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The Saints of Atheism: Epicurus

January 28, 2014 Leave a comment

In keeping with last week’s subject, I would be remiss if I mentioned that we cannot accurately call it the “Epicurean Paradox” without getting into what Epicurus actually said. First off, we know little about the life of Epicurus, what we do know is that he started the last of the four great schools of antiquity. Following Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, Zeno’s Stoa, we have “The Garden” of Epicurus. The gardens was different from the ordinary schools in that it taught women and slaves alongside citizens. Epicurus made no distinction between the groups as far as his teaching of philosophy was concerned. While this policy seems normal in that they should be teaching women it was revolutionary for him to do so…the only previous school to do so was that of the Pythagorean cult who also made no distinction, as long as you didn’t eat meat or beans, believed in reincarnation, and thought numbers were real things.

What has happened since the day of Epicurus is that his name has become an eponym for hedonism. An Epicure, is a person that loves the finer things in life from wine, women, men, and song; yet like almost all eponyms originating from the ancient period it is founded on a lie. A “platonic relationship” is depicted as sexual in Plato, just as a “stoic” person is not one characterized by apathy. The student of Epicurus would not be a hedonist, they would not chase after objects of frivolity and luxury; they would eschew them for simpler and easier obtained desires. Indeed, in the letter to Herodotus, Epicurus specifically recommends against such luxury pursuits.

Why sanctify him to atheism? Epicurus, adopted the atomic theory of Democritus, but added to it the possibility of free will by removing the strict materialistic determinism that Democritus implied. Epicurus added a swerve to the atoms which his follower Lucretius would add to his seminal work on the Epicureanism, “On the Nature of Things.” To this Machiavelli would write in the margins of his copy that within the swerve lies our free will. There was no soul, except if we consider our mind the soul. The most important aspect of Epicurus’ thought for the history of atheist thought is that he is the first to concretely and explicitly doubt the existence of the gods.

A good deal of the elucidation comes from Cicero’s dialogue with an Epicurean in his “On the Nature of the Gods.” There and his two letters: Moenecus and Herodotus, both explain that Epicurus if he believes in the existence of the gods is, at most, a deist. Like the first three American presidents, several of the Founding Fathers aside from those; he believes that if there are gods they cannot care about us. Why would they? They would be of such different quality and character than us, that to pretend our lives are in any way similar to that of the gods is the worst kind of arrogance and endemic of a fanciful view of existence that we are somehow important. For us to think that we offer the gods anything, any kind of help would be similar to a housefly thinking that it offers anything to us. The deist believes that the universe is a created thing, but that whatever did it is so utterly foreign to us that only through our anthropomorphizing of the deity do we think that we care. The Epicurean asks why the world builders suddenly decided to wake up and care about us? How our mutterings in a building gain their favor? If the gods existed, they say, the good would prosper and the bad would suffer but this is not the case. They say that for every ship that made its journey through the actions of piety two sunk and there is no reason or rhyme to it.

The science of the Physics may admit of the gods, by allowing some special arrangement of atoms, but never do they allow that the gods are any thing other than material. They may have special abilities but they are nothing more than material just as we, and everything else is. We call them gods only because they are more powerful than us, but remember everything that is made of material fades away, all things fail, and these gods would be no different. This also means that there are no spirits, ghosts, angels, or the supernatural; if they exist, then like the gods, they are also material and are just as natural as everything else. Epicurus has freed us of the terrors of thunderbolts, hurricanes, and quakes; they are natural occurrences that do not extend beyond the material world.

The chief problem, for Epicurus, is men’s fear of death. This motivates us to construct religions and involved gods as a matter of cheating what is inevitable. All that awaits us is the dissolution of our atoms down to the individual upon which they move to being something else. Epicurus is famous for his view of death, that death cannot harm us because when we are dead we are not, while we live there is no death, the two things being in opposition should give us no fear. The individual ought to accept this grim truth, remembering that death awaits us all ought to be a liberating idea. For this is the only life that we know of why spend it in denial and fear of the unknown?

