Are Christian beliefs ineffective?


John Stuart Mill continued his robust defense of free speech in his book On Liberty by saying that even true beliefs benefited from challenges that free speech can bring. For example, since Christians seem to strongly believe the tenets of their religion, but they could benefit from vigorous challenge. How is that?

According to Mill, Christian beliefs, even fundamental beliefs are actually held without passion that John Stuart Mill he gave in his book On Liberty, surprised me. These were Christian beliefs which I always thought, in the middle of the 19th century, when Mill wrote, were very strongly held. Mills suggests otherwise:

“To what extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realised in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects—the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of the nation, his class, or his religious profession.”


In other words, according to Mill, people really believe the customs they have adopted, but their professed religious beliefs not so much. Customs actually govern our actions, not our professed religious beliefs. This is really just another way of saying actions speak louder than words, and when it comes to all of these profound and important religious beliefs they are not really effective in guiding our actions, according to Mill.  They have become stale by being the products of indoctrination and not robust debate.

Mill suggests that our actions are based on local customs that we unconsciously accept and allow to override the genuine religious views that we have:

“He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom, as rules for his government; and on the other a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance.”


Mill goes on to list many examples of beliefs that are genuinely believed but do not actually determine how we action:

” All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-advised by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbour as themselves; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor.  They are not insincere when they believe these things.  They do believe them as , as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed.  But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct they believe these doctrines just up to the point  to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as their reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But anyone who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing, would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers—are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them,  but no feeling which spreads from words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula.  Whenever conduct is concerned, they look around for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.”


Mill argues that Christians have these sincere beliefs but actually they do not change how they act. When it comes to acting, people look around to see what their peers are doing and then act accordingly.  That has a marked impact on what they do.  Professed beliefs are weak in comparison.

Yet according to Mill the early Christians were deeply affected in their conduct by religious beliefs that now people claim to believe, and actually do believe though weakly without life and those beliefs do not affect how we actually live.

As Mill said,

“Now we may be well assured that the case was not thus, but far otherwise, with the early Christians. Had it been thus, Christianity never would have expanded from an obscure sect of the despised Hebrews into the religion of the Roman empire. When their enemies said, “See how those Christians love one another” (a remark not likely to be made by anybody now) they assuredly had a much livelier feeling of the meaning of their creed than they have had since.



These doctrines that Mill selects are not mere ancillary aspects of Christianity. They included core beliefs. For example, that Christians should love others like themselves. What is more fundamental than that? Yet Mill concludes Christians claim to believe these fundamental doctrines but these claims have no substance. The beliefs are weakly held. Often, or should we say usually, they do not lead to action.  People like to hear themselves mouth these words. But they don’t really mean it when Christians say they mean them. There are of course, many more beliefs that Mill could have selected for similar treatment. And importantly, Mill says that the reason these beliefs are endorsed formally but not existentially is that Christians have not had to defend them against others. Christians don’t remember why these beliefs are important? Christians don’t remember the reason for the maxims.  Their beliefs are no longer real. Their beliefs have become empty husks no matter how often professed.

 I would invite my Christian friends to say why Mill is wrong. Or is he right?

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