Meditations on the Politics of Limited Knowledge

Embrace of God: Religion and State in Hobbes and Locke

In Political Theory on February 10, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Unlike Locke, Hobbes seeks to embrace religion. But it is a deadly embrace! [*] Locke advocates the separation of church and state that has become engrained in our conception of a secular republic: “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” [1] However, there is no room for such separation in Hobbesian political theory: “Temporal and spiritual government, are but two words, brought into the world, to make men see double, and mistake their lawful sovereign.” [2]The embrace of the Leviathan must encompass everything in its domain, including religion. But in this temporal clutch religion cannot breath as a spiritual practice. This may be just as well for Hobbes, but Locke insists on carving out of space of religious freedom. To understand this divergence we must probe the metaphysical and social theoretical foundations of their political theories and tease out the normative commitments entailed therein. Locke takes seriously the place of God and spiritual practice in human existence, leading him ineluctably to religious freedom at the expense of a realistic account of the political implications of religious practice. Whereas Hobbes takes seriously religion as a social force and, having little use for it as a path to salvation, perceives religious pluralism as a threat to the prime objective of his political theory: social order.

The tension between these seminal political philosophers illuminates the importance of ontological and epistemological foundations of political theory: what is the nature of our existence and what/how can we know? Divergent conceptions of God vis-à-vis the human condition lead here to opposite conclusions regarding the role of religion in society vis-à-vis the state. [3] In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke takes for granted a good deal of Christian dogma. He provides a liberal gloss, insisting that the true mark of Christianity is “charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind, even to those that are not Christians.” [4] But the fundamental ontology of Christian theology remains in place as a frame for his theory and the scriptures persist as a source of knowledge about the nature of the world with which political principles must contend:

Every man has an immortal soul, capable of eternal happiness or misery; whole happiness depending upon his believing and doing those things in this life, which are necessary to the obtaining of God’s favour, and are prescribed by God to that end: it follows from thence, first, that the observance of these things is the highest obligation that lies upon mankind, and that our utmost care, application, and diligence, ought to be exercised in the search and performance of them; because there is nothing in this world that is of any consideration in comparison with eternity. [5]

Any political theory so premised must make space for genuine religion, that is, spiritual practice most likely to lead to the salvation of human souls. With eternal happiness or misery putatively at stake, there can be little room for compromise with political prerogatives of the temporal domain. The security of the state is surely desirable, but not at the expense of eternal damnation of its subjects. [6] Salvation is too important to be left to the sovereign.

Contrast this with Hobbes’s worldview which literally leaves no room for an immaterial soul. [7] His work in natural philosophy relentlessly sought to disprove the existence of any immaterial substances. [8] As for ‘God,’ he leaves us guessing, but leaves the widest possible latitude for the signifier. Notably he writes:

When we say any thing is infinite, we signify only that we are not able to conceive the ends and bounds of the thing named, having no conception of the thing, but of our own inability. And therefore the name of God is used, not to make us conceive him (for he is incomprehensible, and his greatnesse, and power are unconceivable), but that we may honour him. [9]

Given God as the unconceivable, Hobbes strictly avoids in his argumentation premises that depend on some knowledge of God obtained by means other than reason. [10] Hobbes gives an account rooted in the nature and capacities of man and religious references are typically reduced to those terms. In the first page the creative power of God is transferred to men who willfully create the artificial body of the state that is the Leviathan. [11] The best prophet he says “naturally is the best guesser.” [12] His account of language which is central to his notion of right philosophy begins with mention of God’s gift of words to Adam, but then roots the significance of human communication in our ability to make language our own without restriction to God-given semantics. [13] “The Scripture was written to shew unto men the kingdom of God, and to prepare their minds to become his obedient subjects, leaving the world and the philosophy thereof to the disputation of men for the exercising of their natural reason.” [14] With respect to superstitions such as belief in demons, Hobbes “can imagine no reason but that which is common to all men, namely, the want of curiosity to search natural causes.” [15] And he squarely attacks the Scholastic philosophers for promoting a spiritual ontology of immaterial bodies and spreading absurd notions like “substantial forms,” which in Hobbes eyes, “hath a quality, not only to hide the truth, but also to make men think they have it, and desist from further search.” [16]

As for the authoritative meaning of the Scriptures, it can only come about through a chain of men trusting men, because,

