Spinoza and the Importance of Secular Sovereignty

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“A secular sovereign overseeing all religions equally and without bias towards one faith or another provides a mechanism by which universal religious and rational truths can be nurtured, and society can flourish as a consequence.”

Though originally published anonymously, the secular doctrines which comprise Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s famous work, Tractatus Theological-Political (1670), have since solidified the enlightenment thinker as a founding father of secularism and one of the original champions of church and state segregation. Spinoza believed, in an ideal world, that the authorities of religion and rational thought should be entirely independent of one another. Theology, Spinoza argued, “should not be subordinate to reason, nor reason to theology, but rather that each has its own domain” (Tractatus, pg. 190). But does this logic have a practical application in society, where rationality and religion are in constant conflict with one another, and where religious entities continue to stake claims to absolute truth, even in the face of contradicting rational evidence? Can the two entities co-exist separate but equally, without one being subservient to another, and would this model serve the greatest good of society? Though I theoretically agree with Spinoza’s sentiment, I believe a secular, democratic government, with foundations in rationality, and put in place to ensure individual freedoms proves vital to protecting citizens from the radical excesses and illogical manifestations of religious belief. Interestingly enough, even Spinoza appears to understand the impossibility of a fully binary system where religion and reason never spill over into one another’s purviews, and strongly advocates for a democratic and non-religiously affiliated governing force throughout Tractatus. How then can Spinoza believe religion and rationality should “both should be able to rule their own realms in the greatest harmony” (Tractatus, pg. 188), while simultaneously advocating for a secular sovereign to oversee and moderate religious behavior? Unlike governments controlled by one singular faith, secular governments have a less confined capacity to protect free expression, religious practice of various differing faiths, and personal freedoms for all those engaged in the social contract, paving a path for both religion and rationality to coexist somewhat amicably. As Spinoza learned from his own censorship and subsequent excommunication, religious zealots (and particularly those in power) can view rational thought as an enemy to faith, prohibiting the ability to scrutinize scripture and analyze both contextual background and lingual interpretations. But reason should not be considered an enemy of religion, and a government’s allowance of religious assessment, such as Spinoza’s repeated critiques of scripture within Tractatus, proves vital to uncovering a deeper understanding and appreciation for how religion should be incorporated into and thrive in modern society. Spinoza acknowledges the necessity of a governing force, serving both the needs for societal stability and protection against danger, but throughout history, countries ruled by religious authority have time and time again proven to endanger individual freedoms and even the very religious liberties they purport to protect. Though both Spinoza and I champion for religious groups should be overseen by a non-religious entity, this by no means makes faith subordinate or inferior to secular governance. Rather, a secular sovereign overseeing all religions equally and without bias towards one faith or another provides a mechanism by which universal religious and rational truths can be nurtured, and society can flourish as a consequence.

But how can a secular power protect religious rights to a far greater extent than any religious authority? Far from championing for a completely atheistic society, Spinoza acknowledges the “usefulness and necessity of Holy Scripture or revelation” (Tractatus, pg. 194), the consolation and comfort it brings, and believes a void of scripture may result in “almost all men to be in doubt” (Tractatus, pg. 194). What Spinoza rejects is the idea of one centralized and government-sponsored religious entity, believing a government must act as a guardian and supervisor of all faiths to a broader degree, only allowing religious groups the power of law when bestowed upon them by a nonreligious governance, and even then, only to serve the peace and interests of the state. According to Spinoza, as analyzed by religious scholar Jeremy Kridel, “true” religion has much less to do with any one specific dogma, but rather a universal rule of loving thy neighbor and striving towards goodness. Mirroring John Locke’s theory of the state of nature, Spinoza defines democracy as the practice of individuals sacrificing the full autonomy found in nature in favor of the protection and safety a government can provide against the darkest elements of humanity. If the purpose of government is to provide protections one would not possess alone, Spinoza argues, they then must apply to people of all faiths who engage in the social contract, not just a select and special few. In turn, he emphasizes, a secular government also mustn’t force rational thought upon its citizens, for “it is not…the purpose of the state to turn people from rational beings into beasts or automata, but rather to allow their minds and bodies to develop in their own ways in security and enjoy the free use of reason…the true purpose of the state is in fact freedom” (Tractatus, pg. 252). Though perhaps counterintuitive, secular sovereigns overseeing religious entities serve as the best referee in the battle between religion and reason, more effectively ensuring that reason “reigns over the domain of truth and wisdom, [and] theology over that of piety and obedience” (Tractatus, pg. 190).

