Peter Lythe (UCL) - 2017-18 Students

Utility, truth and God: Religion in the thought of Jeremy Bentham

The aim of the research is to understand the importance of religion in the thought of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and how his ideas about religion relate to the historical and intellectual developments of the age.

While the inadequate treatment of his corpus has for too long obscured the significance of Bentham’s rejection of religion for his philosophic radicalism, the relevant academic literature – to the extent that it exists – remains highly conflicted and deeply problematic. The Bentham Project at UCL, however, has now produced accurate transcripts of Bentham’s voluminous unseen writings on the subject so that, for the very first time, it is possible to survey his religious arguments in full and reach authoritative conclusions about their origin, purpose and implications.

Examining how Bentham’s ideas influenced the ideological culture in which they were formed, even as it, too, shaped them, requires a careful process of interpretation and reconstruction – that is, a theoretical study in intellectual history. Through this discipline, the nature and form of the potentially pivotal, and hitherto incompletely understood, relationship between Bentham’s animosity towards religion, the development of his utilitarian philosophy, and his contribution to the emergence of a secular conception of the world will be revealed. This involves, first, making a qualitative assessment of Bentham’s thought in respect of (at least) three key parameters – the utility, the truth, and the establishment of religion – in order to locate those ideas firmly within the context of his own materialist morality, nominalist metaphysics and socio-political radicalism; and, secondly, identifying the relationship between Bentham’s religious ideas and the intellectual developments of the age, which include the emergence of a philosophy of sexual liberty, the advent of biblical criticism, the growth of atheism and agnosticism, and the transmission of the philosophy of the (Radical) Enlightenment into demands for a mainstream programme of reform.

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