25 May, 2022


Thomas More On Religious Freedom In The Island Of Utopia (Ceylon?): Part X

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

This is one of their most ancient laws, that no man ought to be punished for his religion.” – Thomas More

In the context of Sri Lanka’s current debates on religion and religious freedom, it is interesting to relate what Thomas More said about religious practices and freedoms in the Island he called ‘Utopia.’ As this book, Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), has continuously argued, there are strong indications that More was not just writing a Plato’s type utopia (Republic), but basing himself on information he had received from a Portuguese traveler about Ceylon. What is published here is Chapter 8 of that book to allow free access to anyone. The publication link to the original book is: https://www.createspace.com/4688110

Among his descriptions about religions, religious practices, and most importantly, religious freedoms in that Island, there is a story that he relates which would not have come in a usual description of an ideal society. That was about a newly converted Christian abusing the traditional religions going against the religious freedoms that was accorded in that Island. It was with praise that Thomas More talked about religions and religious freedoms in that Island (Ceylon).

While leaving the readers to go through the following chapter for that story and other religious matters, it is important to note the existence of religious freedom and tolerance when the Portuguese came to Ceylon in early 16th century related by a prominent historian, P.V.J. Jayasekera, in his new book, Confrontations with Colonialism. As he says, the “Buddhists initially extended their support to the Portuguese missionaries to set up their churches and maintain their priests…the attitude of the Sangha was that the Catholic missionaries were also teachers of people, like themselves, and saw no harm in their preaching a different faith” (pp. 185-186, quoted by Liyanage and Herath).

Such a religious freedom, freedom of conscience and tolerance should be the ideal for Sri Lanka today.


“One should not honor only one’s own religion and condemned of others, but one should honor other’s religions.” – Emperor Asoka[1]

AS THOMAS MORE depicts, Utopia is a multi-religious society with several religions. “There are several sorts of religions, not only in different parts of the island, but even in every town,” he says. This looks like Ceylon in the 15th century.[2] However, he emphasizes that the greater and wiser sort worships a supreme deity as the father of all and “the beginnings, the increase, the progress, the vicissitudes, and the end of all things come only from him.” This supreme god is called Mithras, quite reminiscence of Brahman in Hinduism. According to Isha Upanishad, “Om – That supreme Brahman is infinite, and this conditioned Brahman is infinite and the infinite proceeds from infinite.”[3]

It is interesting to note that More relates a story through Raphael. When Raphael and others were in the island, they introduced Christianity to the Utopians and they were inclined to receive it after hearing the story of Christ, and his sacrifices for the truth. They were obviously not near Christiany before, and Mithras was not the like the Christian god. They were newly converted and baptized by the visitors. According to the story, the natives even selected one among them as a Priest. But what is important is the following. “Those among them that have not received our religion, do not fright any from it, and use none ill that goes over to it; so that all the while I was there, one man was only punished on this occasion,” Raphael had said. This means that the natives were tolerant, and only one occasion they opted to punish one of the newly converts. Why? The following is the description of the matter.

“He being newly baptized, did, notwithstanding all that we could say to the contrary, dispute publicly concerning the Christian religion with more zeal than discretion; and with so much heat, that he not only preferred our worship to theirs, but condemned all their rites as profane; and cried out against all that adhered to them, as impious and sacrilegious persons, that were to be damned to everlasting burnings.”

Then what happened was, “he was seized, and after trial he was condemned to banishment.” This was done “not for having disparaged their religion, but for his inflaming the people to sedition.” Then More says, “This is one of their most ancient laws, that no man ought to be punished for his religion.”[4]

Religious Freedom

It was ‘religious freedom’ that was characteristic of religions in Utopia according to More. It was guaranteed in the first constitution that Utopus apparently introduced. Before his coming into the scene, the original inhabitants were divided and fought against each other on the issues of religion. That was one reason why he could easily subdue them. After doing so “he made a law that every man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavor to draw others to it by force of argument, and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions.” No one could use force to convert no another, neither reproach nor violence, anyone who does otherwise “were to be condemned to banishment or slavery.”

Thomas Moore the Thinker

On behalf of the Utopians, More argued that “it [is] indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true.” They are left for their freedom of belief and conscience. Nevertheless, he argued that “they all formerly believed that there was a state of rewards and punishments to the good and bad after this life,” something like Karma. There can be some who think otherwise who do not believe anything after life but they are not punished in Utopia unlike in Europe during the same period, “so that men are not tempted to lie or disguise their opinions; which being a sort of fraud, is abhorred by the Utopians.”

