Why Spinoza is revered by many secularists, atheists and religious people alike!

(One may not agree with the views expressed in the article, but it is a fascinating article by Steven Nadler on Spinoza, especially his understanding of God and core message of sacred scriptures. f.Sheikh)

In July 1656, the 23-year-old Bento de Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam. It was the harshest punishment of herem (ban) ever issued by that community. The extant document, a lengthy and vitriolic diatribe, refers to the young man’s ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. The leaders of the community, having consulted with the rabbis and using Spinoza’s Hebrew name, proclaim that they hereby ‘expel, excommunicate, curse, and damn Baruch de Spinoza’. He is to be ‘cast out from all the tribes of Israel’ and his name is to be ‘blotted out from under heaven’.

Over the centuries, there have been periodic calls for the herem against Spinoza to be lifted. Even David Ben-Gurion, when he was prime minister of Israel, issued a public plea for ‘amending the injustice’ done to Spinoza by the Amsterdam Portuguese community. It was not until early 2012, however, that the Amsterdam congregation, at the insistence of one of its members, formally took up the question of whether it was time to rehabilitate Spinoza and welcome him back into the congregation that had expelled him with such prejudice. There was, though, one thing that they needed to know: should we still regard Spinoza as a heretic?

Unfortunately, the herem document fails to mention specifically what Spinoza’s offences were – at the time he had not yet written anything – and so there is a mystery surrounding this seminal event in the future philosopher’s life. And yet, for anyone who is familiar with Spinoza’s mature philosophical ideas, which he began putting in writing a few years after the excommunication, there really is no such mystery. By the standards of early modern rabbinic Judaism – and especially among the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam, many of whom were descendants of converso refugees from the Iberian Inquisitions and who were still struggling to build a proper Jewish community on the banks of the Amstel River – Spinoza was a heretic, and a dangerous one at that.
What is remarkable is how popular this heretic remains nearly three and a half centuries after his death, and not just among scholars. Spinoza’s contemporaries, René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, made enormously important and influential contributions to the rise of modern philosophy and science, but you won’t find many committed Cartesians or Leibnizians around today. The Spinozists, however, walk among us. They are non-academic devotees who form Spinoza societies and study groups, who gather to read him in public libraries and in synagogues and Jewish community centres. Hundreds of people, of various political and religious persuasions, will turn out for a day of lectures on Spinoza, whether or not they have ever read him. There have been novels, poems, sculptures, paintings, even plays and operas devoted to Spinoza. This is all a very good thing.

It is also a very curious thing. Why should a 17th-century Portuguese-Jewish philosopher whose dense and opaque writings are notoriously difficult to understand incite such passionate devotion, even obsession, among a lay audience in the 21st century? Part of the answer is the drama and mystery at the centre of his life: why exactly was Spinoza so harshly punished by the community that raised and nurtured him? Just as significant, I suspect, is that everyone loves an iconoclast – especially a radical and fearless one that suffered persecution in his lifetime for ideas and values that are still so important to us today. Spinoza is a model of intellectual courage. Like a prophet, he took on the powers-that-be with an unflinching honesty that revealed ugly truths about his fellow citizens and their society.

Spinoza is a role model for intellectual opposition to those who try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests

Much of Spinoza’s philosophy was composed in response to the precarious political situation of the Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century. In the late 1660s, the period of ‘True Freedom’ – with the liberal and laissez-faire regents dominating city and provincial governments – was under threat by the conservative ‘Orangist’ faction (so-called because its partisans favoured a return of centralised power to the Prince of Orange) and its ecclesiastic allies. Spinoza was afraid that the principles of toleration and secularity enshrined in the founding compact of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were being eroded in the name of religious conformity and political and social orthodoxy. In 1668, his friend and fellow radical Adriaan Koerbagh was convicted of blasphemy and subversion. He died in his cell the next year. In response, Spinoza composed his ‘scandalous’ Theological-Political Treatise, published to great alarm in 1670.

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

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Islamic Enlightenment, The Struggle between faith and reason

A worth reading book reviews by Kenan Malik on three books on Islam, Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason(Bodley Head), Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press) and Tariq Ramadan’s Islam: The Essentials (Pelican). It was published in the New Statesman, 9 June 2017.

