Insights from the Jewish Political Thought and the New Brain Sciences

Heidi M. Ravven

It was Spinoza’s deep and prescient understanding of the role of the affects in public and political life – insights now borne out by affective neuroscience – that makes a neo-Spinozist contribution to rethinking and reinvigorating American Civil Religion in order to foster broader civic education and engagement so vital and promising. My current project, Spinoza and the Remaking of American Civil Religion: Insights from the Jewish Philosophical Tradition and the New Brain Sciences, draws upon my specialization as a scholar of the philosophy of Spinoza and of the Maimonidean philosophical tradition, while also integrating it with my work as a neurophilosopher, in order to contribute to solving a pressing contemporary problem in public life, namely, the urgent need to transmit more effectively – and affectively – to the public at large American founding constitutional ideals, institutional arrangements, and vision of justice. One of the virtues of Spinoza’s model is its pluralist vision of the modern democratic polity and its reliance upon a naturalistic account of human nature. While passionately embracing freedom of conscience and democratic pluralism as at the core of the modern liberal polity, Spinoza, nevertheless, argued for the institution of a national civil religion whose principles would encompass and bring together into community the diverse faith communities composing modern societies. Spinoza’s aim was to appeal to the heart as well as to the head of the public at large by creating an emotional and symbolic attachment to a polity based on principles of freedom, democracy, and pluralism. While religious particularisms would be privatized, common quasi-religious ceremonies, symbols, discourses, and credos would be developed for dissemination and enactment in the public arena to articulate the liberal principles upon which the modern polity was founded and to offset the illiberal and even at times fanatic tendencies of traditional faith communities. This paper sets forth my project to apply Spinoza’s insights to reinvigorating and transforming civil religion in the United States.

Spinoza and the Remaking of American Civil Religion
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