More explained different religious beliefs that existed in Utopia. One was related to the belief of rebirth. “They think that the souls of beasts are immortal, though far inferior to the dignity of the human soul,” he said. “They are almost all of them very firmly persuaded that good men will be infinitely happy” or in another life. “So that though they are compassionate to all that are sick, yet they lament no man’s death,” he further added.

Funeral Rites  

More talked about two types of funeral rituals. There are some who are “loth to depart with life, for they look on this as a very ill presage, as if the soul, conscious to itself of guilt, and quite hopeless, was afraid to leave the body, from some secret hints of approaching misery.” “They are struck with horror when they see any die in this manner, and carry them out in silence and with sorrow, and praying God that he would be merciful to the errors of the departed soul, they lay the body in the ground.” This is the ritual of burial.

Then they have the other ritual. “But when any die cheerfully, and full of hope, they do not mourn for them, but sing hymns when they carry out their bodies, and commending their souls very earnestly to God: their whole behavior is then rather grave than sad, they burn the body, and set up a pillar where the pile was made, with an inscription to the honor of the deceased.” The ritual of cremation undoubtedly was a common practice in India and Ceylon and not very much elsewhere in the world, except in few other Asian countries like Japan. Even the Japanese funeral custom of cremation was influenced by Buddhism and before the arrival of Buddhism the dead bodies were thrown into the jungle. Then More explains what they do after a funeral.

“When they come from the funeral, they discourse of his good life and worthy actions, but speak of nothing oftener and with more pleasure than of his serenity at the hour of death. They think such respect paid to the memory of good men is both the greatest incitement to engage others to follow their example, and the most acceptable worship that can be offered them; for they believe that though by the imperfection of human sight they are invisible to us, yet they are present among us, and hear those discourses that pass concerning themselves.”

It is further said that the dead have continuous affection for the living. Therefore, they conclude “that they are still among the living, and observe all they say or do.” While these beliefs might be common to many societies and cultures, More adds that “this opinion of the presence of their ancestors is a restraint that prevents their engaging in ill designs.”

Devotion to Social Work

The people of Utopia are not that superstitious according to More, although they believe miracles of great men of religion. “They despise and laugh at auguries, and the other vain and superstitious ways of divination, so much observed among other nations.” They are rational and at the same time morally devoted to serve what is good and expected of them. More talks about social workers motivated through religion. “There are many among them, that upon a motive of religion neglect learning, and apply themselves to no sort of study; nor do they allow themselves any leisure time, but are perpetually employed believing that by the good things that a man does he secures to himself that happiness that comes after death.”

Some of these social workers visit the sick and “others mend highways, cleans ditches, repair bridges, or dig turf, gravel or stones.” This looks like the Shramadana tradition that Sarvodaya has picked up in modern Sri Lanka. They not only serve the public but also the needy private men. They work on their own accord without any compulsion. “But by their stooping to such servile employments, they are so far from being despised, that they are so much the more esteemed by the whole nation.”

The Priests

More talks about two sorts of priests. “Some live unmarried and chaste, and abstain from eating any sort of flesh; and thus weaning themselves from all the pleasures of the present life.”

“Another sort of them is less willing to put themselves to much toil, and therefore prefer a married state to a single one; and as they do not deny themselves the pleasure of it, so they think the begetting of children is a debt which they owe to human nature and to their country.” There is a role for the wives of their Priests also. They should be exemplary; they are the most extraordinary women of the whole country. There is also room for women to become Priests, “though that falls out but seldom, nor are any but ancient widows chosen into that order.”

Who is better? The Utopians, according to More, look upon the second sort “as the wiser sect, but they esteem the others as the most holy.” The former kind or the holiest sort is called ‘Brutheskas’ in their language. Utopians are humorous people. “They would indeed laugh at any man, who from the principles of reason would prefer an unmarried state to a married or a life of labor to an easy life; but they reverence and admire such as do it from the motives of religion.” Their Priests are men of eminent piety unlike today in any country. Therefore, they are but few for there are only thirteen in every city/town, one for every temple. As they are few, unlike in the present-day Sri Lanka, they remain in a highly-dignified position.

The Priests are chosen by the people as the other Magistrates are, by suffrage given in secret. The secret vote is to prevent factions. When they are chosen, they are consecrated by the College of Priests. The care of all religious things, the worship and the inspection into the manners of the people are given to them. They however don’t have much power. “All that is incumbent on them is only to exhort and admonish the people; for the power of correcting and punishing ill men belongs wholly to the Prince and to the other Magistrates. The severest thing that the Priest does is the excluding those that are desperately wicked from joining in their worship.” Here More was visualizing a religious system under socialism which is democratic and in fact ‘secular.’

