Tag Archives: atheism

Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon

The following piece was originally written for classics publication Eidolon.

Go ahead. Try us for thirty days. If you don’t like us, your old religion will most likely take you back. — Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

One of the newest international religious movements today requires its faithful to wear a pasta strainer on their heads and, on occasion, to dress up as pirates — as this couple did for the first Pastafarian wedding in New Zealand. The members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster posit an afterlife in a paradise island that features pirates, strippers and a beer volcano. Naturally, eating spaghetti and meatballs constitutes a sacrament.

Pastafarianism is a parody religion invented in recent years to make the point that the supernatural claims at the heart of most faiths are mutually contradictory. If we’re going to act as if they’re all just as plausible as each other for the sake of political correctness, then we might as well treat the idea that the Creator is a flying intergalactic nebula of noodles and meatballs — and its hosts of pirates — with the same undeserved respect we afford all other unempirical beliefs.

The roles played and tactics used by secularist comedians and philosophers in the ancient and modern worlds are similar enough that one finds some continuity in their narratives, arguments, and identities. The so-called “New Atheism” is not new. It went through a period of arrested development, but its infancy can be located in dusty scrolls written by ancient intellectuals.

Both the old Epicurean tradition and the modern secular movement have had to deal with thorny issues of free speech, religious privilege, and diversity. They have employed similar tactics in their respective culture wars, including comedy as a weapon against authoritarianism and backwardness. They’ve also both faced persecution for said weaponry. More specifically, the modern practitioners of Pastafarianism are engaging in the kind of disruptive and insightful satire that ancient Epicureans were known for.

The Church of FSM is not the first parody religion in history. At times, the ancient Epicureans also seem to treat their legitimately recognized philosophical tradition as a kind of parody religion, the first inkling of which is their own designation of the Canon as the “book that fell from the heavens”. The Canon was the main piece of foundational writing of Epicurus of Samos, which established the materialist standard of truth based on empirical observation. Epicureans’ love of the Canon was such that their intellectual enemies joked that the Canon had fallen from heaven. The Epicureans seized on this mockery and began jokingly referring to it that way: the Canon had indeed fallen from heaven! It was the atomist Bible, the philosophical Quran. The designation stuck.

Later on, in the first century BCE, the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius produced didactic and amusing caricatures of his contemporaries’ beliefs that still resonate. After asking why Jove hurls bolts of lightning at innocent people and not at sinners, and why the god should waste his efforts directing fire at deserts and other isolated regions, Lucretius goes on to mock the idea of divine origins of lightning:

Or, as the clouds pass by, does he climb down onto them, that he may aim his bolt close-range?

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura VI.402–403

Needless to say, the tactic of mockery is still in use today among the New Atheists, and there is no shortage of Christians, Muslims and animists who attribute weather phenomena and plagues to an angry, vindictive god.

In the second century CE, Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata authored a satirical exposé of Alexander of Abonoteichus, a false pagan prophet who profited handsomely from giving obscure oracles to wealthy patrons. His antics are reminiscent of those of Christian televangelists and snake-handling cults of our day. In order to impress people, Alexander walked around carrying a snake and foamed at the mouth, which Lucian explained by accusing the prophet of chewing herbs containing saponin.

Lucian’s work, titled Alexander the Oracle-Monger, constituted the closest thing to our generation’s Religulous for the people of the late Roman Empire. It also nearly cost Lucian his life. Alexander, as it turns out, was not only vindictive but also two-faced — he showered Lucian with favors while plotting to have him killed for mocking his cult. Lucian narrates the event towards the end of his work, in the sixth paragraph before the ending:

When I intended to sail, he sent me many parting gifts, and offered to find us […] a ship and crew — which offer I accepted in all confidence. When the passage was half over, I observed the master in tears arguing with his men, which made me very uneasy. It turned out that Alexander’s orders were to seize and fling us overboard; in that case his war with me would have been lightly won. But the crew were prevailed upon by the master’s tears to do us no harm. “I am sixty years old, as you can see,” he said to me; “I have lived an honest blameless life so far, and I should not like at my time of life, with a wife and children too, to stain my hands with blood.” And with that preface he informed us what we were there for, and what Alexander had told him to do.

When Lucian attempted to bring charges against the false prophet, the Roman senators convinced him to abandon the entire matter. Many of the senators were not only clients of the prophet, but also fearful of retaliation from his mobs of followers. Lucian gathered stories about Alexander’s fraudulent practices until the prophet died in old age, at which point he published the satire. The false prophet got away with attempted murder.

