Is God A Construct Of The Human Mind?

Atheist Alliance International podcast with psychologist Jesse Bering and myself:

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Vatican Smokescreen: Canon Law Changes & Sexual Abuse

My latest article – Vatican Smokescreen: Canon Law Changes & Sexual Abuse

The entire exercise is a redwash by the cardinals in their crimson robes to continue the status quo. It is as if they got together and decided on what were the least possible actions they could take to give the appearance of change while actually doing nothing.

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Time’s Up for Israel

My latest blog on Medium: Time’s Up for Israel

It seems things have finally gone too far for some Americans. Recently the New York Times writes that many American Democratic senators are wary of continuing to give Israel a pass for its heavy-handed claims of self-defense. The article quotes the president of an Israeli lobby group, J Street, stating that Americans turning a blind eye ‘essentially amounts to international immunity to Israel.’

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The Myth of Papal Primacy

My latest article on Medium on the Myth of Papal Primacy

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Hyperlink Philosophy #1 — The Sisyphus Fragment & Leviathan

My latest Medium article for a new series I am calling ‘Hyperlink Philosophy’

Kahn identifies and illuminates three separate, but interrelated, developments within fifth-century BCE philosophy which culminate in the Sisyphus fragment. He writes that the fragment is not only the ‘most outspoken’ and ‘aggressive’ account of fifth-century atheist thought, but that it captures the best examples of thinking on the origins of religion.

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‘Then why call him God?’— Epicurus never said what everyone thinks he did

My latest article on Medium: ‘Then why call him God?’— Epicurus never said what everyone thinks he did

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This popular quote is often posted on atheist and freethinking blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. The more astute observers will have noticed that in none of the postings is the source of this quote ever cited. There is a reason for that.

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Dangerous Ideas: Chapter 1 – The Ancients

The opening section of my forthcoming book, Dangerous Ideas.

Of those, then, who have inquired as to the existence of God some say that God exists, some that he does not exist, some that he has existence “no more” than non-existence. That he exists is the view of most of the Dogmatists and the general preconception of ordinary folk; that he does not exist is the view of those who are designated “atheists,” such as Euhemerus—A hoary braggart, penning wicked books—and Diagoras of Melos, and Prodicus of Ceos, and Theodorus, and a host of others.

~ Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians IX. 50-51

Chapter 1 – Early Skeptics: Thales to Ibn Rushd (~600 BCE to 1200 CE)

Introduction

Many people are under the mistaken impression that expressions of disbelief are a relatively modern occurrence that started with the Enlightenment.[1] Surviving examples of atheist thought from antiquity are few, but there are a handful of ancient freethinkers who have come down to us across the millennia. One reason for the scarcity of evidence is because, obviously, atheists built no temples or statues to their disbelief. Another is because there was no accepted canon of atheist literature that was passed down from generation to generation, as with the religious writings of many cultures that were considered sacred and subsequently preserved. Further, a number of ancient writings have been lost, and in many of the cases to be presented here, we have only fragments or what has been preserved in the writings of others by doxographers,[2] such as Plato, who recorded the supposed sayings of Socrates and others.

To those who would claim there were no atheists in antiquity, why should they be mentioned in the Bible if they could not have existed so long ago? ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.’[3] This verse in all likelihood was not directed towards actual non-believers at the time when the Psalms were compiled (~400s BCE), but as will be shown throughout this work, it was often an insult directed at people with different opinions. Also, note the ad hominem attack and the deliberate insinuation that atheists are immoral people. This unfair characterization of atheists continues to plague the minds of theists today, and this passage is definitive proof as to where such prejudices arose, and which continues to taint the perspectives of those who believe such blatant misrepresentations.[4]

While this book mostly covers the European philosophers who shaped the development of secularism, some relevant examples from non-European cultures will be presented, as elements of other philosophies came to influence the Greeks and the later Enlightenment ideals. Some studies take a narrow view and only look at a single perspective, missing the bigger picture, a deficiency which this survey attempts to correct. As will be documented below, Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic thinkers played a role in influencing some of their European counterparts; and vice versa.

