Waning Religion and Our Epicurean Moment

Epicurus

Religious membership in the U.S. has dropped below 50% for the first time, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  Some Americans continue to believe in the supernatural.  A 2020 survey indicates that half of Americans believe in ghost and demons.  But it is remarkable that today fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion. 

This new data confirms other surveys indicating secularization.  The Pew Center has documented the rapid growth of “the nones” (those who do not claim to belong to a specific religion) and the decline in church attendance. 

Some pundits worry this indicates a cultural malfunction.  Dennis Prager says, “When Judeo-Christian principles are abandoned, evil eventually ensues.”  Shloto Byrnes says that the West is suffering from a “Godless delusion,” arguing that “to be human has meant to be religious throughout history.”  And Shadi Hamid suggests that secularism fuels political extremism. 

These hyperbolic concerns are misguided and misleading.  Many societies have done quite well without Judeo-Christian values.  It is not true that human beings have always been religious in the contemporary sense, or that we need to be.  And rational humanism actually offers an antidote for extremism. 

The Covid-19 crisis provides a great example.  Prayer and miracles will not solve this crisis.  Scientific medicine provides vaccines, prevention protocols, and treatments for infection.  When people get sick these days, they go to the doctor instead of the shaman. 

Scientific naturalism is ubiquitous.  To predict the weather, we consult meteorologists instead of astrologists.  Earthquakes and volcanoes don’t appear to us as the work of mercurial deities who need appeasing.  Reason and humanism provide us with useful advice that improves health and happiness.

And despite what Byrnes says, humanism has a long history.  It made a strong appearance 2,500 years ago in the philosophy of Epicurus.  The Epicurean philosophy aimed to cure the anxiety caused by religious superstition.  Epicurus offered thoroughly naturalistic explanations of earthquakes, lightning, and the like.  The Epicureans taught that happiness was easily obtain by focusing on friendship and virtue in a world emptied of the supernatural. 

The Epicurean philosophy was popular in the ancient world.  But Stoic and Christian authors vilified Epicurean naturalism.  Epicurus’s name was falsely associated with licentiousness and shameless hedonism.  This caricature is unfair to a school that emphasized modesty, frugality, and friendship—and the deliberate avoidance of political extremism.

As a result of persecution, however, few of Epicurus’s original writings exist.  We do know that Epicurus defended an early version of atomism based in a naturalistic view of the world.  His views are remarkably modern. 

Epicurus taught that the cosmos was made up of atoms moving in the void.  He held out the possibility that in the infinite space and time of the universe, there were other worlds that resulted from the same natural processes that produced our world. 

Epicurus said that the soul was merely a combination of certain kinds of atoms.  When the body died, the soul dissipated.  There was no life after death.  If there were gods, they were not concerned about human life.  Religious myths and superstitions caused anxiety by making us worry about the whims of the gods and life after death.  In order to cure that anxiety, a better understanding of nature helps.

Epicureanism also provided an antidote to extremism.  Religious zealots sometimes end up trying to silence the advocates of reasonable naturalism.  They can also fall prey to outrageous conspiracy theories. But rather than engage these zealots in the streets, the Epicureans advised living unobtrusively.  Political tumult results in unhappiness.  The Epicureans tried to avoid that by retreating to private communities, where friendship, reason, and happiness could be cultivated. 

It seems that now is a good time for an Epicurean renewal.  Religion is waning. And while some zealots are succumbing to extremism, most of us are rediscovering the importance of science, reason, and restraint.

The Covid lockdown has also encouraged us to find happiness in simple things.  While extremism and violence has erupted in the streets, we are re-learning the wisdom of living simply and with social distance.  This is an Epicurean moment: a time to rediscover the wisdom of naturalism, a time to turn away from superstition, and a time to cultivate modesty, simplicity, and friendship.

Compassion and Suffering: Tears and Laughter

Fresno Bee, April 4, 2021

Pope Francis once said that compassion is the language of God. Let’s seek it this Easter

Compassion is celebrated by most of the world’s moral traditions. Compassion is the source of human connection. Some think it even goes beyond that. Pope Francis once said that compassion is the language of God. But philosophers worry that compassion is too passive, subjective and melancholic.

The Dalai Lama is an important voice of compassion. He explains that as compassion grows, we develop “both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain.” Compassion is more than passively feeling the other’s pain. It is also an active response that wants to alleviate suffering.

