Tag Archives: atheism

The Bonobo and the Atheist Book Review

Today I’m reviewing the amazing book The Bonobo and the Atheist by Dutch anthropologist Frans de Waal. The author takes a soft, humanist approach to atheism and morality, focusing on the study of human and ape (and even mammalian) nature and focusing more on the similarities between us and other animals than on the differences.

This book crushes human exceptionalism and argues that complex human morality, just like our limbs and body parts, comes from earlier, simpler forms. In other words, the book treats morality as the product of natural selection and as a strictly natural phenomenon.

The Question of “Selfish Genes”

The book defines and cites examples of both altruism and reciprocity, both of which are seen in nature and evolved among animals. It is perhaps unfair to limit morality to altruism and reciprocity (or as interpersonal ethics expressed in terms of help / harm), but as we must begin somewhere and as the book is premised on the idea that morality, being a natural phenomenon, evolved from simpler and more rudimentary forms, these are good starting points–which also imply that morality(ies?) must be subject to evolutionary pressures, and evolve with the species.

There underlies animosity against the “new atheists” in the book, although the author admits that he himself is an atheist. They are characterized sometimes as narrow-minded, even bigoted, but not for the reasons that religious people would argue. The book rebels against scientism and against the “doctrines” established by biologists and other scientists. The author argues insistently that genes are not merely selfish, as Richard Dawkins and other brilliant biologists have argued. Yes, they do serve selfish purposes, but it is unfair and uncritical to argue that, if a behavior does not serve an obviously selfish motive, that it is unnatural, or a “misfiring” of a vestige instinct, or some other “error” of nature.

In this, the anthropologist is reminiscent of the ancient Epicureans, who often sought more than one interpretation of data and accepted them all, as long as they did not contradict each other and as long as they did not contradict the evidence. For instance: Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura, specifically argues that body parts evolved, and only later acquired their various purposes, functions, and uses–which may be varied, and not mutually exclusive. (See the Section in Book IV that says “No speaking ere the tongue created was“, or read this blog).

The author also argues that those that engage in atheistic activism may have experienced trauma earlier in life, which might be true for many, but then he goes as far as stating that he is anti-conviction, as if it was wrong to have definite views on things that are demonstrably clear. I don’t know if this is the answer to the problem, but he clearly is tackling some of the same issues that I tackled in Atheism 2.1.

He does have a point when he argues that philosophy is distinct from, and a necessary companion to, science.

Anti-something movements will go way of the dodo unless they manage to replace what they dislike with something better.

The author also engages in a bit of religious apologetics when he describes the play behavior of some apes who play with dolls. Some religious “make-believe” behavior that we see in humans cannot be compared with the innocent play of a human girl or an ape. Deeply held religious beliefs do have (sometimes awful) repercussions, and to confuse make-believe with proven truth–like religious people do–is infantile and irresponsible. As theater, or as play behavior, make-believe is fine.

Hedonic Kindness

The author coins the term “hedonic kindness” to speak of how doing good deeds and being altruistic releases feel-good hormones, citing maternal care as the possible source of this adaptation.

Invariably, nature associates things that we need to do with pleasure. Since we need to eat, the smell of food makes us drool like Pavlov’s dogs, and food consumption is a favorite activity. We need to reproduce, so sex is both an obsession and a joy. And to make sure we raise our young, nature gave us attachments, none of which exceeds that between mother and offspring. Like any other mammal, we are totally preprogrammed for this in body and mind. As a result, we barely notice the daily efforts on behalf of our progeny and joke about the arm and leg that it costs.

Not only does the author reject the “selfish gene” view that exceptional acts of altruism (like adoption of an unrelated creature) are errors, vestiges, or “misfiring” of our instincts, he also reminds us that human brains are wired for empathy, unlike insects. Social animals in the insect kingdom are highly efficient and have complex systems of communication and social interaction, but they do not have the neural complexity of a mammal. We are social and altruistic and moral in a different way from collectivist insects.

Part of the thesis of the author relies on a view of morality as a faculty, and therefore as somewhat unconscious. He uses the example of incest to argue that “moral decisions arise from the gut, they are irrational, visceral”. Modern biologists can of course reason why incest makes people so uncomfortable, but primitive man always had taboos against incest, long before geneticists pinpointed the need for genetic variation.

In order to understand hedonic kindness, we must first understand the mechanisms by which people experience empathy. This is where the science gets interesting: the author argues that these mechanisms are physical and neurological. He discusses processes of bodily synchronization, contagion of happiness or sadness, and yawn contagion which are seen in nature among many primates, and what is known as mirror neurons that “fuse people at a bodily level”.

… we activate neural representations of motor actions in our brain similar to the ones we perceive or expect in the other … Frowns induce sadness, smiles happiness. Ulf Dimberg, the Swedish psychologist who conducted this research, told me about the initial resistance, which made it hard to get his findings published in the 1990s … at the time, empathy was viewed as a complex skill under cerebral control. We decide to be empathic, so the thinking went, on the basis of deliberate simulations in our head of how we would feel in someone else’s situation. Empathy was seen as a cognitive skill. Now we know that the process is both simpler and more automatic. It’s not that we lack control (breathing is automatic too, but we are still in command), but science looked at empathy entirely the wrong way. Empathy stems from unconscious bodily connections involving faces, voices, and emotions. Humans don’t decide to be empathic; they just are.