…when we believe that the Scriptures are the word of God, having no immediate revelation from God himself, our belief, faith and trust is in the church, whose word we take, and acquiesce therein… So that it is evident that whatsoever we believe upon no other reason than what is drawn from authority of men only and their writings, whether they be sent from God or not, is faith in men only.” [17]

This is essentially to say that religion – as far as one is concerned in the present – has its roots in men only. He does give wide allowance to Christian thought understood in figurative terms compatible with the reality of the natural world as comprehended by reason. [18] As Shapin and Schaffer characterize his view, “Hell and heaven were not places; they were states of mind or conditions of social disorder and order.” [19] For Hobbes, hell was civil war, and his political philosophy aims at humanity’s salvation from that collective fate. [Hint: the solution isn’t Christ-love.]

The temporal salvation of society presents itself as the imperative of Hobbes’s political theory because of the social theory underlying it. By his account man is essentially selfish and, in a state of nature, at war, “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” [20] This leads Hobbes to the need for a sovereign power. [21] As the agent of social order and cohesion, the sovereign resolves the otherwise divisive epistemic indeterminacy of God’s will and the path to salvation. For Locke, this same condition of uncertain knowledge necessitates leaving decisions of faith to individuals in voluntary association, for “Neither the right, nor the art of ruling, does necessarily carry along with it the certain knowledge of other things; and least of all of the true religion.” [22] Even if Hobbes were concerned with the ability of the sovereign to save the eternal souls of his subjects, the right of sovereignty comes from the practical ability to secure order, not from some priestly access to unassailable Truth. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson famously and more recently explained: “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” But whence this right of final judgment? Locke is right that “it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another, as to compel any one to his religion.” [23] Hobbes would agree that God has not granted such authority to the sovereign: the people have contracted to vest absolute authority and they have done so out of necessity to escape a state of war. Once such power is vested it is absolute and the security of the civil order depends on disabling subversive powers, including religion. [24]

This was far more than a theoretical proposition for Hobbes. Unlike Locke he took seriously the social power of religion – informed by the history of religious conflict, the exercise power of religion over the state, and the specific contribution of religious factions to the English Civil War that historically frames his theoretical project. As Shapin and Schaffer put it, “Double tribute ended in civil war and confusion. This was what would inevitably happen if one allowed authority and power in the state to be fragmented and dispersed among professional groups each claiming its share.” [25] They quote Hobbes in 1656 explaining that he came to write Leviathan because of “considerations of what the ministers before, and in the beginning of civil war, by their preaching and writing did contribute thereunto.” [26] And in his 1668 work Behemoth, Hobbes lay particular blame for the Civil War on the clergy who had seduced the people, bypassing the sovereignty of the state by “pretending to have a right from God to govern every one in his parish, and their assembly the whole nation.” [27] Later in life, Hobbes turned his critical polemic against the program of experimental science advocated by Boyle because it represented a dual threat to the social order by: (1) undermining natural philosophy as a firm system of knowledge and introducing a framework for dissent in the production of knowledge, [28] and (2) using experiments with air-pumps to support belief in the existence of a vacuum – an incorporeal substance of the sort that the Scholastics had used to buttress priestcraft. [29] As Shapin and Schaffer sum it up, “These were the ontological resources of the enemies of order.” [30]

To the end Hobbes aimed his philosophical project at the security of social order. It is reasonable to speculate that because he does not share Locke’s concern for the fate of eternal souls, Hobbes does not fret over the ability of the sovereign to deliver actual salvation. What is crucial is that no other entity have the power – i.e. the socially perceived power – to save souls outside of – and certainly not above – the power of the sovereign:

There is, therefore, no other government in this life, neither of state nor religion, but temporal; nor teaching of any doctrine, lawful to any subject, which the governor, both of the state and of the religion, forbiddeth to be taught. And that governor must be one, or else there must needs follow faction and civil war in the commonwealth: between the Church and the State; between spiritualists and temporalists; between the sword of justice and the shield of faith; and (which is more) in every Christian man’s own breast, between the Christian and the man. But if pastors be not subordinate one to another, so as that there may be one chief pastor, men will be taught contrary doctrines, whereof both may be, and one must be, false. Who that one chief pastor is, according to the law of nature, hath already been shown, namely, that it is the civil sovereign… [31]

In the Hobbesian political ontology God can remain in his role as redeemer and teacher, but he must relinquish the role of king. [32] The sovereign must embrace religion in order to maintain his own power without which society would fall back into a state of war.

