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.

Vigilance, Patience and Hope: The Drive Toward Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2020

On the longest night of the year, we drove through the fog looking for starlight. Other people had the same idea of driving uphill to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. In a parking lot in Prather, carloads of masked stargazers emerged from the fog and looked toward the heavens, seeking the Christmas star.

We are all looking for inspiration these days. If you rise above the fog, there are wonders to be found.

The last time the planets lined up like this was 800 years ago. The stars move at their own pace. We must learn to wait and keep our eyes open. The philosopher Marcus Aurelius said that stargazing washes away the filth of the earth. The cosmos teaches patience and perseverance.

This was a star-crossed year. Disease killed people and jobs. Our democracy teetered on the brink of disaster. Let’s drink a toast to all we’ve lost and endured. Let’s also learn from the light that shined in the darkness. If there is wisdom in the gloom, it comes from the values of the Enlightenment. It was science and law that prevented 2020 from being darker than it was.

When the Black Death hit Europe in the Dark Ages, astrologers blamed it on a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. We know much more today about the stars and about disease. We know how to prevent contagion and predict the weather. We peer into the molecular basis of life and into the depths of space. We build vaccines and satellites. Let’s give thanks to the scientists who shed light.

One of the wonders of 2020 was the growth of virtual reality. Satellites, computers, and cell phones kept us connected in the gloom. Without these technologies, social distancing would have been impossible. Let’s give a shout out to the wizards of Silicon Valley.

Telecommunication transformed the field of education. Difficulties remain, including educational inequity and a digital divide. But students are learning in ways that could not have been imagined last year. Hurray for the educators — and the students and parents — who pioneered a new model of teaching and learning.

Our civic values were challenged in unprecedented ways. The year began with impeachment. It ended with outrageous falsehoods about a stolen election. This was a year of protests and anger. We are more polarized than ever. Racial animosity afflicts us. There is corruption in the halls of power.

But citizens enlightened ourselves about history and the Constitution. And ethical professionals held back the darkness. Lawyers and judges remained committed to their code of ethics. Soldiers, cops, and firefighters did their duty. Business leaders supported justice and the common good. Nameless bureaucrats served with honor and integrity. Enlightenment depends upon the good work of citizens and civil servants.

As this pestilential year comes to a close, what should we resolve for the future?

I propose we need to affirm the value of vigilance. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they say. This is common sense for those who drive through fog. We must be mindful and alert. Watchful care is the key to enlightenment.

Vigilance is the moral of Albert Camus’s novel, “The Plague.” That book is an allegory about the plague of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Camus noted that plagues stimulate enlightenment by opening our eyes. We must learn “a vigilance that must never falter.” The good man, Camus said, “is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.”

The stewards of civilization must be watchful, as we drive toward the light. New diseases are waiting to infect us. A random sneeze can start a pandemic. Tyrants and crooks wait to take advantage. Indifference leads to disaster.

Enlightenment is not something that just happens. Our scientific and technological prowess is the result of centuries of cultural evolution. Our legal system has a similar heritage. And the work of education is never done.

On sunny days, it’s easy to let your guard down. When the fog comes, it is easy to lose hope. But there are stars above the haze. Good and decent people live nearby. Science and reason provide hope in the darkness. Patience and vigilance keep us moving toward the light.

This is Not the Worst Year Ever

Time magazine declared 2020 “the worst year ever.”  That’s obviously not true.  In the 1850’s, millions were held in slavery.  In the 1860’s, over 600,000 Americans died in the war that freed those slaves.  One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans, while women struggled to gain the right to vote.  Our current troubles are minor in comparison.   

Time magazine’s hyperbolic headline can be forgiven as a ploy to sell magazines.  But people succumb to hyperbole.  We tend to magnify present suffering.  And that can impede critical thinking.   

History is not one story, it is many.  When historians look back on 2020, they will see failure that caused unnecessary suffering.  But they will also witness ingenuity that mitigated harm.  We should learn from our successes—and from our failures. 

Some of what we suffered in 2020 was the result of human greed, ignorance, and pride.  The Covid-19 death toll was made worse by selfishness, ignorance, and lack of leadership.  The fires in California were the terrifying result of human-caused climate change.  The social divisions and racial tensions of 2020 are the result of systematic stupidity and political polarization. 

But human intelligence prevented things from being even worse.  Health care systems evolved.  A vaccine was developed.  There were government bailouts.  School teachers invented online learning.  Firefighters demonstrated heroism.  And Americans educated themselves about racism and the American Constitution. 

