The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes
Religion grew from basic mental seeds, chief among which were a driving curiosity about the cause of all things and a deep anxiety about the future. The desire to know causes and effects was basic to all regulated 'Mentall Discourse,' but religion went beyond this and attempted to ascertain the first cause and the final effect. This was impossible, as causal relations could only be understood by sensory interactions with matter. Ultimate causes and effects were not subject to such interactions. Nevertheless, the desire for such knowledge—a 'perpetuall feare'—induced humans to postulate an 'invisible power' that would both explain human origins and determine the future. This invisible power was in turn assumed to be incorporeal and above human understanding. It was reverenced in the same way powerful men were reverenced, with gifts' gratitude, and submission.
The religious impulse was thus entirely natural but not reasonable. It eschewed the sensible world and vainly sought to know 'second causes.' Gods were fears 'personated,' invisible entities imagined to explain the caprices of material existence. Men did not fear God directly, rather they feared the unknown, and they personified this fear into a supernatural, incorporeal, and omnipotent entity. Fear formed 'in every man his own religion: which hath place in the nature of man before Civill Society.' Reason did not lead humans to a conception of God. Likewise the 'Attributes which we give to God' were not aspects of 'Philosophicall Truth' but rather of 'Pious Intention.' They had merely instrumental value.
Hobbes's projection theory of religion might have been reconciled with a sincere Christianity if it had been paired with a faith in revelation. Indeed, in Leviathan he claimed that though Christianity and pagan religions were similarly motivated by fear, the former was true because it was created 'by God's commandment and direction.' However, this assurance was fatally undermined by Hobbes's deep scepticism about all revealed sources of divine 'commandment and direction.' Hobbesian religious logic would oscillate around the following paradox: religion was properly ordered by the sovereign according to revelation, but revelation itself was often dubious and always dependent on sovereign authority for its obliging status. Hobbes left nothing other than the volition of sovereigns for distinguishing the religions of history. If religion was a fear of invisible power 'feigned by the mind or imagined from tales publiquely allowed,' superstition was merely a similar belief in tales not 'publiquely allowed.'
Hobbes's fully developed religious thinking was thus built on two propositions: a belief (potentially compatible with sincere Christianity) in the psychological necessity of religion; and a profound scepticism (incompatible with Christianity) of revealed knowledge. To these foundational points must be added a third consideration: Hobbes's constantly reiterated conviction that elemental features of Christian metaphysics were irreconcilable with his own political philosophy.
Hobbes's civil science depended on the fear of death as the chief psychological force motivating humans to accept social constraint. If the fear of death was not the most basic of all fears, then it would not motivate naturally anti-social individuals into ordered society. Christianity, by promising eternal salvation and threatening eternal damnation, trumped the mere fear of death. Christian justice was transcendent, otherworldly and eternal. It short-circuited the logic of a political theory in which the war of all against all was the ultimate evil, and civil stability the ultimate good. 'For if one sovereign commands him to do something under penalty of natural death,' Hobbes wrote,
and another forbids it under pain of eternal death, and both have right on their sides, it follows not only that innocent citizens may rightly be punished, but that the commonwealth is radically undermined. For no one can serve two masters; and the one to whom we believe that obedience is due, under fear of damnation, is no less a Master than the one to whom obedience is due through fear of temporal death, but rather more.Hobbes's discomfort with Christian soteriology would prove centrally important in his mature religious writings. Most critically it has been identified by scholars as the motivation for many of the heterodox theological opinions expressed in Leviathan. The controversial theology of Leviathan, notorious in Hobbes's later decades, particularly targeted those features of Christianity—the afterlife, the spiritual soul, the divinity of Christ-that most threatened the psychological mechanisms of his political theory. Much could be said on this point, but a few examples will suffice. Leviathan employs the terms 'heaven' and 'hell,' but recasts them as earthly phenomena. Conceding the novelty of his proposition, Hobbes argued that eternal life in Scripture did not refer to life 'in the heavens' but rather signified the promise of eternal life on earth. Salvation was the promise of an endless delivery from the perils of the state of nature. Hobbes expended even more energy debunking traditional concepts of demons, purgatory and hell itself. Leviathan dismissed these as heathen and Aristotelian notions. Originally a corrupt pagan art, demonology had been co-opted by the Jews. Jesus, Hobbes claimed, spoke of demons only metaphorically, but Christian clergy found the concepts of possession and damnation useful as props to their power. He argued, with scant scriptural foundation, that the torments of hell were temporary, not eternal. Christian conceptions of salvation and damnation were profoundly at odds with Hobbes's vehement materialism, his rejection of all 'substances incorporeall,' and his insistence that references to the 'spirit of God' were absurdities of speech. Perhaps Hobbes's boldest effort to defuse the threat Christian soteriology was his adoption of the mortalist heresy. Mortalism held that the soul died with the body, and thus would only live eternally in bodily form after the second coming of Christ. This, it has been convincingly argued, served to delay divine judgement of individuals to an almost unimaginable point in the future, and thus further thwarted the challenge posed by eternity to Hobbes's political theory.
Against the Christian understanding of the Kingdom of God as the perfect and invisible unity of the saints, Hobbes understood it as a literal kingdom on earth, a series of polities—first Israel, now the Christian commonwealths-passing through history. The high priests of these kingdoms were temporal sovereigns. The 'holy' was the public power of the state, and the sacrament was a sign of entry into the commonwealth. Abraham, Moses, David, and even Jesus figure in Hobbes's writings as essentially political figures.