Awe and wonder for this majestic creation: interview with Thomas Holden

Laurens van Apeldoorn

Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Hobbes’s Philosophy of Religion (OUP, 2023) is a new book by Thomas Holden, Professor of philosophy at the University of California Santa Barbara. Thomas, whose main research work is in the history of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy and who has previously published a book on David Hume’s critique of moral theology, argues that Hobbes develops a stable and consistent analysis of religion that is grounded in his theory of function and character of religious language. Having the opportunity to speak to Thomas about the book, I started by asking how he came to write it. 

“One thing that drew me in is Hobbes’s rich analysis of speech acts in the philosophy of language. I wrote a paper on his treatment of evaluative speech, in which I argued that such speech is expressive and prescriptive rather than descriptive or representational. I realized that something similar also holds for religious speech. Religious language, according to Hobbes, is not about describing God and trying to say true things about this mysterious, incomprehensible, inconceivable being, but rather about expressing reverence and veneration towards God. And I realized that this treatment of religious language is more pervasive in his works than is commonly recognized, and that it helps us to resolve puzzles in his philosophy of religion. So for instance, in his notoriously ambidextrous treatment of the cosmological argument, the topic of another paper of mine, Hobbes sometimes seems to accept the existence of a first cause of the universe, while at other times he concludes that human reason is incapable of establishing this fact. It seemed to me that we can understand Hobbes’s cosmological argument as suggesting that there is a case for positing a great cause behind the humanly comprehensible world, which we ought to dignify and honour as best we can. And this practice includes our ascribing it honorific titles such as ‘good’, ‘just’, and ‘wise,’ and even ‘the first cause of the universe’.”

This seems to require treading a thin line between accepting that we have knowledge of the existence of this overwhelmingly powerful being, which is worthy of veneration, and denying that we can have knowledge of its nature. Is Hobbes successful?

“I think that Hobbes is much more consistent in what he says on religious topics than is generally acknowledged. Hobbes thinks we can truly infer that there is a great cause, a powerful being behind the humanly comprehensible world. This is his version of the cosmological argument. But this is all he thinks we can ever hope to say about this being and its attributes. All other qualities we may wish to attribute to it—that it is infinite, eternal, partless or all the other traditional theistic attributes—are purely an expression of our own reverence before this inconceivable, incomprehensible being. We therefore do not have to worry about the apparent inconsistencies between attributes like eternality and being the first cause of the universe, since these attributes are not supposed to be truth-apt in the first place. On my view Hobbes is not a theist, if theism involves having a realist, literal minded view of God. But it would be misleading to characterize him as an atheist because he does think there is a great cause which he thinks it rational to worship.”

Why would it be rational to worship this incomprehensible being if we know so little about it? 

“This is exactly the sort of question that Hume asks a century after Hobbes. Hume is willing to posit the existence of a first cause but he doubts that we have reason to revere it if we really know nothing about it. Perhaps it is not such a wonderful thing after all. I don’t see this kind of skepticism in Hobbes. Having accepted the existence of a being powerful enough to produce the world, Hobbes concludes that anything that powerful should be honoured. Hobbes concludes the same when it comes to honouring a magistrate or a prince. Even the chair of your department might deserve a little honour now and then! One analogy I draw in the book to bring out Hobbes’s position is to compare him to a 21st century rhapsodic atheist. The rhapsodic atheist thinks that the traditional theistic conception of God is totally unfounded. Yet he recognizes that the universe did come from somewhere beyond the limits of our comprehension. And he is willing to express awe and wonder about that unknown system of forces or laws that produced this majestic creation. That is also all that Hobbes is really saying. The point where the rhapsodic atheist and Hobbes diverge is that Hobbes thinks it is appropriate to express this awe and veneration through language that conveys honour, which includes the traditional theistic vocabulary, while our modern-day atheist would find that kind of talk embarrassing.” 

The rationality of worshipping God so understood does not appear easily reconcilable with Hobbes’s conception of instrumental rationality expressed in his analysis of the moral virtues. Hobbes argues that we ought to comply with natural law because it is required for our self-preservation. Ought we to worship God for the same reason? 

