From the Leviathan, chapter 14:
The force of words being (as I have formerly noted) too weak to hold men to the performance of their covenants, there are in man’s nature but two imaginable helps to strengthen it. And those are either a fear of the consequence of breaking their word, or a glory or pride in appearing not to need to break it. This latter is a generosity too rarely found to be presumed on, especially in the pursuers of wealth, command, or sensual pleasure, which are the greatest part of mankind. The passion to be reckoned upon is fear; whereof there be two very general objects: one, the power of spirits invisible; the other, the power of those men they shall therein offend. Of these two, though the former be the greater power, yet the fear of the latter is commonly the greater fear. The fear of the former is in every man his own religion, which hath place in the nature of man before civil society. The latter hath not so; at least not place enough to keep men to their promises, because in the condition of mere nature, the inequality of power is not discerned, but by the event of battle.
As difficult as Hobbes can be to read, I found the principle chapters of the Leviathan really interesting to discuss. Here, Hobbes lays the groundwork for the necessity of the monarch: 1) People need to make covenant one with another in order to survive, 2) these covenants can be easily broken, and 3) broken covenants lead back to man’s initial state in nature, war. This is why a strong Sovereign power is needed, to regulate the keeping of covenants.
Before we get to the need for the Sovereign, however, Hobbes refers to two “imaginable helps” that aid in the keeping of covenants between people: fear and glory. The latter (being proud of having been found trustworthy) is obviously not something that can be relied upon for covenant-keeping, so the former must do the policing. Now, of the sources of fear, Hobbes locates two specific realms: the religious (fear of divine punishment) and the communal (fear of personal retribution). The latter doesn’t do much as to enforcement, but the former appears to exert a certain control or restraining force over human action. This is of course a very common trope, and we all know how it is used by certain uncultured despisers: Bibles in schools, prayer in courtrooms, God on the dollar bill, etc. For Hobbes, this is religion’s utility in civil society.
Where this really gets interesting however is when Hobbes’ notorious pragmatism makes an appearance. In dealing with religion’s role in civil society and especially the administration of law and justice, Hobbes has to deal with the obvious objection of the pluralist, “but what if there isn’t widespread agreement over which sacred object or person we are to swear?” Hobbes answers thusly:
By this it appears that an oath taken according to any other form, or rite, than his that sweareth is in vain and no oath, and that there is no swearing by anything which the swearer thinks not God.
Here is where you see the difference between an empiricist like Hobbes and others. Religion is playing a purely functional role here, and nothing outside of its form qua religion matters to the administration of covenants. Obviously this creates all sorts of problems as to how the state would define religion, etc., but a more amusing thought came to my mind while teaching this section: all of a sudden, I just couldn’t help but think of a room in every courthouse dedicated to housing a plethora of sacred objects from all the world’s religions, and to the poor bailiff who would be forced to discern between them. Hah!