Spinoza’s Theory of Religion – Stabilized Superstition (Ehud Benor)

jewish-1159704_1920The best interpretations of Spinoza’s philosophy would lead us to believe that, for Spinoza, religion is superstition. Henry Allison’s account is an excellent example.1 As he proceeds to discuss Spinoza’s views concerning revelation, scripture and religion, the subject matter of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Allison writes:

Spinoza’s general attitude to the claims of revealed religion is already clear from our consideration of the Ethics. Basically, belief in the teachings of traditional religions, as generally construed, is equated with superstition. The source of such belief is the imagination, and its hold on the mind of the masses is explained in terms of its connection with the passions of hope and fear. Hence, not only does Spinoza maintain that this belief lacks any rational basis; he also holds that the “virtues” which its proponents affirm-for example, fear of God, a sense of guilt, repentance, humility, and so on-are largely at variance with the dictates of reason.2

This equation of religion with superstition is perhaps hasty. It is in the “Appendix to Part One” of the Ethics that Spinoza expounds on the nature, origin and consequence of an intellectual prejudice, the necessity of which is grounded in human nature. This prejudice is said to include a set of interelated ideas that constitutes what would normally be called religious belief. As expounded in the Ethics, Spinoza’s theory of religion might be considered merely an argument that “religion is a form of anthropomorphism.”3

Surveys of modern theories of religion either ignore Spinoza or misrepresent him. When his contribution is noted, we are told about his philosophical discreditng of classical theistic beliefs, which he sees as a form of intellectual prejudice, and of his establishment of a method of biblical criticism, which is celebrated as an heroic public attempt to discredit the authority of the bible.

It is not surprising that Spinoza’s naturalistic account of religion as a social institution of (probably) indeterminable value is totally occluded by those beacons of secular Enlightenment. His account credits religion with making possible the overcoming of the horrors of tyranny and, illiberally (classically elitist yet modernly pluralist), founds democratic government on a necessary diversity of religious sensibilities, blames insufficient sectarianism for religious violence, defends democratic government as asymptotic to reason (without assuming rationality of participants) and requires it to exercise limited supervision over religion in the state).4

In a notable exception to the general silence, Roberto Cipriani begins his historical introduction to the

Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza

sociology of religion with the suggestive observation that the scientific study of religion is indebted to “Spinozism, that is, to the need to free religious studies from fideistic and ideological claims.”5

Unfortunately, Cipriani sees it only as a contribution to biblical hermeneutics and ignores the naturalistic theory of religion Spinoza articulated in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Noting Spinoza’s avant-garde position, Cipriani observes that “Spinoza’s historical-critical method was directly linked to political questions designed to achieve a freer society, which would be open to new solutions, including a secular approach to religion.” As in other surveys there is no recognition of Spinoza’s own sociology of religion.6

All strands of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus argument converge on chapter 14, where faith is defined as the subjective state (of belief and passion) that leads a person to piety, in matters of justice and charity, as judged solely according to that person’s behavior.7  It is the task of chapters devoted to biblical hermeneutics (7-13) to establish that exhortation to piety, in obedience to the requirements of justice and charity, is the essential teaching of the bible,8 on which, alone, the bible is everywhere consistent and, by virtue of this consistency, exhortation to piety constitutes the “word of God” of which we can be certain that it has reached us uncorrupted.9

Earlier chapters (1-6), devoted to prophecy and miracles, ground religious authority in the ability to motivate ordinary people to act piously.10 This definition of faith aligns Spinoza’s ideas with what would become known as a Durkheimean functionalist approach to religion that can be extended to include aspects of Berger’s sociology–of–knowledge view of religion as “sacred canopy.”11

According to Spinoza, religion is stabilized superstition. This claim and all other elements of Spinoza’s theory of religion are present in the preface to the Tractatus, albeit cryptically at times. Rather than equating (philosophically or scientifically unfounded) religious belief with superstition, Spinoza sees religion as practically necessary to the solution of the problem of superstition.12 Understanding magical behavior in quasi-Malinowskian manner—as occurring at the limits of people’s power over circumstances and of their knowledge of the forces the effect them13 — Spinoza locates its origin in fear that is caused by convergence of the weakness and ignorance in which the lives of all humans begins.