One of the earliest examples of skeptical thinking appears in the Rigveda, from circa 1300 BCE, in what could be considered the first recorded instance of agnosticism and which comes from the Hymn of Creation:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?’[5]

Another example comes almost one thousand years later, from the Charvaka school that emerged during a period of Hindu reformation in the 600s BCE. This school of thought rejected the Vedic tradition and much of what are standard theistic beliefs, such as the afterlife and any supernatural explanations. Instead, they favored empirical observations and perception as the source of knowledge. Consequently, one of their adherents harshly dismisses traditional religious ideas, writing:

There is no other world other than this;
There is no heaven and no hell;
The realm of Shiva and like regions,
are invented by stupid imposters.[6]

Around the same time in Persia in the 500s BCE, the dualistic Zoroastrians made the concept of truth (asha) and its counterpart, falsehood (druj), a core tenet of their system of belief. As the Persians expanded west and began butting up against Greek territories, elements of Zoroastrian philosophy began to be absorbed into surrounding cultures. For example, the Zoroastrian influence on Second Temple Judaism is well-documented by scholars. Biblical experts note the dualistic shift in Jewish dogmas following their exposure to Zoroastrianism after being freed by Cyrus the Great.[7]

Contextual Background

An understanding of the socio-political effects the Persians had on the cultures they conquered requires a detailed introduction. This background will be of critical importance for a full understanding of the philosophies of Parmenides and Pyrrho to be reviewed, given that there are aspects of Greek and Indian philosophy which overlap.

 Scholars debate the exact nature of possible intellectual cross-pollinations, as ideas from Greece and India are thought to have each influenced the other. For example, Thomas McEvilley, an expert in Greek and Indian culture, distinguished linguist, and philosophical historian, asserts that the monadic[8] concept influenced the Greeks via India; and the Greeks brought formalized logic and dialectic to Indian philosophy.[9]

McEvilley devoted the entirety of his second chapter of The Shape of Ancient Thought to examples of the monadic development in the late Bronze Age in Egyptian and Sumerian mythologies, the latter which influenced the Indians beginning in the Middle Vedic period, around 1000 BCE. As polytheistic mythologies ran out of explanations for the natural world, concepts began evolving towards ideas of oneness, creating a new philosophical monism. Indian writings from the Middle Vedic on began to reflect this new monism, while the Greek literature of Homer and Hesiod maintained its polytheistic hold on Greek mythology for several more centuries before elements of monism began appearing in Greek thought and writing.[10]

Both McEvilley and Christopher Beckwith, a philologist and expert in Central Eurasian studies, commented on the nature of common ideas. Anthropologists have long noted this curious tendency, and professor of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, discussed the two possible origins: cultural diffusion, or independent development which Jung characterized as archetypes of the collective unconscious.[11] McEvilley speculates that these Jungian archetypes of independent development were involved in the interchange of ideas between India and Greece.[12] On the other hand, Beckwith suggests the cultural diffusion option is the likely candidate. Beckwith asserts that a network for diffusion was created by the trade and diplomatic links that followed Darius I’s conquest of the Indus Valley in 515 BCE, and the addition of Thrace and the resubmission of Ionian Greece by 510.[13] Given these strong ties, there would be no need to invoke Jasper’s premise of separate development which characterized what he coined as the Axial Age—the period around 500 BCE when several spiritual thought leaders emerged contemporaneously from China to Greece, such as Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius.[14]