Locke neglects the social power of religion when he posits a principle of neatly separating civil affairs and matters of the soul as if the division of spheres were intellectually self-enforcing in spite of history. [33] By embracing Christian theology in the ontological foundations of his theory and putting a priority on the spiritual life of men as a good – not just as something to be explained and controlled – Locke arrives at a political theory in which the state must let go of religion. Whereas Hobbes’s dismissal of the same spiritual imperatives opens the way for a political theory that relentlessly pursues its temporal aim of social order. To that end, the subversive potential of religion must be tamed by bringing it within the embrace of the all-powerful sovereign. Locke is also concerned about the social order, [34] but whether he can achieve it while allowing for religious freedom depends on the accuracy of Hobbes’s social theory. And whether it is necessary to have it both ways depends on whether God figures into the ontology at the base of political theory to begin with.


* The opening words of this paper come from a pithy prompt skillfully crafted by Professor Dermot O’Brien (NYU). I have interpreted them as I see fit and developed the following original work on that basis.

[1] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. J. Cockin (Huddersfield: J. Brook, 1796), p. 10.

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), p. 316. (Hereafter “Hobbes” unless other text specified)

[3] Note that Mill sensibly skips to the epistemological basis of liberty: we must allow for free thought and expression not because of what we know to be the case, but because of what we cannot know with certainty.

[4] Locke, Letter, p. 5.

[5] Locke, Letter, p. 49. To underscore the unquestioned status of God, Locke denies any toleration for atheists: “Lastly, Those are not at all to be tolerated who ‘deny the being of a God.’ Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.” (p. 56) Atheists are summarily dismissed from the liberal regime as if to say, “oh, and for the record, obviously one needs to believe in God.”

[6] The presupposed value of religion – its spiritual value for human beings – leaves Locke no choice but to strike the proper balance and separation of church and state in his liberal political theory: “A good life, in which consists not the least part of religion and true piety, concerns also the civil government; and in it lies the safety both of men’s souls, and of the commonwealth. Moral actions belong therefore to the jurisdiction both of the outward and inward court, both of the civil and domestic governor, I mean, both of the magistrate and conscience. Here therefore is great danger, lest one of these jurisdictions intrench upon the other, and discord arise between the keeper of the public peace, and the overseers of souls.” (Locke, Letter, p. 48)

[7] Indeed he denied the soul’s “existence separated from the body.” (Shapin and Schaffer, p. 95)

[8] Contra Aristotelian natural philosophy, Hobbes’s philosophy maintained that “bodies do not move themselves; they have no essences, so to speak, poured into them and separable from their corporeal nature; their brute and corporeal nature is their nature… neither man nor inanimate objects… is compounded of matter plus a separable and incorporeal spiritual essence, form, or will.” Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-pump (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 93-4.

Hobbes didn’t even find scriptural justification for regarding God as an incorporeal entity. (Shapin and Schaffer, 93)

[9] Hobbes, p. 15. Note emoticon in the original “head” edition: “(for he is Incomprehensible; and his greatnesse, and power are unconceivable;) ”… Hobbes is clearly winking at us as his relishes his atheism.

[10] “For though there be many things in God’s word above reason (that is to say, which cannot by natural reason be either demonstrated or confuted), yet there is nothing contrary to it; but when it seemeth so, the fault is either in our unskilful interpretation or erroneous ratiocination.” (Hobbes, p. 246)

[11] “Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated that it can make an Artificial Animal… For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON- WEALTH, or STATE, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body… Lastly, the Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make men, pronounced by God in the Creation.” (Hobbes, p. 3)

[12] Hobbes, p. 14.

[13] “But the most noble and profitable invention of all other, was that of SPEECH, consisting of Names or Appellations, and their Connexion; whereby men register their Thoughts; recall them when they are past; and also declare them one to another for mutuall utility and conversation; without which, there had been amongst men, neither Common-wealth, nor Society, nor Contract, nor Peace, no more than amongst Lyons, Bears and Wolves. The first author of Speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as he presented to his sight; For the Scripture goeth no further in this matter. But this was sufficient to direct him to adde more names, as the experience and use of the creatures should give himoccasion; and to joyn them in such manner by degrees, as to make himself understood; and so by succession of time, so much language might be gotten, as he found use for; though not so copious, as an Orator or Philosopher has need of.” (p. 12)

Editorial Note: Would this argument be substantially changed if “The first author of Speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as he presented to his sight…” was replaced with “A – perhaps the – key distinction of the human mind as it has evolved the capacity for speech, the ability to names things in the environment and communicate, or signify, these appellations to other minds”? Here, God only plays the role of natural creator of human capacities. Not even the capacity of language per se, just the capacity for naming. Conveniently the scripture doesn’t suggest a more supernaturally intrusive/lingering role. So Hobbes can go on to the salient point that humans are able to use this capacity to extend beyond any “God given” knowledge and abilities in order to create language, to socially evolve language.