Buddhist teachings about compassion are often oriented around suffering. A colleague of the Dalai Lama’s, Thupten Jinpa, explains, “At its core, compassion is a response to the inevitable reality of our human condition— our experience of pain and sorrow.”

This is obviously important in a world that includes far too much pain. If we were all more concerned with the suffering of others, the world would be a better place. And while this focus on suffering can seem gloomy, the Buddhists connect compassion with tranquility and happiness. The Dalai Lama says, “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.”

This may seem paradoxical. But it is only a paradox if compassion is understood as shared suffering. Melancholic compassion is only half of the story. Compassion is also at play in laughter and love-making. Compassion shares joy as well as tears.

To keep compassion too tightly bound to suffering and grief is like having Good Friday without Easter. The point of the Easter story is not to wallow in the darkness, but to re-emerge into the light.

Compassion shares “passion” or emotional experience with others. Our passions are not only negative. Grief, mourning, and despair are certainly important emotions. But wonder and delight are also powerful experiences. Compassion moves us to share the passions of the other person, in sadness and in joy.

Compassion feels good because we are social beings. The receptiveness of compassion is wired into our brains by evolution. As social beings, we enjoy sharing in play, poetry, music, and in the rituals of social life. We do better when we do things in common. Compassionate activity overcomes loneliness and despair. It also allows us to share in playful fun.

One recipe for happiness is found here: if you want to be happy, hang out with happy people who are doing happy things. Happiness — like sadness — is contagious.

Compassion is only melancholic when it is confused with pity. Pity dwells in the negative. We don’t pity people who are doing well. Pity is reserved for the suffering.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant warned against pity. Compassionate pity can “infect” us with the suffering of others, he said. If I suffer because another person is suffering, the result is simply more suffering.

Compassion is better understood as a natural urge to help those who suffer. And while this urge can lead us to act, Kant thought it was insufficient. Sometimes our compassionate urges prevent us from doing our duty. This occurs, for example, when mercy prevents us from punishing those who deserve to be punished. Kant thought that compassion had to be guided by justice.

A similar problem holds for the famous Golden Rule. Love of the neighbor is important. But this does not mean you ought to give the neighbor anything he wants. Love without justice is blind. But justice without mercy is cruel.

A further problem occurs when compassion becomes intrusive. Sometimes we want companionship in our suffering. We cry better (and laugh better) in the company of friends. But sometimes, we simply want to be left alone.

Of course, compassionate people understand all of this. Truly compassionate people have a knack for knowing what is needed. They hold us when we need to cry. They offer laughter when the time is right. They leave us alone when we need solitude. And they try to connect justice and mercy in a world where suffering is common.

Wolves, Dogs, and Civilization

A wolf has appeared in Central California for the first time in a hundred years. He left a pack in Oregon, wandered 500 miles south, passed Yosemite and ended up in the Central Valley. The scientists tracking him are keeping his location a secret. But apparently, he is somewhere out in the fields of Fresno county.

This is a great story about the resilience of nature and the conflict between the wild and the domesticated. Wolves once roamed across this region, as did the grizzly bear, who adorns our state flag. Coyotes and condors, bears and wolves figured prominently in native Californian myths.

The last California wolf was killed in 1924, about the same time that the California grizzly was exterminated. But wild nature has a way of pushing back. Civilization won’t last forever. On the borderlands, wild critters are waiting to return. Civilization is a man-made raft floating on a wild sea.

Wolves touch a primal reservoir of meaning.  Civilization revolves around the ambivalence of the canine—which reflects our own dual nature. Dogs and wolves are symbolic brothers, whose difference marks the border between domestication and wildness. 

The civilizing urge struggles against the wilderness. Real wolves are killed by hunters and farmers. Education domesticates the wolf within. 

Plato described education as taming the inner beast. Aristotle extended this in his account of beastly humans and barbarians. Colonialism and slavery can be traced back to Aristotle’s idea that civilized humans were entitled to hunt and enslave the beastly other.

The wolf often shows up in European culture, as a symbol of the wilderness on the edge of civilization.  Consider an image from Euripides drama, The Bacchae, which is a play about the wild other. In the play, the female worshippers of Dionysus nurse wolf cubs with their own mother’s milk.

The Greek god Apollo was known to manifest himself as a wolf. Homer called Apollo “the wolf-born god.” Legends held that Apollo was himself nursed by a wolf. A similar tale is told about Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of Rome, who were suckled by a mother wolf.

