A number of religions exist in Utopia. They all are similar in that they believe in a single god, but the nature of that god is very different, ranging from a sort of animism, to worship of an ancient hero, to worship of the sun or moon, to belief in a single omnipotent, ineffable god. This last religion, according to Hythloday, is in the process of becoming dominant, though all the religions practice complete tolerance of all the other religions. After Hythloday and his fellows spoke to the Utopians about Christ, a good number converted and began to learn as much as they could. These converts also were treated with the utmost respect by the faithful of other Utopian religions. In fact, the only belief that is not tolerated is atheism, as it is seen as immoral. If someone believes there is no afterlife, according to the Utopians, then that person will act selfishly in search of immediate physical and mental pleasure and not act virtuously in hope of future reward.
The different religions meet in the same churches run by the same priests, and services emphasize the similarities between the religions. If some religion demands a rite or prayer that might be offensive to another, then that rite must be performed in a home in private, not in the church.
Utopian priests are men of the highest moral and religious caliber, and, accordingly, there are very few of them. Almost no women are priests, but it is allowed that a woman could become a priest. Priests maintain the religious centers, educate the children, and praise good behavior while criticizing bad. The priests hold the highest power in the land; even the chief executive must listen to them. Before major religious holidays, women prostrate themselves before there husbands, and children before their parents, and all admit their wrongdoings. It is only with a clear conscience that people may attend services. At services all are attentive and incredibly respectful of the priests, and all acknowledge God to be their maker and ruler.
It is hard to reconcile the almost absolute toleration advocated by Utopia with the fact that as Chancellor, Sir Thomas More played a central role in intensifying the persecution of Protestants. Perhaps all that can be done is to quote Hythloday's comment on the likelihood that a Utopian priest might become unjust or act irreligiously, "for human nature is subject to change." It is interesting to note, that Utopia preached toleration in a time just before the Reformation, while Thomas More began to persecute Protestants after the Reformation had attained full flower. Biographical information aside, the toleration described in Utopia has a corollary in the writings of Erasmus, who went so far as to claim a sort of brotherhood with Muslims, claiming them as half-Christians and seeing in them less corruption than he often saw in Christians.
The Utopian priests are quite obviously meant to criticize European priests. Utopia gives two related reasons why there are so few Utopian priests. First, as a means of keeping up respect for the office, the number of priests is limited. Second, Utopians did not believe many people were moral or just enough to fulfill the priestly role, and so not many were made priests. In Europe, the venality, corruption, and often poor education of priests was a matter of public knowledge, humor, and criticism. The friar in Hythloday's story of dinner with Cardinal Morton is a perfect example, a man who barely knew Latin and who was subject to intense and uncontrollable personal rages. The face of the church was its priests, and Utopia implicitly claims that the face of the Catholic Church was covered in numerous warts.
The religious treatment of women is also rather interesting. The practice in which women must prostrate themselves to their husbands and admit their failings while the husbands must do nothing in return but forgive seems highly unfair, and demonstrates an assumption of superiority in the men. This is not all that surprising given the gender situation in the sixteenth century under which women were subservient to first their father, then their husband. However, women in Utopia can become priests, and this would have been shocking to Sir Thomas More's contemporaries. Even today, the Catholic Church does not allow female priests. At once, Utopia holds an implicit disregard for women, and offers them the chance at equality.
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