The problem of superstition is not falsity of beliefs as such but their instability.14  So long as we adhere to practices merely on the basis of their fleeting ability to overcome fear by inducing hope, which ability is grounded merely in the fact that the proposed course of action has not been tried before, we move from one promise to another, never laying the foundation for a body of accumulated experience that may constitute a starting point of knowledge. One result is that “the multitude remains ever at the same level of wretchedness” and their culture fails to advance.

The other result is political instability that leads to endless wars. When people lack knowledge and wisdom and are barred from rising to them by the perpetual cycle of fear, hope and despair, the solution to the problem of superstition cannot be an overcoming of superstition but a modification of it. Religion, according to Spinoza, is a modification of superstition that ritualizes its form while retaining its content.15

Working on the level of emotion and imagination, the drama of ritual increases the power of any given superstition to alleviate fear and instill hope and shifts the ground of its efficacy, from the transient promise of the novelty of that which has not yet failed and caused despair, to the persuasiveness and authority of religion. The stability of ritual attenuates the problem of superstition, limits the credulity of the fearful ignorant and, thereby, creates a foundation for both political and cultural stability. These, in turn, make possible the advancement of knowledge and the exercise of reason, which, alone, solves the problem.

The two products of religion, born of the stabilization of superstition, are inversely related: the more enlightened a society, the less despotic its regime. The specific equilibrium a given society achieves between reason and superstition determines the proper role of religion in its affairs. Most fundamental, for Spinoza, is the enduring relation between religion and people’s perception of liberty.

Tyranny, the regime that most heavily relies on ignorance and in which people are the least free, is also the most unstable. A state of informers and secret police, trapped in mutual suspicion and fear, serially deposes its domineering dangerous rulers, unless their rule is sanctified by religion. In Tyranny, domination of all thought by religion 16  is both necessary and efficient as it induces subjects to police themselves, in a delusion of freedom, as a supreme virtue of piety, for the sake of salvation.17

The comforts that religion brings to tyranny—to both tyrant and subjects—are, however, themselves inherently unstable. As religion addresses our passions to motivate us to act as our society expects or requires, it collides with a feature of human nature that Spinoza’s naturalistic realism emphasizes: human beings are united by reason and divided by passions.18 Accordingly, by the nature of things, religion must be pluralistic enough to accommodate a wide range of divergent sensibilities and can aspire to uniformity only at a high level of abstract principles, not in specific implementation.19

Tyrannical mind control, which religion makes possible, is bound to cause profound hatred and to result in the ennobled sedition of the martyr because the stories and ceremonies that inspire some people’s piety may arouse contempt in others who are edified by beliefs and practices of a different kind. 20 Suppression of variants of “true religion”21 inspires the fearless rebellion of the righteous, which must be assiduously avoided.22 Accordingly, in direct opposition to Hobbes, Spinoza holds that insufficient sectarianism is a major cause of civil strife.

The only way out of this morass is to advance toward granting people freedom of judgment in matters of religion23
— within the bounds set by the civil religion.24  Spinoza’s doctrine of the freedom of religion recommends a limited freedom that requires state supervision.25  State supervision is required for reasons of:

  1. preservation of political sovereignty,26
  2. the fundamental irrationality in which religion is embedded, 27
  3. the link between piety and the common good, 28  and
  4. the superiority of reason (and of mechanism of political decision that approximate reason as much as human nature allows us to expect).

Solomons TempleUnderlying all four reasons is a quest for the cultural and political unity that reason could provide had it been possible for a multitude of people to live according to reason. According to Spinoza, only an exceptional level of understanding—beyond mere scientific knowledge—can be motivationally effective in overcoming harmful divisive desires. Such understanding is all too rare to be politically significant. Consequently, even the well being of an advanced society depends the piety that religion induces by appealing to imagination and emotion.

