If you are of Epicurean persuasion you have to have sympathy with the fundamentalist pastors and professors in Christian colleges and churches in America. All their lives they have believed in the literal words of the old testament. They have preached it from the pulpit or have taught it in class (I am not saying that all teachers in dedicated Christian colleges have fundamentalist beliefs – clearly that would be untrue).
By now it is clear that the Earth was not created in seven days, that it is not six thousand years old and that the old testament is an anthropamorphic, self-contradictory collection of folklore, some of it very violent, that seeks to explain the world to a collection of iron age wandering tribes. Even given that the scriptures are thought to have been written ages after the events depicted (while the Hebrews were in captivity in Babylon), it is remarkable that they survived. But they are the work of man, with all the fallibility of his memory.
What do you do in the middle of a sermon or a semester? Suddenly announce that after all the Earth is 13 billion years old, that life on the planet derives from sea creatures, and that human beings gradually evolved from apes over a million years? Imagine the uproar! For a start, you would be shunned in the community, and possibly lose your job. No. In the face of overwhelming evidence you have to continue to be consistent or lose credibility and livelihood. You continue with the old discredited explanation of life on Earth. Truth is too troubling.
Thus, young people in 2015 are still being taught that Darwin was some sort of misguided devil and that some obscure and complicated part of the human body proves that human beings were put on Earth by an intelligent creator (must be male and white) only six thousand years ago. Thus, ignorance is perpetuated and may never be eliminated. All this has nothing to do with science – it is to do with tribal belief and inertia. It is frowned upon by modern Catholics for bringing religion into disrepute and by other Christian denominations for not being Christian anyway.
The malaise afflicting much of America is one of poor education.
Howard Becker is a major figure in American sociology (and also a star jazz player) He is the subject of an article in the New Yorker (January 12) by Adam Gopnik. What particularly drew my attention was his contention that “any social group, insider or outsider, ends up by divorcing itself from the group it supposed to be serving”. Everyone has an ideal student or audience in mind and never gets them. Thus, teachers end up disliking their pupils, jazz players despise their audiences, and doctors and nurses hate their patients.
I had to go to a hospital Emergency Department the other day, and was attended by a very personable young nurse. I had been reading this article about Becker while I waited. I told her about it and asked her whether she thought it was true that doctors and nurses end up hating their patients. She thought a bit and replied, “You know, I never thought about it, but I think it’s absolutely right. I went into nursing because I wanted to help sick people, but now I only feel good about the job when someone charming, cheerful and grateful comes in, which isn’t very often (her smile allowed me to assume she was feeling good about her job at that moment!).
Then I recalled how, when I ran my company, most of the staff would decamp on a Friday evening to the pub and drink beer, recalling the events of the day, and yes, laughing at the stupid customers. It was a very effective way to bond and produced a happy atmosphere, but I remember ending up feeling very impatient with customers myself, and dreading having to go out and chat them up. Towards the end I didn’t, probably to the company’s detriment.
So there you are. We Epicureans must beware of looking down on and despising those who
disagree with us, or those we serve. You can now be sure that they dislike and despise us. Conservatives hate liberals and liberals loathe conservatives and so on. But we have to be more tolerant and understanding than they are. Cue the debate about Moslems!
The authorities in Egypt have closed down a café in Cairo they claimed was a meeting place for atheists, and (confusingly) a “den of satanic rituals” (that’s what draws me to Epicureanism. Ed.) The closure came days after the government warned of a worrying rise in the number of atheists, to the suspiciously precise figure of 866. “The number is not big but it is still the highest in the Arab region,” said a spokesman for the grand mufti, Shawqi Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam. He said the next biggest hotbeds of atheism were Morocco and Tunisia, with 325 and 320 atheists respectively (WoW! But it looks like you can control them, Allam. Ed)
Meanwhile, just to show that not everyone in the Middle East lives in the spirit of the 7th Century A.D, Sheik Ahmad Al-Hamdi, a prominent Saudi cleric, who once headed the religious police in Mecca, appeared on national TV with his wife alongside him. Her face was uncovered and she wore make-up. “The Prophet did not order women to cover their faces,” he said. “Wearing make-up is allowed.” Other scholars have agreed with him. But our friends the hardliners responded by calling Al-Ghamdi a “filthy pimp” on Twitter, and threatening him with a lawsuit for encouraging immodesty (charming, aren’t they?) Being Saudi Arabia he has also had death threats.