“Perhaps this is something of a weak spot in Hobbes’s account. Hobbes repeatedly stresses that one has reason to honour powerful persons, the reason being that humans enjoy flattery and therefore may inflict harm and punishment if they feel insufficiently honoured. The same kind of argument is perhaps supposed to apply to God. We have reason to honour God because we hope for good things he may bring us in reward of our deference and we fear the punishment he may inflict if he feels slighted. However, this story only works given a very anthropomorphic vision of God that Hobbes repeatedly rejects. I therefore think it is more plausible to read him as acknowledging a sort of aesthetic reverence that is owed to something as powerful as the great cause of nature. Remember that there are some other goods apart from self-preservation. I think it is quite compelling if Hobbes concludes that it is appropriate to feel awe before the majesty of the cosmos and the mysterious sources of the causes of the cosmos. This aesthetic form of normativity is a non-instrumental ground for honouring that is distinct from the kind of honouring you might do to a prince or a magistrate. And there is textual evidence for this. For instance, in his analysis of petitionary prayer he ridicules the thought that God is an anthropomorphic being who would be flattered by our actions and could be moved to respond by giving us what we want. All prayer, including petitionary prayer, is simply an acknowledgment of the awe-inspiring power of God. The rationality of worship is a matter of proper respect owed to an objectively admirable kind of being.”

Does this non-instrumental form of rationality underpin the requirements of morality when Hobbes says in chapter 15 of Leviathan that the laws of nature are properly binding laws only insofar as they are God’s commands? 

“No, I think that you point to a passage where Hobbes is perhaps not completely literal minded. It is yet another case of honouring God, this time by perceiving him as the source of all order in nature, including human order as furthered by the laws of nature. To say that God has commanded the natural laws is to express veneration for him. If citizens nevertheless accept this as literal truth and they believe that these moral principles, which further their self-preservation, are expressive of the will of a supremely powerful being, Hobbes is fine with that. But he would not take it as literal truth himself.”

You extend this analysis of the nature of religious language to Hobbes’s treatment of revealed religion. Can you explain how revealed religion is to be understood as non-descriptive, expressive speech?

“In natural religion we focus on natural signs of honour, which is to say signs that are recognised as honorific by all human beings, independent of culture and convention. There are certain expressions, like ‘good’ and ‘just’ and ‘wise’ that are honorific across all societies.  There are also merely conventional and culturally specific kinds of honour, such as wearing or doffing a hat. Hobbes treats revealed religion largely as such a conventional form of honouring. Thus, ceremonial ritual practices, the contents of liturgies, the prayer books, the sacred histories in scripture are all largely conventionally honorific. Such conventions might be Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, Hindu, et cetera, and they may exist prior to the existence of the state and the sovereign. The sovereign is empowered to regulate and enforce these conventions, furthering peace and civil order by settling disagreements about parochial conventional matters. That is why Hobbes is so strikingly relaxed about non-Christian religious conventions. He is very clear in Leviathan that if you happen to live under the Caliphate and are required to deny that Jesus is the son of God, you should acquiesce. For Hobbes that really is not a big deal. Different religions are just different, culturally determined and therefore arbitrary, ways of expressing veneration for God’s overwhelming power. At the same time, Hobbes is very sincere in his view that it is appropriate to practice religion in conformity with protestant Christianity since that is how, in his culture, worship is publicly expressed.”

However, Hobbes is also willing to stretch interpretations of the Bible quite far beyond what was generally acceptable in his time.

“That is true and dictated by his political commitments. He thinks that insofar as he can gain the ear of the sovereign he can try at the margins to shape local religious traditions in the direction of peace and civil order. It is why he wishes to separate philosophy from a kind of meddling and confused scriptural metaphysics. And it is why he is sometimes willing to tendentiously bend scripture in ways that are not best seen as a sincere exegesis of the text, but rather as creative adaptations showing a sensible sovereign how Scripture can more effectively support peace. When he offers views about our obligation to practice Christianity, he is being sincere, but he treats Christianity as culturally determined and a malleable object within limits.”

You mentioned that in Leviathan Hobbes condones apostasy if commanded by one’s civil sovereign. However, in the Leviathan he also maintains that faith that Jesus is the Messiah is required for one’s salvation. And in Elements of Law and De Cive he is far less dismissive of martyrs who are unwilling to renunciate their Christian faith under an infidel sovereign. Does this mean that Hobbes thinks of the doctrine that Jesus is the Messiah as a form of veneration that is not entirely conventional?

“Well, I think that Hobbes develops two perspectives on religion. On the one hand he develops a philosophical perspective. In Leviathan—which is his settled, mature position—Hobbes is no longer particularly concerned about outward profession, arguing that martyrs who refuse to disavow their religious beliefs if required to do so by their civil sovereign are making a mistake. On the other hand, he works within a particular local tradition and addresses audiences for whom certain doctrines are nonnegotiable. Jon Parkin has a very nice book chapter, in which he shows how Hobbes promotes to his Anglo-protestant audience a minimalistic understanding of their commitments that would allow the sovereign some latitude in shaping religious doctrines, and would prevent believers from getting so caught up in the minutiae of their commitments that they are led into civil war. This is the context within which we should place Hobbes’s pronouncements on the beliefs that are required for salvation.”

Thomas, congratulations on a terrific new book and thank you for speaking with me. 

“My pleasure. And thank you for the conversation, Laurens.”