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.

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.

Optimism, Pessimism, and Meliorism

Bad news bumming you out?
Turn off the TV, go out and make some good news

Fresno Bee, November 10 2017

Every day there is cruelty somewhere in the world. Some days – as after the Texas church shooting – our hearts simply break. But the world also is full of kindness and care.

Our estimation of life is a matter of perspective. Optimism and pessimism depend on where we look. But what matters most is what you do. If you are sick of the bad news, turn off the television and go out and make some good news.

An old truism holds that the pessimist see the glass as half-empty while the optimist sees it as half-full. But active and engaged people don’t bother to measure the contents of their cups. They savor what they’ve got, drink it down, then go looking for a refill.

One name for this approach is meliorism. Meliorists want to make things better – to ameliorate them. Meliorists are pragmatists. They don’t ignore the evils of life. But they see setbacks as challenges to be overcome, rather than disasters that doom us to defeat.

There always are obstacles and work to be done. Pragmatists discover joy in that work. There is meaning and purpose in the process of planning, building and improving things.

BE NOT AFRAID OF LIFE. BELIEVE THAT LIFE IS WORTH LIVING,
AND YOUR BELIEF WILL HELP CREATE THE FACT.
Willam James

This pragmatic philosophy is typically American. It is the guiding idea of American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey.

Dewey said, “Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered.” James explained, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

This idea can also be found in the philosophical musings of Eleanor Roosevelt. She explained, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for new and richer experience. You can do that only if you have curiosity, and an unquenchable spirit of adventure.”

This adventurous ethos makes sense in the context of our immigrant and pioneer heritage. People come to America to build and create, explore and grow. Pioneers and immigrants don’t rest at home, criticizing and complaining. They work and build. And if they don’t like things here, they move on to greener pastures.

Related to this is something we might call zest, gusto, or joie de vivre. The basic love of life fills active people with energy and enthusiasm. They awake in the morning eager to learn, explore and create.

Lack of energy breeds cynicism. The cynic fails to enjoy life. And so he judges and mocks those who do. But vivacious people don’t have time for cynicism. They are too busy living. And they improve life by embracing it with dynamism and imagination.

Pessimists will complain that energetic engagement with the world demands too much effort. Some pessimists see the need for work as a sign of an imperfect world. But this is lazy and short-sighted. Life requires labor. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. There is no way around this basic fact.

THE PURPOSE OF LIFE IS TO LIVE IT, TO TASTE EXPERIENCE TO THE UTMOST, TO REACH OUT EAGERLY AND WITHOUT FEAR FOR NEW AND RICHER EXPERIENCE. YOU CAN DO THAT ONLY IF YOU HAVE CURIOSITY, AND AN UNQUENCHABLE SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Pessimists are disappointed the world is not perfect. But a perfect world would be boring. It is the challenges in life that get the juices flowing. It is work that gives life meaning.

Optimism also involve intellectual laziness. The optimist’s rose-colored glasses screen out tragedy and loss. They look the other way, deliberately ignoring suffering and pain. But this is a recipe for disaster. If we ignore the evils of life, we will fail to take precautions to prevent them.

Loss and pain cannot be ignored. This world includes genuine evils. But sweat and tears provide the salt that helps us savor the sweet times. And kindness and care can make the world a better place.

A good life is never simply given to us. It is built on prudent planning, creative problem solving and hard work.

Optimists ignore the need for prudence, hoping things will turn out fine. Pessimists roll their eyes, disappointed that life requires effort. The rest of us – the majority of hard-working, pragmatic people – roll up our sleeves, wipe away the sweat and tears, and get back to work.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article183938506.html

Living in Accord with Nature

Technology is amazing, but happiness comes from accepting life as it is

Fresno Bee, May 15, 2015

  • Technology promises infinite possibilities for improvement, while creating a challenge for happiness
  • Stoic wisdom encourages us to take the time to love and accept the world
  • Philosophical reflection on infertility, gender transition, and other technological innovations points toward deep questions about human life