These stories point toward the mysterious emergence of civilization from out of the wild.  There is only a subtle difference between the wild, unruly wolf and the loyal, domesticated dog.

The wolf-dog divide is found in Plato’s Republic. Plato described the guardians and philosopher-kings of his ideal city as faithful watchdogs. They are loyal to friends, fierce toward foes, and curious about sniffing out the truth. But Plato warns that watch-dogs can turn feral and run amok. We need to guard the guard-dogs (as I discussed in a recent column).

Plato described tyrant as wild beasts. He said that tyrants have a taste for human flesh. The tyrant is “transformed from a man into a wolf.”

This Platonic metaphor resonates through the history of European culture. The Bible warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). Political philosophers worry that “man is a wolf to man” (homo homini lupus est), as Hobbes did in his argument against “the state of nature.” Wolves and werewolves haunt us in horror films and fairytales.

But does this focus on domestication cause us to overreact? What do we miss when there are no wolves, when everything is domesticated—even our souls?

I love dogs. But in their domesticated cuteness, they lack the edge of ferocity and power that makes the wolf, the grizzly, and the mountain lion so inspiring.  What do we lack when we stay home with the dogs instead of running with the wolves?

There is something unsettling about the presence of a wolf in Central California. This demands that we think the limits of domestication. What was lost as civilization wrested the land from its native inhabitants? And what might the future hold?

We are not the masters of the earth we suppose ourselves to be. This land once belonged to bears, wolves, and lions. The rivers held salmon. Great flocks of birds crowded the wetlands. People lived here, long before European culture arrived. One wonders how long our concrete cities and cultivated fields will last.

How long will it take for wild things to return? And what are we missing when no longer hear the howl of the wolf?

Guarding the Guardians through Vigilance, Leadership, and Professional Ethics

Fresno Bee, March 21, 2021

Who guards the guardians? This age-old question points to a fundamental problem in social life. Powerful institutions can be corrupted by bad actors. Oversight depends upon the virtue and vigilance of those who guard the guardians.

Oversight systems should clarify shared values, shed light on misdeeds, and take action to remove bad actors. Of course, this can become problematic, when partisans and cronies engage in cover-ups or refuse to remove the bad apples. Sycophants create elaborate defensive maneuvers. Bureaucratic procedures impede investigations. And sometimes the bad guys skate away.

This happens in the halls of justice, beneath the academic ivy, and behind the stained-glass curtain. Bad cops get away with murder. Perverted priests are shuffled about. Terrible teachers receive tenure. Lawyers and doctors do dumb and dangerous things. And corrupt politicians get pardoned.

Stories of failed oversight can produce deep cynicism. We are rightly appalled by moral failures in churches, schools and governments. It is frightening when the sheepdogs go bad and start preying upon the sheep.

Some cynics choose to trust no one in authority. But radical suspicion is dangerous and dysfunctional. If you suspect that every doctor is a lying cheat, you’ll ignore legitimate medical advice. If you think that all politicians are corrupt, you’ll stop voting. If you are wary of cops and teachers and other authorities, you’ll end up living in an outlaw limbo.

The cynics remind us that trust has to be earned. But trust is rational, much of the time. We make a leap of faith about the sanity and skill of other drivers, every time we get behind the wheel. Usually this works out well enough.

And despite cover-ups, failures, and delays, oversight systems can work. But they only work when leaders lead with integrity and when the rest of us demand accountability.

There are reassuring stories. This week in Fresno, the chief of police and the mayor (who is the former chief) spoke out against racist cops in the police department. The chief, Paco Balderrama, said, “Fair and impartial policing are extremely important in our society. There is no place in our police ranks for any biased, racist, or anti-Semitic views.”

Or consider the growing outrage about the governor of New York. Instead of circling the wagons to defend Andrew Cuomo against charges he sexually harassed multiple women, leading New York Democrats called for him to resign.

This is how oversight ought to work. Allegations of wrongdoing must be taken seriously. Leaders must articulate fundamental values. They must demonstrate their concern for ethics and the truth — in words and action.

This seems simple and obvious. But problems remain. Those who best guard the guardians are also those who possess the requisite expertise and experience to do that job. This often makes them part of a small, tight-knit fraternity. It is easy to give friends and colleagues the benefit of the doubt. And in politics especially, there are self-interested reasons for covering-up wrongdoing.