Nevertheless, Spinoza claims that an approximation of the council of reason can be achieved in the political domain through non rational means. Such approximation is the virtue of large democratic legislative assemblies wherein “horse-trading” among agents motivated by diverse desires aims to secure a reliable majority. Diverse irrationalities and narrowly conceived self interests cancel each other out as they vie for wider and wider ad hoc agreement. The more comprehensive the coalition, the greater its approximation to what reason would have counseled.29

In a democracy, therefore, state supervision of religion is akin to sovereignty of reason over passion. The smaller the body in which sovereignty is vested, the less efficient the hidden-hand mechanism that protects it from folly. Nevertheless, Spinoza goes so far as to claim that oversight of religion by most forms of government is better than no oversight because governments are driven by interests of self preservation to act reasonably in pursuit of the public good.30

A theory of religion such as this should clearly have prevented Spinoza from discrediting the authority of the bible and there is no reason to think that it did not. The purpose of his critical study of the bible was not only to legitimize freedom of thought but also to protect the moral authority of the bible from unwise, shortsighted and irresponsible intellectual criticism.

Ehud Benor is Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College.   He is the author of Worship of the Heart: A Study of Maimonides’ Philosophy of Religion (State University of New York Press, 2012).

  1. H.E. Allison, Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction, rev. ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).
  2. Ibid., 206.
  3. S. E. Guthrie, “Religion: What is It?,” Journal for Scientific Study of Religion 35, no. 4 (1996): 412 -419, 412.
  4. Samuel Preus’ Explaining Religion which virtually ignores Spinoza, is particularly telling because Preus was a Spinoza scholar. See: S.J. Preus, Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud, Texts and translations series / American Academy of Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987). His book Spinoza and the Irrelevance of Biblical Authority is deeply affected by this neglect. See: Preus, Spinoza and the Irrelevance of Biblical Authority (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  5. R. Cipriani, Sociology of Religion: An Historical Introduction, trans. L. Ferrarotti (New York: De Gruyter, 2000).
  6. Cipriani sees in Spinoza promise for the future but no substantive contribution to a theory of religion: “what is of interest here is Spinoza’s position with respect to later social scientifically oriented developments.” See: Cipriani, 14. Nancy Levene’s chapter on “Politics, law and the multitude” recognizes that religion is the necessary solution to the ineradicable problem of superstition but overreaches in claiming that Spinoza “does not . . . identify religion with superstition.” See: N. Levene, Spinoza’s Revelation: Religion, Democracy, and Reason (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 152. Religion, for Spinoza, is a modification of superstition.
  7. “According to our fundamental principle, faith must be defined as the holding of certain beliefs about God such that, without these beliefs, there cannot be obedience to God, and if this obedience is posited, these beliefs are necessarily posited.” See B. d. Spinoza Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998), 165. (Hence forth: TTP).
  8. On the basis of this core teaching Spinoza can argue for the unity of scripture as set in the Reformed canon.
  9. Uncorrupted by opinions of those who received and transmitted it or by our deficient understanding of the ancient languages in which it was written.
  10. “The teachings of Scripture that are concerned only with philosophic matters can be summed up as follows: that there is a God or Being who made all things and who directs and sustains the world with supreme wisdom; that he takes the utmost care of men, that is, those of them who live moral and righteous lives; and that he severely punishes the others and cuts them off from the good. Now Scripture establishes this simply by appealing to experience, that is, by its historical narratives; it does not provide any definitions of the terms it employs, but its language and reasoning is adapted to the understanding of the common people. And although experience can give no clear knowledge of these matters, and cannot teach what God is and in what way he sustains and directs all things and cares for men, it can still teach and enlighten men as far as suffices to impress on their minds obedience and devotion.” See: Spinoza, 68.
  11. P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969).
  12. It is practically necessary but not absolutely. Individuals who can overcome superstition and the magical world that it entails through scientific learning and wisdom (a theoretical understanding that is motivationally effective), have no need for religion. Spinoza is not a utopian thinker and the quest for wisdom is not a Spinozan social policy.
