Stoicism & the problem of Nature

Ancient Stoic beliefs about Nature face challenges in the modern era.

Carefree, AZ. © Dave DuBay

Stoicism is experiencing a renaissance after fading away with the fall of the Roman Empire. But modern Stoicism departs from its ancient ancestor in important ways. Modern Stoicism is effectively agnostic. That is, some modern Stoics believe in God while others are atheists.

Contrary to the stereotype that Stoicism is about repressing your emotions, virtue (or being the best you can be) is the core of Stoicism. Emotions are okay but losing control is not because you’re at your worst when you lose control.

Ancient Stoics believed in living in accord with Nature. They were pantheists—the universe is God, which is a reasoning entity. To live according to Nature is to live in accord with Logos, or reason. And this leads us to the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

But critics of Stoicism often ask how Stoics define Nature and how they know that certain virtues are in accord with Nature.

The God question

Despite fake internet quotes attributed to Marcus Aurelius, ancient Stoics did not look at agnosticism favorably. Fake Marcus is alleged to have said:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

In contrast, real Marcus wrote:

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening—the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us.

Many modern Stoics are atheists, however, while others believe in God. I’ve previously written that atheism creates a vacuum. Human beings seem to need a comprehensive framework that provides a sense of moral order. Whether you think that moral order arose from evolution or from a transcendent source is another question.

But if you don’t believe God then on what basis can you equate reason with Nature? Does attributing reason to Nature imply that Nature has consciousness? If so does this mean that Nature is God, or is this universal consciousness not divine?

These questions might seem like a distraction, but Stoicism is philosophy and these are philosophical questions.

Morality without gods

Earlier I argued for a basis of universal human rights even without deities. In a nutshell I wrote that culture can build upon human psychology, which is the product of evolution.

We survive in groups, so being good team players evolved as part of our psychology. But human psychology is flawed. Our most basic moralistic impulse is selfish—”you shouldn’t do that to me.” The cultural concept of universal human rights is necessary to protect every individual’s hardwired sense of personal boundaries.

This argument is pragmatic, however. It asserts that virtues like justice are cultural concepts—tools, if you will—that are instrumental in creating the kind of society we all want to live in.

In other words, my framework doesn’t deny the importance of virtue or human excellence, but it’s not in total agreement with ancient Stoicism. Of course, modern Stoicism is free to update itself based on modern views of the world.

Virtue and modern Stoicism

This doesn’t mean that modern Stoicism has to abandon virtue. For many people modern Stoicism’s appeal is the idea of keeping your cool and putting things in perspective by distinguishing between what’s under your control and what’s not under your control. Perhaps it makes sense to start with the practical usefulness of Stoic ideas and to extrapolate from there that reason, wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation are the most effective values for maximizing the benefits of Stoicism.

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Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

We are a tribal species. But it doesn’t have to be our downfall.

Us vs. them is human nature. Human rights, equality & democracy are the answers.

Us versus them is one of the most common themes in politics, history, IMG_0472sports, business, music – in human nature in general. But people also can be amazingly generous, compassionate, and cooperative.

In the 1970s E.O. Wilson proposed sociobiology to explain this contradiction. We’re a super social species, and just as adaptations to the environment drive our physical evolution, adaptations to the demands of our social group drive psychological evolution. In other words, our social behavior has biological roots.


Today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past.


But this social behavior has its limits. In The Social Conquest of Earth Wilson notes, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Social skills are key to human survival. The most socially cohesive tribes surpassed less adept tribes. And today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past. But cooperation, while valued among members of the ingroup, is valued far less with the outgroup. Often there’s violence.

And we mustn’t forget about competition within a tribe for power and social status. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to quote a Bedouin saying: it’s me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother, and our cousin against the stranger. The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

This is why Wilson tells us that human beings seem to be of two minds: self-sacrificing and viciously selfish, altruistic and self-interested, peacemakers and warriors, empathic and uncaring, and so on.


The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.


I don’t think argue pure altruism exists. Evolution ultimately is about the perpetuation of an individual’s genes, so it all comes down to self-interest. But there’s narrow self-interest, or competition, which is win-lose; and there’s broader self-interest, or cooperation, which is win-win.

Both cooperation and competition can be good. But narrow self-interest is our default. And this can be problematic. Our shared humanity (and shared DNA with other species) means we’re closer to others than we often think. But failing to realize this leads us to think that others don’t matter, and we can do whatever we want to them. This is how rape, murder, genocide, torture, and any number of horrible things happen.

Human societies have tried to solve these problems. It took us thousands of years, however, to figure out that democracy, equality, and universal human rights are essential to mitigate the dark side of human nature.


Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe.


And we can do better still. Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe to contend with. What can we do about this? Wilson suggests:

  • Challenging the claims of those in power that they speak for God, are God’s special representatives, and have exclusive knowledge. This includes challenging the alleged special status of the pope and even the Dali Lama.
  • Acknowledging that we are solely responsible for our actions, which includes how we treat others, animals, and the earth.
  • Accepting that science is the best method we have for discovering objective truth about the world.

To this I would add that we should try to figure out what encourages cooperation, and what encourages competition. After all, competition is often good. Competition drives us toward something better. But competition can get out of hand. Where is the line, and what leads to us crossing it?


We need democracy on a global scale, and a universal bill of human rights.


We need democracy on a global scale. There are still too many undemocratic countries. And most corporations are not democracies even though there’s no reason why corporations can’t be run more democratically.

I don’t advocate a strong world government, however, because that would be too big of a temptation for a would-be dictator. But we could have a universal bill of human rights that we would strive for all nations to amend into their national constitutions.

When Is It Okay to Criticize Religion?

A person’s religion is a huge part of their identity, so criticism of religion is often taken as a personal attack. Progressives claim it’s racist to criticize Islam, conservatives say liberals unfairly single out Christianity, and atheists criticize every religion (even Buddhism).

Some people say we shouldn’t criticize religion. Yet, religious beliefs have an enormous impact on people’s lives – especially for those don’t belong to the dominant religion.

Others say we can and should criticize religion because attacking ideas is not the same as attacking people. But it’s an easy line to cross. If a belief is absurd does that make the believer absurd?

At least some criticism of religion is hard to avoid, however. Christians try to convert others, and they back it up with the threat of eternal damnation. By proselytizing a believer invites a response, and that response might be critical.

And Christians in the United States led the campaign against same-sex marriage primarily because of biblical morality. There was no way for marriage equality supporters to argue their case without criticizing what Christians believe.

The same is true of Islam. The severe impact Islam has on the lives of women, religious minorities, and others in Middle Eastern countries opens Islam to criticism. Yet, in 2014 Hirsi Ayaan Ali (an ex-Muslim and survivor of female genital mutilation) was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Brandeis University because she is an outspoken critic of Islam, which she calls a “cult of death.”

While I wouldn’t call Islam a violent religion, I wouldn’t call Islam a peaceful religion either. The same is true for Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions. And atheism too. Every one of these is a mixed bag because human beings are neither inherently violent nor inherently peaceful. We all have the capacity for both.

Perhaps it all comes down to how religion is criticized. I don’t go out of my way to dis religion, but neither am I silent. However, I avoid saying “you’re wrong” in favor of saying “I disagree.”

I try to minimize adjectives such as irrational, harmful, etc. Instead, I try to be specific about my objections, such as saying, “I can think of several biblical contradictions.”

I try to be friendly and humorous. I try to be open minded, which in my view doesn’t mean agreeing. Open mindedness means a willingness to listen, trying to accurately understand the other person’s perspective – even if I disagree.

Finally, there are some ideologues who only want to fight rather than engage in true dialogue. In those cases it’s best to just walk away if I can.

So Now Prayer Shaming Is a Thing

There’s a never ending list of things people are shamed for, which leads me to believe that we all need to lighten up a bit.

It’s no big deal if someone does something that I personally wouldn’t do, if someone dresses in a way I wouldn’t dress, or if someone has opinions I disagree with. Unless they try to impose it on me, or it causes genuine harm, then let it pass.

Having an agenda, however, often involves avoiding personal responsibility for imposing on others. This includes contrived excuses about the harmfulness of praying for shooting victims rather than taking action to curb gun violence (as if the two are mutually exclusive), a scientist wearing a risqué shirt supposedly driving women away from science, or disapproving someone’s bikini because it violates some people’s beauty standards.

And having been shamed, many people are quick to play up their victimization, thereby gaining social status as a long suffering member of an oppressed group.

But there’s more self-respect in standing firm and setting boundaries.

My attitude is that I can do what I want as long as I don’t mess with other people and I own my shit. But sometimes I find it hard to distinguish my fellow atheists from the moralists they decry. Yes, religion can be harmful when it encourages terrorism and promotes bigotry. Criticizing religious belief when it’s used to harm others is necessary, but praying harms no one unless it’s done to the exclusion of other measures or if others are pressured into praying when they don’t want to.

Perhaps the best religious response to prayer shaming would be, “Praying is my choice. Not praying is your choice. I’m not here to judge your choice, and I reject your judgment of mine.”

Of course, religious people who shame disbelievers for the immorality of not believing in supernatural forces are unable to say this without being hypocritical. Boundaries are always a two-way street.