Perhaps it is the character Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic that is correct: our notions of piety and of morality are based on what the powerful and strong would have us believe. That it is all designed to keep one group of us at a certain measure of subservience. Or, perhaps it is Nietzsche and his transvaluation of morals that places humility as piety–whatever Epicurus believed on that subject he either never said or it is lost to history. Nevertheless his belief was that if the gods would prosper and the bad would suffer, but again the evidence does not bear this out. The good may prosper but they are just as likely to suffer as well, for divine intervention all we really have is luck.

The Epicurean ideal teaches us to enjoy life because it is all we know. Pretending that religion X is true, is a pain that we inflict on ourselves and our children as if we really know what happens when the eyes glaze over for the last time. Epicurus would have us rather trust that the best things in life are not painful, that atraxia–the art of repose with good friends and conversation is the goal that we should strive for. To be free of the care and worry is the highest in life. And really, is there evidence that anything to the contrary is true? This is why he is our latest saint of Atheism.

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An Atheist’s Perspective: A history of a Paradox

January 21, 2014 4 comments

In theological circles the problem is known as Theodicy, or the problem of evil. The problem runs like this: if there is an all powerful god and evil happens should we not regard this as impossible? If we do accept the occurrence of evil aren’t we saying that there is some defect in god that we have not considered. If such a defect exists, then are we accurate in calling this thing god? Or perhaps there is another way around the issue, perhaps what we call evil isn’t actually evil at all.

This is Theodicy in the most basic formulation that I can provide. Most popularly we can see it in tee shirts that offer this as a summation of the problem, the wording changes from site to site but the general theme of it this: Is god willing to prevent evil but unable? Then he is not omnipotent. Is god able but unwilling? Then he is malevolent. Is he able but ignorant? Then he is not omniscient. Is he both aware, able, and willing? Then where does the evil come from. If he is none of those things then why are we calling him god?

This is titled, usually, as the Epicurean paradox. A google search for that particular title will bring up millions of searches with the same theme. All of them claim this as a product of the ancient Greek school of the Epicureans, most claim this as a quote from the philosopher Epicurus, and therein lies the problem: a problem endemic to all sides of the religious questions. The problem is to be honest in the face of belief, to value the truth above all else or all of us are nothing more than liars pushing a particular worldview on other people. The issue with this paradox is not what it claims or whatever the answers to the questions are; it is that Epicurus never said it. Nor, can we trace the claim to the “Ho Kepos”–the Epicurean school in the city of Athens, or any of the people that came out of that school. It also never appears in the mouths of the characters of Cicero who placed Epicureans in his dialogues.

The paradox does appear until Ch. XIII of Lactantius’ De Ira Dei or “The Anger of God,” in which Lactantius offers Christian attacks on the two later schools of Athenian philosophy: Stoicism and Epicureanism. With regard to Epicureanism, it is Lactantius that brings up the paradox as a way of slandering the Epicureans into being atheists. What the actual words are, through the magic of the internet is:

” God, he [Epicurus] says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does He not remove them”

What Lactantius is trying to accomplish is to make the school of Epicurus so abhorrent that no one would dare use it to question Christianity, which was an infant on the world stage. By equating Epicureanism with Atheism he believed that no one would dare touch it.

The question that people ought to be asked, and even Lactantius answers it: is whether or not the Epicureans even denied the existence of the gods: short answer, “no.” The Epicureans believed in the gods but they did not believe that the gods would ever care about the world or the creatures in it. For them, there is no problem of evil because the gods neither know of it, want to fix it, or even care about whether or not they have the power to fix it. This is because the Epicureans are not atheists, they are deists just like all of the most popular of the American founding fathers. For Epicurus, or any of his followers to conceive of the paradox would be utterly ridiculous. What we consider the gods for them are nothing more than beings more perfect than us, but still made of atoms and void. If they are persons, they do not care about us or our lives, we are not important to them. This idea comes from Epicurus, his follower Lucretius, is mentioned by the Epicurean Vellus in Cicero’s writings, and is even mentioned by Lactantius himself in the same book in which he writes out the paradox.

