Thomas Hobbes: Was He an Atheist?

By Cox, Criseyda | History Review, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Thomas Hobbes: Was He an Atheist?


Cox, Criseyda, History Review


Seventeenth-century thought was God-ridden; the dawning Age of Reason was also an Age of Faith. Despite self-conscious claims to novelty, Rationalism was an intellectual revolution less in its assumptions and conclusions (which generally owed much to the past), than in Its method of enquiry which prioritised logic, mathematics and scientific experiment. The universe of' mind and matter was still God's creation, to be explained only as a rationally discernible design within a deist and Christian framework. Pegged on the conceptions of reason and nature, the Age saw nature as q conduit through which man (with limited reason) was able to perceive a suggestion of the superior reason of God the Creator. Those contemporaries of Hobbes, who `smashed the crystal spheres as if they had been windows' (Hollis) and discovered that the blood circulates, offered by definition a systematic catechism about the ways of God.

However, although the co-operation between faith and reason in a universe controlled by an omniscient, omnipotent and good God was axiomatic for St Thomas Aquinas, and a point of view which endured (albeit under growing strain) for three hundred years, it did not survive unimpaired into its fourth century. The Reformation dangerously disputed the mysteries of the Christian religion, the interpretation of the Bible and the canons of rational theology; whilst the medieval scientific world gradually collapsed, taking with it Man's geo-centric place in God's scheme, which was replaced by the humanism and individualism of the Renaissance. Doubt and deism were as old as Christianity itself. But it now faced a much greater struggle than that against heresy and schism which had characterised its last thousand-and-a-half years of existence. It confronted a new idea of man's place in the universe.

Despite this, the Rationalists attempted to rescue God's universe from doubt and dispute. But there were philosophical problems inherent in this too, and men (even when contemplating the same new universe) continued to differ fundamentally on its nature and implications. The Age was highly sophisticated, addressing issues such as the origin and nature of matter -- but also deeply primitive, reliant on the supernatural and signs, Providence, witches and spasms of national prayer and fasting. In any case, Redwood argues that it was the age of ridicule which did far more harm to Christian defences than did the onslaught of reason and nature.

Concurrent with these intellectual developments was the political theorising produced in England as a result of the period of breakdown and constitutional experiments of 1642-1660. Furthermore, there was the internal doctrinal wrangling within the Anglican Church (although under siege from Catholics, deists and radical dissenters) on such long-standing issues as the nature of the Trinity, the literalness of hell and miracles in the Bible, the authenticity of biblical sources and the role of the Church in society. The uncertainties created by these disputes and combined pressures, which were intensified by the post-Restoration degeneration in the state of the nation's morals and behaviour (especially since the more puritan of consciences foresaw the effects of God's wrath), helped to generate an almost paranoid fear of irreligion.

`Atheists were even rarer and more obscure in seventeenth-century England than communists in the modern United States' (Glover). Aylmer recognises three main types of `atheist' in the seventeenth century -- the `popular scoffer and blasphemer', the `rare but genuine philosophic doubter, unbeliever or materialist who even dared to convey his sentiments to others in however disguised a manner'; and `the silent sceptic or cynic, who doubted or disbelieved but kept quiet'. But, despite the almost total absence of those explicitly denying the existence of God, and the scarcity of avowed deists, a voluminous body of literature (which began in the 1580s following the religious conflicts of that century and was given momentum by the 1640s) existed to denounce, discuss and urgently chart society's surrender to these religious aberrations. …

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