This excerpt comes from John Gray’s latest book Seven Types of Atheism; the chapter is “Secular Humanism, a Sacred Relic,” where Gray deliberates over ‘the religion of humanity.’ In this passage, he tells of nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill’s faith in personal satisfaction and human progress — and the voice of doubt that arose amidst it:

…John Stuart Mill never agonized over Christian belief. In early adulthood, though, he did suffer a crisis of faith. The faith he struggled with was Utilitarianism, a version of secular humanism in which the goal of human action was the maximal satisfaction of wants — sometimes summarized as ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’… Mill thought of himself as an agnostic, but in having no use for an idea of God he was in truth an atheist.

At the same time, Mill did have a faith — the conviction, shared by countless later believers in the religion of humanity, that the species could raise itself to a higher level of civilization through the exercise of reason. Where Mill differed from other secular believers in his or our own time was in not taking this faith for granted. Nowadays there are millions of liberal humanists who have never had a religion of the ordinary kind. Few of them have asked themselves — as Mill did — whether their faith in human improvement can be supported by reason.

Mill’s account of what he describes as his ‘mental crisis’ is heartfelt:

“I had what might truly be called an object in life: to be a reformer of the world… This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence. But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream… In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions that you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me; the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.”

[…] he founded an orthodoxy — the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.

As he noted, Mill was unusual in not having been reared in any traditional faith. But, like everyone else in mid-Victorian England, he was shaped in his thinking and feelings by Christianity. When he insisted that morality did not depend on religion, he invoked an idea of morality that was borrowed from Christian religion. When he affirmed that humankind was improving, he was relying on the belief that the human animal is a collective moral agent — an idea that also derives from Christianity. None of these assertions can be supported by empirical observation, supposedly the basis of Mill’s philosophy.