One uniquely human instinct that strongly correlates with morality is blushing, which is a physical signal sent when one experiences shame. The author reminds us that bodily indicators of shame are also seen in great apes. The role of shame in a naturalist morality was discussed in my reasonings about Confucius’ Analects. Like other forms of humanism, Confucianism focuses on the need for good role models: wholesome leaders inspire wholesome citizens and individuals, and the fear or shame tied to the disapproval of these role models is one of the main incentives for moral behavior. The author of The Bonobo and the Atheist provides numerous examples of this from ape societies, and also cites the “the prestige effect” that is observed in primate societies: how apes and humans like to imitate those in higher social standing (role models, alphas).

Without getting too off-track–as this is not in the book, I should cite that gossip is theorized to have a role in instilling shame and building trust among humans and, although it is sometimes looked down upon, gossip behavior seems to also be part of our moral instinct. It helps to enforce shame and guilt when anti-social behavior is observed, and strengthens societal cohesion.

We are reminded that one of the founders of our School, Hermarchus, posited a doctrine that natural kinship contributed to our moral choices and avoidances: this doctrine strongly resonates with our anthropologist’s hedonic kindness. Hedonic kindness reminds us that logic and syllogisms are not the source of moral judgment, and that we must study empathy as an unconscious phenomenon in order to better understand our moral faculty. This also brings us back to our Cyranaic Reasonings, which concluded with the recognition that our way of philosophizing is rooted in the body, its instincts and drives.

External Reinforcement

Moral instincts are innate, but reinforced socially–both in hierarchical and egalitarian models of relationship. We see that respect for authority figures and alpha (fe)males is part of what keeps society in order and that, through bullying, through not sharing resources, through shame and other methods, individuals in a group internalize the rules.

Conflict is needed to reinforce the rules, but after conflict happens, we see in ape communities a huge amount of time and attention dedicated to repairing relationships, making amends via grooming, sharing a meal, and other behavior.

Egalitarian relations also exist among the great apes. The author explains that initially, anthropologists hesitated to use the word friendship for the relationships between unrelated members of a species that were always together, fearing that the term was too anthropomorphic. In reality, friendship is no exaggeration, as friends in ape societies have been observed to mourn after one of them dies.

The ultimate example of external reinforcement in human societies comes in the form of the death sentence, which has acted in human society as a form of artificial selection for certain moral traits: we have been killing off sociopaths for millennia, in doing so removing their strains from modern human DNA and producing an increasingly domesticated variety of human.

The Is / Ought Question

From a biological point of view, basic emotions are … nature’s way of orienting us to do what we prudently ought. The social emotions are a way of getting us to do what we socially ought, and the reward/punishment system is  away of learning to use past experiences to improve our performance in both domains. – Patricial Churchland, in “Braintrust”

The author argues that morality exists without reason, and is based mainly on instinct and emotion, and says that “the tension between (is and ought) is felt much less clearly in real life than at the conceptual level at which most philosophers like to dwell. They feel that we can not reason ourselves from one level to the other, and they are right, but who says that morality is or needs to be rationally constructed? What if it is grounded in emotional values?”

In other words, it is unnecessary to go from is to ought. Instead, we can study nature and base our choices and avoidances on what we know about nature–flow with it, not against it–because (and this is one of the key premises of this book) we really ARE good-natured.

The book closes by speaking up against top-down morality. If in fact morality, like our limbs, comes from simpler forms and we are good-natured, then we can speak of grassroots virtue or morality, a subject that I discussed in my Contemplations on Tao as tied to the virtue of naturalness. If we are authentic and true to our nature, we will naturally develop wholesome qualities.

Atheism 2.1: the Tension Between Atheist Politics and Ataraxia

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.

Towards an Epicurean Atheology

Ancient Epicurean tradition held that the Gods were real and even went as far as to hold that they were material beings, that is, made up of atoms.  Jefferson reiterated the general presumption behind this belief when he said:

  “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1820

The belief in the atomic constitution of the Gods was ancient man’s way of saying that, without being anchored in matter somehow, the Gods could not be said to exist in any real or significant manner.

A more or less scientific understanding of the Gods in recent decades emerged from the Jungian school of psychoanalysis.  The hypothesis of Gods as archetypes was advanced decades later by mythographer Joseph Campbell.  By equating the Gods of the human race with archetypes of the collective unconscious, and therefore as inherited psychological instincts that are, presumably, written in our DNA, we may begin to apprehend the psychological nature of the Gods.  In other words, we inherit not only physical traits, but psychological ones.  A baby’s inherited, unlearned, memory of the suckling instinct and the changes that occur at puberty are best explained by these archetypes.

