I finally took the time to watch David Silverman’s firebrand atheism lecture. Silverman is the head of American Atheists. Upcoming atheist conventions in unlikely cities likeMemphis, Tennessee and San Juan, Puerto Rico have brought him into my radar, as I’ve recently created content for Ateístas de Puerto Rico and have been very concerned in recent years about the rise of religious privilege and intrusion in the public life in the island.
The inappropriate intrusion of religion in the lives of people in secular societies has had the side effect of birthing a militant atheist movement. Some of us argue that this is a moral necessity of our times, and that if religion had not become political there would be no need for a political secularism. For instance, Daniel Radcliffe recently said “I’m an atheist, and a militant atheist when religion starts impacting on legislation”. He also considers Richard Dawkins one of his personal heroes. Here, notice that he is not always militant: only when it comes to legislation, to politics, to significant societal changes that are backwards instead of progressive, does he feel a need to be militant.
Not Everyone Finds Advantage in Coming Out or Being Militant
The tensions arise when militancy becomes a source of conflict within our families and personal relations, and one must choose between the closet and one’s ataraxia. This is not an easy tension and we should not expect easy, clear-cut answers to ethical questions of this sort.
In one of my recent discussions with firebrand atheists on facebook, the one that frankly inspired this blog, the crux of the tension became evident. Their argument (which I fully understand) was that unless and until atheists begin to come out of the closet en masse, and proudly assume the atheist label, and until we see a normalization of atheism, there will be marginalization and exclusion. In spite of the rise of secularism in recent years, atheists are still one of the most hated groups in America.
But then my firebrand atheist friends called for obligating others to come out of the closet, to out them, to call them hypocrites, cowards, and other names if they don’t come out. This is where I reminded them that coming out can be costly for many people. Atheism (militant or not) can create heated discussions with family members and friends, and even the possibility of exile and alienation in communities and families that are deeply religious. Many ex-Mormons experience deep alienation and are entirely ostracized, becoming pariahs forever in their own communities, and former Muslims sometimes have to fear for their lives. Many Christian churches and families are no different.
Furthermore, some argue that recognizing the label atheist is not necessary at all and doesn’t even make sense. AC Grayling compares it to labeling oneself “a non-stamp-collector” and famously said “How can you be a militant atheist? It’s like sleeping furiously“.
When asked “Does God exist?”, the Dalai Lama smilingly said “I don’t know”. There are many kinds of atheists, from the militant to the very religious Buddhists, to the Epicurean philosopher who simply wants a life of ataraxia and tranquility, who just doesn’t want to be bothered with unnecessary conflict with strangers or loved ones. An atheist does not HAVE to be a militant. An atheist does not HAVE to be anything. Coming out must always be a personal choice based on one’s convictions, priorities and hedonic calculus.
Furthermore, there isn’t enough solidarity in the “atheist movement” to communally sustain the burden of people coming out. I say this because I worked in gay and lesbian non-profit organizations many years ago, and one of the communities that I served was homeless LGBT youth. To me, this is not just about statistics. I can put a face next to the LGBT homelessness problem because I was the one who had to call shelters in Chicago in the dead of winter and try to find some of my clients a place to spend the night.
If an atheist organization does not have the infrastructure needed to assist a homeless 17-year-old who has recently come out atheist in a very religious home, it is ABSOLUTELY IRRESPONSIBLE to invite, much worse to force, that youth to come out of the atheist closet. The atheist community does not have anything like the homeless shelters, non-profit organizations, community centers, hospitals, hotlines, job-search assistance, and many other resources that the gay and lesbian community has had to build over many decades to fight homophobia effectively, and these things took generations of struggle and strategy to build.
There is no need to create unnecessary statistics. Yet at the same time, having worked with LGBT youth, I know viscerally and personally the dangers and evils of religion and I have a firm commitment to fight religious tyranny and religious privilege, and to never deny that they exist.
Instead of outing people, the appropriate strategy should be educational. Many university campuses have an “Ask an Atheist a question” day and other opportunities for interfaith and ecumenical dialogue between secularists and religious people, which are not only chances to fight prejudice but also for closeted atheists to find each other. A militant atheist should, ideally, be a friendly and caring ally in the coming out process, not the asshole that forces a vulnerable youth into communal exile against his will. If a person does not feel safe coming out, then the right thing to do is to make it safer to come out. Organizations like openlysecular.org are doing much work in this regard.
I’m not against atheist preachers smashing idols and smiting people’s deeply held beliefs. Many of the concerns that Dawkins–whom I respect greatly–presents in his book The God Delusion should deeply worry us all. I recognize that there is a need today for firebrand atheism. It is a necessity of our times and a natural result of the dangers of religious privilege and tyranny. But militancy is a choice. Firebrand atheism is a personal choice, and only one way to be an atheist. There are many other ways to be an atheist.
Atheism 2.1 and Ataraxia as the End
Atheism 2.0 was introduced in a TED Speech by its main proponent, philosopher Alain de Botton. In his speech, he calls for a less militant, friendlier, more curious and affirming atheism; one that is also more inclusive of women and other ethnicities.
