Religious liberty and authority Notes for September 27 – October 2

Main points

The first account of the origins of the state is given in chapter 12. There, Hobbes traces the intertwined origins of the state and organized religion. Then the religious basis for political authority is seemingly dropped. Chapter 13 isn’t about life in the state at all. It’s about anarchy, the ‘state of mere nature’. The subsequent chapters give an elaborate account of rights, contracts, and representation that culminates in an account of the origin of the state in a social contract.

Religion appears again as one of the three essential marks of sovereignty as the power to control doctrines (Leviathan, 18.16).

The reason why is clear enough. As Hobbes noted, his arguments would not amount to much if he could not show how to navigate between offending “the Divine Majesty” through “too much civil obedience” and transgressing “the commandments of the Commonwealth” through “fear of offending God” (Lev. 31.1). After all,

The most frequent pretext of sedition, and civil war, in Christian commonwealths, hath a long time proceeded from a difficulty, not yet sufficiently resolved, of obeying at once both God and man, then when their commandments are one contrary to the other. It is manifest enough, that when a man receiveth two contrary commands, and knows that one of them is God’s, he ought to obey that, and not the other, though it be the command even of his lawful sovereign (whether a monarch, or a sovereign assembly,) or the command of his father. The difficulty therefore consisteth in this, that men, when they are commanded in the name of God, know not in divers cases, whether the command be from God, or whether he that commandeth do but abuse God’s name for some private ends of his own. For as there were in the Church of the Jews, many false prophets, that sought reputation with the people, by feigned dreams and visions; so there have been in all times in the Church of Christ, false teachers, that seek reputation with the people, by fantastical and false doctrines; and by such reputation (as is the nature of ambition,) to govern them for their private benefit. (Lev. 42.1)

In our discussion of Hobbes’s religious views, we talked about two things. First, what is the nature of religious authority, that is, authority over religious matters? Second, how much religious liberty would Hobbes allow for individuals?

Religious authority

Hobbes favored state control over religion. This much is obvious in his account of the rights of sovereignty. In part three, he argued that this is the doctrine favored by the Christian Bible. For that reason, there is special reason for the members of a Christian Commonwealth to accept it, independent of the reasons that the members of non-Christian commonwealths have.

Some of Hobbes’s arguments addressed the ways that an independent religious authority might be established. So he sought to set strict standards for accepting a putative prophet or reports of miracles since prophecy and the ability to perform miracles are two good indicators of supernatural favor. In particular, he tried to show that the Bible warned of false prophets and that all true prophets in the Bible support the existing state.

If I may digress a moment, Hobbes has a large problem with Moses. Moses was a prophet and performed miracles but, as Clarendon pointed out, he wasn’t the head of a state but instead led a revolt against the one governed by the Pharaoh of Egypt. I suggested that Moses was the head of God’s Kingdom, established by a covenant between God and Abraham. But Hobbes said several times that God’s kingdom over the Jews was established by a covenant between Moses and God, so it appears that won’t fly. End of digression.

The other main point Hobbes tried to make was that the Kingdom of God is not of this earth. It existed at one time, when God ruled the Jews. And it will exist again, after Christ returns. But God has no special kingdom on earth now. Consequently, none of the religious figures who claim authority derived from God have a leg to stand on.

Religious liberty

Religious liberty for Hobbes won’t include what we consider essential. In Hobbes’s ideal commonwealth, people could not practice or proselytize for a religion that the sovereign has banned. Bear in mind that the church was a political institution in Hobbes’s time. That’s why half of Leviathan, a book on political philosophy, is about religion and the church. It’s also partly why the English civil war happened. Also, bear in mind that Hobbes was on the side of the most tolerant political faction in his time, the Independents, led, oddly enough, by Oliver Cromwell.

There are at least two dimensions of religious liberty in Hobbes. First, there is liberty of thought. The state may persecute behavior, but attempting to root out belief is both impossible and a violation of the laws of nature (though I didn’t see a very detailed argument for the latter claim).

Second, what Hobbes describes as Christian liberty involves freedom from manipulation. According to Hobbes’s historical analysis, a number of doctrines were imported into Christian thought from Greek philosophy. The only reason they were worked up into church doctrine is that they serve the interests of those in charge of the church. Hobbes believed he had shown how to distinguish between the true Christian doctrine and its artificial Greek accretions. More importantly, he thought that taking this seriously would leave those in Christian commonwealths more free.

Finally, Hobbes’s defense of Galileo deserves mention (Lev. 46.42). His call to leave the assessment of Galileo’s claims to the experts rather than the church is exceptionally eloquent and obviously heartfelt.

Ironically, I think that these are precisely the people who persecuted Galileo. It was the professors, not the pontiffs. I’m not expert enough to make the case. But Stillman Drake is and I was persuaded by the argument in his Galileo: A Very Short Introduction. Still, I think Hobbes’s heart was in the right place.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
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