Materialist Philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ Theory of Religion

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was an English philosopher active during the seventeenth century and whose writings, notably his Leviathan (1651), have been said to rival some of the greatest political texts ever produced. Although we briefly touch on some of Hobbes’ metaphysical views, we are primarily interested in his view of religion. Hobbes was much more a political philosopher than a theologian or religious thinker, but significant portions of his work are dedicated to religion and religious themes. We thus come to consider his views of God, where he thinks the religious impulse (“seed”) emerges from, and why Hobbes has proven an enigma for scholars studying his religious ideas.

Background Philosophy

Hobbes is perhaps most known for his views of human nature and what it would be like to exist in a state of nature. Hobbes believes such an existence is one of “continual fear, and danger of violent death” and in which life “is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (1) as human beings compete for resources and conflict over moral and religious views. In this brutish existence, there would be no industry, commodities, knowledge, and a lack of much else humans think is essential to living a good life.

Overcoming this state required persons to enter into contracts by uniting into political societies in which they agree to abide by common rules and duties. The social contract has one giving up some sense of his freedom to coexist with others. Society is that which essentially exists to civilize human beings. Hobbes further affirms the necessity of an absolute sovereign and strong central government to protect people against themselves. Peoples’ decision to submit to a common authority is what Hobbes calls “sovereignty by institution”. Absolute authority is essential (2). Without a central government to rule, life would consist of perpetual conflict, fear, and chaos. 

Regarding metaphysics, Hobbes was a physicalist and materialist, both perspectives important to his views on religion. He criticized René Descartes’ dualism by claiming talk of immaterial substances to be nothing more than “insignificant speech”. Rather, everything is material (materialism) and physical (physicalism) as he articulates,

“The world, (I mean not the earth only, that denominates the lovers of it worldly men, but the universe, that is, the whole mass of all things that are), is corporeal, that is to say, body; and hath the dimensions of magnitude, namely, length, breadth, and depth: also every part of body, is likewise body, and hath the like dimensions; and consequently every part of the universe, is body, and that which is not body, is no part of the universe: and because the universe is all, that which is no part of it, is nothing; and consequently nowhere” (3).

Human beings are also biological machines, which is perhaps why Hobbes’ opposed the notion of the immaterial soul. As a materialist, Hobbes maintained a skeptical attitude towards certain experiences, such as apparitions, that people equate with “real and external substances” when they are just ideas (“phantasms”) produced in the brain (4).

Theory of Religion

Turning to Hobbes’ theory of religion, his magnum opus, Leviathan, is most pertinent. Hobbes has, however, proven an enigma to scholars studying his work and religious views. He has been labeled anything from an orthodox Christian (5) to a closet atheist (6) or fideist (7). Hobbes penned a great deal about religion much of which makes him appear to be religious, but some critics charge that his religious talk was utilized deceptively to conceal his atheism (8). 

Hobbes allegedly concealed his atheism because his readership was Christian and that an attack on their religion would not appeal to them. Others argue that this oversimplifies the picture as there were indeed skeptics, especially those unsure about theology, to whom he writes (9). Hobbesian scholar Sharon Lloyd argues that Hobbes was a sincere Christian who rejected much of what Christians of his day deemed orthodox in an attempt to rationalize his faith (10).

Hobbes was accused of being an atheist by his seventeenth and eighteenth-century opponents, but this was hardly the sort of atheism we think of today, namely the denial of the existence of God. A report to a parliamentary committee accused his Leviathan as “a most poisonous piece of atheism” and some of his books were burned (11). He was labeled an atheist because of his perceived heresy and unusual views that,

“the universe is body, that God is part of the world and therefore body, that the Pentateuch and many other books of Scripture are redactions or compilations from earlier sources, that the members of the Trinity are Moses, Jesus, and the Apostles, that few if any miracles can be credited after the Testamental period, that no persons deserve the name of ‘martyr’ expect those who witnessed the ascension of Christ, that witchcraft is a myth and heaven a delusion, that religion is in fact so muddled with superstition as to be in many vital places indistinguishable from it, [and] that the Church, both in its government and its doctrine, must submit to the dictates of Leviathan, the supreme civil authority” (12).