Moral Education

There is however major social role to play by the Priests. “The education of youth belongs to the priests.” But it is a different kind of education which can be called moral education. “They do not take so much care of instructing them in letters as in forming their minds and manners aright.” They use all possible methods to infuse very early into the tender and flexible minds of children such opinions as are both good in themselves and will be useful to their country. This is very important even in terms of political culture. “For when deep impressions of these things are made at that age, they follow men through the whole course of their lives, and conduce much to preserve the peace of the government, which suffers by nothing more than by vices that rise out of ill-opinions.”

There is a role to play by the Priests in war and peace as I have related before. “When the Utopians engage in battle,” More said “the priests who accompany them to the war, appareled in their sacred vestments, kneel down during the action, in a place not far from the field; and lifting up their hands to heaven, pray, first for peace, and then for victory to their own side.” This may sound contradictory or rather hypocritical. But they do so “particularly that it may be gained without the effusion of much blood on either side.” More was trying to visualize a kind of ‘humanitarian principles’ in the execution of war, as we have discussed before in the previous chapter, admitting that the war is something hard to prevent.

Priests also have often been able to preserve their own people from the fury of their enemies than to save their enemies from their rage. Why this is so is not explained, but the way they do it is related. “When their armies have been in disorder, and forced to fly, so that their enemies were running upon the slaughter and spoil, the Priests by interposing have separated them from one another, and stopped the effusion of more blood.”

The Priests also have a role to play in mediation and in peace. On “their mediation peace has often been concluded on very reasonable terms,” More assures.

Temples and Rituals

Utopians “measure their months by the course of the moon, and their year by the course of the sun.” The first and the last day of the month and of the year is a festival. The first days are called in their language ‘Cynemernes’ and the last ‘Trammernes.’

Dambulla Cave Temple

They have magnificent Temples. They are not only nobly built but extremely spacious. They are however few in number. More gives a description of them.

“They have magnificent temples that are not only nobly built, but extremely spacious; which is the more necessary, as they have so few of them. They are a little dark within, which proceeds not from any error in the architecture, but is done with design; for their priests think that too much light dissipates the thoughts, and that a more moderate degree of it both recollects the mind and raises devotion.”

One could wonder whether More got the description from cave temples or any other in Ceylon. I have got the same impression when I visited the Dambulla cave temple and others. But More undoubtedly puts his own imagination to the religious practices in these temples. “Though there are many different forms of religion among them” all these are practiced in these temples, he says. It is possible that he refers to both Hindu and Buddhist practices in common temples. But he may not be completely correct when he says “all these, how various soever, agree in the main point, which is the worshipping of the Divine Essence.”

It is also possible that during the particular time that More wrote his Utopia, he was wondering about the possibility of interfaith practices in a future society. This is one reason why More was later considered as one of their great teachers by the Theosophists.[5] More attributes the practice of religious denominations into the private sphere.

“For every sect performs those rites that are peculiar to it, in their private houses, nor is there anything in the public worship that contradicts the particular ways of those different sects.”

Most important here is his statement that “There are no images of God in their temples.”

Veneration of Parents

They meet in their temples on the evening of the festival that concludes a season. They thank their ‘gods’ for their good success during that year or month. The next day being the beginning of the new season, they again meet in their temples to pray for a happy progress of all their affairs in the new season. The most important similarity with the ancient Ceylon is their religious plus social ritual of veneration of parents and elders. This is both a Hindu and a Buddhist tradition.

“In the festival which concludes the period, before they go to the temple, both wives and children fall on their knees before their husbands or parents, and confess everything in which they have either erred or failed in their duty, and beg pardon for it.”

Through this practice “all little discontents in families are removed, that they may offer up their devotions with a pure and serene mind,” More says. He adds that “they hold it a great impiety to enter upon them [temples] with disturbed thoughts.” In the temples, the two sexes are separated. The men go to the right hand and women to the left. “The males and females all place themselves before the head and master or mistress of that family to which they belong.” On the other hand, they intermingle the young and the old, the reason being otherwise if the “younger sort were all set together, they would perhaps trifle away that time too much in which they ought to beget in themselves.”

There are other similarities. “They offer up no living creature in sacrifice,” More says. Instead “they burn incense and other sweet odors.” They have a great number of wax lights during their worship. It is possible, if he had talked about oil lamps, then the western reader would not have understood him. Or even his informant ‘Raphael’ must have mentioned wax lights instead of oil lamps. This is also what Philip Baldaeus reported one and half centuries later. He mentioned wax lights and oil lamps. It is also important to note that according to More, “all the people appear in the temples in white garments.” But on the other hand, “the Priest’s vestments are multi-coloured.” He refers to the vestments as simple and undecorated unlike in the West. “They are made of no rich materials, for they are neither embroidered nor set with precious stones.” There are of course other accounts added to the beauty of the description.