If “God” simply means the unknown/unknowable, the uncontrollable, the given, nature, then we should hardly think of this as semantically theological. If there is an isomorphism of argument between this God-speak and rationalism/physicalism/atheistic epistemic humility, then it should just be a matter of dispensing with the term “God” and replacing it with that specific dimension of the world transcending/alluding/functioning autonomously from human being.

[14] Hobbes, p. 45. “And whereas our Saviour (Math. 12. 43.) speaketh of an unclean Spirit that, having gone out of a man, wandreth through dry places, seeking rest, and finding none, and returning into the same man, with seven other spirits worse than himself, it is manifestly a parable alluding to a man that after a little endeavour to quit his lusts is vanquished by the strength of them, and becomes seven times worse than he was. So that I see nothing at all in the Scripture that requireth a belief that demoniacs were any other thing but madmen.” (p. 45)

[15] Hobbes, p. 44. 16 Shapin & Schaffer, p. 93 (quoting Hobbes).

Also See Hobbes: “…there is no doubt, but God can make unnaturall Apparitions: But that he does it so often, as men need to feare such things, more than they feare the stay, or change, of the course of Nature, which he also can stay, and change, is no point of Christian faith. But evill men under pretext that God can do any thing, are so bold as to say anything when it serves their turn, tough they think it untrue; It is the part of a wise man, to believe them no further, than right reason makes that which they say, appear credible.” (p. 7) He connects this to his critique of the scholastics: “And this ought to be the work of the Schooles: but they rather nourish such doctrine.” (p.8)

[17] Hobbes, p. 37.

[18] He objects to priestcraft turning “consecration into conjuration.” (Shapin and Schaffer, p. 95)

[19] Shapin and Schaffer, p. 96.

[20] Hobbes, p. 76.

Note: considering Jesus as a social theorist of the “can’t we all just get along” variety, it might not be too much of a stretch to call Hobbes the anti-Christ.

Cf. Locke who draws on Christian doctrine as the foundation for principles of loving toleration incompatible with Hobbes’s view of human nature. “If the gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a christian without charity, and without that faith which works, not be force, but by love.” (Locke, Letter, p. 6) “If, like the Captain of our salvation, they sincerely desired the good of souls, they would tread in the steps, and follow the perfect example of that Prince of Peace, who sent out his soldiers to the subduing of nations, and gathering them into his church, not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with the gospel of peace, and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation.” (Locke, Letter, p. 9)

[21] “The only way to erect such a common power as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort as that by their own industry, and by the fruits of the earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly, is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will… This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all, in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in

such manner as if every man should say to every man I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH, in latine CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God to which we owe, under the Immortal God, our peace and defence.” (Hobbes, p. 109)

[22] Locke, p. 29.

[23] Locke, p. 11.

[24] Hobbes: Who “will not obey a priest, that can make God, rather than his sovereign, nay than God himself? Or who, that is in fear of ghosts, will not bear great respect to those that can make the holy water, that drives them from him?” … “By their demonology, and the use of exorcism, and other things appertaining thereto, they keep, or think they keep, the people in awe of their power.” … Their threatening intent was “to lessen the dependance of subjects on the sovereign power of their country.” (Shapin and Schaffer, 96)

[25] Shapin & Schaffer, p. 97.