Perhaps nothing more appropriately proves the necessity of protections for freedom of thought and religious criticism than the bans on Spinoza’s writings and his subsequent excommunication in the 17th century. Without a secular sovereign regulating the excesses of religious power, the advancement of rational thought risks severe compromise, and the most accurate understandings of scriptural text may never be uncovered. Spinoza believes, and I agree, that reason should not be looked at as the enemy of faith, nor should it be feared. If scripture is to largely dictate society’s moral compass, it is vital to reconcile inconsistencies and irrationalities within the text rather than bury oneself in ignorance, and the interpretation of a reading should be rendered wrong if it contradicts reason. Just as biology and physics are held accountable to the scientific method, scripture must then also answer to its own biblical history, “claim[ing] nothing as a biblical doctrine that we have not derived, by the closest possible scrutiny, from its own history” (Tractatus, pg. 99). Spinoza spends the greater part of Tractatus dissecting scripture, with criticisms ranging from a rejection of claims that Moses authored the Torah, to a dismissal of prophesies being supernatural. It’s no small wonder that the church would find Spinoza’s analyses outrageously blasphemous, but ironically, religion has just as much to gain from rational scrutiny as reason does. In order to adapt to the ever evolving advancements in science and social progress, and to prevent believers from turning away from the church due to a willful disregard of scientific truths, it is in the best interests of a religion’s viability to read scripture with reason and rationality at the forefront, as Spinoza advocates for. In short, secular government allows for the necessary critiques and exposures of wrongs in scripture that religious powers, as in Spinoza’s era, may actively seek to prevent.

But over 400 years have passed since Tractacus was published, can modern religious governments really be compared with the oppressive Dutch leaders who banished Spinoza in the 17th century? The staggering statistical correlations between suppressions of free expression, thought, faith, and personal liberties and religiously dominated governments indicate that the same epidemic plaguing Spinoza in his era continues to threaten modern societies today. For example, the Chinese government still actively partakes in book burnings of works misaligned with government endorsed theology, and those who circulate or import banned writings are severely punished. All countries that punish apostasy with death, or administer severe and abusive punishments for leaving the government sponsored faith, operate under a singular religious entity. Many of these same countries punish homosexuality with death under the same religious laws, and rank last in the 2015 World Bank Survey documenting women’s well being and empowerment. Spinoza understood the necessity for individuals to have a governing entity and sense of unity under powerful leadership, but while secular governments have proven their ability to adequately preserve and nurture both rationality and religious belief, singular religious authorities have yet to earn the rights to the same claim.

An ideal government should “free everyone from fear so that they may live in security so far as possible, that is, so that they may retain, to the highest possible degree, their natural right to live and to act without harm to themselves or to others” (Tractatus, pg. 252). Spinoza, through firsthand knowledge, understood that religious governments don’t possess the same ability to foster an ideal environment in which both reason and theology can thrive. A secular government, on the other hand, put in place to oversee, understand, and tend to the needs of various religious believers, proves a more effective means of enforcing universal principles and truths pertaining to all faiths, not just to some. Religion has just as much to gain from rational scrutiny as reason, and the allowance by government to criticize and explore the corruptions and inconsistencies of scripture by no means hinders the messages of universal love and forgiveness from emerging. The historical and modern failures of religious governments prove how better suited a secular power is to both preserving the “greatest gift and the divine light” that is reason (Tractacus, pg. 188) as well as keeping religious excesses at bay. Spinoza believed, and I agree, that neither religion nor reason should be servants to one another, but in order for both to “rule their own realms in the greatest harmony” (Tractacus, pg. 188) in the real world, sovereign authority must undoubtedly be given to a secular, rationally minded government.


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Kridel, J. (2020, May 13). Texts on Tuesday: Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, Part I and II. Retrieved December 19, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjBVwdOjL6c

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