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Spinoza and Lessing Confronting Religious Intolerance


The complications related to religious dogmatism are often portrayed in the literature written in the 18th century. The lack of acceptance of other beliefs and the confrontations between the representatives of different religions were commonly discussed by writers of that time. The author’s Benedict Spinoza and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing addressed these issues in their famous works Theological-Political Treatise and Nathan the Wise, respectively. Therefore, a question arises if humanity can oppose the impact of superstitious beliefs and religious attitudes, manifesting an understanding of the diverse characteristics and ideas inherent in other individuals. Can the negative effects of faith stereotypization be alleviated by diminishing the significance of religion and upholding morality of conduct? The thesis presented suggests a resolution through the examination of prominent writers’ thoughts on the subject of dogmatism, highlighting its origins and presenting specific approaches. The cause and effect of such negative attitudes are also discussed in an evaluation of the writings and the investigation of the author’s stance on the matter. To explicate and manifest the idea, I will refer to Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, Preface, chapters XIII, XIV, and Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Acts I-III.

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The Upheaval of Religious Confrontation: Theological Wars in the 18th century

Germany in the 18th century was divided between the philosophical and theological scholars who debated the nature of religious revelation. The period of Enlightenment, the development of rationalism, advanced philosophical thought, and the movement towards empiricism have contributed to the works of German scientists. While some argued that no theological knowledge is possible due to the limitations of the human mind and experiences, others insisted on the necessity of religiousness for society, highlighting its benefits. Furthermore, as the influence of religious institutions on political outcomes became more evident, some authors proposed the elimination of such authorities of faith. Given the heated discussions and opposing opinions on the matter, the question of religious tolerance and acceptance of others’ doctrines became as pertinent as ever.

The most prominent complication referred to by philosophical and literary minds hinged on the distinction between understanding and revelation. While it is essential to maintain one’s rights to religious expression and freedom of beliefs, it is also significant to ensure the person’s understanding of the negative impact of the revered institution on society. The researchers investigated whether it is morally right to sustain one’s desire to follow a certain faith or if it is more beneficial to destroy superstitious notions in favor of social and political stability. As religious leaders were always situated close to the ruling powers, their influence on internal affairs and the possibility to sway the direction of the nation’s development is indisputable.

A prominent problem arises from the circumstances of this age, an issue that concerns humanity’s power to accept diverse manifestations of faith, superstition, and the rule of religion. Given that some beliefs might be controversial, should the integration of religiousness in everyday life be protested, or might it be possible to develop a mutual understanding that benefits the people and the institutions? These complications and the potential solutions manifest in the writings of Spinoza and Lessing, who attempt to shed light on the confrontations between various religions and their representatives, forming unique approaches.

The Superstition of Man, Theology, and Politics: Spinoza’s Revelation

The Theological-Political Treatise, a widely recognized critique of the Church, establishes an antipathetic overview of the religious system. Written by Spinoza in 1670, the work focuses on the nature of superstition, faith, and the corruption of religious leaders. According to the author, the human need to believe in a higher power enables the development of religion and provides the institution with a possibility to influence its followers and the political system (Spinoza 6). The author states that “Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune” (Spinoza 3). Spinoza claims that all people have an innate desire to explain the events beyond their understanding, which often prompts them to implement mysterious solutions. Furthermore, the inherent irrationality, a symbol of human weakness and susceptibility, leads to such dangerous outcomes as credulity and the empowerment of religion, which draws on these characteristics.

The inability to accept the inexplicability of reality results in religious dogmatism, which states that a certain religion is the only acceptable and possible solution. In this regard, faithful people experience the pressure of a religious institution, developing prejudice and hazardous stereotypes towards other beliefs and furthering the religious confrontations (Spinoza 5). The proposition which arises from Spinoza’s reasoning employs the notions of revelation and the need to diminish the power of faith, removing the representatives of religion from governmental positions. Adhering to the principles of the Bible and condoning the spread of piety progresses the development of obedience in individuals (Spinoza 177). In Spinoza’s view, the core ideas represented in the Bible are focused on upholding the superiority of religion, not improving human knowledge or the fundamentals of the faith. Therefore, although faith and natural knowledge, such as philosophy, can positively influence the advancement of mankind, religion is the instrument that hinders the development of the human race.

