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.

Beyond Self-Care: Cultivating an Active and Engaged Self

Self-care is a common theme for 2021.  One wellness website said: “focus on yourself this New Year’s Eve” and “indulge in these self-care strategies as you enter 2021.”  The article recommended “allowing yourself to indulge in a night of luxurious me-time.”

This is not a bad idea.  A little self-care is fine from time to time.  But self-indulgence is occasional.  It is not a way of life.  We need something larger and less transitory.  Self-care should become self-cultivation. 

The self is not an infant we care for or a set of appetites to be indulged.  The self is a dynamic system that seeks fruitful activity.  The adult self is a growing and changing, goal-oriented being.  The self thrives when it is challenged; it prospers when it produces lasting goods such as love, art, science, virtue, and wisdom.

The pampering indulgence of self-care is aimed at stressed out people.  Self-care is an antidote to the rat race and a response to the tragedies and suffering of 2020.  But “me-time” should not climax in onanistic withdrawal.  2021 will require the active intelligence of an engaged self.

There is some wisdom in self-care.  The self-care movement often affirms modesty and mindfulness.  This affirmation of simple pleasure is useful for those who are wound up tight by our cranky, competitive culture.  It is OK to unwind on occasion.  Drink some wine.  Soak in a tub.  Take it easy.

Sometimes the self-care movement offers clichéd common sense about hygiene and mindfulness.  Yes, we should drink more water, be present, and take walks in nature.  But this often becomes sappy, self-indulgent pampering—an apology for sleeping late or over-eating.  And self-care is often merely a marketing ploy for spas, lotions, and chocolate. 

The self-care movement is quite broad. On the one hand, it includes the discipline of yoga.  As one yoga website puts it, “Yoga is a great form of self-care.”  On the other hand, self-care is about… well, something else you do with your hand.  An article in The Oprah Magazine celebrates masturbation as part of a “self-care routine.”  The author reports that some evenings she even cares for herself twice!

There is nothing wrong with pleasure.  But moderation is essential.  And pleasure is not an end in itself.  Happiness and morality often require us to forego pleasure.  Work, discipline, and focus are essential for the self to thrive.  Stress and anxiety are essential parts of a creative and ambitious life.  When other people are suffering, self-care is selfish.  Justice and compassion impel us beyond self-care toward care for others.

This discussion can be traced back to the conflict between Epicureans, Stoics, and Christians.  Epicurus suggested we should live modestly, avoid controversy, and enjoy simple pleasures.  The Stoics rejected this.  They emphasized strenuous duty, while claiming that pleasure makes us soft.  Christians also rejected Epicureanism, focused as they were on suffering, death, and resurrection.  Epicurean self-care is too sensual for Stoics and too secular for Christians. 

Ideally, we would weave these ideas together by connecting self-care with self-cultivation.

Care rooted in a kind of worry.  A care-free person has no worries.  When we care for something, we worry about it.  The problem of self-care is that it is a kind of worrying about the self.  It can be onanistic and self-absorbed. 

Cultivation is much more affirmative and dynamic.  When we cultivate something, we grow it.  Cultivation is related to “culture.”  Culture is a dynamic process that is the result of labor, interaction, and imagination. 

Human beings are not only focused on pleasure and relaxation.  We are also concerned with love, justice, courage, compassion, knowledge, art, and wisdom.  When we are absorbed in fulfilling activities, the self fades away.  The self-oriented path of indulgence is limited in comparison with the self-less activity of inspiration, insight, and interconnection. 

So here is what I propose for the new year.  Instead of retreating to the bathtub, let’s put our hands to work.  Learn.  Teach.  Create.  Make music.  Do science.  Love your neighbor.  Fight for justice.  Pursue wisdom.  These are the goods of a fully human life.  The challenge of 2021—and of life in general—is to cultivate a self that loses itself in inspired and engaged activity. 

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. 

Don’t Panic

Fresno Bee, March 8, 2020

A virus spreads. The stock market tumbles. Store shelves clear. People are freaking out. The best advice for times like this is: don’t panic.

Panic undermines clear thinking and makes things worse. Luckily, the cure is well known. Get the facts. Seek a broader perspective. Focus on what is under your own control. Develop habits of calmness and self-control. And acknowledge that sickness and death are part of life.

The word “panic” comes from the name of the Greek god Pan, a feral god who haunted the wild places. Pan was the god of the nightmare and the uncanny. Pan would terrify and possess people, causing panic.

One solution is to stop believing in such superstitions. The wilderness is not haunted. Gods cannot possess us. Nor is the coronavirus sign of the Apocalypse, as some preachers have suggested. And while some Christians called for a global day of prayer to stop the coronavirus, what we really need is a vaccine, better hygiene, and a robust system of public health.

The ancient philosopher, Epicurus, offered a simple cure for panic. He told us not to worry about the gods. They are busy keeping the universe in motion. They have no interest in harming us.

But if we are going to pray, we might pray for wisdom and tranquility. This is what Socrates would have prayed for. In fact, at one point Socrates offered a prayer to Pan himself. He asked the god for integrity of soul. As Socrates put it, “grant me a beautiful soul in which the inner and outer self are united as one.”

A beautiful soul is stable and secure. It is at one with itself. It dwells in the company of truth. It is moderate and self-possessed. And it is resistant to panic.

The philosopher Seneca said the best way to prevent panic is to understand it. You need to understand that when “the habit of blind panic” takes over, the mind runs away with itself.