The influence of Zoroastrianism also played a role in the development of Buddhism and Brahmanism in India. The Persian soldiers and government functionaries administering the Gandhāra region, the northwest corner of India corresponding with modern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, brought with them their Zoroastrian religious beliefs.[15] It was in the Indus Valley where Buddhism was born in opposition to the dualistic absolutism of Zoroastrianism, as Buddha rejected the premise that things are either truth or falsehood. Early Buddhism also rejected the Zoroastrian concepts of a creator deity, heaven, hell, and karma; ideas that Brahmanism accepted and incorporated. Some of these beliefs would be absorbed into what Beckwith calls Normative Buddhism, the set of beliefs that evolved in later centuries and which people still associate with the philosophy, but were not part of the original tenets of Early Buddhism.[16] This development will play a decisive role in the philosophy of Pyrrho, and upon the Greek schools which were infused by his ideas.

McEvilley and Beckwith both note Buddhism’s similarity to Pyrrhonism, and connect their origins to the Indus Valley where Alexander’s expansion stopped, and Hellenistic culture had made the strongest inroads.[17] McEvilley notes that cultural diffusion of philosophical ideas was the norm, and asserts that maintaining a ‘pious Indian’ purity stance to their cultural heritage is inappropriate, particularly as later Pyrrhonist skepticism is speculated to have informed the development of Mahayana Buddhism.[18]

Among European cultures, evidence for atheist thought only survives in the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers and the later Romans who took their inspiration from the Greeks. For those who think atheism arose as a product of the Enlightenment, Cambridge Professor Tim Whitmarsh, an expert in the classics and Greek culture, notes this misconception is primarily caused by a ‘profound ignorance’ people have for the Greco-Roman classics.[19] These references from Classical Antiquity will be the subject of this chapter, documenting the beginnings of philosophical atheism in this catalogue of atheist thought.

Additional contextual background on Greco-Roman society will be useful to put things in perspective, especially given the tendency of people to project modern perspectives back into antiquity. Unlike Catholic priests in the Middle Ages, priests in ancient Greece did not have any say in secular matters and served one purpose: to make sacrifices. Ethical and legal matters were none of their business; nor was speculating on the nature of things, which was the domain of the philosophers.[20] There was also no conventional uniformity to Greek religion to which all were expected to subscribe, nor were there any writings regarded as sacred scripture. Epic tales of the gods, such as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey or Hesiod’s Theogony, were just that, literary tales not theological works.[21] Consequently, in pluralistic and polytheistic Greece, which had no centralized religious authority, disbelief was a more palatable alternative than in later monotheistic societies. In a monotheistic culture, such as Europe in the Middle Ages, with its strong, centralized Church that exercised a high level of socio-political control, the atheist position was a direct rejection of the party line and was inherently dangerous. But in ancient Greece, atheism, while at times repressed, was generally accepted.[22]

The first philosophical stirrings emerged during the sixth century BCE among a group that has been labelled the pre-Socratic Ionians, the first of whom was Thales of the Milesian school. The iconic British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, commented on the importance of this school, writing:

The Milesian school is important, not for what it achieved, but for what it attempted. It was brought into existence by the contact of the Greek mind with Babylonia and Egypt. Miletus was a rich commercial city, in which primitive prejudices and superstitions were softened by intercourse with many nations.[23] Ionia, until its subjugation by Darius at the beginning of the fifth century, was culturally the most important part of the Hellenic world. It was almost untouched by the religious movement connected with Bacchus and Orpheus; its religion was Olympic, but seems to have been not taken very seriously. The speculations of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are to be regarded as scientific hypotheses, and seldom show any undue intrusion of anthropomorphic desires and moral ideas. The questions they asked were good questions, and their vigour inspired subsequent investigators.[24]

The pre-Socratics were noteworthy for challenging the epic tales of the gods in their questioning of tradition. By rejecting supernatural explanations, and being amongst the first recorded written seekers of rational answers to the workings of the natural world, they ushered in the era of philosophy and skeptical questioning that would ultimately lead to expressions of outright atheism. Many of these inquiries into the natural world did not do away with the gods altogether, but just reimagined the gods as part of nature in a form of embryonic pantheism—a complex concept that could, in an overly simplified view, be stated that the universe is inseparable from God. By recasting the gods into the role of designers of an orderly universe, yet ones wholly disinterested in human affairs, these early attempts to understand nature and our place within it began the long process of relegating the gods to history.


