Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Reason for the Season

Religion as a Virus and Epicurus' Remedies

Those of us that grew up under the ideological yolk of the God of the Bible had to contend with a Janus that was said to be both a loving Heavenly Father whom Jesus imagined feeding the birds daily ... and a wrathful, jealous, mad sociopath who ordered the Jews to commit genocide in order to occupy other peoples' lands and carried out an extermination plan that lasted centuries in Canaan.  They could not possibly be one and the same person, but then again, there is no agent, no person, other than the human agents who had the political and military agendas in the Old Testament, and the agenda to try to fix the shameful ancestral crimes of religion in the new one.

I was initially amused when I first read Richard Dawkins' reference to religion as a virus.  I believe it was in his The God Delusion that I first found the idea, but then found out that Craig A. James had fully fleshed out the notion in his The Religion Virus.

The example that Dawkins sets uses parasites who enter the body of innocent animals and make animals (in his case, frogs) deformed and particularly vulnerable to predators.  Once eaten, the seed of these parasites lies dormant in the dung of the birds who usually feed on these frogs, and then the life cycle of the parasite can begin again.

Another example he uses is the ant who is overtaken by a parasite that grows on its head.  Other ants quarantine the member of the species and mark the territory around it with chemicals to warn each other.  These super-intelligent insects apparently know the parasite is contagious.  The growth of the parasite is such that the ant is entirely deformed.  It attracts birds who also eat the ant and perpetuate the seed of the parasite.

The argument seems to be that only something that functions as a psychological parasite can make a man blow himself up for a higher good.  Only a man possessed by a foreign biological agent would act as a suicide bomber or pilot, or murder his own children as a sacrifice to his God, or make a person engage in celibacy.  These are behaviors that obviously have no connection with biological imperatives to survive and to pass on the genes and are, therefore, anti-life.

These memes hijack instincts and emotional responses inherent to people (our connection to father, to mother, an infantile urge to surrender, our fear of death, etc.) and use them for self perpetuation.  Just as many viruses are intelligent and use the behavior of other species to their advantage, these memes cleverly implant impressions in the soul through devotion, ritual, initiation, passionate speech; they create fond memories just as familial relations do.  And just as with bacteria, some are harmful, while others are relatively innocent.

It may be more accurate to say that these cultural memes are not agents themselves but are cleverly utilized by agents: parents wanting to protect their children teach them certain beliefs, pastors wanting to control people implant beliefs based on guilt or fear, and some people seek to console themselves in times of difficulties and also construct belief systems that provide comfort.  All these agents have their own agendas and, ultimately, it is these agents who (consciously or not) create and perpetuate these memes.

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist.  In the worldview of an evolutionary biologist, living entities' genes adapt constantly to their environment by the process of natural selection, perpetually increasing their chances of survival and honing the survival strategies of the species.  It is therefore understandable that, to Dawkins, only a parasite would lead a living entity to behave in a manner which is counterintuitive for its survival.

Lucretius, in Chapter IV of his poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) describes an early theory of natural selection which existed among ancient Epicureans 23 centuries ago.  This theory was part of the first and most cogent ethics based on biology, science and the study of nature that any philosophy has proposed. Because Epicureanism is a naturalist philosophy, it frequently draws metaphors from nature and there is ongoing discourse where philosophy is compared to medicine.  Applied Epicurean philosophy gives us a compassionate process of therapy by which the diseases of the soul can be treated.

Philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that cannot cure the body - Epicurus 

We therefore take very seriously Dawkins' assertion that supernatural beliefs are parasitical, viruses of the mind and that religion  can behave like an epidemic.  We should carefully consider the repercussions of this and not ignore the many and complex religious worldviews and paradigms, not all of which are equal.  It would be unfair to treat all religion as (equally) evil or harmful.

The main danger coming from religion has to do with fear-based beliefs, as I see it.  This is indicated by the first two of the Four Remedies: do not fear the Gods and do not fear death.  These are among the very few 'thou shalt nots' of Epicureanism and their primacy indicates how important they are.

It's fear of God(s), and the implied notion that it is wholesome to be scared of a God, that produces many of the more primitive and superstitious, less desirable expressions of religious fervor, from the episodes of genocide in the Old Testament, to the inquisition, to the glorification of violence as jihad or of martyrdom in Catholicism.  In all these cases we create misery on Earth, all for the sake of a feared divinity.

