Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Epicurean Answers Habakkuk's Questions

It's rare to encounter a prophet who acknowledges the powerlessness of his gods to bring good, destroy evil, and fix the world. Rarer still to find one who acknowledges the evils that religion brings upon humanity. Habakkuk is one of the lesser, little-known prophets from the Old Testament, and one who bore witness against his own god and questioned him about the existence of evil, injustice, and suffering in the world. His disappointment is typical of those who confuse virtue with credulity.
O Lord, how long must I call for help before You will hear? I cry out to You, “We are being hurt!” But You do not save us. Why do you make me see sins and wrong-doing? People are being destroyed in anger in front of me. There is arguing and fighting. - Habbakuk 1:2-3
Habakkuk establishes that his god does not listen to the prayers of his people, and is indifferent to the violence that surrounds religious community. His second question then desperately attributes agency and volition to divinity, giving to divinity power over choices and avoidances. It is God that chooses evil people to punish presumably good and righteous people. It is God who favors those who do wrong. An ancient Epicurean would have considered these passages blasphemous. The prophet also engages in passive-aggressive appeasing of his god by attributing holiness to him, even while confronting him with his inaction in the presence of the evil seen everywhere, which indicates that the prophet still has unmet expectations and false beliefs about divine intervention in nature.
Have You not lived forever, O Lord, my God, my Holy One? We will not die. O Lord, You have chosen them to judge. You, O Rock, have chosen them to punish us. Your eyes are too pure to look at sin. You cannot look on wrong. Why then do You look with favor on those who do wrong? Why are You quiet when the sinful destroy those who are more right and good than they? Why have You made men like the fish of the sea, like things which move along the ground that have no ruler? - Habbakuk 1:12-14
He specifically later mentions the Babylonians, so that we can imagine that he is perplexed at certain events in his recent history and can't reconcile this with his Jewish doctrine of divine intervention in history with the goal of people-building. We later see the depths of the prophet's spiritual disease in what might be the most blasphemous utterance in Habbakuk, but here the prophet intends it as praise.
Disease goes before Him, and much trouble comes after Him. - Habbakuk 3:5
Another translation uses pestilence in this verse: God has now degenerated further, into a bio-terrorist. He is later asked whether he was angry at inanimate things, like rivers and seas. Habbakuk's God not only is powerless to stop evil. He uses evil people to punish the good, and is essentially a Plague everywhere he goes. It's unclear why he's understood as holy instead of evil.
Now, since conversation is impossible with a divinity, as the Indianos reminded us recently, it falls to us to answer Habbakuk's questions to his god and to resolve his disappointment, which is a typical symptom of the cognitive dissonance seen in the souls of many sincere theists, and which is based on their false views and expectations which are not based on the study of the nature of things. Let's begin where the Masters in our tradition say we should: with the Canon, with empirical evidence, which should always be the starting point in all of our reasonings. According to studies linking crime, societal dysfunction and religiosity, the correlation is clear, observable and undeniable:
Despite the best efforts of “pro-life” Americans, abortion rates are much higher in our Christian nation, and lowest in relatively secular ones such as Japan, France, and the Scandinavian countries. In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. This would seem to indicate that there is a positive correlation between religiosity and dysfunctionality, but what does that mean?
As this has been such an on-going and prevalent problem for most of human history, there are several Epicurean commentaries on this confusion of values created by popular religiosity.
In an argument reminiscent of what ISIS is doing in Syria and Iraq, Diogenes argued in his wall that the most religious and superstitious people of his day were also the most evil (presented here against Ptahhotep's Maxims), and Polystratus also argued at length that one who follows virtue without studying the nature of things, loses all virtue, that his virtue comes to nothing because it degenerates into trembling superstition, moralizing arrogance (this view was also expressed by Lao-Tse in the Tao Te Ching, where he argued for grassroots virtue), and many other inconvenients.
In any case, the fact that even virtuous actions often have no advantage because, in the cases mentioned above, men show too much arrogance or fall back without reason into superstitious fears, and because in other actions in life they make many mistakes of every kind, so that no one really exhibits virtue.
The confusion of values produced by bad, primitive theology is one of the great diseases in the human soul. It has made people surrender to the worst in themselves and others, and disown their own agency, volition, and power. It's why good people who are religious sometimes do horrible things. These beliefs not only impede our spiritual and psychological health and maturity: they also impede our happiness, our pleasure, our ataraxia and equanimity. They add to our suffering instead of taking away from it.
The responsibility to create a happy, pleasant, beautiful life here on Earth is ours, and only ours, and entirely ours. Let's have enough self-respect and compassion to put aside the childish things that keep us from taking that responsibility seriously.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Minimalismo existencial

Vale la pena compartir este artículo sobre el minimalismo existencial de nuestro amigo Alan Furth, un bloguero de Argentina.

Friday, October 3, 2014

E-book (and Free Companion Book) Available in English from Humanist Press

Under the tagline Be Smart About Being Happy, the American Humanist Association and its publishing branch Humanist Press sent their press release to announce that Tending the Epicurean Garden is now available via their webpage as an e-book.

Humanist Press has a heavy focus on e-book technology. The paperback had been available from months on amazon, but what makes the HP e-book a worthwhile investment for people who are interested in the profiting from their Epicurean studies is that readers who buy the e-book directly from Humanist Press will be able to leave comments on the book which, once approved, become forever part of the work.

In addition to this, Lucretius by WH Mallock, with commentary has been made available by HP as a free companion volume to Tending the Garden.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Avoiding the Middle East

When the United States was discovered for the Anglo Saxon world, Colombus came here on a mission, he was trying to find a way to India by avoiding the Middle East. Now this was 500 or more years ago. They were avoiding the Middle East. Shouldn't we learn something?  
And Colombus was willing to defy science because at that time they believe you could fall of the Earth because it was flat. But he was willing to fall off the Earth rather than go through the Middle East.  
Jesse Ventura