Spinoza, p3 / What God is not
Written by Clare Carlisle
In his Ethics, Spinoza wanted to liberate readers from the dangers of ascribing human traits to God Baruch Spinoza by Tea Moth
Spinoza's Ethics is divided into five books, and the first of these presents an idiosyncratic philosophical argument about the existence and nature of God. We'll examine this in detail next week, but first we need to look more closely at how the Ethics challenges traditional Judeo-Christian belief in God.
The view that Spinoza wants to reject can be summed up in one word: anthropomorphism. This means attributing human characteristics to something non-human – typically, to plants or animals, or to God. There are several important implications of Spinoza's denial of anthropomorphism. First, he argues that it is wrong to think of God as possessing an intellect and a will. In fact, Spinoza's God is an entirely impersonal power, and this means that he cannot respond to human beings' requests, needs and demands. Such a God neither rewards nor punishes – and this insight rids religious belief of fear and moralism.
Second, God does not act according to reasons or purposes. In refusing this teleological conception of God, Spinoza challenged a fundamental tenet of western thought. The idea that a given phenomenon can be explained and understood with reference to a goal or purpose is a cornerstone of Aristotle's philosophy, and medieval theologians found this fitted very neatly with the biblical narrative of God's creation of the world. Aristotle's teleological account of nature was, then, adapted to the Christian doctrine of a God who made the world according to a certain plan, analogous to a human craftsman who makes artefacts to fulfil certain purposes. Typically, human values and aspirations played a prominent role in these interpretations of divine activity.
Spinoza concludes book one of the Ethics by dismissing this world view as mere "prejudice" and "superstition". Human beings, he suggests, "consider all natural things as means to their own advantage", and because of this they believe in "a ruler of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and made all things for their use". Moreover, people ascribe to this divine ruler their own characters and mental states, conceiving God as angry or loving, merciful or vengeful. "So it has happened that each person has thought up from his own temperament different ways of worshiping God, so that God might love him above all others, and direct the whole of nature according to the needs of his blind desire and insatiable greed," writes Spinoza.
It is interesting to compare this critique of religious "superstition" with the views of the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume challenges the popular belief in a creator God – and he also, elsewhere, undermines appeals to miracles as evidence of divine activity. Although Hume seems to echo Spinoza on these points, there is a crucial difference between the two philosophers. Hume thinks that many aspects of Christian belief are silly and incoherent, but his alternative to such "superstition" is a healthy scepticism, which recognises that religious doctrines cannot be justified by reason or by experience. His own position is rather ambiguous, but it involves a modest and pragmatic attitude to truth and seems to lead to agnosticism.
Spinoza, on the other hand, thinks that there is a true conception of God which is accessible to human intelligence. He argues that misguided religious beliefs are dangerous precisely because they obscure this truth, and thus prevent human beings from attaining genuine happiness, or "blessedness". There is, therefore, more at stake in Spinoza's critique of popular superstition than in Hume's. For Hume, religious believers are probably wrong, but the existential consequences of their foolishness might not be particularly serious. Spinoza, by contrast, wants to liberate his readers from their ignorance in order to bring them closer to salvation.
So Spinoza is not simply an atheist and a critic of religion, nor a sceptical agnostic. On the contrary, he places a certain conception of God at the heart of is philosophy, and he describes the ideal human life as one devoted to love of this God. Moreover, while Spinoza is critical of superstition, he is sympathetic to some aspects of Jewish and Christian teaching. In particular, he argues that Jesus had a singularly direct and immediate understanding of God, and that it is therefore right to see him as the embodiment of truth, and a role model for all human beings.
Spinoza wrote and in 1670 published his Theological Political Treatise in defence of secular and constitutional government—While published anonymously, the work did not long remain so, and de Witt's enemies characterized it as "forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil, and issued with the knowledge of Jan de Witt." It was condemned in 1673 by the Synod of the Reformed Church and formally banned in 1674.