The same is true for celebrities who face feminist wrath because they choose not to call themselves feminists. It would be great to see a celebrity set some boundaries by saying something like, “I choose my own labels. You are not entitled to say what I should call myself.”

What can I do as an individual to confront the endless barrage of public shaming? Minding my business is a huge part of stopping shaming from happening in the first place. This won’t stop others from poking their noses into my business, but I can choose whether to accept or reject someone else’s shaming.

Playing the victim means accepting the shaming in order to gain pity from others and to have a justification for retribution. But pity becomes a moot point when I reject the shaming. Setting boundaries reasserts my dignity, and retribution is not needed because an essential part of boundary setting is not crossing other people’s boundaries.

Why Religion Evolved

Everybody’s looking for something.  I think the Eurhythmics sang that.  People look for the love of their lives, devote themselves to religion, become activists for a political ideology, and are spiritual seekers because they’re looking for something.

But what is this something?  No one can quite put their finger on it.

Some people even think this something would appear if only everyone else would adopt their ideology.  And when others don’t, they lash out in anger.  And so religion and politics descend into authoritarianism.

Religion’s epitaph has been written many times, each one premature and disconnected from reality. There’s never been a culture without religion, and atheists are a minority even in the most secular societies.

This calls for an evolutionary explanation that isn’t dismissive or partisan. The title of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell implies an ideological quest to diminish religion. Still, he’s right about religion being a natural phenomenon which should be studied as such.

Dennett focuses on agenticity (also called theory of mind or intentional stance): we automatically assume, even as toddlers, that other people have thoughts, intentions, beliefs, etc. But we overgeneralize. Little children often think their teddy bears can think and feel. Even as adults we might describe a computer as being stupid, as if a computer could think.

The earliest religions were animistic—the forces of nature were thought to act intentionally. The sun and moon were deities. So it’s not much of a stretch from there to the assumption that invisible agents such as spirits and gods exist, and that whatever animated someone in life must continue after death.

But this doesn’t explain why religion is such a pervasive group endeavor. Evolution typically focuses on the individual, but individuals don’t exist in isolation—we survive in groups. So it makes sense that evolution selected for behaviors that enable individuals to be effective group members. (This is not group evolution, but rather individuals who cooperate with others being more likely to survive.)

Religion often creates the cohesion groups need, as well as addressing the uniquely human search for meaning. Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, quotes a World War II veteran who said that at first he thought marching exercises were stupid, but he understood its purpose once his unit began to function almost like a single organism with each person forgetting his individuality.

In battle you forget about yourself, but once the bullets stop flying you’re an individual again. Transcendence is short lived because it serves a specific function—that of binding the individual to the whole by temporarily leaving the self behind.  But for mundane tasks, which is most of what we do, we need to act as individuals.

The transcendence of self that soldiers experience in combat is not unlike the transcendence of self the Zen master experiences in meditation (but less riskier).  In the evolutionary environment, humans had to deal not only with conflicts with outside groups, but more often they had to function as a hunting team.  This was much harder than sport hunting today.  Weapons were primitive, there were predators like lions to contend with, and failure meant starvation.  Subsuming the self to the interests of the whole can be necessary for group coherence with nonviolent tasks as well.

In other words, civilization can’t happen without the ability to focus on something greater than ourselves—and religion helps us do this.  Haidt points out that many anthropologists view religion not primarily as belief in supernatural agents, but rather as primarily about community and ritual.

Ritualistic behavior is also a human universal, and synchronized movement—whether it’s marching soldiers or a religious ritual—seems to play an essential role in binding a group together.  The wave at a baseball game does the same thing.

That complex civilizations are impossible without cooperation is no small observation.  Haidt notes that you never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.  Chimps don’t cooperate at such a high level.  But humans cooperate to the point where we’ve gone to the moon.

As such, Haidt (though an atheist) disagrees with Dennett’s claim that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other traits, much like alcoholism’s (partially) genetic basis.

Haidt claims that religion evolved because it serves to cohere a group of people.

In sum, religion is about what happens between individuals and groups, and these individuals include invisible agents born from a pervasive human cognitive error (overgeneralized agenticity).

To this end, Haidt notes that, “Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studies in lone bees” (p. 248). Thus, religion can only be understood in the context of community.

Further, Nicholas Wade, in The Faith Instinct, claims that morality—the need to sometimes subordinate one’s self-interest to the greater needs of society—also evolved in humans to enable us to function in groups. As such, it makes sense that religion took on morality as its special project. Supernatural agents often are the enforcers of morality, thus tying agenticity and group cohesion together.