How is this possible? Lactantius would have to be quite an idiot to accuse the Epicureans of atheism while earlier in the same book claiming that they believed in the gods. The quick answer is that the term “atheist” does not mean the same thing that it does now. I’m an atheist, and that means that I have not seen evidence sufficient to support the claim that some personal god exists. For Lactantius, the belief of a god that was not a personal god would be considered an atheistic belief. This is the same kind of issue that would get 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in trouble, or Renee Descartes, or Thomas Paine; they all believed in a god being but not the personal god that was demanded of the Christian powers of their societies. This does cause classification problems between then and now which is what has led to the mistaken notion among atheists (as well as modern day agnostics and deists) that it is Epicurus’s paradox in the first place. They must remember that it was meant to be a slander.

In closing I think it would be helpful to mention that no matter where the paradox actually comes from, it must be answered. The paradox is a devastating argument (except when it is abbreviated, like you see on most tee shirts sporting it), and for his part Lactantius does try an answer: that god is able to take away the evils of the world but does not. This is not because he is envious but rather because we need the evil to know wisdom, according to Lactantius we must know the evil first before we can know what the good actually is, therefore evil is a necessary part of the existence of us humans.

The entire argument of course, is bullshit. For this to be true, it would mean that the Garden of Eden was not paradise because for a time there was no evil in it. Such a doctrinal shift would put Lactantius in the category of “heretic” since Christianity needs the “fall” for the crucifixion to make any sense, and you can’t fall from a good place if that place wasn’t good to begin with.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Personal Accomplishment

January 14, 2014 Leave a comment

After a couple of years of ignoring the subject but once in awhile thinking about it; I have finally figured out why people don’t like Tim Tebow. For the most part, it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s a Christian. Sure, “tebowing” was a fun meme for a little bit, but much like planking it went away pretty quickly. People don’t like Tim Tebow because he’s a quarterback that had a hot streak, which, when it ended it ended permanently (as of this writing who knows what the future will bring). I know that the right wing conservatives want to frame him as some kind of oppressed martyr, because being a star quarterback in the NFL with a multi-million dollar contract is indicative of oppression, but that is certainly not the case. I doubt that it would matter if he was a Sikh as long as he could play sports-ball well people will like him and just as many people will hate him. What bothers me, however is the sanctimony, the idea that every accomplishment a person like him has made is somehow the result of direct intervention of the divine–that, more importantly, he takes no responsibility in his accomplishment. I will cease talking about him now.

When people discuss personal responsibility with regard to the religious sphere and then with regard to the non-religious they typically mean that atheists act the way they do because they don’t have to be responsible for their seemingly immoral actions. Actress Keira Knightley made a comment that was completely misunderstood, she said (or is claimed to have said), “it’s absolutely extraordinary. If only I wasn’t an atheist, I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven.” Her point was not that she actually wishes that she was not an atheist but that as one she has to answer personally for her actions. She can’t blame it on the devil, she can’t blame it on god, and most importantly she has to be forgiven by those whom she has wronged rather than just popping in the confessional and having some third party forgive you on behalf of a fourth party. An atheist really has to take responsibility for their actions more than someone that believes in the supernatural governor of the universe. This kind of attitude is also present in accomplishments as well as wrongdoing.

I will use myself as an example. A few months ago I had an interview at a local community college for an adjunct position teaching Introduction to Philosophy. I received the position and was given one class (which was subsequently canceled due to enrollment), when I finished the interview I knew that I had done well. I knew this because I walked into the interview prepared with syllabi for three different courses and knowledge of the school’s upcoming Spring semester schedule fully prepared to answer any questions about availability. I also have three years of experience teaching at the Community College level, four publications, a master’s degree, and am currently working toward a PhD; I have worked a long and difficult road to get to the position where I had the interview. I take full responsibility for my accomplishments, I did them and it was all my struggle that I went through to get it (and that struggle was a lot more than just passing courses).