Life includes both tragedy and triumph.  We fail.  We suffer.  We learn.  And we grow.

Resilience is a process of growth and development.  Resilient people generally avoid absolutism and hyperbole, which cause despair.  Defeatism undermines the spirit of invention, discovery, and growth. 

Consider a recent essay by Chris Hedges on cultural despair.  Hedges warns that despair can fuel the wish for magical solutions that can turn into fascism.  I’m sympathetic to his critique.  But Hedges’ assessment is itself dispiriting.  Hedges gives voice to despair.  And this leads him to conclude that reform is impossible.  He concludes that we are faced with a choice between tyranny and revolution. 

Hedges’ dilemma is typical of despair.  We tend to dwell on the darkness without noticing the light.  But history is more complicated than a stark choice between tyranny and revolution.  And there is no such thing as “the worst year ever.” 

Evaluation is relative and evolving.  Some people fell in love in 2020.  Others died.  Some families had children.  Some experienced divorce.  Some people began new careers.  Others lost jobs.  Art was created and scientific discoveries were made.  But businesses failed and crimes were committee.  For some people, 2020 was a great year.  For others, it was miserable. 

And yes, there was Donald Trump.  But there were also movements of social protest.  The Constitution was tested.  But the system worked.  Polarization increased.  But decent people sought common ground.

We must resist oversimplifying when we judge.  These are not the best of times.  Nor are they the worst of times.

Some new age advocates of mindfulness celebrate “non-judgmental awareness.”  There is value in this.  But non-judgmental presence is only a tool and a mood.  We need to judge things.  Judging helps us learn, invent, and improve.  But we need to be judicious in judging—moderate and prudent. 

We can learn a lot from acceptance and gratitude.  The mind can be sharpened by quietness and presence.  Thinking and learning require judgment and discrimination.  If we practice pure acceptance, we will never learn anything. 

If we are overly judgmental and hyperbolic in our judgments, we will also fail to learn.  We have to see what works—and what doesn’t.  We must also remain open to the new and the different.  We must be creative and inventive in our response to the world.

To say that this was the worst year ever is a kind of cop out.  It is a shoulder shrug and a sigh.  Shrugs and sighs are OK—for a moment.  Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.  Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, let’s learn from our mistakes.  We can also learn from our successes.  And with some luck and a lot of labor, the next year may be better than the last.

Responsibility and Fanaticism

Fresno Bee, November 29, 2020

Last week, Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno gave an ethical warning about COVID-19 vaccines. In a video message, he said that if a vaccine were “developed with material from stem cells that were derived from a baby that was aborted, or material that was cast off from artificial insemination of a human embryo, that’s morally unacceptable.”

The bishop warned that the Pfizer vaccine may be morally suspect. In response to Bishop Brennan’s warning — and a similar warning from Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland — the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops clarified that the Pfizer vaccine is not connected with embryonic stem cell research.

This controversy is an example of how moral conflict unfolds. It is important to get the facts right. But we disagree about fundamental values. We also disagree about the nature of moral responsibility.

The bishop begins with an assumption that most people would accept. He said that we should “always and only pursue vaccines that are ethical.” But we disagree about what counts as ethical.

Pro-life Catholics see embryonic stem cell research as unethical. Other people deny that human embryos are persons and do not see a problem with stem cell research. Others may argue that if a vaccine can save thousands of lives, it is a good thing, even if it is derived from a questionable source.

And what about individual responsibility? The bishop has a demanding sense of responsibility. If a vaccine has immoral sources, he says, we ought not use it — no matter how far away in the causal chain those immoral sources are, and no matter how beneficial the vaccine.

The bishop suggested a fascinating analogy with recent anti-racist arguments. Some anti-racists argue that since the U.S. was founded on the sin of slavery, Americans remain responsible for this today. The bishop suggested that biomedical research that is founded on the sin of abortion has a similar moral taint.

The idea seems to be that moral identity is structured by choices made within a history that is beyond our control. This is related to the activist’s slogan that silence is complicity. It is not enough to avoid actively doing evil, you must also free yourself of the moral taint of history and institutions.

This heroic moral standard has been applied in a variety of other cases by uncompromising activists.

Animal welfare activists argue that our fast food economy is based on industrialized cruelty to animals. They demand that we become vegetarian.