It is here that the ancient imagery of an angry tribal warrior God sending plagues to his tribe's enemies becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in our process of co-creating our otherwise beautiful world.  It is here that the AIDS plague becomes an occassion of thanks-giving to pious Christian fundamentalists and 9-11 an occassion of festivity for pious Muslim fanatics.

Why else would a God have to be feared?  People only fear if they are threatened, if they feel like there is a reasonable danger approaching.  If you believe that you worship an agent capable of heinous acts of bioterrorism or mass murder, even if at times you wish he would act against your perceived enemies, you WILL fear your God and think of fear of your God as a necessary part of your piety.  But a closer and honest talk with the mirror will reveal that a part of your soul ressembles him.  Joseph Campbell said that your God is your limit.  He can also be your disease of the soul.

Each one of our unanalysed fears is seen as a disease of the soul, defined by us as diathesis (dispositions, or underlying beliefs) founded on false belief which generate unnecessary suffering.  The plague-sending God becomes very real to the people who suffer from this insidious type of spiritual disease.  They live in fear and they spread it against their will.  Like Dawkins' narrative of parasites in nature, these diseses perpetuate themselves through their agents, the false preachers, even when they seem to provide no apparent survival value.  They do not serve life: they hinder it.  They do not add pleasure: they remove it, and replace it with ignoble values and experiences.

Epicurean therapy requires that we replace false dispositions with true beliefs and wrong views with right views.  Science had advanced tremendously and provides great assistance, as it is through the study of nature that people can acquire a proper naturalist understanding of reality and protect the mind from supernatural (and, therefore, UNnatural) views.  There is now a science of dying, and also a science of happiness, both of which add to the conviction needed to succeed as an Epicurean and slay the monsters of the soul.

Applied philosophy heals the soul with its wholesome arguments, which argue against the false beliefs and make it easier for us to abandon the empty or vain desires, fears and habits that emerge from them.  Epicurus calls us to carry out nothing less than an inner revolution through which we regain our spiritual health.

We treat false beliefs, mainly, via thorough study, repetition and memorization of Epicurus' teachings, which are rendered in the form of short adages for easy memorization and compiled in epitomes like the 40 Principal Doctrines.  Having wholesome friends is the most important ingredient in happiness.  Also important is associating with people of like mind.  But without this introspective process, it is impossible to gain the insight and freedom by which philosophy redeems the soul.

Dawkins was recently seen sporting a shirt with the message: "Religion: Together we can find a cure!".  I wish I could meet Professor Dawkins in person and tell him: "Dear Friend, have you heard of Epicurus?  We at the Society of Epicurus are here for that very purpose!"

Friday, June 28, 2013

Hate the Belief, Love the Believer

One of the Top 10 trending subjects on twitter today is #YiyeAvila, a Puerto Rican televangelist and preacher from the old school who called people to repentance and frequently used fear tactics related to hell and the afterlife to weave a supposedly moralizing message that almost seemed in line with Salafi Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.  On youtube, there is a video with a long rant where he admonishes women to never wear pants.  In another one, he speaks in tongues and laments aimlessly on stage without really making any sense for about ten minutes.  The hysterical pentecostal crowds loved him.

But Yiye Avila belongs not in the 21st Century.  The world is changing.  Marriage equality was given a boost yesterday at the federal level.  In the midst of all the social media reactions from all sides to all the events of the last few days, atheist media personality Shirley Rivera twitted "How sad that you've died.  I would have enjoyed you watching the first same-sex wedding in Puerto Rico".  There were many other reactions, but this one drew venom from the pious.

And so this raises a moral question for humanists who consider people of Yiye Avila's ilk to be profoundly detrimental to modern society.  I was never moved to hate him or to relish the fact that he's dead like some of the more cynical atheists.  In fact, I felt a good deal of compassion for him during his last days.

With his death, I was concerned that people would eulogize him and forget that he was a fraud and a parasite who lived off the credulity, ignorance and vulnerabilities of simple-minded people ... but wanted to make sure that in recognizing that fact, I did not dehumanize him.  He was not evil in the way that Jerry Falwell was evil.  His evil was mixed with good and derived from his (and his constituency's) profound ignorance.