[26] Shapin & Schaffer, p. 97. (Quoting Hobbes, “Six Lessons,” p. 335)

“Papists were, of course, particularly odious, as they claimed not just a share of power with the civil authority, but the role of delegating absolute spiritual power to the state through their intermediacy. But religious groups whose beliefs and practices appeared most opposed to Rome and Canterbury were equally pernicious: the Protestant sects. Independents, Anabaptists, Fifth-Monarchy Men, Quakers, and Adamites: ‘These were the enemies which arose against his Majesty from the private interpretation of the Scripture, exposed to every man’s scanning in his mother-tongue.’ (Hobbes, “Behemoth,” p. 190) Private judgment and personal interpretation were the ultimate threats to social order. After the Bible had been translated into English, ‘every man, every boy and wench, that could read English, thought they spoke with God Almighty, and understood what he said … The reverence and obedience to the Reformed Church here, and to the bishops and pastors therein, was cast off, and every man became a judge of religion, and an interpreter of the Scriptures to himself.’ (Hobbes, “Behemoth, pp. 461-462)” (Shapin and Schaffer, 97-98)

“With one hand Hobbes took away the legitimacy of private judgment; with the other he took away the right of religious authorities to exercise control of individuals’ private beliefs.” (Shapin and Schaffer, p. 104)

[27] Shapin & Schaffer, p. 97 (Quoting Hobbes, “Behemoth,” pp. 167, 171)

Cf. from Leviathan: “And therefore, they that are subjects to a Monarch, cannot without his leave cast off Monarchy, and return to the confusion of a disunited Multitude; nor transferre their Person from him that beareth it, to another Man, or other Assembly of men… And whereas some men have pretended for their disobedience to their Soveraigne, a new Covenant, made, not with men, but with God; this also is unjust: for there is no Covenant with God, but by mediation of some body that representeth Gods Person; which none doth but Gods Lieutenant, who hath the Soveraignty under God. But this pretence of Covenant with God, is so evident a lye, even in the pretenders own consciences, that it is not onely an act of an unjust, but also of a vile, and unmanly disposition.” (Hobbes, p. 111)

[28] “Boyle aimed to achieve peace and to terminate scandal in natural philosophy by securing a space within which a specified kind of dissent was manageable and safe. In the experimental form of life it was legitimate for philosophers to disagree about the causes of natural effects: causal knowledge was removed from the domain of the certain or even the morally certain. For Hobbes there was no philosophical space within which dissent was safe or permissible. Dissent over physical causes was a sign that one had not begun to do philosophy or that the enterprise in question was not philosophy.” (Shapin & Schaffer, p. 109)

[29] “Hobbes proposed to discredit priestly absurdities and bad philosophy by telling an interest-story. He would put and answer the question, “Cui bono?” Priests and Scholastics had sought to prosper at the expense of peace and good order in the polity. Aristotelian doctrine of separate essences had historically been deployed in an illegitimate strategy of social control. It had been used to obtain for priests a share of that authority that belonged solely to the civil sovereign… Priestcraft has made up a scarecrow philosophy; it had traded upon man’s natural anxiety about the future and man’s natural tendency to construct causal explanations out of whatever resources were at hand. If there was no visible and known cause of events, then some invisible power or agent was widely supposed to be at work. Priestcraft had

encouraged these natural dispositions, and it had used man’s ignorance, nervousness and insecurity to buttress the independent moral and political authority of the Church. To this end, priests had propogated the bad philosophy of incorporeal substances and immaterial spirits.” (Shapin and Schaffer, pp. 94-5)

[30] Shapin & Schaffer, p. 109.

[31] Hobbes, p. 316.

Note: Hobbes precedes this statement with the following: “It is true that the bodies of the faithful, after the resurrection, shall be not only spiritual, but eternal; but in this life they are gross and corruptible.” It is unclear from the context how we are supposed to interpret this throw-away line about eternal spirits. Note his commentary elsewhere on the figurative meaning of spirit. And particularly note that this nod displaces the supernatural to a time and space outside of the temporal sphere and thus irrelevant for this argument… unless of course you took seriously that actions in the temporal domain bear on the eternal life of the spirit.

[32] Hobbes, Leviathan, XLI.

[33] Locke proposes the following division: “Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.” (Locke, Letter, p. 10) “The only business of the church is the salvation of souls; and it no ways concerns the common-wealth, or any member of it, that this or the other ceremony be there made use of. Neither the use, nor the omission of any ceremonies, in those religious assemblies, does either advantage or prejudice the life, liberty, or estate of any man.” (pp. 35-36)

“These things being thus explained, it is easy to understand to what end the legislative power ought to be directed, and by what measures regulated, and that is the temporal good and outward prosperity of the society which is the sole reason of men’s entering into society, and the only thing they seek and aim at in it. And it is also evident what liberty remains to men in reference to their eternal salvation, and that is, that every one should do what he in his conscience is persuaded to be acceptable to the Almighty, on whose good pleasure and acceptance depends his eternal happiness. For obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the laws.” (Locke, p. 51)

[34] “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interests of men’s souls, and on the other side, a care of government.” (Locke, Letter, p. 10)

  1. In relation to the article “Political Knowledge in an Era of Ungovernability: Obama, GOP and Tea Baggers”, I wonder how the belief in a god interferes with ones ability to view the world in an epistemologically humble manner. Being made in His image doesn’t *exactly* lend itself to the necessary acceptance of an inherent fallibility.