The Turkish nation,’ Mehmed Ziya Gokalp wrote, ‘belongs to the Ural-Altai [language] group of peoples, to the Islamic umma, and to Western internationalism.’ Gokalp was an early-20th-century sociologist, writer, poet and political activist whose work was influential in shaping the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the key figure in the founding of modern Turkey. What is striking about Gokalp’s argument is that it stitches together three elements that today seem to many to be irreconcilable. ‘Islam’ and ‘Western internationalism’, in particular, are often seen as occupying opposite sides in a ‘clash of civilisations’.

This sense of a fundamental separation between Islam and the West has been ex- acerbated by the rise of Islamism and the emergence of Islamic State. Some Muslims are attracted to IS because of a deep loathing for the West. Many in the West regard that support as evidence for the incompatibility of Western and Islamic values. Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment and Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World, in very different ways, try to explain the historical shifts that have made what once seemed necessary and rational now appear impossible and self-deluding.

The starting point of de Bellaigue’s luminous work is the oft-made claim that ‘Islam needs its Enlightenment’. De Bellaigue argues, on the contrary, that for the past two centuries, ‘Islam has been going through a pained yet exhilarating transformation – a Reformation, an Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution all at once.’ What is distinctive about the Islamic world today, he writes, is that it is under the heel of a counter-Enlightenment, a development visible in particular through the emergence of Islamism, of which Islamic State – the group that has claimed responsibility for terror attacks in Europe, including the latest atrocities in London and Manchester – is the most grotesque expression.

The Islamic Enlightenment explores the complex relationship between Muslim-majority countries and modernity, a relationship mediated largely through its relation- ship with Europe, and more generally the West. De Bellaigue begins in three of the great cities of the Muslim world – Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran – and guides us through the transformation of their intellectual, political and social worlds in the 19th century. He is a wonderful narrator, and these chapters burst with colour and detail.

Each city and nation confronted modernity and the West in distinctive ways. However, in all cases, de Bellaigue observes, ‘The world of Islam was only ready to shed its superiority complex once its supports were revealed to be rotten.’ In Egypt, that rottenness was laid bare by Napoleon’s invasion of 1798. In the shadow of the Pyramids, as the French destroyed the Egyptian forces, ‘the fiction of Christian deference to Muslim superiority fell away’.

Napoleon brought to Egypt not only soldiers but scholars, too. In Cairo he set up the Institute of Egypt, which became the meeting point for Islam and the Enlightenment. One of the first Egyptians to visit the institute was Hasan al-Attar, who later became Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, among the most important clerics in Sunni Islam. Egypt’s ‘first modern thinker’, in de Bellaigue’s words, al-Attar was a polymath who be- came intoxicated by the learning he found at the institute. He transformed al-Azhar, one of the oldest centres of Islamic learning, into a vibrant university and encouraged a new generation of thinkers versed in Western thinking.

Most notable of this new generation was Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, another Egyptian cleric who made it his life’s work to prove that reason was compatible with Islam. After spending time in Paris, al-Tahtawi returned home in 1831 to help lead the statewide effort to modernise Egypt’s infrastructure and education. He founded the school of languages in Cairo and supervised the translation of over 2,000 foreign works into Arabic – the greatest translation movement since that of the Abbasid period, a millennium earlier. His own works introduced to a new audience Enlightenment ideas about secularism, rights and liberties.

It was not just the intellectual sphere that was upturned. The physical and social worlds were transformed, too, at a pace undreamt of in Europe. From the printing press to female graduates, from steam trains to oppositional newspapers, from the abolition of slavery to the creation of trade un- ions, in the space of a few decades in Egypt, modernity wrought changes that had taken more than a century to happen in Europe, and transformed Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran from semi-medieval markets into modern, semi-industrial cities. ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,’ Marx observed of the disorienting effect of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in Europe. How much more so that must have seemed in Islamic states.

Inevitably there was a backlash, as there was in Europe. Yet unlike in Europe, those who promoted Enlightenment values in the Muslim world faced another problem: that of the European powers themselves. European nations may have basked in the light of the Enlightenment but they also insisted that pursuit of ideals such as liberty or democracy should not get out of hand and threaten European imperial interests.

Take Iran. In August 1906, a year-long popular struggle for democracy against the shah and his autocratic government succeeded in establishing an elected national assembly and a new constitution. The radical democrats looked to Europe for their ideals. ‘Iran must both in appearance and reality, both physically and spiritually, become Europeanised and nothing else,’ claimed one of the leading constitutionalists, Has- san Taqizadeh. But the European powers were fearful that the new, democratic Iran would no longer be a pliant creature, acting in the interest of the West. In August 1907, Britain and Russia signed an accord dividing Iran into two zones of imperial influence. Russian troops invaded Iran, dissolved parliament, and arrested and executed many deputies. Britain established a de facto col- ony in its area of influence in the south-east of the country.

