Spinoza on Anthropomorphism and Organized Religion as a Form of Oppression

Baruch de Spinoza

It remains lost on many believers that they simultaneously worship a God that is thought to be eternal and perfect and at the same time imbued with emotions, desires, and a body. Yet each of these attributes indicates imperfection and dependence. A body, for example, is impermanent and dependent on external forces, so to say that God has a body is to say that He is dependent on his surroundings in time and space. 

Further, desire implies, by necessity, that something is lacking, else there would be no desire. So to say that God desires His creation to behave in certain ways implies that God is dependent, to some extent, on the actions of humans. But if God’s emotional state is dependent on the actions of humans, He cannot be said to be perfectly independent and transcendent. 

To Benedict Spinoza, this orthodox conception of God—with all of its dependencies and imperfections—was absurd and blatantly incoherent. The only explanation for how so many people could attribute human imperfections to an eternal and perfect God was a widespread psychological bias known in modern terms as anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. As Spinoza wrote:

“When you say that if I deny, that the operations of seeing, hearing, attending, wishing, and the like, can be ascribed to God, or that they exist in him in any eminent fashion, you do not know what sort of God mine is; I suspect that you believe there is no greater perfection than such as can be explained by the aforesaid attributes. I am not astonished; for I believe that, if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped.”

This is, of course, reminiscent of the quote by the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who was perhaps the first to point out humanity’s anthropomorphic tendencies:

“But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have…Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, Thracians that they are pale and red-haired…There is one god, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortals neither in shape nor in thought.”

For Spinoza (and Xenophanes), it made little sense to define God in any way that imposed any limitations, imperfections, or dependencies. This meant that God could not be defined as an entity within nature (since this would imply dependency), nor as an entity external to nature (this would imply imperfection and limitation, as there would be attributes within nature that God did not possess). The only remaining possibility was that God is nature, hence Spinoza’s famous dictum “Deus sive Natura” (“God or Nature”). It is therefore with Spinoza that Pantheism gets its first philosophical defense. 

We might ask that if God is nature, then why not just drop the term God and adopt a naturalistic or atheistic conception of the universe? Indeed, this is one viable option, but Spinoza would insist that what he means by the term nature varies from its common usage. 

Spinoza doesn’t equate God with nature exactly, if, by nature, you simply mean its physical manifestations (rocks, trees, rivers, animals, etc.). God (or nature defined more comprehensively) is, rather, the underlying substance from which all physical manifestations arise. (Spinoza would therefore introduce a third choice between atheism and traditional theism, i.e., a fully rational and non-anthropomorphic belief in God.)

For Spinoza, there can only be one substance in the universe that doesn’t require anything else for it to exist. This substance is God, which possesses an infinite number of attributes, of which humans are aware of only two: extension (matter) and thought (mind). These attributes are not separate entities, but rather modes of the one substance (God or nature) conceived in different ways. 

Mind therefore doesn’t cause matter to move, and matter does not cause mind to think; rather, matter and mind are part of the same substance conceived in different ways and operating on parallel tracks. 

Notice the brilliance and originality of this metaphysical picture, which solves several philosophical puzzles at once (how conclusively it does so is of course a matter of debate):

  • The mind-body problem is resolved as mind and matter do not cause each other but are simply different manifestations of the same single substance (God or nature).
  • The “problem of evil” in the world is resolved when one recognizes that the universe was not created for the sole benefit of human beings. 
  • God or nature is one substance that has existence as a necessary property (along with an infinite number of attributes), by which all is manifested and nothing is external. The problem of first cause is thus avoided.

It is obvious—based on this elegantly unified view of the world—that Spinoza would come to reject organized religion, anthropomorphic gods, prayers, and miracles. God, as nature itself, is perfect and eternal and all manifestations of the world, including bodies and minds, are part of the necessary structure of the universe that could not be otherwise. It would be silly, therefore, to pray to nature to alter its laws—which govern the entirety of the universe and all its history—for the benefit of one’s small earthly concerns. 

In light of this, it is unsurprising that Spinoza was excommunicated from his Jewish congregation, for the congregation derived all of its power from an anthropomorphic conception of God. As Spinoza wrote:

“Those who wish to seek out the cause of miracles and to understand the things of nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as such by those whom the mob adores as the interpreters of nature and the gods. For these men know that, once ignorance is put aside, that wonderment would be taken away, which is the only means by which their authority is preserved.”

The ethical implications of Spinoza’s metaphysical picture are clear. For Spinoza, since nature and reason can never be contrary to each other (since it is only through reason that nature can be comprehended), only knowledge grounded in reason can represent humanity’s true source of freedom, and permanent happiness can only be achieved via the pursuit of this knowledge and the joy derived from understanding. Spinoza labeled this the “intellectual love of God (nature).” 

In his work On the Improvement of the Understanding, Spinoza tells us why he gave up everything for philosophy:

“After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether…there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness…All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love…But love for an object eternal and infinite feeds the mind with joy alone, and a joy which is free from all sorrow. This is something greatly to be desired and to be sought with all our strength…The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature…the more things the mind knows, the better does it understand its own strength and the order of nature; by increased self-knowledge, it can direct itself more easily, and lay down rules for its own guidance; and, by increased knowledge of nature, it can more easily avoid what is useless.”

The greatest good cannot lie in objects that are scarce or subject to competition, such as wealth or fame, or in things that are fleeting, such as sensory pleasure, but rather in things that are permanent and equally available to all without limit, i.e., knowledge of the world discovered via our shared reason. Since humans are part of nature, and not separate from or superior to nature, enlightenment and self-understanding can only be achieved via a deeper understanding of the unity and workings of the natural world. 

This is why organized religion is so dangerous; it represents, at least for Spinoza, the worst form of oppression, in that it obstructs the pursuit of greater knowledge of God or nature via shared reason. Organized religion creates division where there should be unity by imposing onto God or nature human characteristics and concerns. 

The enemy of the good life is therefore any form of dogmatism. This is why Spinoza wrote, “The endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue,” and, “The desire to do good generated in us by our living according to the guidance of reason, I call morality.” 

We are all led by our passions to some degree or another, but we can counter this with an intellectual drive for understanding the world guided by reason. As Spinoza wrote: 

“Men who are good by reason—i.e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them—desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.” 

I think part of what Spinoza meant was that the pursuit of knowledge is not a competitive or zero-sum endeavor—like that associated with wealth, fame, and power—but rather a cooperative endeavor that produces an unlimited good. Therefore, the degree to which we are driven only by an intellectual desire to understand the world, via our shared reason, is the degree to which humanity can be moral and united (and can understand that what is good for oneself is also good for others, and vice versa). Conversely, to the degree that we irrationally use knowledge to oppress others in a zero-sum competition for power and status (e.g., my anthropomorphic version of God is better than yours), is the degree to which humanity becomes divided, violent, and immoral. 

Further reading

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