Spinoza’s Critique of Religious Fanaticism
Przemysław Gut (John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin)

January 29, 2021, 1:00pm - 3:00pm
Institute of Philosophy, Jagiellonian University in Krakow



Jagiellonian University
Jagiellonian University

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Spinoza’s Critique of Religious Fanaticism

The aim of the paper is to present and analyze Spinoza’s critique of religious fanaticism as it is delivered for most part in chapter 20 of Theologico-Political Treatise and in Appendix to the first part of his Ethics. I argue that Spinoza represents a revealing case study of the origins, nature and consequences of fanaticism. The paper consists of two parts. In the first I attempt to answer the question what Spinoza understood by religious fanaticism and what view he held on the nature and origin of religious fanaticism. In the second part I attempt to answer the question what measures, according to Spinoza, should be taken to effectively combat, or at least downgrade, religious fanaticism.

Both in Appendix to the first part of his Ethics and in the Preface to Theologico-Political Treatise Spinoza makes clear that religious fanaticism is not just a cause of individual disaster but it forms also a grave social and political problem against which state and its institutions need be on their guard. This explains why Spinoza on several occasions stressed that religious fanaticism represents dramatic threat to almost all values we treasure. What is the exact nature and source of religious fanaticism? 

On my interpretation, religious fanaticism has – according to Spinoza – two main components. The first, which we might call the positive aspect of fanaticism, consists in excessive confidence in one’s own religious outlook. The second, which we might call the negative aspect of fanaticism, consists in contempt towards all those who do not share one’s own religious outlook. I claim that, for Spinoza, the first component is caused above all by the combination of two factors: on the one hand, deeply rooted prejudice the essence of which is a teleological (anthropomorphic) view of nature and, on the other hand, superstition whose essence is anxiety and fear of losing what we love. These two factors alone, the former of which states that everything that God created, God created for humankind’s benefit whereas the latter says that only God is able to alleviate human fears, according to Spinoza, make people susceptible to excessive confidence in their own religious outlook. The second component of fanaticism is in turn first and foremost caused by a strong conviction that one has been ‘elected’ or ‘chosen’ by God to teach others. And if one has been elected by God and called in this way, this means that one is not only entitled but also obliged to persuade others to accept this particular religious outlook.

What measures should be taken to downgrade religious fanaticism? Spinoza devoted a lot of space to these issues. To show the complementary character of the paths along which he went while establishing the means thanks to which we can prevent fanaticism or, at least, limit its scope – I divide those means into three groups related to the field of reflection within which they were established. The first group comprises the means coming from purely philosophical reflection. The second group comprises the means coming from reflection on the Scripture. The third group comprises the means coming from considerations regarding social and political issues.

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January 28, 2021, 6:45pm CET

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#Krakow events, #Spinoza, #Religious fanaticism