[1] In two books, (The Blind Watchmaker, 5-6; Brief Candle in the Dark, 144) Richard Dawkins recounts a conversation with philosopher Alfred Wykeham where Dawkins expresses his doubts that anyone could have been an atheist before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. While Dawkins concedes it is ‘logically tenable’ to have been an atheist before Darwin, Dawkins thinks it was Darwin’s explanation that would give an atheist the intellectual basis for their disbelief, an opinion which demonstrates a lack of awareness of the evidence from antiquity.

[2] This work is an example of a doxography that records the thinking and words of another.

[3] Psalms 14:1; 53:1. The composition of the individual Psalms are difficult to date as they span a long period of time, but are generally thought to have been compiled in the 400s BCE.

[4] In the book Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, the author Randall Rauser (a Christian apologist) speculates that this verse is more likely aimed at Jews who claimed to be observant and faithful practitioners of Mosaic Law, but who failed to act as such in their daily lives. Further, Rauser notes that this verse is precisely the one most frequently used by believers to reinforce their prejudice of the immoral atheist. Rauser also incorrectly claims there were no atheists in the region at the time the Psalms were compiled, an assertion clearly demonstrated to be false in this chapter.

[5] Mandala 10.129.

[6] Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha, Verse 8.

[7] The Exiles returned to Jerusalem with Zoroastrian concepts, beginning the period of theological evolution characteristic of the post-Exilic Second Temple Era. It was towards the end of this era when Satan had begun to emerge in the apocalyptic literature as an independent character in direct opposition to God, a distinctly Zoroastrian concept. Only a single verse in the Hebrew Bible, 1 Chronicles 21:1, describes Satan with a proper noun and as an individual. In the older, pre-Exile book of Job, the term used is an article not a noun, hassatan, the adversary. Hassatan is a role, not an individual, and one that is controlled by God. Chronicles was one of the last books of the Hebrew canon to be written, capturing this dualistic evolution. These ideas were then transmitted to the later Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Islam, both of which incorporated dualistic ideas of God and Satan into their theology. For a fuller understanding of the evolution of the concept of Satan, see The Birth of Satan by Wray and Mobley.

[8] See the Glossary for a definition of the monad. The concept is elaborated in more detail in the section on Parmenides.

[9] McEvilley 2002, 649.

[10] McEvilley 2002, 60-61. Obviously, Hinduism never evolved into a monotheistic religion, but maintained its plurality of gods. Regardless, monadic ideas appear in Indian writings centuries before the Greeks.

[11] Campbell 1988, 51-52.

[12] McEvilley 2002, 59.

[13] Beckwith 2015, 124; 173.

[14] Jaspers 1951, 98. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was a German-Swiss psychiatrist who developed his concept of the Axial Age while attempting to explain the seemingly simultaneous emergence of several diverse great thinkers of many religious systems. Steven Pinker (2018, 23; 411) notes that the Axial Age may have been the result of agricultural advances that freed people from subsistence farming, providing an increase in caloric intake and facilitating the development of a priestly class. Further, humanist ideals begin to emerge in these new belief systems with thinkers who have spare time to contemplate.

[15] Beckwith 2015, 15; 68.

[16] Beckwith 2015, 8-9; 169.

[17] McEvilley 2002, 502-04. Beckwith 2015, 7-13; 19-21.

[18] This will be covered under Sextus Empiricus below.

[19] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 8; 11; 241. The EBSCO online version of this book displays related content by numbered sections, and citations are noted accordingly. Whitmarsh’s book, Battling the Gods, provides the starting outline for many of the thinkers covered here, with additional material primarily referenced from The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and the relevant entries from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Where a translation of an original work from antiquity is available, every effort has been made to cite it directly from an online, open-source version.