Four decades later, after democracy had been restored in Iran, Western powers again intervened to destroy it. In 1951 the democratically elected Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadeq nationalised the oil industry. Britain and the United States engineered a coup d’etat that, two years later, overthrew Mossadeq and returned the shah to power – and Iran’s oil industry to Western control.

Such actions of European powers led many people in Muslim countries to see the modernising project as an imperialist imposition. It also led many to elide opposition to imperialism, and defence of the nation, with opposition to Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and secularism. Hence the growth of popular support for Islamist groups. The eventual consequence of Western attempts to suppress democracy in Iran was the revolution of 1978-79 – and the seizing of power by Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters.

The Islamic Enlightenment is a dazzling feat of erudition and storytelling. It is also a necessary work, challenging many of the assumptions that animate contemporary narratives about Islam. But for all that it unpicks the myths woven into the conventional narratives, de Bellaigue’s own narrative weaves in its own myths.

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“A thin line between cult and religion” By Tara Burton

(Or is belief system a circular spectrum ranging from atheism at one end and cult at the other end?  Interesting article on belief systems. F. Sheikh ). IF COMMENTING ON THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE COMMENT IN GENERAL AND DO NOT SPECIFICALLY TARGET ONE RELIGION.

Beginning paragraphs;

“Cults, generally speaking, are a lot like pornography: you know them when you see them. It would be hard to avoid the label on encountering (as I did, carrying out field work last year) 20 people toiling unpaid on a Christian farming compound in rural Wisconsin – people who venerated their leader as the closest thing to God’s representative on Earth. Of course, they argued vehemently that they were not a cult. Ditto for the 2,000-member church I visited outside Nashville, whose parishioners had been convinced by an ostensibly Christian diet programme to sell their houses and move to the ‘one square mile’ of the New Jerusalem promised by their charismatic church leader. Here they could eat – and live – in accordance with God and their leader’s commands. It’s easy enough, as an outsider, to say, instinctively: yes, this is a cult.

Less easy, though, is identifying why. Knee-jerk reactions make for poor sociology, and delineating what, exactly, makes a cult (as opposed to a ‘proper’ religious movement) often comes down to judgment calls based on perceived legitimacy. Prod that perception of legitimacy, however, and you find value judgments based on age, tradition or ‘respectability’ (that nice middle-class couple down the street, say, as opposed to Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch). At the same time, the markers of cultism as applied more theoretically – a single charismatic leader, an insular structure, seeming religious ecstasy, a financial burden on members – can also be applied to any number of new or burgeoning religious movements that we don’t call cults.

Often (just as with pornography), what we choose to see as a cult tells us as much about ourselves as about what we’re looking at.”

Concluding paragraphs;

“To talk about religion as a de facto abuse-vector of hierarchical power (in other words, a cult writ large) is a meaningless oversimplification. It’s less an arrow than a circle: a cycle of power, meaning, identity, and ritual. We define ourselves by participating in something, just as we define ourselves against those who don’t participate in something. Our understanding of ourselves – whether we’re cradle Catholics, newly joined-up members of the Hare Krishna, or members of a particularly rabid internet fandom – as people whose actions have cosmic if not metaphysical significance gives us a symbolic framework in which to live our lives, even as it proscribes our options. Every time we repeat a ritual, from the Catholic Mass to a prayer circle on a farm compound to a CrossFit workout, it defines us – and we define the people around us.

Today’s cults might be secular, or they might be theistic. But they arise from the same place of need, and from the failure of other, more ‘mainstream’ cultural institutions to fill it. If God did not exist, as Voltaire said, we would have to invent him. The same is true for cults.”

Cick for full article;

India: violent and caste ridden society

Shared by Dr. Syed Ehtisham

EOM: Worth reading article. How much Indian journalists are objective and critical of their environment.

In the land of Kama Sutra —–Our popular culture celebrates violence, but frowns on any expression of love. Marriage is a house-keeping, bonded-labour arrangement. The powerful cultural hegemony of the rich castes and classes has cast its spell on the rest, even the poor and the deprived, who emulate this cultural charade even more seriously. It is an India that has forgotten how to love.

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Lovesick in the time of anti-Romeos

By Padmaja Shaw | The New Indian Express – 24th April 2017

Freud famously said, “In the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill, and we are bound to fall ill if … we are unable to love”. Love is an essential human instinct that keeps us sane. It transcends all artificial categories of caste, class, religion, race or ethnicity.