There are two alternatives to taking responsibility for what I have done: the first is fate. Fate, is a hard thing to discuss because if you disagree with the notion of fate, and there exists fate, you are basically fated to argue against it. My own personal viewpoint is that either there is fate or there isn’t; but in either case there is no sense in arguing over the subject unless it’s science fiction time travel and then there is basically every reason to argue plot points, impossibilities, and paradoxes. The second, we have mentioned in the first paragraph: that some divinity is responsible for my accomplishments and I find this to be an offensive argument. What it means is that all of the hard work and struggle is all do to the whim of a being who decided one day that he was going to throw me a bone one day and give me an interview. It means that if this divinity didn’t like me, he could decide that I would never be successful no matter how hard I tried because of some arbitrary whim of his. It means that all of the sports stars that thank Jesus/god/Allah/etc. for victory are ignoring all of the years of hard work, practice, exercise, and team work because their divinity it so worldly that it needs to play sports games. The kicked ball isn’t guided by Jesus anymore than the arrow of Paris was guided by the hand of Apollo; it was the skill of the kicker.

The lesson that is often repeated regarding hard work is “that the lord helps those who help themselves” yet the three major religions of the Abrahamic tradition will not find the quip in their holy books. They will find, actually, the opposite: that it is not about hard work but about submission that gets one reward. Reward, which, exists in the afterlife and not in this life. These religions teach surrender, submission, the groveling at the feet of a cruel tyrant who may grant victory to someone if it decided that the person has sucked up enough.

I have already listed my accomplishments but I should note that my teaching experience began with a phone call three weeks into a semester with the phrase, “can you begin on Wednesday?” (It was Tuesday) This occurred after a rather grueling interview in which I did will enough to get placed on the reserve list but not well enough to get a job that day. To think that none of that matters, that it is all secondary to the will of the divine and the mutterings of a people who have nothing to do with the situation influencing his will while he lets children starve, warlords to prosper, women and girls to be cruelly oppressed, and genocide to occur then I would rather I did it on my own, thanks.

It also means that I must give credit for the good things in life to someone else, but the bad things I get to keep. Sorry, friends, it doesn’t work that way. If I throw the ball and it gets intercepted, then he gets credit through either action or inaction for the pass. Otherwise my five year old has a better sense of responsibility than the divine. If I botch the interview then I botch it, if I nail it, I nail it. All things that we do in this life are things that we do, no one else gets to claim credit.

An Atheist’s Perspective: The Difference is only in the Godhead

January 7, 2014 Leave a comment

The defining feature of conspiracy theories is the insertion of intent into world events. Events which may be the result of a single individual, a large group, or a series of coincidences; are given an over-arching narrative voice by which the expression of the intent is the direct result of the will of an individual or cabal which wishes to have no obvious presence in the world. This means that the world, as we understand it to be, does not regard us with the indifference that it actually does. Every individual has some kind of part to play, some matter of importance to overall plan–whether its being a cog in the wheel, or the space between the cog (I have no idea what that is called but I’ll bet it has a name, probably a Dutch name). This is because whatever it is that it is running the show needs to pay attention to everyone so that the plan can come to fruition.

Despite the nefariousness that is usually posited by conspiracy theorists the difference between religious thinking is not here. Anyone believing in the various religions believes also that no matter how small the various person may be in their relationship to the world they still have a place of importance within the divine plan. The role of intent still plays a vital role in the events of the world. Nothing can happen without the invisible hand of the divine (or at the very least, it’s tacit consent). The divine in this case special attention to the believer, who for good or for ill believes that they can act in accordance with this attention.

In all cases the believer can only have a belief in the wishes of the master(s) of the world. They can have books, arguments, authority figures, etc. all giving the nature of what the will may be; but this is all regarded as a matter of faith. There is no direct evidence of what the overlords or gods of the world want, at best all we have is second hand knowledge. Ultimately the problem of both is that they can do nothing but proclaim judgments on act-types, as either being part of the conspiracy or a sinful act, but when pressed about the present, only vague ambiguous declarations can be made. The gods and the conspiracy masters are never more advanced than the people which follow/create them.

I’m not sure who would be more insulted by the comparison, especially considering there is significant overlap between the two. But I get the impression that the average religious person would be more insulted being lumped together with what they might perceive as the enemy. Conversely, it would be easy to see a conspiracist upset about being lumped in with a Catholic or member of some religion which they perceive as being part of the grand conspiracy.