Anti-poverty activists argue that global capitalism is based upon systematic exploitation of the poor. They argue we should give surplus wealth to the poor.

Anti-war activists argue that the American way of life is based upon militarism and conquest. They refuse to pay taxes that support the war system.

Anti-abortion activists claim that abortion contaminates sex education and women’s liberation. They refuse to support women’s health care that includes abortion.

And so on.

Heroic responsibility asks us to take action to stand up for our values. There is something noble about this. We admire uncompromising souls who live a life based on principle.

But moral heroism is often in the eye of the beholder. The heroes we admire are those we agree with. Those who cling to other values, we call zealots and fanatics. Of course, the moral hero wears those accusations as a badge of honor.

All of this shows us the difficulty of living a good life. We disagree about basic principles. We disagree about the facts. We disagree about who has a responsibility to act and about how much each of us should sacrifice.

Realizing the depth of moral conflict can make us humbler. The moral life includes complexities, uncertainties and disagreements. We should be cautious as we proceed. But humility does not let us off the moral hook. It is difficult to be good. But that does not mean we should give up trying.

There is no ethics vaccine. There is only the preventative soul care of moral education. To live a good life requires the hard work of thinking. Get the facts. Question your values. Understand the systems, histories and institutions that you inhabit. And try to be a hero without becoming a fanatic.

Giving Thanks for Simple Things

Covid-19 has transformed Thanksgiving.  This year we should shelter within our bubbles and stay close to home.  Rather than complaining about a downsized holiday, let’s use this as an opportunity to rediscover the wisdom of living modestly and being thankful.

Ancient wisdom celebrates gratitude and simplicity.  Ancient sages teach us to be grateful for simple things and to celebrate abundance without extravagance.

Thanksgiving has strayed far from this idea.  Rather than a time to count your blessings and give thanks, it became an orgy of over-indulgence.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a department store advertising gimmick.  The Black Friday frenzy is far removed from gratitude.  Good riddance to these extravagances. 

The Puritans of New England would be appalled that this festival of gluttony and greed commemorated their colonial adventure.  The Puritans connected thanksgiving with repentance and purification.  Instead of feasting, early Americans typically linked the ritual of giving thanks to fasting. Thomas Jefferson called for” public days of fasting and thanksgiving” when he was governor of Virginia.  During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln called for several days of “fasting and thanksgiving.”  In 1863, when Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving, he called for a day of prayer and “humble penitence.”   

This may go too far for those of us with a more secular orientation.  But there is wisdom in humility and abstinence.  You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand this.  Abstinence clarifies values.  Fasting heightens appreciation for simple things.  A thanksgiving feast that breaks a fast should consist of modest fare, eaten mindfully.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and abstinence are linked in most of the world’s traditions.  Muslims practice something like this during Ramadan.  The Buddha fasted and meditated on the way to enlightenment.  Ancient Taoist texts speak of “fasting of the mind” giving rise to the freedom of emptiness. 

This is not as far out and mystical as it sounds.  Mindful self-restraint quiets envy and desire.  The consuming self is like a vacuum.  It sucks things in: food, pleasure, and possessions.  But all of this frantic sucking produces anxiety, fear, greed, and envy. 

The mindful self stops sucking.  It becomes less focused on its own emptiness and more aware of its secret abundance.  The Greek sage Epicurus said that we already possess all that we need in abundance.  But we are confused.  We mistake wealth for happiness.  And we allow greed to make us ungrateful.  

When we discover self-sufficient abundance, it overflows.  It then becomes easier to give—and to give thanks.  The consuming self is a sucker and a taker.  The grateful self is content with what it has.  And in its contentment, it discovers compassion.

The ancient Greeks advise us to gratefully accept what fate gives us.  Seneca recommended an occasional fast as a reminder to be thankful.  This trains the spirit to be content no matter what fate sends our way.  Stoic serenity does not depend on money or good fortune.  Rather, it is built upon simplicity and gratitude. 

Seneca expressed these ideas in a letter criticizing the Saturnalia, the Roman equivalent of our holiday season.  He complained that preparations for the annual orgy went on all year.  And he noted that the season culminated in drunkenness and vomiting.  Seneca said it is wise to avoid all of that and to learn to “celebrate without extravagance.” 

The pandemic can help us re-learn this ancient lesson.  The usual extravagances have been cancelled.  And we are forced to abstain.  Rather than complain, let’s rediscover the wisdom of simplicity and gratitude.