[20] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 21-22; 52.

[21] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 26-31.

[22] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 11; 26.

[23] Pinker (2018, 450-51) makes the same point: new and innovative ideas accumulate in crossroads cities, where they can be expanded upon and traded onward, enriching and enlightening those repositories of knowledge with incoming fresh perspectives.

[24] Russell 1945, 29.


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How Buddha Influenced Western Democracy & Secular Humanism

My recent article featured on Medium: How Buddha Influenced Western Democracy & Secular Humanism

From Buddha to Pyrrho and on through Epicurus and Lucretius, the ideas on striving to achieve peace of mind and a rejection of dogmatic absolutes came to influence and inspire some of the greatest thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In this regard, the modern secular West can trace its existence to a man living 2,500 years ago in the Indus Valley who rejected Zoroastrian absolutes.

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Eastern Philosophical Concepts in Spinoza’s Pantheism & Ethics

My recent article featured on Medium: https://medium.com/@diogenesofmayberry/eastern-philosophical-concepts-in-spinozas-pantheism-ethics-b16ac11439bc

Nadler (1999, pp. 109, 242) cited the influence of Greek Stoicism on Spinoza’s thoughts, based on his education and books found in his personal library. However, to the reader unfamiliar with the Greeks but with a basic understanding of Eastern philosophies, the Buddhist thought in Spinoza is readily apparent; it practically jumps off the page and begs to be acknowledged. Schopenhauer (1909, p. 13 footnote 1) noted the connection: ‘The banks of the sacred Ganges were their [Bruno and Spinoza] spiritual home; there they would have led a peaceful and honoured life among men of like mind.’

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Dangerous Ideas: Hobbes & Spinoza

An excerpt from the draft of the book I am currently writing:


Chapter 5: Hobbes & Spinoza

Two books were published in the second half of the seventeenth century, almost twenty years apart in separate countries, that made nearly identical arguments and utilized a similar structure in presenting their cases. Both books were influential works of early political philosophy and, in the case of one, foundational in the arguments for Western secular democracy. Due to their remarkable similarities and some fascinating details surrounding their arguments, a dedicated chapter comparing their insights is deserved. Given that these are two lengthy works that tend to be very repetitive in places, and in an attempt not to bore the casual reader with an in-depth analysis, this will necessarily involve an extremely rigorous summary of their main arguments.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in England, and in 1669 or 1670, Benedict Spinoza published the Theological-Political Treatise (hereafter TTP from the Latin title, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus) in the Netherlands. As the name of Spinoza’s work implies, the topic of both books dealt with theological issues to make political points; specifically, that clerics should stop interfering in civil matters. Under these two topics, they each made several related points which will be outlined below in a high-level grouping by subject. Both men had other writings, of which mention will be made, but the primary focus here will be on these two works which most advanced the cause for freedom of thought and had a lasting impact.

Hobbes published his book openly, even though he advocated for an absolute monarchy and was living through the period of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth of England (1649-60) that had executed Charles I in 1649. Spinoza not only took the precaution of publishing anonymously, but also listed a different city of publication (Hamburg) and cited a fictitious publisher (Henry Künraht). Spinoza’s caution undermined his claim that Holland was a tolerant place—which by contemporary standards to other European countries, it was—in which to voice criticism:

Since, then, we happen to have that rare good fortune—that we live in a Republic in which everyone is granted complete freedom of judgment, and is permitted to worship God according to his mentality, and in which nothing is thought to be dearer or sweeter than freedom—I believed I would be doing something neither unwelcome, nor useless, if I showed not only that this freedom can be granted without harm to piety and the peace of the Republic, but also that it cannot be abolished unless piety and the Peace of the Republic are abolished with it.[1]

