chapter  1
Religion as superstition
Pages 17

Superstition is grounded in what Spinoza calls ‘imagination’, in treating nonexisting things as if they exist (Ibid. 55). Since imagination proceeds from emotions, not from reason, superstition arises as a consequence of being subjected to one’s passions. This subjection consists in inadequate, inconsistent, and vague ideas acquired on the basis of the perception of phenomena through chance encounters, without being able to see the causal network behind them (Ibid. 54-61). Concomitantly, within Spinoza’s hierarchy, imagination is considered to be the lowest kind of knowledge in relation to the other two kinds, reason and intuition. But superstition is not only an epistemological matter. There is an intrinsic

relation between superstition and despotism. The church and the state invest religion with ‘pomp and ceremony’, ruling the multitude by superstitious fantasies which lead it to glorifying its ‘kings as gods’ or debasing them equally irrationally (Spinoza 1951a: 5, 7). The elementary mystification of superstition in this context consists in imagining God through human attributes, as a willing God in charge of judging what is happening in a passive nature (Spinoza 1993a: 81). But God is not a personal power; he does not respond to human needs and prayers, rewarding and punishing humans for

their deeds. Since the judgments of God surpass our comprehension, mankind ‘cannot imagine God’ (Ibid. 74). Superstition is an attempt at imagining what is unimaginable. In this

pursuit it mystifies not only the existing world (by juxtaposing it to an imaginary world) but also religion itself. Thus Spinoza initially distinguishes between superstition and what he calls ‘universal faith’. The ‘universal faith’ is ‘common to all’ and consists in seven fundamental dogmas that are ‘absolutely required in order to attain obedience to God’ (Spinoza 1951a: 186). Its first dogma is that there exists a Supreme Being, a sovereign and omnipresent God, who loves justice and charity. Second, this God is One, for the love of God emanates from his superiority over all else. Third, God is also omnipresent; nothing is concealed from him and everything is directed by his judgment. Fourth, God has supreme dominion over all things and must be obeyed by all while he himself does nothing under compulsion but directs everything by his absolute fiat and grace. Fifth, the worship of this God consists only in the practice of justice and love towards one’s neighbor, that is, by one’s way of life. Sixth, only those who worship and obey God in practice are saved. And finally, God expiates the sins of those who repent (Ibid. 187). Crucially, if faith is defined in this way, questions such as what God really

is (spirit, fire, light, thought … ), in which way he is omnipresent (potentially or essentially … ), how he sets forth laws (in the manner of a sovereign or in the form of eternal truths), or whether paradise and hell are natural or supernatural constructions, cease to be relevant – such questions have ‘nothing to do with faith’ and everybody may think about them as they like (Ibid. 187). Every person adapts the seven dogmas of faith to her way of thinking, to her ‘opinions’ (Ibid. 188). This adaptation does not need reasoning because faith does not require truth or reason. For faith, the piousness of the dogmas is more important than their truthfulness (Ibid. 185). Hence the ‘best faith is not necessarily possessed by him who displays the best reasons, but by him who displays the best fruits of justice and charity’ (Ibid. 188). One is faithful through obedience alone:

the Word of God has not been revealed as a certain number of books, but was displayed to the prophets as a simple idea of the mind, namely, obedience to God in singleness of heart, and in the practice of justice and charity.