Is there a consistent commonality between the two? Yes, the primary differences between them are accidental. The chief difference being, that with religion one is seeking to gain the favor of the world’s master while the conspiracist seeks to thwart it. As I can see it, this is the chief difference. What they both have in common is much more essential to both; the belief of an omnipotent power controlling the world’s activities, more so the tragedies  rather than the boons of mankind, this power’s unlimited authority and ability both fall into the epicurean dilemma and the Agrippan trilemma. The proof for both relies on loose connections, second hand evidence, hearsay, as well as the reliance on the physically impossible and absurd. In some ways we could switch the two without much trouble. The day to day behavior would not be much different–minus the devotion to the supernatural. The conspiracist at least believes in the power of the human intellect to run the world, and it must be enslaved to the laws of the physical world.  No matter what, the two believers posit an omniscient force that cannot be thwarted, no matter what the set back it all is revealed as being part of the master plan. If the particulars are removed perhaps the major cleaving between them is that the world masters of conspiracism have to take a much more active role in the world then the divine powers asserted by the religious. Otherwise in belief and act of the believers the two have much more in common than they have apart.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Thoughts on Time’s Man of the Year

January 1, 2014 Leave a comment

So everyone loves the new Pope. He cares about the poor, which is apparently a new thing among the Catholic hierarchy, he has commented on the idea that the church needs to stop focusing on social issues and concentrate on its mission of service. Then, he went further and said that if gay people are good individuals then who is he to judge, while also deciding that perhaps its possible that even atheists are deserving of salvation. All of these things, with his actions in refusing the various luxuries that come with the office, have earned him the title of Time’s Man of the Year.

Now, we must be clear on the subject matter of the Person of the Year, it is not about the best person in that year but the most newsworthy. The one that affected the most attention, which is why 2001’s original choice of Osama Bin Laden was the correct one. It’s also why Hitler gets it and somehow “You” got it as well. The contest, because it essentially is a contest, has been a bit silly. However what we want to look at is whether or not Pope Francis is truly the most newsworthy figure of the year.

People, Catholics mostly, are definitely talking about him; what’s troubling for me is whether or not we ought to be. Let’s take his position on atheism, given that its more dear to my heart than anything else. His position seems to be that if I am a good person, it doesn’t matter what I believe but more of how I act in order to achieve salvation. Is this that revolutionary? Not exactly, the Catholic faith has always been more about action than belief. It’s some of the Protestant churches, and especially the fundamentalist churches that put the matter of belief above the actions of a life. Read the Left Behind series and you will see a very specific set of beliefs that would have gotten a person raptured (even though that term does not appear in the bible at all). Yet, despite the concentration on action, there are a couple of beliefs that one must ascribe to: the first being transubstantiation and the second being in the church itself. It was a pretty big deal then to include the non-believers in the group of potentially saved.

What I like most about his comments was the back-trapping and mental gymnastics that Catholic conservatives used in order to justify the Pope’s comments with their prejudices. It was the first time I had ever heard paradise and salvation separated. Somehow I get the one thing and am denied the other (truly I forget which is which). Why is this the case? Because there is a group of people that really want me to burn in hell simply because I do not believe in the same thing that they do. This, is of course, psychotic; but in their mind they have “put the time in” (actual quote from a radio caller) and they deserve something more than I get simply because they go to church and count the minutes until the service ends.

I don’t want to claim that all Catholics are like this, nor would I even plant a flag on “most” but it is there. It’s a credit/debit account that can’t get and do not deserve. Even the with comments on homosexuality we see the same thing. What the Pope said was normal. It’s what decent people ought to think, yet when the Pope makes the comments, it was somehow revolutionary. Yes his comments could represent a doctrinal shift and perhaps that is what his fan club among moderate Catholics and those outside of the religion think but we have yet to see one iota of action.

The Pope whishes the church did not focus so much on social issues but at the same time he’s done nothing to reverse the horrible effects the Catholic ban has had on African countries ravaged by AIDs. A stroke of a pen and a powerful momentum shift can be undertaken to stop the spread of a disease which can be defeated by a thin layer of plastic. This is a pope that is somehow so inclusive of other people that he has excommunicated priests for preaching that women can be priests. Those are his actions, thus far, because other than showing the type of compassion that every other human being on the planet ought to show his words have translated little to actions. If we think about it, what has this Pope done that has been anything other than continue the same old song? Then again, I am writing about him so maybe Time has a point.

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