  13. . “If men were able to exercise complete control over all their circumstances, or if continuous good fortune were always their lot, they would never be prey to superstition. But since they are often reduced to such straits as to be without any resource, and their immoderate greed for fortune’s fickle favours often makes them the wretched victims of alternating hopes and fears, the result is that, for the most part, their credulity knows no bounds. In critical times they are swayed this way or that by the slightest impulse, especially so when they are wavering between the emotions of hope and fear; yet at other times they are overconfident, boastful and arrogant.” See: Spinoza, 1.
  14. “It follows that superstition, like all other instances of hallucination and frenzy, is bound to assume very varied  and unstable forms, and that, finally, it is sustained only by hope, hatred, anger and deceit. For it arises not from reason but from emotion, and emotion of the most powerful kind. So men’s readiness to fall victim to any kind of superstition makes it correspondingly difficult to persuade them to adhere to one and the same kind. Indeed, as the multitude remains ever at the same level of wretchedness, so it is never long contented, and is best pleased only with what is new and has not yet proved delusory. This inconstancy has been the cause of many terrible uprisings and wars, for—as is clear from the above, and as Curtius, too, says so well in Book 4, 10—‘the multitude has no ruler more potent than superstition.’ So it is readily induced, under the guise of religion, now to worship its rulers as  gods, and then again to curse and condemn them as mankind’s common bane.” See: Spinoza, 2–3.
  15. “To counteract this unfortunate tendency, immense efforts have been made to invest religion, true or false, with such pomp and ceremony that it can sustain any shock and constantly evoke the deepest reverence in all its worshippers.” See: Spinoza, 3.
  16. Spinoza’s offenders of choice to exemplify absolute religious mind control are the Ottomans, of whom he says: “In this the Turks have achieved the greatest measure of success. They hold even discussion of religion to be sinful, and with their mass of dogma they gain such a thorough hold on the individual’s judgment that they leave no room in the mind for the exercise of reason, or even the capacity to doubt.” See: Ibid.
  17. As Spinoza puts it: “Granted, then, that the supreme mystery of despotism, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and with the specious title of religion to cloak the fear by which they must be held in check, so that they will fight for their servitude as if for salvation, and count it no shame, but the highest honour, to spend their blood and their lives for the glorification of one man.” See Ibid.
  18. “[B]y the laws of appetite all men are drawn in different directions.” See: Ibid., 181.
  19. “Hence it follows that a catholic or universal faith must not contain any dogmas that good men may regard as controversial; for such dogmas may be to one man pious, to another impious, since their value lies only in the works they inspire. A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible. As for other dogmas, every man should embrace those that he, being the best judge of himself, feels will do most to strengthen him in love of justice.” See: Ibid., 167. This is a theory of civil religion, which sets the boundaries within which all substantive religions must function. To the seven dogmas Spinoza lists in chapter 14 we need to add a prohibition of hate speech. Spinoza addresses the prohibition of preaching hate in many places: “Therefore it is also undeniable that he who by God’s commandments loves his neighbour as himself is truly obedient and blessed according to the Law, while he who hates or takes no thought for his neighbour is rebellious and disobedient (Ibid., 164); “[Faith] condemns as heretics and schismatics only those who teach such beliefs as promote obstinacy, hatred, strife and anger . . .” See: Ibid., 169.
  20. “Now nobody questions that there is to be found among men a wide variety of temperament, that all men are not equally in agreement in all matters and are influenced by their beliefs in different ways, so that what moves one man to devotion will move another to ridicule and contempt.” See: Ibid., 168.
  21. True religion, for Spinoza, is any religion that inspires piety. He wrote: “God’s kingdom consists simply in the rule of justice and charity, or true religion . . .” See: Ibid., 220.