This argument reminds me somewhat of the medieval argument in Christendom about the number of angels who can fit on a pinhead. Ridiculous. In the right-hand corner the old-timers, so lacking self-control and common sense that they think a female face on television is going to drive men into some sort of irrational frenzy. On the left is someone who is doing his best to help modernise a country dominated by Wahabists. If being the former kind of Moslem gives you the right to threaten other peoples lives then it is not a religion, it is a cult. Were they to subscribe to the quiet and elegant ideas of Epicurus and try getting on with everyone else, regardless of gender, race or class, foregoing the control they lust after, it would be a happier world.
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My greatest anguish is beholding what the Israelis are doing to themselves.
We saw what apartheid did to the white people, making it possible for them to commit horrendous atrocities. In dehumanising others, they were themselves dehumanised in the process.
I saw it in the callousness of young Israeli soldiers at checkpoints when they could decide to let an expectant mother desperately needing a hospital to deliver her baby go through, or not, as the whim struck them.
I saw it when they bombed schools and hospitals in Gaza. I saw it when settlers uprooted hundreds-year-old Palestinian olive trees. And it pains me to no end, especially when I see this dehumanisation happen to a people that has suffered for millennia.
What gave us strength to rebuild after apartheid in South Africa was believing in every person’s capacity to turn pain into healing, and fear into love.”
There is no need for a comment from me. It was what all religions ought to be saying.
“If God created us in his own image we have more than reciprocated”. Voltaire (Le Sottisier)
A reader made the following observation yesterday: “The Epicurean solution (to the turmoil in the Middle East) would be: DON’T INTERVENE. Epicurus was against involvement in politics, especially geopolitics, and for good reason – life is too short to make yourself miserable solving other people’s problems. The reader was talking about Britain, but I entirely agree with him when it comes to America and the West in general.
One way of looking at the turmoil in the Middle East is to look at The Thirty Years War in 17th Century Europe. This was a vicious, deadly war of religion, like the current one with highly complex political overtones. Eventually it stopped when everyone was exhausted. That was a civil war and so is this, and conventional wisdom says that outsiders should not intervene in a civil war. It is not clear that our intervention would result in fewer people being killed.
It is in the interest of the other Arab countries to get together and crush ISIS, a brutal and uncivilised bunch. But the fact is that their populations are ambivalent; fighting fellow Moslems devoted to the Prophet makes them uneasy. But Shouldn’t they be shouldering the burden and taking responsibility for their own futures?
What can we do? Are we too late to address the complaints Al Queda made about the West and America in particular?
– Crusader troops in the Middle East (we can fix that; just withdraw)
– The export to Moslem countries of unacceptable movies, porn and images of scantily dressed ladies, sexy pop music and other similar creations in dubious taste, according to Al Queda (probably impossible to stop for reasons of freedom of speech).
– the issue of Israel and the Palestinians (it is already too late to do anything sensible about this. The Israelis have most of what they want and Congress will never agree to any change while Congressmen have to raise their own campaign funds).
When one contemplates the difficulties of dealing with totally unreasonable people, whether Jewish or Arab, in the Middle East, you have to conclude that the ideal option for action is to put the region out of bounds to all Western citizens (to at least save their lives) and let the region ferment at its own pace. But not even this is practical. And then you have to reckon with the US military industrial complex and the flag-waving American nationalists, who sincerely believe in American exceptionalism (despite torture, Iraq and Afghanistan, rendition etc). You realise that there is, regrettably, little hope of consensus even in America, and little we can do that doesn’t make matters even worse.
This has to be the most intractible issue. I am sorry that President Obama has been drawn into the dreadful business with bombs and drones and trainers. This was the objective behind the ISIS beheadings in the first place, and he fell for it. I am so very sorry about the slaughter of innocent women and children; no one can easily contemplate that. But what we badly need is concentration on our own national interests to avoid another Iraq catastrophe. Where are you, Machiavelli, when we most want you?
