Spinoza's Critique of Religion
By Leo Strauss
University Of Chicago Press, (1997)
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 1, 2010
There is a single idea held by the thinkers that Leo Strauss discusses in this perceptive book. Each recognized that the general population turned to religion because they were searching a life that is devoid of anxiety and pain, a metaphorical return to the Garden of Eden. Each recognized that people may think that religion removes these burdens, but by turning to religion, they moved from the kettle into the fire, for religion encumbers people with a host of responsibilities and bother.
These thinkers were correct in stating that religion adds responsibilities, but they were wrong in saying that humans have a right to a tranquil life. They did not see that the tranquil life they sought is the non-human vegetative life of a plant or animal. They failed to understand what the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) taught – that humans were created with a mind and have a duty to develop it to improve themselves and society. This task is not easy. It is difficult and burdensome. It requires constant, even daily effort. But it is the human thing to do.
Religion can be an opiate, as Karl Marx (1818–1883) wrote. It can conceal concerns and fears, as Epicurus said. However, if a religion does so it is wrong. If, on the other hand, religion is practiced in a way that creates challenges that stimulate an individual to improve, then it is a proper guide.
Strauss' book is good because it turns our minds to the difference between passively seeking tranquility in religion or actively looking to improve ourselves and society.