  22. The following quotations from the concluding chapter of TTP are instructive. While referring to the philosophical free thinker, their reference clearly includes the pious ignoramous: [1] “Men in general are so constituted that their resentment is most aroused when beliefs which they think to be true are treated as criminal, and when that which motivates their pious conduct to God and man is accounted as wickedness. In consequence, they are emboldened to denounce the laws and go to all lengths to oppose the magistrate, considering it not a disgrace but honourable to stir up sedition and to resort to any outrageous action in this cause” (Ibid., 234–5); [2] “Those who are conscious of their own probity do not fear death as criminals do, nor do they beg for mercy, for they are not tormented with remorse for shameful deeds. On the contrary, they think it an honour, not a punishment, to die in a good cause, and a glorious thing to die for freedom. What sort of lesson, then, is learnt from the death of such men, whose cause is beyond the understanding of those of sluggish and feeble spirit, is hated by trouble-makers, but is dear to the hearts of all good men? The only lesson to be drawn from their death is to emulate them, or at least to revere them” (Ibid., 237) and [3] “[W]hen a contrary course is taken and attempts are made to deprive men of this freedom, and the beliefs of dissenters (but not their minds, which alone are capable of wrongdoing) are brought to trial, the exemplary punishment inflicted on honourable men seems more like martyrdom, and serves not so much to terrorise others as to anger them and move them to compassion, if not to revenge.” See: Ibid., 237– 8.
  23. As Spinoza puts it: “Indeed . . . every man is duty bound to adapt these religious dogmas to his own understanding and to interpret them for himself in whatever way makes him feel that he can the more readily accept them with full confidence and conviction.” See: Ibid., 168. See also: “[It] is imperative to grant freedom of judgment and to govern men in such a way that the different and conflicting views they openly proclaim do not debar them from living together in peace.” See: Ibid., 236.
  24. The legal status of religion in the United States is closer to that advocated by Spinoza than is commonly thought. While constitutional practice protects the freedom of religion and its unlimited diversity, the actual practice of religion is supervised through the tax code and the criminal law (e.g., the cases of the Unification Church, the Branch Davidians and the Peyote Way Church of God).
  25. “[W]hether we have regard to the truth of the matter, or the security of the state, or the advancement of piety, we are forced to maintain that divine law, or religious law, also depends absolutely on the decree of sovereigns, who are its interpreters and champions. It follows that the ministers of God’s word are those who are authorised by their sovereign to teach piety in the form that, by decree of the sovereign, is adapted to the public good.” See: Spinoza 227.
  26. “[A]nyone who seeks to deprive the sovereign of this authority is attempting to divide the sovereignty; and as a result, as happened long ago in the case of the kings and priests of the Hebrews, there will inevitably arise strife and dissensions that can never be allayed.” See: Ibid., 225).
  27. “But in matters of religion men are especially prone to go astray and contentiously advance many ideas of their own devising, as is abundantly testified by experience. It is therefore quite clear that, if nobody were bound by right to obey the sovereign power in those matters which he thinks to pertain to religion, the state’s right would then inevitably depend on judgments and feelings that vary with each individual.” See Ibid., 189.
  28. This is a matter both of authority and of a perspective of judgment: “[T]he practice of religion and the exercises of piety must accord with the peace and welfare of the commonwealth, and consequently must be determined only by sovereigns, who therefore must also be its interpreters” (Ibid., 219) and “[N]o one can exercise piety towards his neighbour in accordance with God’s command unless his piety and religion conform to the public good. But no private citizen can know what is good for the state except from the decrees of the sovereign, to whom alone it belongs to transact public business. Therefore no one can practise piety aright nor obey God unless he obeys the decrees of the sovereign in all things.” See: Ibid., 223.
  29. “[I]n a democracy there is less danger of a government be having unreasonably, for it is practically impossible for the majority of a single assembly, if it is of some size, to agree on the same piece of folly. Then again, as we have also shown, it is the fundamental purpose of democracy to avoid the follies of appetite and to keep men within the bounds of reason, as far as possible, so that they may live in peace and harmony. If this basic principle is removed, the whole fabric soon collapses.” See: Ibid., 184.
  30. “[I]t is exceedingly rare for governments to issue quite unreasonable commands; in their own interest and to retain their rule, it especially behoves them to look to the public good and to conduct all affairs under the guidance of reason. For, as Seneca says, ‘violenta imperia nemo continuit diu’—tyrannical governments never last long.” See: Ibid.

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