General Nagata is a top US General. He is quoted as saying, “We do not understand ISIS, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it. We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.” About 1,000 foreign fighters flock to Iraq and Syria every month. How and why does ISIS maintain control over territory and its people, and why do its “psychological tactics such as terrorizing populations, religious and sectarian narratives, and economic controls” seem to attract, rather than deter, young people, especially young men? “What makes ISIS so magnetic, inspirational?” The General has asked for a searching debate, involving everyone who is interested, about why ISIS is being successful and what to do about it. (NPR website)
Whether you speak Arabic, have visited Moslem countries, or are an expert in the Middle Esat doesn’t matter. Your ideas are as good as those of the Establishment, whose contribution so far is mainly to call ISIS supporters cowardly, barbaric, murderous, outrageous, shocking, etc. Not helpful, actually, and makes the young extremists yelp for joy. Here is a contribution from me, to be torn to shreds by anyone who might know better:
1. This is a delayed and violent reaction to the meddling of the Western powers since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. We carved the Middle East up to serve our own interests, ignoring Turkish arrangements and tribal boundaries. Latterly, the US has supported every nasty dictator that has come along in the interests of stability and a secure flow of oil. The final straw was the invasion of Iraq and the gross incompetence of the Western politicians, who thought they could rebuild Iraq as a democratic nation. It has never, ever been democratic and seldom a nation in our sense of the word. Maliki lit the fuse paper and stood back, corrupt and vengeful.
2. The gripes that al-Queda has with the West (shared with the followers of ISIS) are that:
– There are infidel troops on Arab soil and the drones of infidels flying the skies, killing innocent women and children.
– The ‘culture” forthcoming from the West (they mean mainly the US) is coarse, vulgar, bad taste, over-sexualized or pornographic. This is perceived as a standing insult to ascetic followers of the Prophet. Free speech is all very well, but it is abused.
– The policy adopted by Israel of stealing land, “mowing the lawn” (otherwise known as killing off as many Palestinians as possible on the flimsiest of pretexts), and creating an apartheid system where Palestinians have virtually no human rights left has infuriated Westerners, let alone Arabs.
Not only did we fail to engage with Moslems about these complaints, but we told them, “You are either for us or against us”, as if we were the only people who could possibly be right – a total lack of empathy and of an ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes. We invaded Afghanistan, engaged in torture, and imprisoned people for years without trial in Guantanamo and elsewhere. We have lost our credibility by the way we have behaved, by abandoning what we thought we stood for, and who we have supported.
3. Young Moslems are leaving France, Germeny, Britain and other countries to risk their lives for ISIS. Why? Because they do not feel valued in their West European lives. Their parents have failed to integrate in many cases, and the old ways survive in moslem lagers- men in control, women in the kitchen. This “old country” culture is not unsurprisingly appealing to young men as well as their fathers. Young Moslem women seem, by and large, to adapt well, but many young men can’t seem to do so. In parts of the UK, for instance, “tolerance” of non-Western values of male dominance has defied common sense, and it is high time some backbone is used and the “old country” values are challenged. Meanwhile, young muslims see the behaviour of young women as often indecent and respond with violence and abuse. They see their countries mistreating other moslems – joining ISIS is a way of turning back the clock, to ancient ways of organising society and giving one in the eye to Western society while they are about it.
Tomorrow I will try to suggest what we should now do. It will be from an Epicurean perspective. If there was ever a need for an Epicurean approach this the the moment. Please contribute!
Do you seriously need a God to tell you not to kill one another, not to steal, not not bear false witness?
Christianity and nationalism are incompatible. Why would an all-seeing, all-loving god pick Americans to favor above all others. And yet huge numbers of Americans regard their country as God’s most favoured nation. “It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars” (Arthur C. Clarke). And yet survive it does, and it has caused the deaths of millions.
To The Times
Desmond Swayne’s analysis of the comparative records of violence between Muslims and Christians is flawed. Humans are capable of unlimited violence, but Christianity restrains them. Its dominant ethic is that of “turning the other cheek”. Islam’s dominant texts, in the post-Medina part of the Koran, sanction violence, and they take precedence over other texts that do not. It is for this reason that we do not hear moderating Muslim voices raised in theological dispute – and urging restraint – with what the media call “radical Muslims”.
