Thomas More wrote Utopia on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, in 1516. In the book, he asked his readers to consider the merits of religious freedom in Utopia. Utopia is the famous « philosophical city  » he constructed solely on the basis of rational principles. Utopus is the founder of More’s fictional country and he hated the fierce sectarian squabbling that weakened his indigenous opponents. Once he became king, he prevented further religious-political conflicts by denying government the rights to d to privilege a particular sect or religion. At the same time, he enabled government to proscribe politically dangerous forms of religion and to all Utopians had to subscribe to certain religious doctrines that promoted virtue. It was therefore a limited type of religious freedom which made Utopia a theologically diverse, but morally unified society wholly free of religiously inspired violence.

More’s account of religious freedom in Utopia is a deep and original contribution to Western political thought. He designed Utopian religious freedom to serve in some sense as a model for Europe. We can see Utopian religious freedom as an important precursor of later liberal efforts to manage church-state relations.

More was the first Western thinker to publish a comprehensive defense of religious freedom. Early Renaissance thinkers such as Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) championed a greater diversity of belief acceptable to God, but never linked this reform to a political principle. In Utopia, the king argues for religious freedom on both political and religious grounds.

More suggests that religious fanatacism was a real threat to Europe’s well-being. In Utopia, religious freedom transformed a plethora of warring sects into tolerant, stable supporters of the government. It is not clear, however, that More ever considered anything like Utopian religious freedom desirable for Europe. When he was Lord Chancellor under the reign of Henry VIII, he wrote polemics against Martin Luther and his English followers and sanctioned the persecution of heretics. More was also, of course, canonized by the Catholic Church for his defense of papal authority and his subsequent martyrdom at the hands of King Henry VIII. Because of these circumstances as well as More’s reputed piety we can wonder whether he could have favored toleration.

Many scholars think that More didn’t consider Utopia as a model, perfect society. More’s apparent approval of religious freedom for Christians puts him at odds with the Catholic Church of his time and calls into question his stance toward faith. Other historians consider that More wrote Utopia partly to promote religious freedom for Christians. More, the author, neither answers this question directly in the text nor offers clues that would enable the careful reader to answer it with certitude.

Yet More suggests that he did indeed favor religious freedom for Christians by presenting an attractive but fictional account of the political advantages of this principle. The first advantage was that religious freedom put an end to religious violence caused by sectarian disputes, fanaticism, and attempts by government to impose one religion. More shows, however, that religious freedom can only promote civic peace if the religions become more tolerant.

When writing Utopia in 1515-1516, Thomas More was a Christian humanist, that is a member of a circle of Northern European thinkers who used Greek and Roman sources as basis to moral and philosophical reflection. These men worked on important political issues that concerned the ancients such as how to achieve the best political order, what constitutes true nobility, and whether a philosopher should enter political life. They also reconsidered the status of religious knowledge especially after the recent geographical expansion of the known world and the recent rediscovery of ancient skeptical thought.

Christian humanists generally accepted the Catholic Church’s authority but they sought to eliminate corruption and some even criticized the position of the church. They were confident, however, that they could reform the Church without creating a revolution.

The main character in this group was Erasmus (c. 1469-1536), a man whom More considered a soul mate as well as the greatest theologian and thinker of his age. Erasmus and More agreed on most important religious-political matters prior to the Reformation.

Erasmus wrote a most caustic attack on the Christian establishment . Erasmus attacked the sectarians and prelates who thought that the Church’s need for orthodoxy justified the use of force against its enemies. After the Reformation, Erasmus was accused of undermining the authority of the Catholic church. In 1559, the Council of Trent condemned him as a heretic of the first class and placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books. During the years 1515-1519, More defended his friend against charges of heresy. More also suggested that the Church’s preoccupation with heresy was caused by certain churchmen of his day who fought over inessential doctrines and violated God’s moral precepts.

Churchmen were friendlier to More than to Erasmus perhaps because More was more discreet than Erasmus in criticizing the Church and because of his martyrdom. Yet More’s defense of Erasmus suggests that when writing Utopia he considered the Church’s behaviour religiously unwise and politically dangerous.

Utopus established religious freedom shortly after assuming power, thereby making this principle one of the « most ancient institutions » of his commonwealth. He argues that « no one should suffer for his religion. » Thus, each Utopian could freely decide « what he should believe ». More also attacked faith-inspired zealotry in Utopia. Thus, the Utopians could worship the sun, the moon, or heroic ancestors, but could not profess doctrines that degrade human beings or make them poor citizens. These include the views that « souls likewise perish with the body » and that « the world is the mere sport of chance and not governed by any divine providence ». Nor could the Utopians profess doctrines or engage in religious behaviors that were likely to cause war. Thus, proselytizers were « punished with exile or enslavement ».

Thomas More argued in Utopia that all efforts to achieve the « best state of a commonwealth » in the Christian era must deal with the problems posed by faith-based violence. His fictional solution to these problems was a highly original strategy for managing the relationship between religion and government. This strategy featured a version of religious freedom that prohibited government from enforcing a complicated orthodoxy or infringing on what he considered the legitimate rights of conscience. At the same time, it allowed government to prescribe certain religious beliefs that More considered essential for virtue and to proscribe politically dangerous religious observances. More also showed how religious freedom helped promote civic peace, scientific development, and economic prosperity.

It is not clear whether More directly influenced the religious political thought of Locke or other liberal champions of religious freedom, nor why he made his intentions for Utopia so difficult to discern.