My friend Tim Larsen has written an absolutely fascinating brief biography of John Stuart Mill. (It appears in the Oxford Spiritual Lives series, of which Tim is also the editor.) Everyone knows that Mill had little time for or interest in religion, and that his father James Mill, aide-de-camp to that great enemy of faith Jeremy Bentham, was even more hostile than JSM himself. Given JSM’s secular and rationalist upbringing, it cannot be surprising that, as he put it, “I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so.”

However, as Tim shows convincingly, this statement is seriously misleading to the point of being simply untrue. The same must be said for the familiar family story. James Mill was a licensed preacher and had turned to the life of a writer and public intellectual only after failing to get the kind of pastoral position he thought he was qualified for — a fact he carefully hid from his children — and probably didn’t become a complete unbeliever until he was in his mid-forties, by which point JSM was already a ten-year-old, or older, prodigy. James’s wife Harriet was a Christian, each of their nine children was baptized in the Church of England, and probably only two of them (JSM and his youngest sibling George Grotesque) departed in any significant way from standard-issue Victorian religion. JSM grew up learning not only the Bible but the worship of the Church of England. Nothing about that religion was strange to him.

Moreover, Tim also demonstrates that throughout the course of his life JSM held to a minimal but stable theology, which he summarizes thus:

Even from a scientific point of view and without any intuitive sense or direct experience of the divine, there is still sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that God probably exists; God is good, but not omnipotent; the life and sayings of Christ are admirable and deserve our reverence; the immortality of the soul or an afterlife are possible but not certain; humanity’s task is to co-labour with God to subdue evil and make the world a better place; the affirmations in the previous points such as that God exists and is good cannot be proven, but it is still a reasonable act to appropriate these religious convictions imaginatively not he basis of hope.

(One of the most interesting parts of Tim’s book is his exploration of the potent role “hope” played in Mill’s moral and intellectual lexicon.) There is much more than I might comment on, especially Mill’s alliances with evangelical Christians in his campaign for the rights of women — his rationalist friends were generally cold to this idea — and the interestingly varied religious beliefs of his family, but I will just strongly suggest that you read the book. Its subtitle is “A Secular Life,” and JSM’s life was indeed secular, but not in a modern sense. As Tim puts it, in the Victorian era, even for atheists “the sea of faith was full and all around.”