Epicurus forbade attacks against people.  Instead, we are to attack false beliefs, not the believer.  This customary respect, in spite of the profound differences of deeply-held opinion with regards to common religious views, was perhaps the result of his exile from Mytilene in the island of Lesbos, where philosophers who were partisans of false Platonic doctrines had gained political power and the gymnasiarch had been influenced to threaten Epicurus with accusing him of impiety, for which the death penalty was the punishment.  Socrates had suffered a similar fate.

Faced with the tyranny of false religion and philosophy, Epicurus developed a philosophical tradition that made a virtue of frank speech yet, somehow, remained carefully respectful of religious symbols.  Today, at least in the Western world, we usually do not get intimidated and threatened into submission by religious powers, but it's still a sign of good character and of prudence to hate the belief, yet respect and love the believer.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Despite being an atheist, Ms. Doughty was told that any conscientious objection must be based on religious grounds, not simply moral objections. So as someone who was not religious, and didn’t believe in a god, she had no basis for objecting. Her statement has been denied and she has been informed that to move forward in the process she must submit a letter from the elders of her church to prove her conscientious objections are religiously based. 


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Nelson Mandela Quotes

A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.  But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.

There is no passion to be found in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Summary of the Diseases of the Soul

In his new book Letters on Happiness: An Epicurean Dialogue, Peter Saint-Andre wrote an introductory survey and commentary of Epicurean doctrines, fragments, and even a letter by Thomas Jefferson, in the form of an exchange of letters between friends.

This type of contemporary philosophical literature is exactly the type of content that the Society of Friends of Epicurus would like to see more of, as it resonates with our teaching mission and vision.  His commentary is didactically useful for several reasons.  It's sorted by subject, which would make it useful within the context of a study group, and utilizes the strategy of approaching a teaching from various angles and paraphrasing in order to help the pupil easily apprehend therapeutic concepts.  For instance:
Perhaps we can try to express the Epicurean remedies as actionable guidelines, as he does in Vatican Saying 71: Ask this question of every desire: what will happen to me if the object of desire is achieved, and what if not?
The author is particularly equipped to write his Letters on Happiness because he is the translator of Epicurean writings for Monadnock Valley Press and for the public domain, so that he was able to gain thorough familiarity with the writings while he was conducting his translation work.

Saint-Andre also incorporated his summary of the diseases of the soul, again applying the technique of paraphrasing and giving readers a different approach to the teachings in order to help them assimilate the didactic content.  The condensed Summary of the Diseases of the Soul is useful in learning Epicurus' doctrine and may even be helpful in our introspective philosophical work, in the cultivation of good character and of the analysed life.
Let's see if I can summarize the diseases of soul that Epicurus describes:
The fear of oblivion leads to the desire for immortality. Yet the ideal (what is natural and necessary) is not to live forever, but to face death without fear and to enjoy the span of your life on earth.
The fear of weakness leads to the desire for power. Yet the ideal is not to hold power over other people, but to be strong and effective enough to meet your own needs.
The fear of poverty leads to greed and the desire for great wealth. Yet the ideal is not to be super-rich, but to have enough material goods to meet your true and natural needs for food, shelter, clothing, companionship, etc.
The fear of obscurity leads to the desire for fame. Yet the ideal is not being renowned to all the world, but being connected to the people who truly matter to you.
The fear of being disliked leads to the desire for honor. Yet the ideal is not to be the recipient of great public esteem, but to have self-respect and to be respected by those you know and admire.
The fear of being bored or being perceived as ordinary leads to a desire for luxury (fancy things, exciting experiences, and such). Yet the ideal is not continuous stimulation but active engagement with the world around you. 
The fear of being considered inferior leads to envy — the desire that others lose what they have. Yet the ideal is not tearing others down, but accepting and improving yourself.
The fear of being disappointed leads to anger — the desire that other people act as you want them to. Yet the ideal is not feeling that others must conform to your expectations, but accepting others as they are and maintaining your inner serenity. 
The fear of failure leads to laziness — the desire to get something for nothing. Yet the ideal is not passivity but active confidence in your abilities and the pursuit of self-improvement.
You may read the book Letters on Happiness online, or via Amazon.


I must say that ever since I subscribed to God on twitter my relationship with God has gotten better.  I didn't know he was this witty!