When we are not prepared for fear and hardship, panic strikes. Seneca explains, “the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things.” And when uncontrollable and “witless” panic arrives, things get worse. Seneca’s solution is to adopt a larger point of view that puts life, death, and panic itself in proper perspective.

It is uncertainty that keeps us on edge. The fear that occurs out in the wilderness is like the fear of the dark. We’re not sure what’s lurking out there. That’s why knowledge helps. There is nothing in the dark that is not also there in the light.

It also helps to understand that fear is natural and has a purpose. There is a tightness in the belly and shallow breathing. We scan the environment looking for threats. This is the flight or fight instinct ready to go. If a threat emerges, the body is ready to react.

But this can get out of control, especially when everyone else is on edge. Panic is contagious. We sense the anxiety of our neighbor. If even a minor spark lights the fuse of anxiety, the herd erupts into a frenzied stampede.

This is why solitude is helpful. Peace of mind is easier to find if you keep your distance from the crowd. One easy way to prevent panic is to turn off your television and stay off social media.

But for some people, solitude causes panic. There is the fear of missing out and the depressing dread of loneliness. True solitude is not lonely. It is peaceful and centered, a way of finding yourself at home in the world.

Finally, the philosophers teach that we must understand that death, loss, and injury are common. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and deadly diseases have always existed. They always will. Something will eventually kill each of us. No one gets out of this life alive.

When we come to terms with our own mortality, panic gives way to acceptance. To live well is not to fearfully cling to life. This moment will not last long. So why waste it on worry? Life is not measured in length but in depth. The shallow panting of panic prevents us from breathing deeply and living well.

Political Life vs. Living Well

Take a break from bitter politics – go fishing

Fresno Bee, July 29, 2016

After two weeks of political conventions we need a break from hype, hyperbole and hyperventilation. We need to go fishing. Catch our breath. And clear our heads.

Here’s some of what we witnessed in the past two weeks.

At the Republican convention, delegates chanted “lock her up,” when Hillary Clinton was mentioned. One Donald Trump supporter, Al Baldasaro, called for Clinton to be shot for treason.

Trump’s convention speech prompted pundits to call him a fascist and a dictator. If the rhetoric is true, this leaves us with a choice between a Caesar and a criminal.

On the one hand, we have a billionaire who takes pride in firing people claiming that he understands the plight of the middle class. On the other hand, we have the wealthy wife of a former president claiming the same thing.

WHEN ASKED TO TAKE A JOB WITH THE EMPEROR, THE ANCIENT CHINESE SAGE CHUANG-TZU SAID NO. POLITICAL LIFE ENDS IN UNHAPPINESS AND DEATH.
HE SAID HE WOULD RATHER GO FISHING.

Bernie Sanders concluded his campaign claiming that Clinton would “end the movement toward oligarchy.” Sanders’ supporters walked out. An apparent anti-Sanders conspiracy in Democratic headquarters confirmed the suspicions of those who think the system is corrupt. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, resigned as a result of the damaging email dump.

Democratic Party operatives, including President Barack Obama, suggested that Russia was behind the email leak. They insinuated that Trump is too cozy with Russia, since he benefited from the leak.

Trump responded by calling on Russia to find the missing emails from Clinton’s private server. The Clinton campaign replied by saying, “This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.”

Each side has basically accused the other of treason, duplicity, stupidity and criminality.

Can it get any worse?

This is all disheartening. But it is not surprising. Politics has always been a repugnant business.

Within the lifetimes of our two candidates we have witnessed anti-communist witch-hunts, political assassinations, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, Clintonian philandering and lying, Bushian incompetence and a host of other crimes and misdemeanors.

image1History discloses a political world that stinks to high heaven. That’s why the world’s religious and philosophical traditions have often taught us to avoid it.

Socrates thought politics damaged the soul. Jesus advised his followers to render unto Caesar only what belongs to Caesar. He suggested that his kingdom was not of this world. Both Socrates and Jesus were killed by political authorities.

The Epicurean philosophers of ancient Greece advised us to avoid politics entirely. True happiness, they argued, is found in good health and in the private company of good friends. Christians often retreated behind cloistered walls seeking peace and communion with God.

IF GOOD PEOPLE GO FISHING, FISHY PEOPLE WILL TAKE OVER AND DESTROY OUR FISHING HOLES.

A related idea comes from China. When asked to take a job with the emperor, the ancient Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu said no. Political life ends in unhappiness and death. He said he would rather go fishing.

How nice it would be simply to go fishing with the Taoist sages. But if good people go fishing, fishy people will take over and destroy our fishing holes.

We might like to be left alone. But injustice and stupidity have a nasty way of spreading. The philosopher’s garden, the monk’s monastery, and the Taoist’s mountain retreat are still connected to the political world. No one can withdraw completely.

Politics is a necessary evil. We avoid it at our peril.

The political world is a bit like our bodily functions. We must occasional get our hands dirty with this messy business. Justice requires us to wade into political swamps. But we should not be surprised by how bad the whole thing smells.

Nor should we view political life as an end in itself. There are higher and more lasting goods to be found elsewhere.

The challenge is to make the best of a putrid situation – to keep our heads clear despite the hot and fetid air.

Critical thinking skills help. Suspend judgment until you get all the facts. Control your emotions. Keep the larger sweep of history in mind. Remember that there are no utopias and no morally perfect politicians.

We also benefit from taking a break from breathing hot air. Go fishing. Recharge your critical batteries. Clear your head. This is going to be a nasty and noxious political season.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article92507247.html#storylink=cpy