Student Report: Religion and Politics – An Interdisciplinary Conversation

This Interdisciplinary Conversation was part of “Religion and Politics,” presented by the Humanities Research Center and the Division of Arts and Humanities, in collaboration with the Undergraduate Studies program.

Reported by Mateja Bokan, Class of 2026

The Religion and Politics lecture and discussion were the first opportunity for DKU students in Barcelona to experience the offerings of the University and the Humanities Research Center. Divided into two parts, the guest lecture and a live discussion, students were able to apply, reevaluate, and extend their knowledge on secularization using Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan as an example of how politics and religion work together in our society.

The guest lecturer, Robert Yelle, is a Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich. An active member of the American Academy of Religion, Yelle is presently Editor of the AAR/Oxford University Press book series Religion, Culture, and History. In his work, he shows connections between politics and religion through theological readings and analysis of the modern secular world, while also exploring their constantly changing relationship in contemporary society.

The lecture began with Professor Yelle explaining that Hobbs had a far more radical view than expected as seen through his book Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Within this specific piece that concerns the structure of society and legitimate government, Professor Yelle focused on the illustrated cover page depicting most of the radicality that was overlooked before. Professor argued that political secularism begins to be noticeable in the 2nd half of the 17th century; even though this was not Hobbes’s understanding at the time, Hobbes believed that religion and politics cannot be separated; hence an argument was made that leviathan was a reference to the Egyptian pharaoh, portraying revolutions disguised as revelations.

Professor then went on to explain that even though Hobbes was not necessarily a pagan himself, his ideas of speaking up against the church from a paganistic point of view had to be incorporated into his writing with great care, as he had been condemned for his ideas in the past. The professor argued that in this specific illustration, Hobbes relied on symbolism to present his thoughts. Symbols of secular power on the left and church on the right side, unified by Leviathan holding the sword of secular power all can be read as a sign that secular and religious powers must be coordinated together to rule. This is further supported by symbolism of “a sovereign that is away from us”, that is heads turned away from the Pharaoh, even though they are a part of him, symbolizing that Leviathan, armed with bodies of people, is a proper epithet of a king and leader of a mighty army.

Looking into the book itself, Professor Yelle pays close attention to the way in which Hobbes described Leviathan. The professor focused on plurals as honorifics – a linguistic system in which plurals are used to signify greater respect, still present in languages such as German and Saudi Arabic – and how Hobbes accepted this concept when he was addressing Leviathan, ultimately treating him as a King or a God and further supporting Leviathan as a Pharaoh. Professor argued that through this we can see that Hobbes’s ideology was against the supernatural, Gods were mortal people worshipped through statues, and that Hobbes was using totemism as means of justifying the connection between church and politics.

In the second part of the lecture, Professor Yelle explains Hobbes’ thought and why it was revolutionary for the time. Professor argued that through the cover illustration, Hobbes wanted to show that there is no difference between political and religious followers, that they all need one leader. Yet the parallelism shown in the pictures relating to the church (right four panels) radically show double vision of reflection and refraction, showing that it is the clergy that makes people confused by making them “see double”. Hobbs points out that religious images are mirrored, represent phantasms, and are therefore unreal (people confuse reflected images for reality under the church’s preaching). With that, professor concludes that despite the popularity of Locke’s version of separation, Hobbes’s model represents a more accurate description of the modern state, which has a monopoly over coercive power.

Following the lecture, the professor answered a few questions. One of the questions inquired whether Hobbes was a pagan or an atheist, as the former has a religious connotation while the latter does not. He explained that atheism is very unspecified as many people have falsely been flagged as something that they were not in reality. Hobbes may have been a classical pagan, but this is subject to debate; Hobbes was not necessarily going for unification or separation, but was talking about religion on the ground of politics.

Later in the day, DKU students in Barcelona had the opportunity to engage in a discussion regarding material presented in the lecture, but also in attendance was DKU’s Professor Rasoul Namazi who provided additional insight into the topic using his knowledge of Islamic and Western political thought. The students were able to present their own interpretation of the impact Religion has on the contemporary world, but also to discuss in smaller groups how Hobbes’s ideas are present in the world and how they reflect in social movements worldwide.

Professor Yelle concluded the discussion by expressing keen interest in coming to Duke Kunshan University once China starts welcoming visitors again, and the students thanked him for the arguments he had presented to them.