Spinoza on religion in public life

 Before listing Spinoza’s positive proposals for reducing religious conflict a little context is needed.  Spinoza was Portuguese-Jewish, born in 1632 into an orthodox community in Amsterdam. The city was dominated by punitive, Catholic-hating Calvinists. Unbelievers were arrested and, unless they retracted, died from inventive methods of torture and starvation.

Against this background, which included the savage death of close free-thinking friends, he deduced from first principles his thesis for calming racial and religious tensions. Despite being reviled for his atheism, the impeccable rationality of his proposals saw him survive unscathed and receive respectful – if unwanted – burial in a Calvinist church.

His conditions for religious practice in public life are found in his political works, but are derived from his basic principles in Ethics Books 2 and 3. The E2 principle is that all true beliefs and concepts must be “common notions”, universal in all human minds andaccessible though reason. No belief which is particular to one creed and incompatible with others can be described as a common notion. The E3 principle is that most human ideas are distorted by emotion, superstition and custom-based opinion, which work powerfully against reason. Sectarian beliefs, being driven by such “inadequate” ideas, are bound to result in disharmony.

In his political works every religion known to Spinoza shrivels under his rigid grid of rationality. All rest on local oral history and particular cultural values, so that “What among some is holy, among others is unholy; and what among some is honourable, among others is dishonourable.”  Rites, rituals and other outer symbols of sectarian belief are not “things which make any contribution to blessedness or any intrinsic sanctity .. or virtue”. The Jews (for example) “have incurred universal hatred by by cutting themselves off completely from other peoples”.  Rites, Spinoza says, are never “to be esteemed of such importance as to justify a breach of the public peace and quiet”.

So to his positive proposals regarding the place of religion in public life.

1. Principle of privacy.

Well before he was expelled from the Jewish community Spinoza he wore regular Dutch clothing. Being divisive, alienating and likely to invite religious hatred, all sectarian dress, rituals and rites of worship must be kept from the public eye.  While “I am not, by right of nature … a champion of religion”, he wrote, “each man, wherever he may be, can worship God with true piety .. as a private individual”.  Spinoza’s birth name was Baruch Despinosa: he changed it to Benedictus De Spinosa for his Latin lessons, and so it would remain.

2. Principal of responsible leadership.

Public figures and “guardians and interpreters of the state religion” must not abuse their power and influence by advancing their own beliefs “It is vitally important to prevent patricians in particular from splitting up into sects and favouring different religious groups, but also from becoming prey to a superstition and seeking to deprive their subjects of the freedom to voice their beliefs.”

3. Principle of neutral places of worship.

These must not be so large or distinctive as to incur hatred or breaches of the peace. “Although everyone should be given freedom to voice his beliefs, large congregations should be forbidden, and so, while dissenters should be allowed to build as many churches as they wish, these churches must be small, of fixed dimensions, and situated some distance apart.  …  “No churches whatsoever are to be built at the cities’ expense.”  The Jews of Amsterdam had been more or less tolerated while their synagogue operated behind an anonymous house façade front: in 1675, while Spinoza was writing his Political Treatise, a newly-opened vast and lavishly equipped “temple” became a new flashpoint.

4. Principle of  sect-free worship.   “Faith” might be publicly defended by the state, but it must be nameless – “a simple universal faith”.  “Worship of God and obedience to him consists solely in justice and charity (or love) towards one’s neighbour”.  No sectarian label could dispel “the hate the Turks have against the Jews and the Christians, the Jews against the Turks and the Christians, and the Christians against the Jews and the Turks etc.”  Namelessness would pose no problem in The Netherlands, where the word for religion was godsdienst – service to god.   “This principle, I think, removes all possibility of controversy..”

Living by his own principle that “Love finds its supreme expression in the preservation of peace and the promotion of concord” Spinoza did not express his contempt locally. Not only did he value his life: not only did he accept how few people could reason without prejudice; he also recognised “justice and charity” where he saw it.  According to one anecdote he reassured the churchgoing landlady of his final lodging house, “Your religion is a good one, you need not look for another”.

Yet there is no question that despite these apparent concessions Spinoza’s contempt for sectarian belief was solid.  Routinely describing it as superstition, in the Preface to his unfinished and posthumously published Political Treatise he finally let fly: “Faith has become a mere compound of credulity and prejudices  …. which completely stifle the power of judgement between the true and the false, which seem, in fact, carefully fostered for the purpose of extinguishing the last spark of reason!”

The political works are A Theologico-Political Treatise first published 1670) and A Political Treatise (Written c.1676-7; first published posthumously in the Complete Works, 1677)
Translations used:
Spinoza: The Political Works. The Tractatus theologico-politicus in part and the Tractatus politicus in full. Ed. and trans. with introduction and notes by A.G. Wernham, Oxford University Press, 1958
A Theologico-Political Treatise and A Political Treatise, trans. from the Latin with an introduction by R.M.H. Elwes, Dover, New York, 1951
Ethics First published posthumously in the Complete Works, 1677. Translation used: The Collected Works of Spinoza. Volume 1, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley. Princeton University Press, 1985
E  Ethics
C Curley translation
Es Elwes translation
W Wernham translation
Colerus Colerus Johannes. Levens-beschrijving van Benedictus de Spinosa. [1705] Martin Nijhoff, The Hague, 1910 Original Dutch text reproduced in FREUDENTHAL, J. Die Lebensgeschichte Spinoza’s: In Quellenschriften, Urkunden und Nichtamtlichen Nachrichten. Leipzig, 1899, p.35 ff. Colerus, John. The Life of Benedict de Spinoza. [1706] Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1906 Reproduced in English in Pollock, Frederick. Spinoza: His Life and Philosophy. C. Kegan Paul and Co., 1880.
‘E2 Principle of common notions as the foundation for reason and agreement’: E2 P40 S1; E2 P40 S2 [111]; E2 P44 D to C2; TTP V :W 99-101; TTP V11: Es 104. TP IV: W 123
‘E3 Principle of corruption of reason and agreement by passion and opinion’: E3 P3; E3 P51 Schol.; E3 Definition of the Affects XXVII. This theme continues in Ethics Part 4, entitled ‘On Human Bondage, or the Powers of the Affects’. See E4 p.35 & Dem.; E4 P36 Schol.2 Para 3.
“inadequate” ideas E2 Def. 4; E2 P35
“What among some is holy ..” E3 Definition of the Affects XXVII
“things which make any contribution to blessedness or any intrinsic .. TTP V W 99
“or virtue” … TTP IV 1: W 73
“have incurred universal hatred .. ” TTP 111: W 63
“What among some ..” E3 Definition of the Affects XXVII
“to be esteemed of such importance ..” TP 111 10: W 293
“I am not, by right of nature …” TP 111 10: W 293
“each man, then, wherever he may be ..” TP III 10 W 293
“guardians and interpreters of the state religion” TP V111 46: W 411
“It is vitally important to prevent patricians ..” TP V111 46: W 411
“Although everyone should be given freedom.. ” TP V111 46: W 411
“No churches whatsoever …” TP V1 40 W 333
“a simple universal faith” TP V111 46: W 411
““Worship of God and obedience .. ” TTP XIV 5 W 121
“This principle, I think …” TTP XIV: W 119
“Love finds its supreme expression” TP 111 10: W 293
“Your religion is a good one ..” Colerus p.41
“Faith has become a mere compound .. ” Elwes p.7

Most of the material in this blog can be found in my biography Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza.  Jonathan Cape 1998, Pimlico 2000

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: