Stoic & Epicurean rivalry

Both can agree that a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

Stoics and Epicureans were ancient rivals. And some modern followers of these philosophies may feel inclined to perpetuate that rivalry. But it’s unnecessary.

Stoics and Epicureans have different answers to what it means to live a good life. There’s no objective answer to this question, of course. Your chosen path is your responsibility.

Stoics believe that virtue—justice, courage, practical wisdom, and temperance—is the greatest good. And not letting negative emotions overwhelm us is essential in this endeavor. As such, it’s crucial to distinguish between what is up to us—our choices; and what is not up to us—external events. We must regard external events as indifferent, not because they don’t matter, but because good or bad is about how we choose to respond to them.

Both philosophies warn against anger and fear—especially fear of death.

Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Epicurus taught that maximizing pleasure requires moderation and limiting our desires. Drinking a glass of wine is pleasurable but getting drunk causes pain in the long run. So avoiding pain is a greater pleasure than a desirable but fleeting physical sensation.

Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.

Epicureans counter that virtue for virtue’s sake makes no sense—we seek to be virtuous because we find it pleasurable in the long run even if there are some bumps in the road.

But modernism clearly favors one philosophy’s ancient physics. Epicureans were and are atomists. Even in ancient times they believed we live in a material universe in which the gods do not interfere. Ancient Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed the universe is God and that divine providence plays a central role.

While there are traditional Stoics who adhere to ancient Stoic theology, most modern Stoics have adopted a position similar to Epicurean cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or agnosticism, but it often does. Some modern Stoics are monotheists in the usual sense of the word, and a few are even practicing Christians.

Modern science means philosophical revisions for Stoicism far more than Epicureanism. The Stoic injunction to live according to Nature raises the question, What is Nature? Ancient Stoics said Nature is divine reason—the Logos. But that answer won’t work for a deist, an atheist, or an agnostic.

Nontheist Stoics reject the idea of providence and see fate as synonymous with blind cause and effect. Though Nature is still synonymous with reason, its basis is redefined as the best that evolution has endowed humanity with.

But despite their differences on how to live a good life, there is a common point for both Stoicism and Epicureanism: from a big picture perspective a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable than a life of vice. Individual moments are more problematic, but as a Stoic I hope if I’m tested I will choose to do the right thing even if it’s painful. Of course, I hope I’m never tested in that way.


Reconsidering God’s existence (or, the value of agnosticism)

Knowing and believing are separate issues.

Flagler University, St. Augustine, FL. © Dave DuBay

I’ve been an atheist for 20 years. Or more specifically, an agnostic atheist. That’s not a redundancy. Nor do I think that “agnostic Christian” would be an oxymoron, though I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves that way.

Agnosticism is about what we know or don’t know. Religious belief or atheism is about what we believe or don’t believe. You can say you don’t know if God exists. But this agnosticism says nothing about whether you believe God exists or not.

I became an atheist because there were too many supernatural beliefs—the virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water—that I could not honestly say I believed. On top of that, none of the alleged proofs of God’s existence actually prove anything. They may provide reasons that God might exist, but proof is a much higher standard.

So I decided that while I don’t know if God exists, it seems unlikely. I could not truthfully say I believed in God.

Of course, you can believe in God without believing that some dude walked on water. Perhaps God chooses not to suspend the laws of nature. But the biggest problem with believing in God is evil: if God were all-powerful He could stop evil, and if He were perfectly good He’d have to. Maybe there’s a bigger plan—which requires quite a leap of faith. Or God isn’t perfect. Or there is no God.

But a major objection to atheism is the question of why there is something rather than nothing. And while that raises the question of who created God, one strand of Christian theology holds that God is not a thing that exists but instead is existence itself.

In a previous post I argued that without God morality must be relative. This doesn’t mean atheists are less moral than religious people. No one (except psychopaths) believes that everything is permitted. But a relativist cannot say that certain things are wrong no matter what anyone thinks.

In a similar way, without God life has no meaning beyond what each individual might assign to it. Put differently, self-constructed meaning has no meaning beyond one’s ego.

Note that moral relativity and lack of universal meaning could be true. And we can’t say that God exists just because we want meaning and morality to be universal.

Further, even if God exists this does not automatically prove other Christian beliefs. I think Christians too often leap from “God exists” to “and therefore all Christian beliefs are true.” Instead, each claim must be taken separately. And this is a monumental task considering the Bible’s numerous contradictions and fantastical claims.

Earlier I wrote that we should trust no one who claims special knowledge about God, including whether God exists. And we should distrust our own beliefs about God most of all. The temptation for self-justification is too great.

I’m still doubtful of a personal God. Or if there is a God then I find it hard to believe that God is all-powerful.

On the other hand, the ancient Greeks articulated logos—the organizing principle of the universe—which pantheistic Stoics identified as God. This is perhaps more palatable in our modern scientific age. But we shouldn’t mistake this for a scientific viewpoint. And for many people I’m sure this is a doubtful abstraction.

The universe’s organizing principle—which I see as impersonal—is the closest I can get to something I could call God. But I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. It’s a personal opinion.

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.

Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.

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.