In theology, it has become quite common to speak about God, or the being of God, without claiming that there is a being, God, that is. Theologians are quite adept, as it turns out, in talking about God - - even if they are not always able to specify what exactly they are speaking about in such talking. This has been true of philosophers as well, and was clearly true of that philosopher who in many ways set the stage for modern philosophy, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).
It is clearly true that the secondary literature has been divided on whether or not Hobbes believed that God exists. While some see him as a defender of Orthodox Christianity, others find him to be the consummate atheist. In reading Hobbes, one often wonders if many doing constructive work in theology would actually disagree with much of what he says.
Like many theologians, Hobbes admits that theology deals with things "outside philosophy" and thus with things outside the realm of causal explanation. Moreover, he claims repeatedly that of such a God, we can have no conception, for the only way to have a conception of a thing is to first have empirical impressions of it, impressions from which there is a decaying sense of imagination, and upon which conception is built.
As with many theologians, Hobbes believes that supposed revelatory experience is not caused by an divine object. In fact, in The Leviathan he seemingly grants no possibility that such visionary experience can be in principle veridical of something external to the experiencer. Speaking of that to which the name 'religion' applies, Hobbes writes:
"'Fear' of power invisible, feigned by the mind or imagined from tales publicly allowed, [is called] 'religion', not allowed, 'superstition'. "
He points out that dreams in stressful circumstances, when one is sleeping briefly, are visions - - whether they be visions of ghosts, goblins, or God. Hobbes further writes:
"To say he [God] hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say that he dreamed God spake to him, which is not of force to win belief from any man that knows dreams are for the most part natural and may proceed from former thoughts … To say he hath seen a vision, or heard a voice, is to say that he hath dreamed between sleeping and waking; for in such a manner a man doth many times naturally take his dream for a vision, as not having well observed his own slumbering" (Leviathan 32.6).
The important point, of course, is that Hobbes is offering a natural causal explanation for the existence of putative divine encounter. The supposed vision is, at root, the causal effect of antecedent and concurrent mechanical motions. While there could still be a God that one's putative knowledge could be about, this supposed act of knowing can trace no causal sequence back to an object that the supposed knowing purports to be about.
There could also be a God, even though Hobbes gives solid grounds upon which to base a causal story of why men and women are religious. In Leviathan Chapter XII (On Religion), Hobbes makes the following claims:
- Human beings are naturally inquisitive into the causes of things.
- We naturally assume something like the principle of sufficient reason, for anything that is, there must be some cause why that thing is.
- But humans cannot discern what are the causes of those most important things of life, thus they concoct such causes of them "as their fancy suggests," or as they find that other men and women suggest, who are deemed to be "wiser than [they] themselves."
- Men and women are thus in a state of perpetual anxiety in trying to figure a way to avoid the evils (that which they do not desire), and acquire goods (that which they do desire).
- The fear that men and women have because of their ignorance of the causes of things has driven them to embrace the ultimate object of fear: God.
- However, in Christianity it has not just been fear that has driven human beings to God, but also the desire to know the causes of "natural bodies, their virtues and operations." This has driven men and women to assert that "there must be . . . 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'. . .
- The "spirit incorporeal" that human beings claim as the cause of things, about that they can form no image. The very incomprehensibility of the notion has led them not to reject the notion as unintelligible, but rather to worship it.
- This incorporeal substance, which men and women cannot think, has subsequently been borrowed in conceiving their own souls.
- Religion has emerged because of natural human ignorance of what causes things most important to human beings, from devotion to what is ultimately feared, and from a natural tendency to project causal connection improperly upon the universe, a projection that gives rise to putative prognostication.
I have labored a bit to present Hobbes' views simply because they are not something that many theologians would reject, though they may not be comfortable in speaking as forthrightly as Hobbes. Theologians often begin their work not with a rejection of the prophets of post-modernity (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), but with a tacit acceptance of their central argument. Human beings project the notion of God on the cosmos in order to buttress themselves in the face of their radical ontological insecurities. The radical contingency of human existence leads humans to search for religion as a way to either deny or cover-up this basic existential insecurity. Constructive theologians then move to embrace an assertion of God consistent with an underlying commitment to the causal closure of the physical, to the assertion that for all x, if x is a natural event, then there was some y, such that y is a natural event causing y, and that for all natural events x, if x is to cause any other event, that event caused must itself be a natural event.
I think that commitment to an underlying naturalism while yet espousing the power of the Word to save and transform is finally a commitment to an unintelligible intellectual position. It may be that Hobbes was no more bloated in his ontological inventory of the divine than many contemporary theological thinkers. Perhaps he just was more honest.