Spinoza revealed what he truly thought in his private correspondence, which at times was at odds with what was publicly stated in his published writings. For example, in Letter 30 to Henry Oldenburg in 1665 he stated the exact opposite:

I am currently working on a treatise giving my views about scripture. I am led to do this by the following considerations:

(1) the prejudices of the theologians; for I know that they are the greatest obstacle to men’s being able to apply their minds to philosophy; so I am busy exposing them and removing them from the minds of the more prudent;

(2) the opinion the common people have of me; they never stop accusing me of atheism, and I have to rebut this accusation as well as I can; and

(3) my desire to defend in every way the freedom of philosophising and saying what we think; the preachers here suppress it as much as they can with their excessive authority and aggressiveness.

Spinoza experts, Professors Nadler and Curley, made similar points about the stealth of Spinoza in regard to the TTP. Nadler wrote that after Spinoza’s friend Adriaan Koerbagh was arrested and tried for blasphemy,[2] then imprisoned and died in jail for his Dutch publication criticizing the status quo, Spinoza was well aware of what could happen to him and took the appropriate precautions.[3] Curley asserted that Spinoza needed to make a judgment call on just how far he could go in certain cases, and often ‘pulled his punches.’[4] Curley further pointed out that in Letter 30 Spinoza stated he was working on a theological treatise in 1665, with no mention of politics.[5] Given that Leviathan was not translated into a language Spinoza understood until 1667[6] (in Dutch, and Latin by 1668), this suggests that the political arguments of the final chapters of the TTP were likely an afterthought following his exposure to the ideas of Hobbes, and given further motivation by the persecution and death of Koerbagh.

Main Arguments

Both authors spent, roughly, two-thirds of their content on biblical exegesis—textual criticism, deconstruction, and, often, reinterpretations of traditional views. From a modern context, it is tempting to think this level of detail was excessive and that their arguments could have been dramatically more concise. A casual glance at Leviathan’s table of contents and the plentiful topical subheadings[7] will give the reader an idea of just how long-winded Hobbes could be and the monotonous detail he went into. The breakdown of their points on this topic is presented in the Theological Arguments section below.

Additionally, they both could have used a decent editor to consolidate arguments that were frequently repeated. However, they were writing at a time when religious bodies exercised considerable control and influence over society and government, and as such they needed to make strong cases for delegitimizing ecclesiastical authority. Consequently, a disproportionate amount of their writing is aimed at just this task.

But the world in which Spinoza wanted to make the practical lesson of his philosophy effective was an old world in which rooted institutions and beliefs held sway and truths were embodied in writings which were regarded as sacred. Made of sterner stuff and living a few centuries later, Spinoza would have perhaps demanded the overthrow of the old order with its effete institutions so as to build upon its ruins a new society of a new generation raised on his new philosophy. He would then perhaps have become one of the first apostles of rebellion. But being what he was and living at a time when belief in the potency of reformation had not yet been shaken by doubt, he chose to follow in the footsteps of rationalizers throughout history. The story of his rationalization is the story of his Tractatus Theologico-Politucus.[8]

Spinoza’s thorough analysis in the TTP gave rise to the modern discipline of textual criticism, which has continued to uncover new insights in biblical scholarship to the present day; some of those insights confirming and others disproving certain points he made about the authenticity and meaning of many passages and books.[9] While Hobbes made many of the same points, it will be Spinoza’s references that will be the focus here, with the corresponding citation from Leviathan where applicable. The primary reason for the focus on Spinoza is due to his unique background: an excommunicated Jew from a Portuguese immigrant family that fled the forced conversions in Iberia, who was fluent in Hebrew and educated in the Jewish schools of Amsterdam, giving him unique insights and skills Hobbes and other thinkers of their day did not possess. While the political arguments of Hobbes helped to inform the last chapters of the TTP, Nadler pointed out that Spinoza would have needed no input from his contemporaries in formulating his biblical deconstructions.[10]

The arguments of both Hobbes and Spinoza can be summarized into subjects covering: Political – state authority, church subordination to the state, and social contract theory; and, Theological – the origins/legitimacy of scripture, critiques of religious authority and their usurpation/abuses of power, and in Spinoza’s case, his conception of God as indistinguishable from nature and not an anthropomorphized being concerned with human dealings.