    • Yes indeed. You anticipate the provocative claim I have made and continue to wrestle with: God is incompatible with democracy precisely because belief in God is a violation of an indispensable principle of epistemic humility.

      Secularism has been taken to be an essential condition of democracy in a pluralist society. But that can mean many different things. In America it has come to mean some sort of separation of church and state (a mythology that Philip Hamburger has argued is totally at odds with the perspective of religious dissenters at the time of ratification… another story). Yet of course America has always had fervant religiosity among the public. As a matter of political theory we must interrogate the role of religious belief in democracy. Is it sufficient (or even possible) to separate religious claims and premises from the public sphere? Or must the populous actually secularize their private belief systems by giving up belief in God?

      I will take up these questions at length as this blog develops. I will particularly frame the issue in terms of my pet principle of epistemic humility. As suggested above, there is ample reason to argue that to believe in a higher power sufficiently specific in character to be called God entails an abandonment of epistemic humility. And yet – and this is crucial – monotheistc religious traditions like Christianity cultivate a doctine rooted in humility. Humility must arguably be the core of any faith claiming its provenance in the Gospels, the received teachings of Jesus Christ. And epistemic humility is a vital part of this including recognition that one cannot know God. That represents wisdom that is vital for a synthetic reimagining of democratic virtue.

    • Practising scientists, as opepsod to scientists on committees, public policy people and other science cheerleaders, are usually very aware of the value-messiness of scientific practice. See, for example, Goodstein’s recent book On Fact and Fraud. By the way, Heather Douglas and Sheila Jasanoff have… Practising scientists, as opepsod to scientists on committees, public policy people and other science cheerleaders, are usually very aware of the value-messiness of scientific practice. See, for example, Goodstein’s recent book On Fact and Fraud. By the way, Heather Douglas and Sheila Jasanoff have both been addressing the questions raised in this post.

  2. “monotheistic religious traditions like Christianity cultivate a doctrine rooted in humility”

    Yes, cultivated but it is a false sense of humility, an Égoïste cloaked in meek diffident verbiage. This is because this “humility” is grounded in a sense of purpose arising from being divinely “placed”. Human purposiveness is an egotistical claim.

    Maybe democracy would benefit from a whole bunch of people sitting around going “well, shit. We have no reason for being here but we’re stuck. Let’s stop being assholes.”

    All apologies for the truism.

    • In short, I agree.

      It seems to me that the existential condition of democracy consists in the need to collectively determine (i.e. create, not discover) our purpose in the absence of preëxisting foundations. But I don’t think that politics has any meaning as a concept without operative sense of purpose(s). We all make appeals to purpose – ideally common purpose – when we engage in political argument about what we should do… That is, do to achieve a purpose. (Avoiding asshole-like behavior is, after all, a purpose. And no more metaphysically grounded than Christian salvation. But more amenable to broad intersubjective agreemet.)

      Theistic religious believers have a sense of purpose inculcated by tradition and sanctified by faith in God. Atheists also tend to have senses of purpose more or less cultivated by tradition(s). The question is what to do when engages in politics with one another. In the long-term I think that democracy would be better of if people shed theistic faith and focused there spiritual energy on cultivating non-theistic traditions – possibly including metaphysical reflection and received wisdom – that recognized themselves as historically contingent human creations cultivated for the purpose of helping us live – to enable for, if not impose upon, subsequent generations -the life we want to live.

      The project of democracy could then be recognized as the ongoing creation – rather than realization – of the good society… A more perfect union without a preëxisting platonic perfect…

    • The importance of recognizing and harvesting principles of humility from theological traditions is that: (1) they offer wisdom that is often dangerously lacking in the Enlightenment project, and (2) they are the premises with which other citizens come to the conversation.

      In the politics of limited knowledge, Rationalism and Theology are both going to have to give up a lot: Truth and God, respectively.

  3. I should clarify what I meant when I said purposiveness. I meant the sense of an inherent purpose (not self-imposed)… not purpose itself.


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