The religion of Thomas Hobbes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Politics and International Relations


Most people agree that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was the greatest political thinker that England has ever produced; some regard him as the best philosopher of any kind. But there is a startling degree of disagreement about a central feature of his thinking. He has traditionally been held to be an atheist, but a number of scholars have believed that the idea of 'God' plays an key role in his philosophy, especially in giving obligatory force to the universal moral principles that he called 'laws of nature'. A smaller group has defended the position that he was a sincere believing Christian. It is certainly the case that God is often mentioned in his writings, that he frequently supports his arguments by reference to the Bible, and that the second half of Leviathan (1651), his generally acknowledged masterpiece, is largely devoted to offering a new interpretation of Christianity. Scholars who think he is an atheist have often claimed that these materials contains a hidden atheistic message, but others deny the existence of cogent evidence to this effect.

This project will avoid addressing the question of whether the philosopher's professions were sincere. Instead, it will ask

(1) What sort of Christian did Hobbes claim to be?
(2) What role does the idea of 'God' play in his theories?

The answers to these questions may reveal that the position that he claimed to hold was one that no one rational could defend (and therefore that he was an unbeliever). But the main purpose of the exercise is to enable us to understand his place on the intellectual map of mid- to late seventeenth century English culture. In relating his thinking to the ideas of more conventional contemporaries, it may also explain why reactions to his theories were in general so extreme: virtually every prominent English intellectual in the couple of generations after Leviathan found reason, at some point or another, to distinguish their views from Hobbesian positions. Their sensitivity on this point may be a sign that his professed beliefs were either transparently absurd or totally abhorrent; but it has also sometimes been suggested that Hobbesian views were embarrassingly close to those of the period's leading establishment thinkers. Either way, investigation of what he actually said to gain his atheistic reputation will cast light both on Hobbes himself and on the attitudes of his opponents. In doing so, it will cast light on a decisive moment (the period between the English Revolution and the great publications of John Locke and Isaac Newton) in English intellectual historyn


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CROMARTIE A (2008) THE GOD OF THOMAS HOBBES in The Historical Journal