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 Rée (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 notorious  pamphlet called the Traité 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 Traité 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”. 

Unquote.

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.

Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.

Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing (2) means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny exists”. If we replace “God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:

dawkins_scale

Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video of the sun and clouds. But listening to how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)  

Scholars believe the first book of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly 20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true proselytizer, someone saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order to foster anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever.  

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale.   

Good and Bad Behavior From a Perspectivist Perspective

And God said: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering.”

A few days later: “They came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an alter there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the alter upon the wood…And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”

But God presented Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead!

Now, some people think God would never have let Isaac be sacrificed. God does not or cannot do bad things. Other people think God could have let the sacrifice proceed. In that case, depending on who you ask, Abraham should have killed Isaac, because that was God’s will, or he shouldn’t have, because it would have been immoral (and maybe God was hoping Abraham would spare Isaac anyway, just like the tricky aliens in Star Trek often test the humans). Then there are people like me who think these verses from Genesis are nothing but a provocative story.

What makes the story provocative, of course, is that it sets up a supposed conflict between God’s commands and morality. On one hand, disobeying a direct order from God might be a very big mistake, not just because of the lighting bolt thing, but because the Supreme Being presumably knows what’s best for all of us. On the other hand, morality is often thought to be the ultimate perspective from which to evaluate behavior, whether human or divine. The ethical thing to do is always the right thing to do. 

So what should Abraham have done? It’s relatively easy for the non-religious or anti-supernatural among us, comfortably moralizing in 2015, to say Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac. But from a religious perspective, one can easily conclude the opposite. From that perspective, our fundamental responsibility is to obey God’s commandments, whether they’re truly ethical or not. The theologians who argue that God can’t do anything immoral seem to be trying to glorify God, rationalizing like those of us who do bad things but want to believe our actions are ethically justified. If the religious perspective is different from the ethical perspective, perhaps the ethical perspective isn’t supreme after all. Not for everyone anyway.

If you don’t think a religious perspective could ever trump the ethical one, consider a perspective we might call the “relational”. In 1793, William Godwin asked his readers to consider which of two people they would rescue from a fire: a great humanitarian who would serve mankind for years to come or a lowly chambermaid who would never rise above her station. Godwin thought it was obvious from an ethical perspective that the humanitarian should be saved first, risking the life of the chambermaid, since that would have the best consequences for the most people. You might agree, but what if the chambermaid was your mother? 

It could be argued that saving your mother would be the ethical choice because of your special relationship. What kind of unfeeling, disloyal child would let his or her mother burn to death instead of some stranger, even a world-famous humanitarian? But giving special consideration to the members of one’s family is questionable from an ethical perspective. We can try to explain how favoritism can be ethical but that’s simply more rationalization.

Kant, for example, took morality so seriously that he once claimed we should never tell a lie, not even to “a murderer who asks us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house”. If there is an absolute ethical prohibition against telling a lie, and the ethical perspective is the supreme guide to life, so much the worse for your relatives hiding in the basement when the Nazis show up. Or consider the ethical argument for donating much of your income to help refugees in Africa or the Middle East. Is it ethical to pay for music lessons for your children when you could use that money to make a Somali child’s life more bearable? Perhaps favoritism should trump morality sometimes (where the “should” isn’t meant in the ethical sense). We know it often does.

Of course, I’m not saying that the ethical perspective is unimportant. Society could hardly exist without it. But I think there are other perspectives that are also important. They come into play whenever we make a decision or evaluate behavior. In fact, the only way to justify ethical behavior as a whole is by appealing to non-ethical perspectives (just as you cannot justify being practical from a practical perspective or viewing the world scientifically from a scientific perspective). 

Why should we concern ourselves with morality at all? Historically, it’s often been justified from a religious perspective (God commands us to behave ethically) or from a practical perspective (society couldn’t function without it; you’ll get into trouble if you’re unethical) or from a personal perspective (I want to act like a virtuous person). Another justification that’s been popular among philosophers is from a rational or logical perspective (we should treat all people equally since there are no relevant differences between us).

I think it’s important to understand the various perspectives from which we view the world and try to live in it, as well as the relationships between those perspectives. Admitting that we don’t always behave as if the ethical perspective is paramount is a good first step. We might then do a better job figuring out how to balance our many perspectives, such as the ethical, religious, “relational”, practical and scientific; as well as my perspective, your perspective and the perspectives of other living things. After all, even when it comes to morality, the fundamental rule we first learned is to evaluate behavior from other people’s perspectives as well as our own.

If God Did Not Exist…

It would be necessary to invent him. Oh, wait…

Voltaire didn’t quite put it that way, but he didn’t have a blog.

Here’s how Randy Newman put it in “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”. (The music is below if you want to listen while reading.)

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel suppose to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord and the Lord said

“Man means nothing he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower or the humblest yucca tree
He chases round this desert ’cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
That’s why I love mankind”

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in Heaven, prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak

They said “Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please please let us be?”

And the Lord said
And the Lord said

“I burn down your cities, how blind you must be
I take from you, your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind, you really need me
That’s why I love mankind.”

In a different vein, Brian Wilson made some recordings in the 90s with Andy Paley that have never been officially released. They’re known as the “Wilson/Paley Sessions”. This song is “Must Be A Miracle”.