Interesting is that most of those who accused Hobbes of “atheism” did not doubt he affirmed a belief in God. They likely viewed him as some unorthodox Christian holding to heretical and mistaken views and therefore objected to his disavowal of religion (13).

Turning to Leviathan, Hobbes begins with a detailed analysis of sense perception, imagination, memory, dreams, and visions or apparitions. Of the mind, Hobbes sees a causal process involving objects impressing on a perceiver’s sense organs. Once appearances and representations (which are ideas, also called “phantasms”) are in the mind, they can be manipulated and shaped. The imagination then goes to work by combining images into wholes. For instance, once we perceive objects (e.g. a pile of logs and a bucket of cement), we can imagine a certain object by compounding them (e.g. a log cabin or wooden bench). There is an empiricism involved in the senses and imagination. As Hobbes articulates, all ideas have their causal source in the senses: “there is no conception in a man’s mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense” (14). Ideas are images that derive from the senses.

In chapter 12 of Leviathan aptly titled Of Religion, Hobbes recognizes that religion is unique to human beings: “Religion in man only. Seeing there are no signs, nor fruit of religion, but in man only; there is no cause to doubt, but that the seed of religion, is also only in man” (15). This motivated him to identify a “seed” of religion, namely something unique to human beings that engender the religious impulse. Hobbes identifies this “seed” as being a “fear of things invisible” only experienced by human beings (16). It is fear about the future that is basic to the human condition which produces within people feelings of intense anxiety. This fear is particularly strong in those who are “over provident” in their worry about the future (17). Some people are susceptible to producing mental images of “powers invisible” of “some power, or agent invisible” (18).

Hobbes held to a complex view of God likely of which has led to the disagreeing perspectives of scholars who have studied his work. Hobbes offers a cosmological argument for the existence of God and argues that the only thing we can know about God is that he is the first cause of all causes which he calls the “First mover”, “that is, a first, and an eternal cause of all things; which is that which men mean by the name of God” (19). Hobbes articulates this more fully,

“For he that from any effect he seeth come to pass, should reason to the next and immediate cause thereof, and from thence to the cause of that cause, and plunge himself profoundly in the pursuit of causes; shall at last come to this, that there must be, as even the heathen philosophers confessed, one first mover; that is, a first, and an eternal cause of all things; which is that which men mean by the name of God: and all this without thought of their fortune; the solicitude whereof, both inclines to fear, and hinders them from the search of the causes of other things; and thereby gives occasion of feigning of as many gods, as there be men that feign them” (20)

Although we can know God is behind the first cause, we cannot have an idea or image of him: a person “may conceive there is a cause of them, which men call God; and yet not have an idea, or image of him in his mind” (21). God’s intrinsic features are unknowable because God is not a possible object of knowledge. Hobbes uses the metaphor of a blind man and the fire to elucidate his point,

For as a man that is born blind, hearing men talk of warming themselves by the fire, and being brought to warm himself by the same, may easily conceive, and assure himself, there is somewhat there, which men call fire, and is the cause of the heat he feels; but cannot imagine what it is like; nor have an idea of it in his mind…” (22).

The blind man has experience of the effects of fire but has absolutely no idea or image of fire that shows itself to his mind. Since no idea of God comes from the senses and the imagination cannot produce such an idea from sensory materials, God becomes unimaginable. The “nature of God is incomprehensible; that is to say, we understand nothing of what he is, but only that he is” (23). That God is to Hobbes incomprehensible is probably one of his more orthodox views.

To ask what Hobbes meant by “God” is to crack open a can of worms. It is clear at least that he did not have in mind “the many gods of the Gentiles” (24). The Gentiles (think ancient Greeks or Romans) tended to deify obscure things like “Men, women, a bird, a crocodile, a calf, a dog, a snake, an onion, a leek…” (25). Such religious belief is, to Hobbes, clearly superstition.