The solution suggested by Spinoza clearly distinguishes between the concepts of religion and faith, with the larger gaining a rather philosophical meaning. If religion is portrayed as the origin of obedience, ignorance, and creed, the dogmas of faith, on the other hand, offer an individual an opportunity to investigate their personal beliefs and attitude toward the unknown (Spinoza 184). If the significance of maintaining unique faithfulness is supported, the people will be encouraged to explore their philosophy avoiding the external pressure of religious institutions. As the Church attempts to obtain followers through the suggestion of tangible rewards and authority, instilling a sense of fear and respect for a specific religion, the creation of stereotypes becomes inevitable. However, with the influence of religion and its control over political and social aspects diminishing, it becomes possible to alleviate the negative effects and maintain a proper level of tolerance for others’ religious doctrines.

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Therefore, the issue of religious dogmatism is discussed thoroughly in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, establishing the adverse impact of religion on the government and society. Spinoza’s perspective clearly outlines the origins of religious unacceptance as the man’s susceptibility to superstition, which is exploited by the Church to sustain its authority over the population. As the religions begin to differ, highlighting various aspects of life and attitudes, the obedience instilled by the religious institution catalyzes interpersonal and intragroup confrontations, which often result in gruesome consequences. To avoid such negative circumstances and empower individuals to follow their faith and philosophical doctrines, it is imperative to reduce the pressure exerted by the Church, diminishing its areas of control.

The Impact of Stereotypes Exemplified: Lessing’s Interpretation of Religious Conflicts

The play Nathan the Wise, written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1779, is another magnificent instance of an author’s ideas on religious differences manifested in a literary piece. The writing addresses the story of numerous individuals related to different faiths and social statuses but connected through a series of meaningful events. While Spinoza’s work displays the philosopher’s understanding of the human nature power and presents his ideas on religion, Nathan the Wise adheres to the same principles using a different approach. Lessing interprets the complications of religious dogmatism by offering the audience a glance into the life of 12th-century people who battle the difficulties of religious intolerance. The notions and resolutions become evident after a thorough examination of the play’s characters, their psychological state, and the symbols employed.

The drama examined describes the endeavors of several individuals whose endeavors become interrelated throughout the story. Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant, represents the ideas of morality and humanity, offering his help and insight to other people. In comparison, Templar, a Christian knight, manifests hatred towards Jews, captivated by the dogmas of his religion. Another character, Recha, is a born Jew baptized Christian, who is Nathan’s adopted daughter. Finally, Saladin portrays a Muslim believer, the leader of Egypt and Syria, participating in a war against Christian crusaders. The play’s leading characters refer to three dominant religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – which are counterposed against each other in a military and social conflict.

From the beginning of the play, as the audience learns the characteristics of the heroes, there is a clear distinction between Templar, Recha, and Saladin, with Nathan acting as an intermediate between them. Given the negative attitudes instilled by the characters’ religious beliefs, it is challenging to imagine a scenario in which the individuals become codependent, starting to exhibit tolerance for each other’s faith. The notion of religious dogmatism is displayed clearly in the early parts of the story, especially in the behavior of the Templar. The knight openly despises Jews, even neglecting a woman he saved from a burning house. When asked about this deed, the man replies: “ […] my life just then / Was quite a burden. I was mighty glad / To risk it for another; tho’ it was / That of a Jewess” (Lessing 74). The Templar displays his aversion towards this ethnicity, avoiding specific people based on their faith and origin. However, as the play progresses, the knight learns that religious beliefs should not be sufficient grounds for oppression, thus altering his view toward Jews.