Ontological Arguments

Before exploring Spinoza’s theological arguments in detail, it is first helpful to understand his conception of God as it forms the foundation of his subsequent points in the TTP. In Ethics, Spinoza set out to create a wholly new moral philosophy, the first in modern Western history to be based on a humanist ethic and not a theological one.[11] In 1665, Spinoza set aside[12] working on Ethics and its revolutionary humanist approach to write the TTP to clear the way of religious opposition for the public reception of Ethics. However, his plan to prepare the field backfired given the outrage that the TTP generated, and subsequently Ethics was not published until after his death in 1677.

It was in Ethics that he laid out his proof for the existence of God. In Book I: Concerning God, Proposition 11, Spinoza made the claim:

God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists.

Proof. (11:1) If this be denied, conceive, if possible, that God does not exist: then his essence does not involve existence. (2) But this is absurd. (3) Therefore God necessarily exists.

This is the standard ontological argument, the same used by Descartes shown in the preceding chapter. In a book dedicated to deconstructing Spinoza’s arguments in Ethics, Bennett was very direct in his assessment stating that Spinoza believed this was ‘sufficient for a proof’ and it is a natural reaction for one to ‘gasp at the impudence;’ and overall, asserted that Spinoza was not adept at proper reasoning and used logic only so far as it supported his arguments rather than as a purely philosophical means to an end.[13] Bennett’s assessment is an understandable reaction if Spinoza’s declaration is read as nothing more than the bold assertion for the existence of the traditional understanding of a cosmic deity.

However, Spinoza’s deliberate choice to use the word God has confused people about what he meant for centuries, and it is obvious why this term would lead to exactly the misunderstanding it continues to generate. Perhaps he needed to exercise caution in a heavily theistic society that imprisoned and killed people for denying the existence of a heavenly creator, or perhaps he just wanted to use terminology that people were familiar with to relate his concepts about the creation of the universe. Regardless of his motives for using the word God, when Spinoza’s Proposition 11 is read substituting God/substance with nature[14] as simply asserting that the universe follows the laws of physics,[15] which later science has clearly shown that it does, then his argument does not appear impudent but as profoundly intuitive and ground-breaking. Indeed, Oppy provided a detailed account of the history and types of ontological arguments and the invalid nature of their construction, listing Spinoza’s proof as ‘Intimations of a defensible mereological ontological argument . . . e.g., the existence of the physical universe.’[16]

Motivations

Spinoza’s conception of God was important for the advancement of secularism because his premise that God was just the impersonal force of nature removed from the concerns of humanity[17] was a central premise of his attempt to deprive the religious leaders of his day of their biblical authority. By arguing that God was indistinguishable from nature, and that millennia of Jewish and Christian priests had perverted the ‘true nature’ of religion, Spinoza made the case that their self-appointed authority was just as made-up as the flimsy dogmas they had invented in order to subvert and control the populace.

As outlined in chapter two on the Vatican’s accumulation of power and domination in Western Europe, religious authorities repeatedly sought to repress intellectual freedom, and the same was true in Protestant Holland. The specifics of the various political battles and ongoing religious interference from the stern Calvinists of the Dutch Reformed Church are not necessary to this analysis and can be accepted as historical truth; details which Nadler covered in Spinoza: A Life. That Calvinist interference was a danger to stability in the Dutch Republic was central to Spinoza’s premise in the TTP, and why he drew parallels to the Jewish priests and their grasping political power which led to the collapse of the Jewish state. Therefore, the sovereign power should have complete authority in all matters, including religion, in order to ensure peace and end the sectarian divisions.

