“Why Spinoza Is Intolerant of Atheists” by Michael Rosenthal

Rosenthal, Michael A. “Why Spinoza Is Intolerant of Atheists: God and the Limits of Early Modern Liberalism.” The Review of Metaphysics 65, no. 4 (June 2012): 813+.


SPINOZA IS OFTEN LAUDED as a founder of modern liberalism. Most recently, Jonathan Israel has argued that Spinoza was a central figure in what he calls the “Radical Enlightenment.” In particular, he claims that Spinoza’s focus on individual freedom of thought contributes more to our contemporary ideals of toleration than Locke’s emphasis of freedom of conscience. (1) One way to test the extent of Spinoza’s liberalism would be to ask whether or not he would tolerate atheists. Locke, of course, was notorious for arguing that the state should not tolerate either atheists or Catholics. We might think that Spinoza would argue explicitly to the contrary. (2) However, while he does not outright ban Catholics, he is hardly friendly to their views, especially regarding Papal infallibility and authority. (3) As we shall see, his position on atheism is not immediately obvious. In order to answer the question–was Spinoza intolerant of atheists?–we need to examine the two concepts that structure the question itself. What does it mean to be tolerant or intolerant in Spinoza’s view? What is his view about atheism? Spinoza was not very explicit on either matter. In fact, he only mentions “atheism” twice in the Theological-Political Treatise (TTP), (4) and he uses it as something undesirable. The best way to discover Spinoza’s view on atheism is to look at how he reacts to the charge that he is an atheist. In the letter in which he states his reasons for working on a treatise on Scripture, which was to become the Theological-Political Treatise, he writes that “common people” (vulgus) hold the opinion that he is an “atheist” and complains “[I am] driven to avert this accusation … as far as I can.” (5) The most important discussion of atheism can be found in Letter 43 to Jacob Ostens, which replies to a critique penned by Lambert van Velthuysen in Letter 42. The best way to look at his views on toleration is, of course, to look at the relevant chapters of the TTP. The problem is that Spinoza does not offer an explicit theory of toleration. His goal, he says, is to promote “freedom of philosophizing,” and his views on the toleration of heretical religious beliefs are worked out along the way as part of his broader political theory. Moreover, given the history of lauding him as a founder of the radical enlightenment, Spinoza’s conception of toleration is not what we might expect. As I shall show, it takes seriously the root etymology of the term tolerate, which means to bear a burden, which might be distasteful or difficult. In other words, Spinoza does not think of toleration as a matter of accepting something as worthy of respect but rather enduring something distasteful. If he were to consider atheism as a worthy position, then it would seem hard to square it with the notion of tolerating something distasteful or problematic. It turns out that there is something wrong with atheism, and what is wrong with it raises the question of the limits of toleration most directly.

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