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Spinoza on the dangers of using superstition to hoodwink the people (1670)

The 17th century rationalist philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) warns how religion can be misused by tyrants to hoodwink the people into fighting just as bravely for their own slavery as for liberty:

But if, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honour to risk their blood and their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; yet in a free state no more mischievous expedient could be planned or attempted. Wholly repugnant to the general freedom are such devices as enthralling men’s minds with prejudices, forcing their judgment, or employing any of the weapons of quasi-religious sedition …

This element of inconsistency has been the cause of many terrible wars and revolutions; for, as Curtius well says (lib. iv. chap. 10): “The mob has no ruler more potent than superstition,” and is easily led, on the plea of religion, at one moment to adore its kings as gods, and anon to execrate and abjure them as humanity’s common bane. Immense pains have therefore been taken to counteract this evil by investing religion, whether true or false, with such pomp and ceremony, that it may rise superior to every shock, and be always observed with studious reverence by the whole people—a system which has been brought to great perfection by the Turks, for they consider even controversy impious, and so clog men’s minds with dogmatic formulas, that they leave no room for sound reason, not even enough to doubt with.

But if, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honour to risk their blood and their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; yet in a free state no more mischievous expedient could be planned or attempted. Wholly repugnant to the general freedom are such devices as enthralling men’s minds with prejudices, forcing their judgment, or employing any of the weapons of quasi-religious sedition; indeed, such seditions only spring up, when law enters the domain of speculative thought, and opinions are put on trial and condemned on the same footing as crimes, while those who defend and follow them are sacrificed, not to public safety, but to their opponents’ hatred and cruelty. If deeds only could be made the grounds of criminal charges, and words were always allowed to pass free, such seditions would be divested of every semblance of justification, and would be separated from mere controversies by a hard and fast line.

Now, seeing that we have the rare happiness of living in a republic, where everyone’s judgment is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things dear and precious, I have believed that I should be undertaking no ungrateful or unprofitable task, in demonstrating that not only can such freedom be granted without prejudice to the public peace, but also, that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish nor the public peace be secure.

Such is the chief conclusion I seek to establish in this treatise …

About this Quotation:

In the Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus (1670) Spinoza defended freedom of religion on both the theoretical grounds of right and justice as well as on prudential grounds. One of the latter is the danger that, without being able to hear alternative religious views, ordinary people can be more easily persuaded to “adore its kings as gods”, and to fight without question on behalf of a tyrant, even though this may result in their own slavery. The best antidote to this danger is to allow “free and unshackled” discussion of all things, including religion, and to promote the creation of a society “where freedom is esteemed before all things dear and precious”. Spinoza argued that it has been a common trick of tyrants to take “immense pains” to invest religion with “such pomp and ceremony” and “dogmatic formulas” so as to “leave no room for sound reason, not even enough to doubt with”. Only in a free state like a republic can reason and doubt flourish and thus keep “despotic statecraft” at bay.

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