Why Spinoza is Intolerant of Atheists: God and the Limits of Early Modern Liberalism

Rosenthal, Michael A. “Why Spinoza is Intolerant of Atheists: God and the Limits of Early Modern Liberalism.”  Review of Metaphysics 65.4 (2012): 813-839.

This paper tests the extent of Spinoza’s liberalism through examining the question whether he would tolerate atheists. The first section analyzes the meaning of atheism through the epistolary exchange with Lambert van Velthuysen. It argues that it makes a difference whether Spinoza is an atheist in the strict sense—someone who explicitly denies the existence of God—or a deist—someone who holds a view of unorthodox God. Spinoza denies the charge that his idea of God undermines morality and he also defends his claim that other monotheistic religions than Christianity might contain a kernel of truth. In the second section, the paper discusses Spinoza’s views on toleration. It argues that the state has a limited interest in regulating religious views and it does this through the “dogmas of universal faith.” The state should tolerate a variety of beliefs about God, including those labeled deist, but strict atheistic beliefs, however, are not to be tolerated. In the third section the paper discusses the challenge of the “virtuous atheist” and compares Spinoza’s views to those of Locke and Bayle. Not only Spinoza’s metaphysics but also his ethical project depends on the proper idea of God. Spinoza explicitly contrasts his view, based on a deist conception of God, with that of Hobbes. He reads Hobbes as an epicurean and an atheist. Spinoza’s critical description of Hobbes’s view helps us understand what he thought atheism was and why he was not very sympathetic to it. Spinoza is intolerant towards atheism because it leads to an immoral life and justifies an absolutist state.

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