will bother them about their decision either way. They also have no direct connection to the Pope since an ordained priest had not been sent there. The Utopians, however, do not see why one of their own people cannot practice the sacraments with or without the Pope’s blessing. For More’s Catholic readers, however, the ordination of Utopian priests may have presented some problems. Priests are permitted to marry and there are even a few rare cases of female ministers.
I had trouble understanding why More would include the introduction of Christianity to Utopia, but I believe that he chose to do so near the end of the text as if to say that the Utopians were already far more Christian than many Europeans are even after centuries of practice. When the Utopians are exposed to Christianity, it is an added boon to them, but not necessarily a call to change their lives, since their lifestyle already emulates many of Christianity’s basic ideals: love your neighbor, take care of the poor, work hard and avoid vices.