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Political and religious radicalism in the thought of Jeremy Bentham

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This paper challenges both the traditional view of L. Stephen and E. Albee that Bentham's attitude towards religion was irrelevant to his moral and political thought, and the revisionist critique of J.C.D. Clark and J.E. Crimmins that his religious radicalism was the prerequisite for his political radicalism. It also challenges the two further claims advanced by Crimmins: first, that Bentham was an atheist; and second, that he wished to eliminate religion from the mind. In contrast it is argued that Bentham's theory of logic and language lay at the foundation of his thought. His religious radicalism was therefore not the prerequisite for his political radicalism, but rather one aspect of it. Moreover, Bentham never committed himself to atheism, and advocated religious freedom rather than any form of enforced belief or non-belief. It is suggested that unless historians recognize the centrality and originality of Bentham's theory of logic and language, they will fail to explain adequately the emergence of his distinctively utilitarian political radicalism.

Keywords: Atheism; Constitutional Law; Freedom of Expression; Jeremy Bentham; Language; Logic; Natural Theology; Political Radicalism; Religious Radicalism; Utilitarianism; William Paley

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Bentham Project and Faculty of Laws, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT.

Publication date: February 1, 1999


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