Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hobbes and the Cause of Religious Toleration

Edwin Curley

Hobbes believed in the subordination of Church to State, believing the sovereign ought to decide what should not be taught, and what should be, specifically the doctrine of total obedience. However, the sovereign should also determine what books are canonical and how scripture is to be interpreted.

Hobbes found the doctrines that ‘faith and sanctity are attained through supernatural infusion, not reason,’ and that ‘whatever man does against his conscience is sin.’ Both doctrines were seen as firmly supported by Scripture and essential to promoting religious toleration.

Yet because these doctrines were interested mainly in promoting the peace, they allowed people to believe whatever they wanted, provided it didn’t lead to people acting seditious. Indeed, he even suggested in the Behemoth that too much repression would invoke bitterness, and claimed he sought a middle ground between too much liberty and too much repression.

In doing so, Hobbes was siding with the Independents and theological radicals of the Civil War years, against the oppressive policy of the Presbyterians and Anglicans, putting him on Locke’s side. At the same time, in 1666-1670, Parliament was discussing bills against atheism, which could punish with banishment or imprisonment any denial of the immortality of the soul or the eternal torment of the wicked in hell, or the divine authority of the canon. There was even a motion that Hobbes and his books be burned. Thus, Hobbes destroyed part of his papers.

There were also theological reasons for tolerance; Hobbes claimed that humans only had to obey the laws of nature and that of the state, not the 10 Commandments. Additionally, he argued that faith in Jesus didn’t require belief in his divinity, only in his status as the earthly messiah. Hobbes, then, could be read as an Erasmian liberal, who emphasized conduct over belief, and minimized theology.

Curley claims Hobbes was part of the ‘radical Enlightenment,’ which sought to sweep away old structures and authorities. He cites Hobbes’s weak affirmation of creation, which amounted to affirming it because it was customary. He also claims Hobbes didn’t deny providence, but stripped it of its comforting power, and, likewise, didn’t explicitly deny miracles, but was skeptical about particular miracles. Basically, Hobbes operated by ‘suggestion through disavowal,’ stopping just short of the heretical conclusions implied by his argument.

Hobbes also opposed any ecclesiastical authority which attempted to institute a division between the laity and clergy, or exercise control over the lives of individuals. His main target of his critique, seen in Book IV of Leviathan, is Christian, mainly the Catholics and Presbyterians. He claims that they exploited the seeds of religiosity - anxiety about the future, causality, etc - to make the masses more obedient. Consequently, Hobbes suggests the need to be skeptical of anyone claiming to be a prophet, as such a stance facilitates the effort to attain more power.

The piece ends by pointing to moments where Hobbes argued for something like total freedom of belief, provided subjects adhere to the law of the sovereign.

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