Friday, 11 January 2008

Hobbes' Religion

I have already commented about Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) a little already. In this 3rd chapter of the Portable Atheist Christopher Hitchens has selected chapter 12 of Leviathan called Of Religion. In the 1500 year span from the first chapter of this book could Hitchens find no more than 3 "atheists"? Does he want us to think that atheism is predominantly about 500 years old? (Or even 300 years old if you want to start with David Hume in chapter 5).

Hitchens also comments, like he does in the next chapter, that it was hard to tell who was an atheist back then for fear of persecution. Does Hitchens want us to think that the authors he has selected were not confident in their convictions? At least John Hus (1369-1415), William Tyndale (1484-1536) and Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) (to name just three) believed what they professed, even if it meant to be killed.

Leviathan is about ruling over society and answers the question: How do you govern or control people? Hobbes says that the pagans invented religion "whose ends were only to keep the people in obedience and peace" by:

...first, to imprint their minds a belief that those precepts which they gave concerning religion might not be thought to proceed from their own device, but from the dictates of some god or other spirit...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. Thirdly, to prescribe ceremonies, supplications, sacrifices, and festivals by which they were to believe the anger of the gods might be appeased... (page 17)

And then:

...where God himself by supernatural revelation planted religion, there he also made to himself a peculiar kingdom, and gave laws, not only of behaviour towards himself, but also towards one another...It is true that God is king of all the earth; yet may He be king of a peculiar and chosen nation...God is king of all the earth by His power, but of His chosen people, He is king by covenant. (page 18)

This is hardly atheistic talk. Hobbes doesn't mention grace or Jesus, but he hardly denies God's existence:

...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... (page 13)

Hobbes may ridicule religion by defending it against paganism (as Hitchens says) but he doesn't seem to have a problem with God's existence. The second last paragraph of his book (that can be read here) also doesn't sound to much like a denial of God's existence:

To conclude, there is nothing in this whole discourse, nor in that I wrote before of the same subject in Latin, as far as I can perceive, contrary either to the word of God or to good manners; or to the disturbance of the public tranquillity. Therefore I think it may be profitably printed, and more profitably taught in the Universities...

Religion can be a controlling, man-made thing that can make people self-righteous and judgemental; it can also make people despair and feel unworthy. Nigher option is available in Christianity. That's not to say that Christians are not self-righteous or judgemental (Hobbes says that "unpleasing priests" are the main problem in Church); the ones who are, do not understand God's grace, which is the core of Christianity.

You can read Hobbes' whole chapter here.

1 comment:

  1. Hitchens has done a commendable service in providing a list of references for debate on religion. I find Hitchens himself thoroughly unconvincing and affected -- doing more damage to the flag of atheism than good, but at least he points to some authors who have ideas worth serious consideration.

    You commentary is engrossing, &rew.