But Hobbes appears to retreat concerning biblical religion he considered is cultivated by “God’s commandment, and direction” (26). Biblical religion is not to be seen in the same light as the Gentile religions and superstitions. But this does begin to raise questions for Hobbesian commentators. If Hobbes locates the “seed” of religion in fear and anxiety, then how would this make biblical religion any different from Gentile religions? Arguably, this apparent special treatment of biblical religion while also considering all religions to be based on fear is what has led some commentators to view Hobbes as being a closet atheist.

Something Hobbes does think we can say about God is that he is extended in the world. When responding to one of his critics, Hobbes described God as a “corporeal spirit” who can affect things in the world (27). God has a body. God is “an infinitely fine Spirit” or “a most pure, simple, invisible Spirit Corporeal”. Spirit here is not understood as being immaterial (like a soul) but rather a “subtle, fluid, and invisible body” (28). This unusual view seems consistent with Hobbes’ materialism that rejects any supernatural reality.

When it comes to miracles discussed in chapter 37, which Hobbes defines as “a work of God, (besides his operation by the way of nature, ordained in the creation) done, for the making manifest to his elect, the mission of an extraordinary minister for their salvation” (29), we discover skepticism.

Hobbes does say that miracles have occurred and that they come from the “hand of God”. As a work of God, a miracle “hath never, or very rarely been produced” and it is unimaginable for it “to have been done by natural means, but only by the immediate hand of God” (30). For example, “if a man be metamorphosed into a stone, or into a pillar, it is a miracle” (31).

But Hobbes is also skeptical of many miracles that superstitious “men are apt to be deceived by” or might be too quick to believe in. He seems to think that many miracles have naturalistic explanations and that belief in them is often due to gullibility and priestly deception (32). It is not immediately clear how this all sits with Hobbes’ materialist philosophy. Both theological and materialist factors seem at play in Hobbes’ thought on miracles (33). Edwin Curley and A. P. Martinich, two leading Hobbesian scholars, reason to different views. Curley thinks Hobbes maintained a general skepticism of miracles because they threatened scientific progress and political order (34). Martinich thinks that Hobbes affirmed miracles provided they satisfied three criteria: it must be theologically admissable, cohere with modern science, and favor political stability (35).

References

1. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Leviathan. p. 144 (ebook format).

2. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 219-220. 

3. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 695.

4. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 128.

5. Lloyd, Sharon. 1992. Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’ Leviathan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Martinich, A. P. 1992. The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6. Curley, Edwin. 1998. “Religion and Morality in Hobbes.” In Rational Commitment and Social Justice: Essays for Gregory Kavka, edited by Jules L. Coleman, Christopher W. Morris, and Gregory S. Kavka, 90-111. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 91.

7. Curley, Edwin. 1998. Ibid. p. 108.

8. Duncan, Stewart. 2005. “Knowledge of God in Leviathan.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 22(1):31-48.

9. Curley, Edwin. 1998. Ibid. p. 110.

10. Lloyd, Sharon. 1992. Ibid. p. 272-274.

11. Springborg, Patricia. 1996. “Hobbes on religion.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes, edited by Tom Sorell, 346-381. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 346.

12. Mintz. Samuel. 2010. The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 45.

13. Cromartie, Alan. 2008. “The God of Thomas Hobbes.” The Historical Journal 51(4):857-879.

14. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 30.

15. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 112.

16. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 124.

17. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 126.

18. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 126.

19. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 127.

20. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 127.

21. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 123.

22. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 123.

23. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 415.

24. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 126. 

25. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 130.

26. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 129.

27. Hobbes, Thomas. 1662. An Answer to Bishop Bramhall’s Book, called “The Catching of the Leviathan.” In The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by W. Molesworth. London: John Bohn.

28. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 414.

29. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 462.

30. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 457.

31. Hobbes, Thomas. 2010. Ibid. p. 458.

32. Curley, Edwin. 1998. Ibid. p. 101.

33. Whipple, John. 2008. “Hobbes on Miracles.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 89(1):117-142.

34. Curley, Edwin. 1992. ‘I Durst Not Write So Boldly,’ or How to Read Hobbes’ Theological-Political Treatise. University of Michigan. p. 497-593. 

35. Martinich, A. P. 1992. Ibid. p. 236–246.

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