In explaining the hypothesis of archetypes as inherited instincts, Joseph Campbell once related how small birds in the Galapagos Islands, when they see a large plane flying over them, experience panic and call for their parents to comfort them.  Now, in the Galapagos Islands these birds have no natural predators.  But their ancestors, who evolved in South America, did live under the threat of the condor, the largest bird of prey in the continent.  And so, natural selection had favored this instinct of panic, and modern descendants in the Galapagos still exhibit a vestige of the instinct.

Notice the many dragon myths in human culture.  There are no dragons in nature, but virtually all mythologies have them.  The Jungian view is that the memory of the predators we learned to fear in our evolution, perhaps even going back as far as when the first tiny mammals lived under the shadow of the giant dinosaurs, still lives in the depths of our collective psyche, that through natural selection we inherited the instinctual panic that helped our ancestors survive.

There is recent, very preliminary, epigenetic research that seems to point to cellular memory of a kind other than the chemical language codified in our DNA.  It shows that experiences of stress from a great famine, or from an event like 9/11, can have effects on the next generation, and the next one, and so on.  As such, the panic that our human, ape, and mammalian ancestors experienced in the presence of saber tooth tigers, large birds of prey, snakes, and other beasts may have embedded itself into our psychological configuration.  Further research in epigenetics will confirm or deny this hypothesis.  If it confirms it, it will have redeemed Jung from the criticism by the established schools of psychology that consider him unscientific, and it will open up new and fascinating fields of knowledge concerning our myths and our collective unconscious.  So far reaching is Jung’s influence in contemporary New Age thought that there is a Jungian spirituality movement.

Many of the Gods of Olympus emerged from our relatively recent, urbanized and civilized psychological history (Hermes the God of commerce and of cross-streets, which is where commerce happened; Athena the Goddess of wisdom, etc.), and therefore these Gods resonate deeply with much of today’s recognizable cultural reality rather than primitive instinctual panic.  Still, even if Jung’s theories are confirmed, the Olympians and all the other Gods do not exist except as psychological, transpersonal instincts that we inherited and not as true, independent agents.

Within Epicurean tradition, the polemic on the nature of the Gods has revolved around the realist (the Gods are physical, atomic, real beings) versus the idealist (the Gods are man-made mental constructs) theories.  These psychological Gods postulated by the Jungians are fundamentally different from how they were imagined throughout history and can perhaps be classified as fitting within the idealist interpretation of Epicurean (a)theology.  Although I do believe the Gods may be useful in therapy, in the end it is still wise to remember the first of Epicurus’ remedies: there is no reason to fear them.

Nietzche went as far as to say famously that ‘God is Dead’, but for many, like philosopher Michel Onfray, it seems like the vestiges of the biblical God are everywhere and that we still haven’t figured out what to do with his corpse.  It would seem that the psychological tasks before us, as we stand over the carcasses of all the Gods of history, remain untackled, that the Superman whom Nietzche predicted would render life valuable and meaningful in the absence of divine agents, has yet to arrive.

At the risk of seeming anachronistic, I believe Epicurus may fulfill the role of Nietzche’s Superman.  Yes, he lived 2,300 years ago, but Nietzche acknowledged that after Epicurus, Western thought only degenerated.  He was the apex of classical thought, ergo we can assume Epicurus was at least on to the task of the Superman: it is on his shoulders that we must stand.

What, specifically, is Epicurean atheology?

Epicurus was as much concerned about the nature of the Gods as about their quality, the merit of the object of one’s worship.  His first official doctrine is as follows:

A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness. – Principal Doctrine 1

This teaching forms the foundation of his rejection of common ideas about the Olympian Gods, as presented in the Homeric works.  Epicurus reasoned that whatever Gods there were would not behave in immoral ways, would not engage in rape, adultery, jealousy, and all the other behaviour that the legends attribute to them.  As such, I argue that Epicurus’ theology is an atheology, that it can not be reconciled with traditional concepts of theism and that it represents a fundamentally philosophical, secular humanist, and irreligious understanding of the Gods.

A philosophical theology requires that the object of one’s worship embody the virtues and perfections idealized in philosophy.  The late Roman tradition of personifying and revering abstract virtues like Prudence, Justice, Liberty, and so on, as part of one’s civic duty is in line with Epicurean ideals.  Epicurus believed that we could cultivate ataraxia by contemplating these virtues, as personified in the Gods.  I admit, for instance, that the statue of Liberty does inspire awe, just not in a religious sense.

But both the awkward accomodation of Jungian ideas and the reverence of abstract ideals are likely to do little to revive Epicurean theism as it was lived in the ancient world.  It is more accurate to speak today of an Epicurean atheology, in view of how most Epicureans today do not truly believe in the Gods and our naturalist worldview does not comfortably integrate them, except from a strictly secular and philosophical perspective.

I do not think this represents a major reform within our tradition, but in practice it denotes a decreased willingness to conform to societal norms inspired by theism, which is fully in evidence in contemporary Epicureanism.

See also:

Contrasting Realist to Idealist Philosophy by Dr. Stephen Hicks; Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six


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