Fun fact: it is in this work that Lucian invented the tradition of literally calling out bullshit. At the beginning of Alexander the Oracle Monger, Lucian makes the very first reference to bull crap in literary history when comparing Alexander’s fraudulent and evil practices to “the unspeakable filth that three thousand oxen could produce in many years”:

You, my dear Celsus, possibly suppose yourself to be laying upon me quite a trifling task: “Write me down in a book and send me the life and adventures, the tricks and frauds, of the impostor Alexander of Abonutichus” […] if you will promise to read with indulgence, and fill up the gaps in my tale from your imagination, I will essay the task. I may not cleanse that Augean stable completely, but I will do my best, and fetch you out a few loads as samples of the unspeakable filth that three thousand oxen could produce in many years.

Lucian’s narrative is peppered with affectionate words of praise for Epicurus and his legacy, and the work was allegedly written as an act of Epicurean solidarity. From this introductory paragraph, we get another picture of the cheerful cultural milieu of the Epicureans. It depicts a kind of “culture of comedy” advanced by Epicureans like Lucian — who, in addition to being funny, was known as a brilliantly engaging and entertaining narrator. His close associates, like the one Celsus mentions here, enjoyed listening to his stories so much that they wanted a record for their ongoing amusement and that of future generations.

Going back to the original tale of religious immunity and privilege, we see that it resonates with contemporary and recent events. Consider, for example, the Catholic Church’s predatory practices and dodging of the judicial system for generations, which has also inspired much satire. Another parallel could be the violent Islamic attacks and intimidation against cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and authors like Salman Rushdie. These conflicts show the tension between comedy and authoritarian religions, where (perhaps excessive and undeserved) respect is channeled toward certain persons or symbols. Even when our societies do enshrine the right to blaspheme within broader guarantees of freedom of expression, there are communities under the sway of authoritarian religions that may coerce the state into annulling those guarantees — if only temporarily.

Some may argue that it’s precisely because of these dangers that one must artfully employ parrhesia, which translates as “frank criticism” or “frank speech”. Parrhesia was initially a power reserved for free Greek citizens, but Epicurean philosophers turned it into a tool for constant self-betterment and education. Philodemus of Gadara taught that “philosophy heals through frank criticism.”

In his scroll On Frank Criticism, Philodemus mentions that philosophers employed two forms of therapeutic parrhesia. On the one hand, private criticism cleanses the human character and purges bad habits and diseases of the soul. On the other hand, public criticism helps emancipate people from blind traditions, societal conventions, and false views that are degrading and generate suffering. The idea was to diagnose a disease of the soul for treatment. Parrhesia could be unpleasant, like bad medicine, particularly when the recipient was wealthy or arrogant. The Epicureans were known for softening the medicine with “suavity”, a virtue of soft and gentle speech. Comedy can also help to lubricate parrhesia’s harshness.

In the modern LGBTQ community, parrhesia can take the form of “reading” someone. Although it can sometimes be demeaning, at other times it can genuinely serve to therapeutically humiliate or demonstrate a weakness or flaw of character: the arrogance and empty insinuation of moral superiority of a preacher, the lying tendencies of a politician, the insecurities of a bigot. Societies need to appoint clowns who look from the outside and deflate hypocrisies with mockery and frankness. Drag queens frequently perform this role in the West, as their Two-Spirit gender-variant counterparts did in pre-contact Native American cultures. The LGBTQ community also employs parrhesia in another way: the process of coming out of the closet. This practice not only creates the opportunity of authenticity for the person coming out, but forces greater authenticity on the rest of society.

The use of various forms of parrhesia is one of the threads that unites secular activists and their allies. Creationism and notions of divine intervention in nature were as large of a concern to pagans and secularists as they are today. Modern Pastafarians have built an entire circus of parody around the inane, absurd beliefs in divine creation that persist into the 21st century.

A note here will help to illustrate the different attitudes adopted by progressive secular communities and regressive religious ones, as exemplified by ancient Epicureans and contemporary Muslims. The pig is considered dirty and insulting in the Islamic tradition, whereas the Epicureans accepted the pig as a symbol for the pleasant life of a hedonist. In the villa of Herculaneum, Philodemus and his Epicurean community prominently displayed a sculpture of a pig. The poet Horace jokingly asserted that he was “a fat pig of Epicurus’ den.” The comparison of Epicureans with pigs seems to have started out as an insult by enemy schools inspired by the Epicureans’ love of pleasure.

