A Modest Proposal and Other Satires Summary and Analysis
"An Argument Against the Abolition of Christianity"
The full title of “An Argument Against the Abolishing of Christianity” is “An Argument to Prove That the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, As Things Now Stand, Be Attended With Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.” The author begins with the idea that while it is dangerous to take up a religious topic, especially when it is against the established leadership, he is resisting those who want to abolish Christianity. Not that long ago, the fashion was to be arguing the opposite, defending Christianity, as this author is doing now. Today, however, Christianity is out of fashion.
He assures his readers that he is not advocating for true, original Christianity, as this would be counter to all modern institutions. He says his purpose is to argue in favor of "nominal Christianity." Yet, in all fairness, he will examine both sides of the argument, the arguments both for and against abolishing the religion.
On the side of abolition is “liberty of conscience,” which after all is a Protestant thing as well. Two people who genuinely had decided, after reflection, to be atheists were prosecuted for blasphemy, and a system of prosecution in the name of orthodoxy is likely to become very oppressive. Yet, if Christianity were abolished altogether, this kind of person who would enjoy the ornery nature of being an atheist would, instead, rail against the nobility and the government.
Likewise, it has been said that Freethinkers are unfairly forced to believe difficult things that were not ingrained from youth, even though it is unclear how much education in Christianity the people really have after all. People seem to do quite well in their professions without much learning, so it is not quite right to suggest that most people live their lives on the basis of Christian doctrine. In response, however, Christianity provides at least a small number of people with the intellectual resources that the civilization will need to depend on, even if their number is few.
The next argument for abolition is that people would be allowed to work on Sundays, which would have economic benefits, and the churches could be used for other purposes. Yet, a lot of people already do not go to church, which was the presumed purpose of the day of rest. The coffee-houses stay open on Sundays, for instance, and many people go to them. Busy people just do their work at home. Besides, churches give everyone a chance to meet and make business deals, to dress up for one another, or at least to sleep.
The narrator says that the best advantage of abolishing Christianity, people say, if it would really happen, would be the end of party divisions, both religious and political. This would be wonderful. This would be unlikely, however, because people would not suddenly become rational, moral beings. People are prone to form factions regardless of religion. Just getting religious words about the vices out of the language would not make the underlying human vices disappear. Abolishing Christianity might ultimately unify the Protestant sects, but new divisions will spring up.
The narrator next addresses the hypocrisy of pursuing one kind of life six days of the week, then repenting on the seventh. Yet, the enjoyment of sinning is precisely why men sometimes engage in certain activities--because they are forbidden. Why would a Freethinker want to abolish Christianity and forgo the pleasure? Christianity gives people something to do and gives them a club, and there are always people who enjoy either being insiders or being outsiders.
Next, people have suggested that abolishing Christianity would eradicate prejudices of education, but these are either so deeply entrenched that they are likely to exist even after abolition--or, as for most people, words like “justice” are so far from actual beliefs as to be irrelevant to nominal Christianity. The English are just as good at being unbelievers as the best Freethinkers! Even so, there seems to be some use in Christianity for the true Christians among the vulgar poor, who can be better kept under control by religion.
The narrator now examines arguments in favor of keeping Christianity legal, focusing on the problems that would be incurred by its abolition. First, without Christianity, men of wit would have nothing to mock and would mock each other instead. There are many complaints that wit is on the decline, yet Christianity offers the best material.
Next, abolishing the existing form of Christianity from the state would open the door for the contemporary church to be replaced with an even less traditional version, under the influence of deists and others, or for Catholicism to make its return. Those who are concerned about the survival of the church after abolition should consider that it might be fundamentally changed. Besides, the people will find some new superstition in any case.
The narrator concludes by offering that it might make more sense to ban all religion instead of just Christianity. The ultimate problem is the basic belief in God and Providence, which prevents people from acting freely. At least, that is what the Freethinkers believe, being generally opposed to religion in part because they like to be ornery and do what they please. Finally, if people are not persuaded, at least they should wait to abolish Christianity until a time of international peace, because it could put the British Empire in a very vulnerable position, since there are no atheist nations to be allied with. Besides, if the Act passes, stocks will go down much more than has been expended recently to preserve the religion, and there is no good reason to take the financial loss just to get rid of the religion.
The narrator appears to take care at the beginning to say that he does not intend to advocate for original Christianity because it would be too disruptive to contemporary society. This is a biting start, taking the side of radical Protestants in theory, those who wanted to clear away all of the seemingly non-Christian traditions that had gotten in the way of the original doctrine. Yet, in practice, this would be too disruptive for the same reason that the radical reformer ruins his coat in Tale of a Tub; ripping out all the extraneous matter will ruin what is good in the tradition as well. Besides, one of the main arguments is that the contemporary English are so irreligious already that the fabric of the religion has already been ripped apart or ignored as people go about their business uneducated and unconcerned about their hypocrisy.
The voice speaking in this piece is that of a rich fop. We might first infer this from the narrator’s warning against atheists, who would turn against the nobility if they had too much chance. Swift returns to his common project of mocking the upper classes with this tone. The narrator also uses the phrase “gentlemen of wit and pleasure” (a phrase used by the rich to describe themselves). Also, with the argument that going to church provides the opportunity of showing off one’s “advantage of dress,” the narrator appears to be one of the elite who has something to show off--and therefore is all the more worthy of ridicule. At the same time, however, the narrator appears to understand quite well that he is calling out his fellow citizens on their religious hypocrisy. And at other points, he seems to be a fellow traveler with atheist freethinkers, showing them how on their own grounds they should ensure that Christianity is not entirely abolished.
The immediate purpose of this piece is not to poke fun at the upper class, at any rate, but to advocate against the repeal of the Test Act of 1671, which required officials to take communion with the Church of England before assuming public positions. The “abolishing of Christianity” in this piece is akin to the repeal of the Test Act. Swift was in favor of keeping the act in place, which is why he chose to align his opponents with the “sinful” position of the abolition of Christianity. It is of note that the main conflict in religious life was not between Christians and atheists, but between Catholics and Protestants; the main group that would be helped by repealing the Test Act would be Catholics, who did not consider themselves to be in communion with Protestants.
Even so, Christianity comes in for quite a lot of ribbing, since the essay, standing on its own terms, is about Christianity overall and not the very specific question of the Test Act. The ultimate problem that the narrator identifies, at least from the Freethinking perspective of freedom of conscience and action, where justice depends on reason instead of faith, is the basic belief in God and Providence. This is an early version of an argument made later by, for example, Nietzsche, in determining that religion interferes with people’s moral choices rather than helping them along.
In the case of “A Modest Proposal,” the suggestion being advocated would never be adopted. In the case of “An Argument Against the Abolition of Christianity,” the suggestion of abolishing the religion would never be adopted, either. Swift is doing something different here, though, because here he is not proposing something but is challenging a proposal. He is arguing about the disadvantages of something that was never going to happen anyway (apart from the specific question of the Test Act). Here he is taking the risky position of making a position that he agrees with look ridiculous, even while the position he supposedly disagrees with looks ridiculous, too.
Swift here has provided a very strange set of arguments in that he rarely takes the point of view of a contemporary Christian. The reaction of the Christian reader of his time was likely that there are far better reasons for maintaining the religion that Swift is not mentioning, thus bringing the reader over to his view by letting the reader supply the better arguments. Yet, what does Swift believe? Is he so opposed to Catholics because he prefers Protestants, or is he enough of a dissenter to be opposed to them both, with Protestants being more latitudinarian and more free, the lesser of two evils? Would he be content with original rather than nominal Christianity? The satire here is unclear, perhaps intentionally so.
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