I think another reason religion evolved is that our intelligence leads us to wonder why we exist at all, and so people everywhere seem to need a comprehensive worldview that explains why we’re here and where we’re going.  Typically, this worldview is communicated as a story or myth. A shared worldview conveys meaning, and this is essential for a species that can ask the question, Why?

But free riders are a big problem groups face. The most conservative religions today seem to be the most successful, which baffles secularists and religious progressives.  Economist Laurence Iannaccone notes that conservative groups demand a high membership price—adhering to a strict moral code, distinctive dress, rejection by mainstream society, etc. In return they receive the benefits of group membership. Free riders don’t like the price, so they drift away.

None of this shows that God doesn’t exist, but neither does it prove God does exist. But what if God does exist? The modesty that comes with uncertainty causes us to recognize a few things:

For starters, there’s no way to know, so belief is an opinion and we can’t blame atheists for disagreeing. Even if there is some higher power, there’s no reason to assume this is God rather than an impersonal principle, a Goddess, or multiple deities.

And now that we know just how vast the universe is, it seems unlikely that God created all this just for us, or that God is even a person. If horses had gods they would look like horses, as they saying goes.

Then there’s the problem of ideas that are logically incoherent, such as the trinity or evil and the existence of an all-powerful, perfectly good God. And we must recognize that science trumps religion regarding the natural world. But if science someday is able to show that multiple universes are most likely the case, then God’s fate may be sealed because the statistical improbability of our universe would disappear. On the other hand, if the multiverse is ruled out then the improbability of our universe would bolster the argument in favor of a creator or creators.

So while rumors of religion’s demise are greatly exaggerated, religion is struggling to adapt to the modern world. If history is any guide, however, religion will eventually succeed. The specifics aren’t yet clear, but typically the process is organic and grassroots rather than by design or decree.

To Be or Not Be Catholic, and Atheist

The stonework of the vast interior, made to seem even larger by the emptiness of the high, rounded ceiling, creates a cavernous feeling. But the darkness of the stone is interrupted by colorful, translucent light, creating a sense of jeweled infinity beyond the opaque and impenetrable rock. It serves as a visual metaphor of our hope that life, beyond its impenetrable mysteries, is something more. The dark austerity of the daily grind is, we desire, underpinned by something bright and beautiful.

One feels so small and insignificant in a cathedral; and yet, there is intimacy. Watching over the visitors are marbled figures. Some have wings; others have crowns; and there are even those with but simple garb, an unadorned cassock, and serene, knowing expression. They look like us – they have human form – but their strange dress speaks of another world. And their wings, halos, crosses, and crowns tell us that their lives, unlike ours, are anything but ordinary.

These saints, angels, Madonnas, and Christs – whether child, man, or risen Lord – inhabit two worlds: Heaven and Earth. Through these intercessors and intermediaries, the worshipper believes that the promise of rescue from this world through eternal salvation will be granted.

The bright colors and intricate details of the icons frozen in the stained glass windows and painted on the ceiling command the attention of anyone venturing inside. They illustrate the ancient stories we know well – God’s plan for the salvation of the human race as revealed in His Holy Word. The cathedral itself is one giant icon, with the apse at the head, the nave toward the bottom, and the transepts on each side, forming a cross.

Whether a believer or not, the terrible beauty of a cathedral inspires awe. But more so for the believer, for whom the cathedral creates a deep emotional connection to the stories that form her or his worldview.

That worshippers would expend such immense time, energy, and valuable resources to build a cathedral, especially in a time of scarcity such as the Middle Ages, speaks to the power of faith.

Even if such faith is firmly rejected by some, the emotional intensity of this rejection – indeed, the revulsion some might feel – only serves to emphasize the deep chord religious belief strikes in the human heart.

~                      ~                      ~

I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for almost 20 years.  At age 18 I decided that I couldn’t become a priest because I didn’t have the absolute certainty that the infallibility of Catholic doctrine requires. Essential doctrines such as the Trinity, incarnation, and so on can’t be mostly infallible – it’s all or nothing.

I became a non-literalist, continuing a sort-of belief in God, which I thought of as a mythopoetic personification of ultimate reality, whatever that might be; an image human beings created as a stand-in for this giant existential question mark.

Over time I decided that deep mythopoetic thoughts are far less important than the way I choose to live my life, and admitting that really I think materialism is all there is to reality, sealed my fate as an atheist.

Still, being Catholic will always be part of who I am, even if I haven’t gone to church in years.  And constantly rallying against the Catholic Church, which became so much easier after the sexual abuse scandal, can only become destructive because such opposition means fighting a part of who I am.

But being an atheist is a larger part of who I am. And that is why I am not Catholic.