As Helmholtz leaves to check on Bernard, John and Mustapha Mond continue their philosophical argument. Whereas their conversation in Chapter 16 covered human experiences and institutions that the World State has abolished, in Chapter 17 they discuss religion and religious experience, which have also been expunged from World State society. Mond shows John his collection of banned religious writings, and reads aloud long passages from the nineteenth-century Catholic theologian, Cardinal Newman, and from the eighteenth-century French philosopher, Maine de Biran, to the effect that religious sentiment is essentially a response to the threat of loss, old age, and death. Mond argues that in a prosperous, youthful society, there are no losses and therefore no need for religion. John asks Mond if it is natural to feel the existence of God. Mond responds that people believe what they have been conditioned to believe. “Providence takes its cue from men,” he says.
John protests that if the people of the World State believed in God, they would not be degraded by their pleasant vices. They would have a reason for self-denial and chastity. God, John claims, is the reason for “everything noble and fine and heroic.” Mond says that no one in the World State is degraded; they just live by a different set of values than John does. World State civilization does not require anyone to bear unpleasant things. If, by accident something negative occurs, soma is there to take away the sting. Soma, he says, is “Christianity without tears.”
Christianity without tears—that’s what soma is.
John declares that he wants God, poetry, real danger, freedom, goodness, and sin. Mond tells him that his wishes will lead to unhappiness. John agrees but does not relinquish his wishes.
Bernard and Helmholtz say good-bye to John. Bernard apologizes for the scene in Mond’s office. John asks Mond if he can go with them to the islands, but Mond refuses because he wants to continue “the experiment.” Later, John chooses to seclude himself in an abandoned lighthouse in the wilderness. He plants his own garden and performs rituals of self-punishment to purge himself of the contamination of civilization.
One day, some Delta-Minus workers see John whipping himself. The next day, reporters come to interview him. John kicks one reporter and angrily demands they respect his solitude. The newspapers publish the incident and more reporters flock to John’s home. He reacts to them with increasing violence. One day he thinks longingly of Lenina and rushes to whip himself. A man films the scene and releases a sensationally popular feely.
Fans of the feely soon visit John and chant, “We want the whip.” As the crowd chants, Lenina steps out of a helicopter and walks toward him, arms open. John calls her a strumpet and proceeds to whip her, saying, “Oh, the flesh! . . . Kill it, kill it!” Fascinated by the spectacle, the crowd mimes his gestures, dances, and sings the hymn, “Orgy-porgy, Orgy . . .” After midnight, the helicopters leave and John collapses, “stupefied by soma” and the extended “frenzy of sensuality.” When he awakes the next day, he remembers everything with horror. Having read about the “orgy of atonement” in the papers, a swarm of visitors descends on John’s lighthouse, discovering that he has hanged himself.