Two whole sections of the Leviathan are devoted exclusively to Hobbes’s articulation of the church/state relationship, so when he includes a chapter “Of Religion,” there must be something else going on here. And in fact there is, for in this section Hobbes’s intent is to discuss the origin of religion in general and its place in shaping human passions, rather than the specific nature and role of Christianity that will come up in books III and IV.
As discussed in the last chapter, Hobbes notes that religion has its origin in the fact that human beings (and only human beings—religion is unique to man) desire to know the cause of things, to believe in origins, and to continue the good. When these three aspects of man come together, religion is born. When this religious sense is combined with our ignorance of causes and our fear of that which we do not know and cannot see, belief in spirits and the incorporeal world is born. More specifically, we take something we believe about ourselves and write it into this spiritual world, albeit bigger and more powerful than we know ourselves to be. We then carelessly slap words on these ideas, call them “orthodox dogma,” and are incensed when any dissent. We then assume that the inhabitants of this spiritual world want the kinds of honors we want as humans, and so develop a system of worship that looks remarkably… human. Finally, we begin to use this system to try to fulfill the very passions that created it, that is, our desire for a secure and known future. So prognostication is born:
And in these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics, consisteth the natural seed of religion, which by reason of the different fancies, judgments, and passions of several men hath grown up into ceremonies so different that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another. (XII.11)
With all this we can see why the charge of “atheist” gets flung against Hobbes. But so far, Hobbes has made no statement concerning the accuracy of this process, he has merely pointed out what he believes to be the anthropological process by which man becomes religious. In fact, if we were to take the next paragraph in isolation, our conclusion about Hobbes’s personal religion might run in the opposite direction—that of some form of fundamentalism:
For these seeds have received culture from two sorts of men. One sort have been they that have nourished and ordered them according to their own invention. The other have done it by God’s commandment and direction. But both sorts have done it with a purpose to make those men that relied on them the more apt to obedience, laws, peace, charity, and civil society. So that the religion of the former is a part of human politics and teacheth part of the duty which earthly kings require of their subjects. And the religion of the latter sort is divine politics, and containeth precepts to those that have yielded themselves subjects in the kingdom of God. Of the former sort were all the founders of commonwealths and the lawgivers of the Gentiles; of the latter sort were Abraham, Moses, and our blessed Saviour, by whom have been derived unto us the laws of the kingdom of God. (XII.12)
This is very close to Augustine’s division between the City of God and the city of man.
Also very like Augustine, Hobbes walks through an outline of how he thinks the founders of the various parts of the city of man (if we can keep using that language—Hobbes uses the title “Gentiles”) used each of the sources of religion to establish and secure their worldly state. As just one example,
Secondly, they have had a care to make it believed that the same things were displeasing to the gods which were forbidden by the laws. (XII.20)
And so religion becomes a major factor—indeed, perhaps the essential factor—in the power of the state to shape and form the passions of men.
What about the City of God? Hobbes says that he will get back to that (chapter XXXV), noting here only that 1) God’s kingdom is a discrete place in the world; and 2) “God is king of all the earth by his power; but of his chosen people he is king by covenant” (XII.22).
Once a religion is established, Hobbes puts it under the microscope using the tools he had set up to study power. Reputation, reasonableness, and flexibility become critical to the life of a religion, along with some element of the miraculous. When these are absent, Hobbes thinks a specific religion loses its power and begins to collapse and be replaced with something which offers what it had lost. He gives several examples from Old Testament Israel and from the era of the Reformation. In both instances, the reason, flexibility, reputation, and miraculous surrounding religion were stripped away by vague or impossible doctrines so that everyone could see the naked power grab at work. The result was a general disillusionment with the existing religious authorities. In the case of Israel the legitimate prophets were replaced with a king and so the true religion was temporarily obscured (“they deposed their God from reigning over them,” XII.30). In the case of the Reformation, the corrupt Church of Rome with its incomprehensible Aristotelianism and clear lust for dominion was replaced with the restored Gospel—though Hobbes is quite clear that the Protestant churches are by no means innocent (“unpleasing priests…even in that church that hath presumed most of reformation,” XII.32).
Again, the point here is not to argue for or against any one religion, however much Hobbes clearly has his likes and dislikes. The point is to highlight how religion affects and shapes the passions, and the passions affect and shape religion in the context of civil society. Which in turn sets up for a discussion of basic human nature as the foundation for that society.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.