A Hobbesian Argument for Religious Toleration
University of Texas at Austin
This paper attempts to develop a Hobbes-like argument for a sovereign granting a form of
religious liberty to its citizens. It will first clarify Hobbes’ actual argument against
religious toleration. It then demonstrates flaws in that argument which, given hobbesian
assumptions as to the duty/interests of the sovereign, show that in some cases where the
citizenry is religiously diverse and that many of those citizens hold strong religious
views, the sovereign ought to practice a careful brand of religious toleration.
To be presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science
Thomas Hobbes speaks boldly about the importance of the sovereign having control over
outward religious observances in the commonwealth. The motivation for this boldness is
to prevent conflicts arising from religious disputes. However, a carefully crafted and
enforced policy of religious toleration may provide the same protection from religious
conflict without facing potential conflict from disgruntled believers of a religion different
from that of the sovereign. This is particularly the case if the commonwealth consists of
subjects with diverse fervently held religious beliefs.
Hobbes does not himself lay out a clear-cut argument for why the sovereign ought
to create a state church. As will be discussed later in the paper, it is not necessarily his
intent to lay out a clear-cut argument for a state church. Provided below, then, is a
Hobbes-like argument for why sovereigns should at least dictate religious practice.
P1) Individuals cannot be certain that what they imagine to be the word of God actually is so.
P2) If no person can be certain that what they imagine to be the word of God actually is so,
then different people, having different imaginings, will have different ideas about what is
contained in the word of God.
C1) Different people will have different ideas about what i