“As soon as the priest appears in those ornaments, they all fall prostrate on the ground, with so much reverence and so deep a silence that such as look on cannot but be struck with it, as if it were the effect of the appearance of a deity. After they have been for some time in this posture, they all stand up, upon a sign given by the priest.”

Let me finally quote what Philip Baldaeus said about religious practices in Ceylon, in 1672, one and half centuries after the publication of Utopia.

“They prey their daily devotions to a certain Idol called Sambaja, by prostrating themselves upon the ground, and afterwards clasping their hands together over their heads.”[6]

Baldaeus’ description about Temples or what he called Convents in Ceylon is also interesting to compare with what More said about the Temples in Utopia. The following is Baldaeus’ description.

“Their Convents have diverse Galleries and Chapels, wherein are placed the Statutes of several Men and Women, who, as they say, have led holy Lives. These are adorned with Gold and Silver Apparel, and attended with burning Lamps and Wax-Candles day and night, placed upon alters: The Candlesticks being supported by naked Boys artificially carved.”


I will leave here for the readers to speculate whether in fact Thomas More obtained some information from a Portuguese traveler to Ceylon or from a travel manuscript much earlier than Philip Baldaeus or Robert Knox, in the early 16th century, to imagine his dream island of Utopia. However, the views and discourses in Utopia are appreciated not only for this fact or ‘myth’ but primarily for their relevance to the present-day society in terms of social equality, fairness, innovative social order and religious tolerance. If Utopia is socialist, it is socialism with a deep sense of religiosity as this chapter explained.


[1] Rock Edict, XII.

[2] A 17th century Dutch commentator referring to Ceylon said, “They are not altogether Bigots, the Emperor of Ceylon allowing Liberty of Conscience to all Nations.” Philip Baldaeus, A Description of the Great and Most Famous Isle of Ceylon,” Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1998 (republished from the translated original of 1672). p. 821.

[3] See also Sri Arabindo, The Upanishads: Texts, Translations and Commentaries, Ashram Press, 1996.

[4] The story most certainly relates to the early Portuguese conversion of Sri Lankans into Christianity and a conflict arising out of that conversion. Thomas More was quite in admiration of the almost liberal native practice of religions, even in this case, irrespective his commitment to the church.

[5] Elton A. Hall, Teachers of the Eternal Doctrine: From Tsong-Ka-Pa to Nostradamus, Theosophic Trust, Lincoln, 2006. A full chapter in this book is devoted to Thomas More.

[6] Both this and the following quotations are from Philip Baldaeus, A Description of the Great and Most Famous Isle of Ceylon as sited before, pp. 820-21.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Dr. Laksiri Fernando,
    Your argument for Religious freedoms is based on an outdated idea that existed in the world during the feudal period. In the modern democracies, it is not relevant to think in terms of religions when organizing how we govern ourselves.
    Democracy is founded on equality of rights for all citizens, and it is paramount that Democracies must be Secular.
    Secular means only one thing “not having any connection with religion”. Therefore to use religion as a base to define a modern democracy is faulty. Modern democracies considers religion as a private matter for individuals and the government/state does not have any involvement with it. That is the definition of ‘Religious freedom’ in a democracy. It is the freedom that all citizens have TO FOLLOW A RELIGION OR NOT FOLLOW A RELIGION.

    • 1

      I didn’t know about this new species before, the 21st century Homosapiens!

      Where did I try to define ‘democracy based on religion’ or ‘argue religious freedom should be based on feudalism? Please show me and the readers. I frankly think you have not read the text carefully. Or your mind must be rambling around your own views. What I have showed is that if Thomas More was using information from pre-colonial Ceylon, then it shows a society with religious freedom. This is corroborated by other authors. Why a 21st century Homosapein is annoyed to hear that?

      Have I indicated that there can be lessons from that past? Yes, I have. I also think that, if the description is correct, the situation was much better than the present Sri Lanka.

      My dear fellow, I have not discussed at all in this essay whether a state should be secular or not. I think you have just tried to put forward your argument. That is fine. But don’t just blame others or try to distort other people’s views. The secular argument is much more complex than you think. I am saying this with nearly 50 years’ experience as a political science academic.

      For example, what do you mean by ‘democracies must be secular? You must say whether you mean the state or the society or both when you say ‘democracies.’ If you say ‘the state must be secular,’ you have an argument. If it is your view, I respect that. But if you try to present it as a dogma, I would not agree. Are you going to say that the societies also should be secular? But that is not the reality in many democratic countries including my present country Australia. Your simplistic definition of the term ‘secular’ is also very dogmatic. If you are just a student, that might be ok to start with. But try to shake up your dogmatic views especially when talking about democracy.

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