Spinoza Made a Difference

Baruch (sometimes Benedict) Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish philosopher who famously referred to reality as either God or nature. Scholars have been arguing about what he meant ever since, but whatever he meant helped get him “excommunicated or expelled from the people of Israel” in 1656. In 2012, a rabbi declined to remove the ban, citing Spinoza’s “preposterous ideas, where he was tearing apart the very fundamentals of our religion”.

From Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rรฉe (Spinoza wrote in Latin but couldn’t be left out of the book):

Christians had never taken much interest in atheism: the Bible dismissed it as the delirium of “fools”… After Spinoza, Christians would find themselves doing battle not only with heresy and heathenism, but also with sheer unbelief. Atheism was still a dangerous word, however, and it was sometimes replaced by a new coinage: deism, which implied rejecting revelation, ritual and tradition, while retaining a residual belief in an impersonal divine power, perhaps on the lines of Spinoza’s “God or nature”.

Ordinary Christians were alarmed: “at this day Atheism is slily [i.e. “slyly”] called Deism by those that are indeed Atheists”, as an English pamphleteer observed in 1695: “they would disguise it by a false Name, and thereby hid the Heinousness of it”. By that time, a clandestine network of atheistic and deistic pamphleteers was operating across northern Europe, building on Protestant contempt for Catholic superstition and extending it to religion as a whole. They used the arguments of various “new philosophers” — principally Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes and Spinoza — to attack beliefs in miracles, apparitions and omens, and derided the doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in consecrated bread and wine.

As far as they were concerned, everything in the physical world was governed by universal laws of nature, and the Bible was no holier than any other book. “Such is human malice and stupidity” — to quote a notoriousย  pamphlet called the Traitรฉ des trois imposteurs — that men choose to pass their lives in duping each other and worshiping a book handed down from an ignorant nation”. Manuscript copies of the Traitรฉ circulated in Latin and French in the 1690s, promoting the idea that religion is a fraud perpetrated by “the three imposters — Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. The pamphlet grew larger and bolder as time went by, and when it was printed at the Hague in 1719, it was bound with other works under a title that was not much less provocative: La Vie et l’Esprit de Spinoza….

[Sophia, Electress of Hanover, who almost became Queen of England] spent several years mingling with scholars in Heidelberg… Above all, she became an admirer of Spinoza: she described his Tractatus as “extraordinary and entirely reasonable” and supported a plan to offer him a professorship. She was appalled when he died shortly afterwards, suspecting that he had been murdered by partisans of “faith without reason”, and reflecting that “most of the human race … lives on lies”.ย 


If you’d like to know more about Spinoza’s philosophy, including his critique of religion and the Bible, as well as his liberalism and secularism, give his Theological-Political Treatise a try. When it was published, it was denounced as “godless,” “full of abominations,” “a book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself”. Stephen Nadler’s A Book Forged In Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age is another option. If anyone was ever born before his time, it was Baruch Spinoza.