What is it about?

Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan is famous for his State of Nature, in which life without the state is "nasty, brutish, and short." He uses the pain–pleasure response (or the peace–fear response) as a basis on which to make political choices. People talk far less about the role of religion in Hobbes. His account of civil religion in Leviathan Part 3, “Of a Christian Commonwealth” is based on a highly original reading of the Bible. Following an overview of a long line of pagan and later monotheistic Christian and Muslim thinkers who advance the position that religion is a way of civilizing or uniting the masses, including Thucydides, Cicero, Augustine, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Pomponazzi, I argue that Hobbes argues the opposite; that religion can cause the de-civilizing of the masses, and can even cause civil war, leading him to the solution of separating belief from practice. The former becomes a solely private matter and the latter the exclusive purview of the state. In its Hobbesian schema, this great divorce of belief and practice – rather than a call for tolerance or pluralism – is a necessary sacrifice to create the religious homogeneity required to sustain the body politic in the form of the great Leviathan.

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Why is it important?

Political systems around the world are under strain from difficulties in integrating or accommodating people , especially immigrants, from religious minority groups. Although Thomas Hobbes is rarely the first person to come to mind when we think of toleration, his work in Leviathan offers a unique way of accommodating total freedom in belief, while maintaining a coherent outward public sphere that makes religious violence, especially between citizens or subjects, highly unlikely. This article looks at his unusual approach, compares it to many other examples from ancient, medieval, and early modern pagan, Christian, and Muslim thinkers, and assesses what it can offer political thinkers today.


This article uses exegesis and interdisciplinary approaches from comparative political theory, intellectual history, and theology to create a new understanding of the role of civil religion plays in early modern and modern states. It argues that this aspect of Hobbes' work is largely under-appreciated and his theological writing bears much more scrutiny in order for the resulting political philosophy to be properly understood.

Jeremy Kleidosty
University of Helsinki

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This page is a summary of: Hobbes’s great divorce: civil religion in comparative and historical perspective, Intellectual History Review, January 2019, Taylor & Francis, DOI: 10.1080/17496977.2019.1546444.
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