There is no official state religion in Utopia. People are allowed freedom of belief, with the consequence that there is a variety of religious sects or, as we should say, denominations. For example, some of their people worship the sun, some the moon, and some famous men of virtue. The majority, however, believe in one omnipotent deity whom they call Mithras. Gradually the population is discarding the superstitions that formerly were in general acceptance. In fact, they might by now have been entirely shaken off if it had not been for some unlucky accidents. When certain mishaps occurred to some of those who were arguing against those primitive beliefs, it caused the simple folk to imagine that the victims were being punished for denying their old beliefs.
When the Utopians were introduced to the teachings of Christ, many were deeply impressed and accepted the new doctrine. Hythloday and his companions performed baptismal rites for the converts, but since there was no ordained priest among them, they were unable to perform the other sacraments.
King Utopus, the wise founder of their kingdom, had decreed that every man should be allowed to adopt whatever religion he chose. Furthermore, a man was to be allowed to try to persuade others to adopt his religion provided that he presented his arguments calmly and temperately. The only limit to religious freedom was that disbelief in the immortality of the human soul or in a governing power in the universe was cause for disgrace. Atheists were scorned by the public and were not permitted to hold any public office. It is supposed that with such attitudes those persons would have no principles to deter them from crime.
As they believe in immortality, they believe that good people will live in an infinitely happy state in the afterlife. They then can face death with equanimity. Those who show dread at the approach of death are suspected of a knowledge of guilt and are mourned and prayed for after their death. For those whose dying hours are cheerful, they rejoice and sing hymns after death, being convinced that the soul of the dead person is watching them at the funeral observances.
They do not take any stock in auguries and prognostications, but they accept miracles readily as evidence of the presence of God.
A number of their citizens, motivated by religious zeal, dedicate their lives to service through hard labor in the belief that their good deeds will insure them happiness after death. They may devote themselves either to strenuous physical occupations or to service to their fellow men, such as visiting and waiting on the sick and ministering to the needy.
These religious devotees fall into two classes. One group is dedicated to an ascetic pattern of living, practicing chastity and observing a diet without meat. The other type, though they marry and eat meat, engage diligently in heavy labor. Among the Utopians, the latter group is the more admired, though the former group is regarded as holier. These groups of devoted workers resemble the religious orders — the monks, nuns, and friars of Christian Europe, though nothing is said to indicate that they take vows or are banded in any formal organization.
Their priests are men of eminent piety. There are 13 in each city, one for each temple, who are chosen by the people in secret elections and are then consecrated by the college of priests. Their function is to admonish and exhort those who are guilty of misdemeanors. Although the meting out of punishment is the function of the Prince and the Senate, the priest is empowered to exclude a culprit from worship, a penalty that is greatly dreaded. Priests also serve in the instruction of the young, both in teaching their letters and in forming their manners.
The wives of the priests are among the most remarkable women in the nation. Moreover, women are sometimes appointed as priests, though that recognition is ordinarily granted only to elderly widows.
If a priest commits a crime or in some fashion becomes corrupted, he is nevertheless exempt from judgment by the courts, his punishment being left to God and his conscience. Such occurrences are exceedingly rare because priests are chosen with the utmost care; furthermore, the veneration afforded them incites them to virtue.
Priests accompany their troops into battle, praying for their success. Their presence serves as an inspiration to the soldiers, but part of the purpose of their presence is to restrain their soldiers from excesses of slaughter in their success, and they have also been known to succeed in pacifying or modifying the vengeance of enemies as well.
Their temples are very large, noble in design, and dimly lighted. Services are held on the first and last days of the month and also of the year. The nature of their worship in the temples is such that all denominations can participate without offense. Members of any particular sect perform special rituals of their own in the homes of the parties. Confession of sins is conducted in homes before attending services in the temple, but not in the presence of a priest. Wives kneel before their husbands, and children before their parents, to confess their errors and derelictions.
In the temple the worshipers are all dressed in white. The vestments of the priests are made of many-colored feathers and are exceedingly beautiful. The music in the service, which is both instrumental and vocal, is adapted to express the sentiments and emotions of the occasion far better than "ours" in Europe, according to Hythloday's impressions.
Their prayers at service, though couched in language that will not offend any of the various sects, always acknowledge the beneficence of the Creator and offer thanks for giving their nation the best possible form of government and the best form of religion. Then they pray that they may be received into His presence after death. The services ended, they go to dinner, after which they pass the remainder of the day in sports or military exercises.
Hythloday's account of the state of religion in Utopia reveals numerous points of resemblance to Christianity but also some striking differences from certain religious practices in 1516. His remote islanders believe in one supreme and omnipotent deity, and their belief in immortality is very strong. Other resemblances to Christianity are: their high standard of morality, their priestly caste, their ascetics, their prayers, and their hymns. It is not surprising that, when they were instructed in the teachings of Christ, they found them appealing and were readily converted. The similarities between the two religions are in matters of ethical teachings and metaphysics, not in those practices which were criticized most frequently as church abuses.
The points of difference between the Utopian religion and the Christian are sometimes startling. At the outset, we learn that the Utopians were granted religious freedom and that a variety of sects were extant, each with its particular doctrines and special ceremonies. No such liberality was to be found in the Roman Catholic world, which was firm in its insistence upon the principle of one church and one authoritative doctrine.
The elimination of superstition from the Utopian scene represents an improvement for which the Christian reformers had long been clamoring.
In discussing the priests in Utopia, Hythloday's first point is that they were men of eminent piety. That remark, under ordinary circumstances, should be taken as a matter of course; but, considering the outcries against laxity and corruption among the clergy in Europe, it sounds suspiciously like an indirect thrust at the Christian priesthood. Then, too, the fact that a relatively few priests serve the Utopian nation adequately, 13 in a large city, marks a contrast to the situation in Christian countries. The fact that Utopian priests could marry represents a departure from the Catholic rule of celibacy. Another surprising contrast to the Christian rule was that in Utopia, women were sometimes appointed to the priesthood. Finally, the service of a priest was not required for making confession in Utopia, as was the absolute requirement in Europe. Hearing confessions was, in Utopia, a family affair.
The ways in which the Utopian religion differs from orthodox Catholicism happen to conform to modifications recommended by reformers for the Catholic church. The question naturally arises as to whether or not More was recommending those modifications along with other reformer-critics, like Erasmus, for example. It is not possible to prove either that More did or did not subscribe to those changes on the basis of textual evidence. One group of readers will be convinced that he subscribed to those "improvements" found in the Utopian system. Other readers, reasoning on the basis of More's demonstrated loyalty to his Church, will discount the idea of his supporting those practices and argue that this passage, like the rest of Utopia, should be considered a fantasy which More did not take seriously.