Spinoza, Charlie Hebdo and the Future of Religion in France?

charlie-hebdoIn light of the shocking and tragic events in Paris in the last few hours, a short essay by Jonathan Israeli from 8 years ago came to mind, on Baruch Spinoza’s secular tolerance on the question of freedom of thought versus the freedom of religion (as opposed to Locke’s more theological/religiously inspired idea of tolerance). According to Israel, Spinoza represents the heritage of the Radical Enlightenment, one that pushed religion to the fringes and restricted if not banished religion from public discourse.  In contrast, Locke was an heir to a more Protestant idea of toleration.  I believe France has been on Spinoza’s road for a long time now. It will go deeper into Spinoza’s territory after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Some relevant excerpts:

In his later work, the Tractatus Politicus (1677), Spinoza does more extensively deal with liberty of conscience and worship but in a way which again shows that his foundational tolerantisme toleration not grounded in theology – refuses to allow special privileges to the protection of faith and is chiefly intended to ground individual freedom of opinion, as well as of speech and writing. At the same time, Spinoza, again quite unlike Locke, always evinced a marked disinclination to encourage organised ecclesiastical structures to expand in influence, compete for followers, and assert their spiritual authority over individuals, as well as engage in politics. He begins by distinguishing carefully between toleration of worship, strictly speaking, which is one thing and empowering religious groups to organize and extend their authority just as they wish which he sees as something rather different. While readily granting that everyone must possess the freedom to express their beliefs no matter what faith they profess, or what they believe, Spinoza simultaneously urges the need for restrictions on the activities of churches. While dissenters should have the right to build as many houses of worship as they want and individuals may freely fulfil the duties of their faith as they understand it, Spinoza does not agree that this means that minority religions should have a free hand to acquire large and impressive ecclesiastical buildings or exercise sway over their members, as the Amsterdam Portuguese synagogue had once sought to dictate to him. Large and magnificent houses of worship should, he thinks, be monopolized by a publicly endorsed religion supervised by the state which in any well-ordered society needs to be a ˜very simple, universal faith , that is one which teaches ordinary folk that salvation comes through practicing ˜justice and charity. True religion in his terminology is a symbolic or concretely articulated universal philosophical religion. What is absolutely disastrous for any society, he argues, is allow religious leaders of whatever kind sufficient autonomy and prestige to be able to mobilize elements of popular opinion to play an active role in the political process and challenge the authority of the state and its institutions.

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Filed under Free Expression, Freedom of Religion, Principled Pluralism, Religion

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