More than an account of a fictional society, Thomas More's Utopia is a criticism of early Renaissance European society. On the island of "Utopia" people live together in peace and harmony, experience freedom and prosperity, and worship any religious tradition they see fit. Thomas More used the book to criticize the political, economic, legal, and religious aspects of European society in the 16th century. At that time Europe was still deeply entrenched in the medieval traditions which had guided European society for centuries. However, changes in the nature of European society had brought about a cry for reform, especially in the area of religion which had dominated European society. The Catholic Church started to be seen as corrupt and tyrannical and no longer serving the religious needs of the European people. As part of this call for reform, Thomas More published Utopia which described a near perfect society to which he hoped, it seemed, that Europeans would embrace. In this novel More proposed a society in which all worked together in peace for the betterment of society as a whole. Especially important at the beginning of the 16th century was More's comments on religion and the Utopian ideal of religious tolerance.
Utopia told the tale of a number of fictional characters, some of whom were based on real contemporary figures, who meet and discuss the travels of one of the characters. Fictional character Raphael Hythloday, along with Thomas More, Peter Giles, and Cardinal John Morton, talk about the travels of Hythloday and his visit to a place called Utopia. While More, Giles, and Morton were based on real historical figures, the author used them as the basis of fictional characters and should not be read as the historical reactions of real people. Hythloday carefully and with much detail described the fictional island of Utopia along with its political, economic, social, military, and religious aspects. Cleverly placed within the dialogue was Sir Thomas More's criticism of European society at the time, and especially of the nature of the Catholic Church. While the Protestant Reformation was beginning to sweep across Europe, More's Utopia sought to reform the Catholic Church rather than replace it as several Protestant movements were preaching.
With this in mind a reading of Utopia, if concentrated on the religious aspects, can reveal many of More's religious beliefs, and in particular his attempt to reform the Catholic Church rather than replace it. More's beliefs have their basis in the philosophy of "Humanism," and its concentration on humanity rather than religious aspects. Friend to Erasmus, the founder of Humanism, More's belief that humans created the structure of the Church and therefore were responsible for its corruption and reformation was a natural offshoot of the Humanist philosophy. But to More Humanism was only one part of the whole, a whole which was founded on the Christian religion. In the book, More stated his belief "in the potential reforms that could better all of Europe if only men embraced humanist education, service for one another, and the philosophia Christi." (Nelson, 2004, p.59) In effect, More believed that a combination of Humanist philosophy with its focus on service, and the Christian philosophy could result in a better and more just society in Europe.
To begin with More described the Utopian god, which was depicted as suspiciously much like the European sense of God. More characterized the Utopian god as "one eternal, invisible, infinite, and incomprehensible Deity; as a Being that is far above all our apprehensions, that is spread over the whole universe…Him they call the Father of All…" (More, 1516, p.155) With a god that was created in the image of a European idea of God, More immediately made a connection between the reader and the Utopians; one which he hoped would make Europeans review their own religious tradition. In this way he hoped that a contrast between the European and the Utopian religious traditions, Europeans would see that their system was corrupted by the evils of men. And to make his point, More described how the Utopians dealt with religious zealots who would deny others the right to worship. Hythloday retold the tale of one of the first Christian converts on Utopia and how his zeal for the faith led him to condemn all other religions. The Utopians were described as "a religiously tolerant people," but their tolerance came into question when someone's religious beliefs forbade any other religious traditions. (Boyle, 2006, p.69) After a trial which consisted of much deliberation, the people of Utopia respected his right to practice his religion and referred to one of their oldest laws which stated that "no man ought to be punished for his religion." (More, 1516, p.158) Unlike those with whom More lived with, the Utopians did not execute this person, as would have been done in Europe at that time, but simply exiled him.
Religious tolerance was a major aspect of More's Utopia, something that was sorely lacking in the real world of 16th century Europe. At a time when the whole of European society was in a state of uproar, religious toleration was something alien to the Europeans. It was common to execute anyone who did not accept the formal religious beliefs of the rulers of a territory; whether they be Catholic or Protestant. In effect, both sides practiced religious intolerance to a horrific degree. However, this was in stark contrast to the Utopians who openly accepted God as the creator of the universe, the source of all goodness, and worthy of respect and adoration. The Utopians, as described by More, were "born under the happiest government in the world, and are of a religion which they hope is the truest of all others; but, if they are mistaken, and if there is either a better government, or a religion more acceptable to God, they implore His goodness to let them know it…" (More, 1516, pp.174-175)
In Utopia More made several specific criticism of European society and in particular European religious beliefs. While not specifically using the term "indulgence," More made it clear that it was religious belief and good works that could save a human soul, not money. When describing the religious tradition of Utopia, More stated that "They think the contemplating God in His works, and the adoring Him for them, is a very acceptable piece of worship to Him." (More, 1516, p.163) The Utopians made no mention of paying money in order to receive God's grace and followed a more Humanist view of religion by contemplating God in his works in the world. Any gifts from God had to come through faith, which was rewarded by God, and not from a religious institution, a religious figure, or a donation. Strangely though, this view of how God's grace can be granted is very similar to Martin Luther's views as stated in his 95 theses. Number 37 stated that "Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the benefits of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of indulgence." (Luther, 1517, #37)
Finally, while Sir Thomas More wrote about religious toleration, extolling its virtues and goodness, in real life he practiced it rarely. As Chancellor for King Henry VIII, More was responsible for the execution of numerous heretics, or those who supported a Protestant view of religion. In practice More had little tolerance for those whose religious views were not in accordance with the Catholic Church's and even stated that heretics were those who "obstinately hold any self-minded opinion contrary to the doctrine that the common-known Catholic Church teaches and holdeth for necessary for salvation." (More, 1533, Chapter 10, p.30) For one who once extolled the virtues of religious tolerance…