Their cheerful affirmation in poetry and sculpture of being a swinish herd, even up to the adoption of the pig as a formal symbol as we see in Herculaneum, together with their designation of their Bible-like Canon as “the book that fell from heaven”, demonstrates the Epicureans’ cheerfulness and willingness to not take themselves too seriously. This seems to have been a proud cultural trait of the Epicureans. It is impossible to imagine Muslims so easily and jokingly assuming epithets like “pig”.

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”— George Carlin

This quintessential cultural difference characterizes both the modern and ancient culture wars between secularists and religionists. We may argue that it goes back to Democritus, the precursor of Epicurus who was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” for making cheerfulness his key virtue and for the way in which he mocked human behavior. The tradition of the laughing philosophers had to start with the first atomist: materialism liberates us from unfounded beliefs to such an extent that it renders absurd the beliefs and the credulity of the mobs.

Epicureans and Cynics have continued this tradition. Atheist comedian George Carlin — who was in fact a Philosophy major — is one of the most recent and most brilliant examples of a laughing philosopher. He employed comedy and frank criticism in a manner that was blasphemous, disruptive, and liberating. He did not reserve his bad medicine for religion alone. His rant against the bankers, many years prior to the 2008 banking collapse, was nearly prophetic.

The phenomenon of parody religions is quite popular today among militant atheists. Pastafarians worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster and, as a form of protest against and commentary about the excesses of religious privilege, have in recent years been involved in controversies for insisting on having their official picture IDs taken with pasta strainers and requesting that their faith be legitimized via census.

As we’ve seen, ancient Epicureans also often behaved like a parody religion and used Pastafarian-like tactics. But the political intentions behind their disruption took a second seat behind the educational, philosophical, and comedic value of their cultural output. In the “Isle of the Blessed” passage from True History, Lucian invents and describes in great detail a paradise. He sends all the Epicureans and kindred spirits to his version of heaven, in the center of which is a sacred Well of Laughter, but refuses to admit members of enemy schools by comically depicting how they failed to find the isle. Aristotelians, on their way to the Isle of the Blessed, stopped and were perplexed at how it was possible for such a thing to exist. Stoics were busy scaling the hill of virtue. Lucian uses wit to expound the Epicurean doctrine of how relying too much on logic, or setting goals other than pleasure, can hinder human happiness.

Similarly, some Pastafarians will temporarily put all joking aside and argue that their cult does present some legitimate philosophical points concerning who carries the burden of proof with regards to religious claims, and how every single unprovable supernatural assertion is just as valid as the creation myth that we find in the Bible.

There is great tension in Europe as a result of the rise of Islamic extremism, and many Westerners are looking to an idealized past for a shared identity and solidarity. Although Epicurus was not an atheist, many secularists frequently look to Epicurus for a role model. As a result, this Greek humanist hero is making a comeback, as attested by the proliferation of Epicurean blogs and memes on social media. The wise man of Samos has even been replicated in effigies made with 3D printers — a highly personalized, futuristic sculptural tradition that has begun in our generation. Perhaps that is a symptom of how Epicurus is being reimagined for future generations by modern humanists.

We need culture heroes to uphold the values of Western civilization and free expression. Epicurus and the tradition of laughing philosophers provide a deep-rooted cultural well that satisfies the strong desire that many Westerners feel to re-imagine their identities in line with strong scientific and secular principles.

Pastafarians and the New Atheists have appropriated many of the methods and discourse that Epicureans initially proposed and used. Lucretius’ arguments about how the gods didn’t make this imperfect world for humans are still used today. Today’s so-called culture wars, expressions of which we find in both New Atheism and parody religions, are in many ways a continuation of the ancient conversations, identities, tactics, and narratives of the Epicureans, and more broadly of the laughing philosophers.

Parrhesia and comedy are not the only tools in the Epicurean toolkit. There is also suavity, the virtue of gentle and kind speech that Epicureans were known for, and it is here that the Epicureans might have something to add to New Atheism, helping people to find the balance between militancy and ataraxia — the peace of mind and stable pleasure that was the ultimate goal of Epicurean therapy. Frank speech is the sign of us being free citizens. But there are many ways of saying something, and sometimes the utility of our words is sacrificed in their harshness.

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

INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF FRIENDS OF EPICURUS

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