It is evident from the increasing attacks on young people in love, whether in the name of caste, anti-Romeo squads or love jihad, that we are surrounded by a muscular but sick society that considers love a bad word—a bad emotion. It is incapable of understanding that to love is to realise one’s humanity in its truest sense.9

A loveless sick society destroys the effervescence of a Romeo’s love for his consenting Juliet. Madhukar Manthani of Telangana and V Shankar of Kumaralingam village in TN were brutally killed for being in love with a higher caste girl. Neither were stalkers. Their love was reciprocated.

Our popular culture celebrates violence, but frowns on any expression of love. This was said in the 1960s by the Khosla committee report on film censorship. Nothing much has changed since.

Love was never much of a factor in traditional marriages, primarily because of endogamy and the mandated age difference between men and women. Sex in marriage is to fulfil the duty of procreation, it should not be confused with love.

Many a time, when young brides complain to their families about the coldness of the relationship with their spouse, mothers advice them to get a baby quickly to establish their position in the family.

Of course, mostly nothing changes. The woman just gets busier, with no time to think about the vast emptiness within her soul.

This equation is also the basis of marriages where caste, community and religion are important. The bride must understand her place in family and society. No new indoctrination should be necessary. She should be “homely, well-brought up” to fit into the family from day one, and is not supposed to recognise love if it stares her in the face.

And the ability of the young bride to make food allowed and relished by the community is ensured. The bride is seamlessly integrated into the family. The age difference between men and women insisted upon in arranged marriages is to ensure that women stay fit enough to serve the men in old age.

Marriage is a house-keeping, bonded-labour arrangement. This, in essence, is the root of anxiety about youngsters finding mates of their choice, the anxiety that such independent women may not play their assigned role.

With wives fully occupied with perpetuation of the bloodline, men are free to find their pleasures elsewhere, without attracting any social opprobrium. The devadasis and joginis are an artful exploitation of unattached women with full religious approval under the noses of presiding deities.

In the orthodox mind, this thing called love is a dangerous emotion. It is associated with joy in another being that thrives outside the accepted social relations they are familiar with. So every time it sees a couple happily in love, the orthodox mind rises up in rage as whatever love they themselves experienced in their taboo world is associated with illegitimacy. The well-brought-up girl you are married to is not supposed to know anything about love. In a woman, it reflects an autonomy of spirit that can pose a threat to the male authority.

Killing our own kind for reasons other than threat to one’s very survival goes against species loyalty. But in India, we see incidents of murder and violence perpetrated daily against people of a different faith or caste to “protect the honour of the family”. Humans have exploited colour, language, gods and demeanour to differentiate between groups. In this process of pseudo-speciation, we have created artificial divisions and differentiations that allow us to disrespect basic loyalty to our own species. The caste system is a despicable example of such pseudo-speciation. Humans across races, ethnicities and colour can cohabit and reproduce. Such pseudo-speciation that is socio-culturally manufactured and imposed ensures that people do not break out of the traps of exploitation and discrimination.

The young people of India are emerging out of the stranglehold of these divisions and becoming more human, by the fact that they are able to love someone transcending the social boundaries. It is also a healthy sign that the very ability to love also makes them saner and more empathetic. It allows them to see through the social and political games played by those who want to preserve old structures and orthodoxies that are designed for accumulation of wealth and ensuring the right to its enjoyment through a rigid system of succession within bloodlines. An elaborate cultural charade of family honour and purity of descent is built around it to justify this basic objective. Everyone and everything—women, children, gods, faith, rituals—are subordinate to this overarching purpose. The powerful cultural hegemony of the rich castes and classes has cast its spell on the rest, even the poor and the deprived, who emulate this cultural charade even more seriously.

This is the 21st century India that stakes its claim to global leadership. It is an India that has forgotten how to love. The “anti-Romeo squads” and the “anti-love-jihadists” are coercing the young back into their caste and community, essentially to preserve the upper class/caste hegemony. Only in such fragmented soil can divisive politics thrive. Are we tacitly approving self-righteous vigilante violence, allowing them to destroy love around us by keeping silent? Or are we silent because the vigilantes are the foot soldiers who are ensuring the perpetuation of our little empires without us getting our hands dirty? Is a dead son here and a dead daughter there a small price to pay for a superpower that has taken ill?

(The author is a retired journalism professor, Osmania University. Email: padmajashaw@gmail.com)