Plato proposed an ideal solution. He wanted only the wisest and most virtuous people to serve as guardians. But this solution requires another leap of faith. Philosopher-kings will be tempted to abuse their power. And who will hold them accountable or remove them when they become tyrannical? Plato left that unexplained.

The modern American solution points in a different direction. Instead of concentrating power in the hands of a small group of guardians, we spread the oversight power in a more democratic fashion. This is our celebrated system of checks and balances, intended to prevent bad actors from consolidating power.

This clunky system prevents tyranny. But it does not necessarily work to regulate doctors, teachers, and other non-elected authorities.

This is where professional ethics comes in, along with external oversight and legal liability. Professions are mostly self-regulating. Doctors supervise other doctors. Professors certify other professors. And so on. Much depends on the virtue and wisdom of the professionals themselves. But external auditors and lawsuits also shed light.

At the end of the day, in a democratic country, oversight depends upon what “we, the people” demand. Who guards the guardians? Well, we do — in our professional lives and in the voting booth. Cynicism won’t improve the world. Only virtue and vigilance can do that.

Ethics and Economics: The Value of Value

Fresno Bee, March 14, 2021

What is anything really worth? Numbers flash across our screens. But real value remains elusive.

A new round of COVID relief is coming to individuals making less than $75,000. Some argue this is too generous. Others say it is not enough. Meanwhile, Wall Street valuations baffle and confuse. GameStop has bounced around. Bitcoin’s total market value surpassed $1 trillion this week. But Bitcoin is an enigma, seemingly built on the thin air of cyberspace.

What is the intrinsic value of things? Value is often measured in terms of labor. But labor is not all equal. How much is a man — or a mayor — worth? We learned recently that the mayor of Fresno makes over $400,000 a year when his salary is combined with his retirement income. Is that enough or too much? And how about the minimum wage, should it be $15/hour? Some talk about a living wage. But there is a difference between merely living and living well.

Americans are free to earn what the market will pay. Value is a matter of exchange. It is whatever buyers are willing to pay sellers. But exchange value gets weird, as Bitcoin and GameStop show.

Perhaps value should be cashed out in usefulness. Food is essential to life. So, the use-value of an apple or a loaf of bread appears grounded in reality. But why does a pound of apples or a loaf of bread cost about the same as a fancy cup of coffee?

We disagree about what is essential. Our judgments about necessity are colored by other values. Pricing is about hopes and dreams as much as it is about supply and demand.

Economic reflection leads to more fundamental questions about the meaning of life. Simple folk could live well on modest pay. Some folks may be content with $15/hour. But most of us want apple pie instead of apples.

Capitalist culture inflates our aspirations. We are not content with what we have. We compare our wages and piles of goods with those of others. This is not the inevitable reality of economics. It is a matter of ethics and worldview.

Once we see this, value looks even more arbitrary and capricious. Lines are drawn. But those lines are not fixed by nature. They involve perspective. If you make $76,000/year, you might resent the COVID cutoff. The mayor’s $400,000 seems like a lot of money. But in San Francisco that won’t buy a bungalow. And while $15/hour may seem generous for a teenager living with his parents, it is not enough for a single mom.

The circumstances matter, as do our expectations. The whole system hovers on hope. It is leavened by bubbles. A pandemic can pop these balloons. A credit crunch can cause a crash.

Economic value reflects a complicated social process. Bitcoin and GameStop show us that valuations can be manipulated. Momentum matters, as does peer pressure, the bandwagon effect, and the fear of missing out. People game the system. Buyers want bargains. Sellers want profits. Real value remains hidden.

Markets are not as rational as we might hope. Adam Smith suggested that an “invisible hand” guides this process. But the market is more like an invisible casino, a game of chance that is neither rational nor benevolent.

It is good to step back and ask bigger questions when thinking about the economy. Economics should not be untethered from ethics. Fairness and equality remain primary concerns. Poverty stands as an accusation against wealth. There is a fundamental flaw in a system where some people own more than one home, while others are homeless.

Most ethical traditions teach that envy and greed are vices. These vices leave us feeling incomplete. They count what we do not have. Envy and greed prevent us from enjoying the presence of simple goods that are near at hand.

Socrates said that virtue cannot be purchased. The best things have no cash value. Friendship alone can buy friendship, as Emerson said. The Beatles said that money can’t buy love. And integrity is the price for peace of mind.

Let’s keep these perennial insights in mind when thinking about economic issues. Happiness and wisdom are not for sale. They are earned and enjoyed in a sphere of value beyond the market.