Another instance of the perceived superiority of religion is manifested in the story of three rings, which encompasses the religious aspect of the play. According to the tale told by Nathan, a father once possessed a ring that enabled the wearer to receive benevolence from God. However, to please all three of his sons, he made identical forgeries, rendering it impossible to distinguish between the real ring and its copies. Later on, a judge instructed the young men to prove their virtues by demonstrating “gentleness, benevolence, forbearance, / With inward resignation to the godhead” (Lessing 114). Therefore, none of the men were gifted favor but were required to behave humbly and wisely, honoring and respecting God. In this tale lies Lessing’s understanding of the resolution for religious confrontation: if each individual adheres to the values of morality and ethical conduct, required tolerance and understanding can be achieved.

The tale of the three rings perfectly captures Lessing’s insights into the cause and effect of religious dogmatism. It appears that the harmful stereotypes and dogmas against other religions arise from the perceived superiority of one’s faith, prompting the individual to protect their beliefs in an attempt to please the higher diety. Throughout these attempts, intolerance and stereotyping begin to occur, and religious conflicts become almost unavoidable, harming the welfare of numerous citizens. As explained by the Templar, such human qualities as pride and pious rage also account for these consequences: “The pride which it to Mussulman and Christian / Bequeathed, as were its God alone the true one” (Lessing 78). Believing that only one religion can be true and superior becomes another catalyst for religion-based altercations, necessitating an introduction of a long-standing and efficient resolution.

The answer suggested by Lessing hinges on the concepts of morality and virtuous behavior, highlighting the importance of humane qualities. As in the tale of the three rings, through Nathan, the author declares the benefits of righteous deeds, which are not based on rewards proposed by religion. When conversing with the Templar, the Jewish merchant states, “The great man everywhere needs room. / Too many set together only serve / To crush each others’ branches” (Lessing 78). This metaphor introduces the importance of tolerance and freedom, arguing that, to prosper, each individual must be allowed to uphold their personal beliefs without persecution. To improve one’s traits and advance their philosophy, it is essential to maintain a proper level of independence from religious pressure, clarifying the value of personal growth through reflection rather than faithful obedience.

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Altogether, although Lessing approaches the subject in question from a different perspective, the thoughts represented in Nathan the Wise resemble the notions instilled by Spinoza. Lessing avoids religious leadership and politics, but he also discusses the cause of religious dogmatism as grounded in humane qualities, suggesting that diminishing the impact of religion on everyday life can be a prominent answer. As in the case of the Templar, who leaves behind his negative attitudes towards Jews, personal reformation is possible when necessary insights are provided. Furthermore, righteous behavior in itself is a powerful tool that does not necessitate the input of a religious organization. After all, “Let not the upper branch alone pretend / Not to have started from the common earth” (Lessing 78). Each person starts their path from the same point, united with others as an inhabitant of one planet. In this regard, respect and care for others must surpass the confrontations caused by religious differences.


To conclude, the issue of religious intolerance and its interpretations by 18th-century authors Benedict Spinoza and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, based on their works Theological-Political Treatise and Nathan the Wise, respectively, were examined in this essay. Reducing the impact of religious institutions and participating in virtuous deeds can serve as a solution to the issue of religious dogmatism, prompting the rise of interpersonal acceptance. Although humans display a range of qualities, namely superstition, and pride, that might prompt the manifestation of adverse consequences, it is possible to avoid such effects, adhering to the values of scientific exploration and morality. The notions of obedience and separation, instilled by the Church, often serve as catalysts for religious disagreements, even resulting in armed conflicts. However, as people begin to understand the beliefs of others and devote their attention to improving their inherent traits, the balance between faithfulness and distinctiveness of religious doctrines can be achieved.

Works Cited

Spinoza, Benedict. The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza. Translated by Robert Elwes, vol. 1, George Bell and Sons, 1891.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Nathan the Wise. Edited by Henry Morley, Cassell & Company, 1886.

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