I generally agree with the ideas expressed in Atheism 2.0. However, I specifically use here the term Atheism 2.1 because a dialectical relationship is evolving between Epicurean philosophy and the new atheism where we oftentimes have to remind ourselves that the true goal of life is pleasure, tranquility, ataraxia. Some of us fear losing sight of the true goal established by nature in our heated political discussions, and end up distrusting militant atheism, even as we recognize the huge need for atheism in the public discourse.
Some argue that a true Epicurean must never be militant; they say “lathe biosas”, live unknown. Our compromise with our tranquility must always come first. But I do not agree with this. I do see the point that many firebrand atheists are making: that by coming out and assuming the label atheist, we do make a change in society, we do challenge religious privilege and misconceptions about atheists. And, most importantly, that any and all personal choice must involve hedonic calculus, and that in many instances the long-term profit that emerges from coming out is much greater than the losses. THAT is how it may be appropriate for a true Epicurean to be, at times, militant. Epicurus NEVER told anyone to be a hermit and always challenged people to not base their lives on fear. We must never misinterpret lathe biosas as a call to escape society, reality and life: that is the exact opposite of the realism of our predecessors.
A happy life is neither like a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but like a placid and crystal stream that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens
Atheism 2.1 can probably be labelled ataraxia atheism, to accentuate the cooling effects of a philosophy of abiding pleasure, versus the heated, controversial, conflict-seeking firebrand atheism of the militant secularists.
Perhaps attaching oneself to a particular label does not exactly fully solve the tensions that are inherent in this dialectical relationship between atheism as a moral necessity of our day (culture) and Epicureanism as an eternal ethical necessity of the human condition (nature); but it sets the tone for a different kind of conversation where we never lose track of nature’s end, at least for those of us who have chosen to be naturalist philosophers first and then, maybe, political activists.
So, please remember: @ is not just for atheism. @ also stands for ataraxia.
Originally written for The Autarkist.
It’s generally believed that it was the Epicurean philosopher from Syria Philodemus of Gadara who organized the core of the teachings into the Four Remedies, the Tetrapharmakon in Greek.
There are, to be fair, many more than four remedies in Epicureanism. However, the Four Remedies are known to be the core of the doctrine:
Do not fear the gods
Do not fear death
What is pleasant is easy to attain
What is painful is easy to endure
In his Principal Doctrines 11-12, Epicurus –who 2,300 years ago was among the first to propose the idea of the atom– argued for the study of science as a way to emancipate ourselves from irrational fears. For naturalists who don’t believe in gods or spirits, the first two negative statements may be translated as “Do not fear chance or blind luck, for it is pointless to battle that which we have no control over. It generates unnecessary suffering”.
The second remedy is elaborated in a series of teachings and aphorisms which serve as a form of cognitive therapy to deal with the trauma of death. Among them, the most memorable is the following:
“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not”
The latter two positive statements lead to Epicurean teachings on how we should evaluate our desires and discern which ones are unnecessary versus which ones are necessary, which ones carry pain when satisfied or ignored versus which ones don’t. By this process of an analysed life, one learns to be content with the simple pleasures in life, those easiest to attain. The best things in life are free.
“The wealth required by nature is limited and easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity; Do not spoil that which you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” – Epicurus
One of the first tasks of every convert to Epicureanism is to become mindful of her desires and whatever pain or anxiety they may be generating. Another task is to learn to relish and appreciate the simple things when they’re in front of us. The good friends, the good foods and the refreshing beverages, the family, the good music, our proximity to nature, even our view of the sky. There are so many things we take for granted in our hectic lives, particularly when we live in the city.
As to the Fourth Remedy, Epicurus reminded us of the temporal nature of bodily pain. We may get a fever, or a stomach ache, but within days our immune system fights it. In the case of more chronic pains, one gets used to them after some time. In nature, no condition lasts forever. The impermanence of all conditions is a consolation when we consider whatever pain they generate.
Then there are mental pains and anxiety. These are systematically worked through via the cognitive therapy of working with our desires and mindfulness. The resolution to follow Epicurus is a resolution to protect one’s mind. It’s impossible to be happy if we can’t control our anger and other strong emotions: we will go from one perturbed state to the next and never taste imperturbability, ataraxia.
One technique to try out is to stop and start again. If we catch our minds degenerating into negative thought streams, we can try the mantra “Live as if Epicurus was Watching“. It really does work, if used with intent. One becomes mindful. A chilly, snowy winter no longer feels like slush beneath our feet. Instead we may notice the snowflakes in the distance and the beautiful colors of winter. Sometimes at my mindful recollection of this mantra, what used to bother me no longer really matters.
A dismissive attitude towards pain takes discipline but it can be cultivated if we are mindful and develop a resolve to protect our minds.
Read Death and the Skeptic, an article written by yours truly for The Humanist, a publication of the American Humanist Association, on Epicurean and Buddhist teachings for coping with death