In formulating his concept for this ideal state, Spinoza made ‘one of the most eloquent arguments’ for secular democracy and why the TTP is essential in understanding the history of dangerous ideas in the evolution of freedom of thought.[18] While many scholars dispute when the Enlightenment properly began, most putting it in the late eighteenth century, Spinoza’s TTP definitively seeded the ground and influenced many of the revolutionary thinkers that came after him. Professor Jonathan Israel, who distinguishes between the radical and moderate arms of the Enlightenment, also credits Spinoza with being foundational to the radical side and its unflinching call for the checking of religious authority in order to ensure democratic freedoms; as opposed to Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke on the moderate side who conceded some measure of validity to religion.[19]

Spinoza decided the best way to make his case for freedom of thought was to amply demonstrate in all the ways the church fathers were wrong, in order to remove their shackles from the minds of the men trying to advance society. Spinoza made the targets of his attention clear, mocking those who would hinder progress for the sake of tradition:

Hence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.[20]

Judging from the rising numbers of non-believers in twenty-first-century, highly secular Western Europe, and the corresponding rapid decline in church attendance, Spinoza was correct that knowledge is the key for attenuating religious authority in the socio-political sphere. Though, he might loathe the exponential growth of atheism that came hand-in-hand with the dwindling wonder of fools, especially as such rigorous secularism was sparked by his own arguments.


[1] TTP Preface, 12. All references to the TTP refer to Spinoza 2016 and employ the Bruder paragraph numbering system used by Curley in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Vol. 2. Further, Curley affixes a prime notation to the words knowledge and power, providing them differential meanings from their Latin originals: ‘knowledge…where “science” did not feel right for Scientia…[such as] treating scientia as equivalent to cognitio. (637-8); ‘power…very often (not always) refers to power arising in an institutional context from a person’s (or collective body’s) position in that institution. (649-50).

[2] Koerbagh also displayed Socinian (see Glossary) tendencies: denying the trinity and divinity of Jesus. Cf. Nadler 1999, 171.

[3] Nadler 1999, 269.

[4] Spinoza 2016, 53-56.

[5] Spinoza 2016, 14.

[6] From Curley’s ‘Spinoza’s Contribution to Biblical Scholarship’ in the forthcoming second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza by Don Garrett (Ed.). Professor Curley generously emailed me a draft version of his submission for my consideration. See also Nadler 2011, 119.

[7] Lacking a similar paragraph numbering system as in the TTP, or page numbers from the online version, subheadings will be given to guide the reader to the correct citations. The Project Gutenberg file for Leviathan lists all chapter and subheading titles: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3207.

[8] Wolfson 1934, 330. See also Hyman 1963, 190. In another age, Spinoza would ‘have ignored Scripture’ altogether.

[9] Spinoza 2016, xv; Nadler 2011, 106.

[10] Nadler 2011, 119.

[11] Goldstein 2018, 585.

[12] Letter 20 to van Blijenbergh in 1665, ‘I also read in that preface that you will shortly publish these Metaphysical Thoughts [Ethics] in an expanded form.’ Letter 30 listed above, also from 1665, indicated he had begun the TTP due to the ‘prejudices of the theologians.’

[13] Bennett 1984, 72; 75; 28.

[14] He is clearer in his meaning in Letter 73: ‘My opinion concerning God and Nature is far different from the one modern Christians usually defend. I maintain that God is the indwelling cause of all things, not the cause from outside.’

[15] Rebecca Goldstein used this analogy in our personal conversation (July 2020), which confirmed what I had suspected from piecing together Spinoza’s thoughts across his various writings.

[16] Oppy 2019.

[17] See Chapter 1 for the conception of the impersonal God described by Epicurus and Pliny which Spinoza copied.

[18] Nadler 1999, 283–5.

[19] Israel 2011, 10.

[20] Ethics I, Appendix.

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