From the Rev Canon Dr Gavin Ashenden, chaplain to the Queen, vicar of St Martin de Gouray, Jersey)
If someone advertises himself as chaplain to the Queen then he is assumed to speak with authority, indeed is thought to be right. So perhaps the Reverend Canon can explain the Crusades (and especially the fourth), the massacre on behalf of Jesus of tens of thousands of harmless (Latin) American subjects of the Spanish king. Perhaps he can explain the Inquisition, the burning of heretics and the brutal, religious Thirty Years War?
Piffle, your Canonship! In the hands of religious extremists and control freaks most religions can be as bad as each other. Never allow Epicureans to have any political power because they too are human, and there will inevitably be some chancer who wants to lead and dominate. Thus, we intelligently remain in small groups of friends and try to have a peaceful, enjoyable life. We neither wish to control or be controlled.
Entire systems of values emerge from false belief in Divine Providence that denies the freedom and responsibility of individuals. The blind belief in “how things have always been” breeds automatons, not free and creative men and women. People who trust fate can allow themselves to degenerate into a state of powerlessness and allow this demoralized state and the victimization that accompanies it to become part of their identities. (Epicurus)
It suits the powers that be to have a population content to conform, do what some preacher/vicar/mufti/mullah tells them to do and not rock the boat. It takes energy and courage to rock that boat. There is no such thing as “divine providence”. There is certainly “luck”, or being at the right place at the right time, or being born to the right parents, or simply having, by accident, a wheeler-dealer mind. Luck is what accompanies all too many people who make a lot of money and then claim “they did it all themselves”. For the rest of us there remains hard work, and we should all be proud to survive by working hard, doing our best and keeping a sense of humor while doing it.
“There exists no politician in India daring enough to attempt to explain to the masses that cows can be eaten”. (Indira Gandhi)
A majority of Britons in a Huffington Post survey concluded that religion “does more harm than good,” and 60 percent described themselves as “not religious at all.” Another recent survey showed that twice as many Britons believe in ghosts as believe in God.
Nonetheless, in Britain there are numerous ” faith” schools, where religion is the principle subject taught. Some moslem and jewish schools apparently operate under the radar, segregating the children from society and keeping them busy from early morning to early evening. And they learn? Only about their own religion – science, for instance, is disturbing for them, and could raise too many awkward questions. The government has decreed that these schools have to teach about one additional religion for the sake of perspective, a move that has been furiously opposed by the control freaks who are brainwashing the poor children (and poor they are likely to remain).
Missing in all this is any requirement that schools should teach children about humanism, let alone the teachings of Epicurus and the whole body of nontheistical thought through history. Schools are not being allowed to teach Judeism with Humanism, for instance. The majority of the non-religious are, in my opinion, right in giving up belief in the supernatural, but still need moral and ethical standards of behaviour. This is what Epicureanism is about and what this blog attempts, in a modest way, to help supply. People need to believe in something outside themselves. They do not need control freaks to tell them what to do and take their money while they are doing it. Schools should be for education, for teaching people to learn and to think for themselves.
Saint Augustine wrote. “Abstinence from all sexual union is better even than marital intercourse performed for the sake of procreating.” In other words, if you cannot control yourself then get married, but please don’t enjoy it.
If you want to see how Augustine’s inhumane ideas played out in real, modern life please do get to see the movie “Philomena” . It won all sorts of awards and is poignant and funny. Judy Dench is terrific in the part of the woman whose son was taken away from her by Irish nuns – but I will say no more. It is a must-see!
The huge problem of militant Islam Is not confined to Iraq and Syria.
In 1924 Kemal Ataturk and the Grand National Assembly abolished the Caliphate, and along with it, the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Pious Foundations were wound up, religious schools transferred to the secular arm, and the Sheriat Courts were closed. Instead, a Civil Code, based on the Swiss code, was introduced.
Ataturk believed that Islam was “natural” religion, based on reason, science, knowledge and logic, and that Friday sermons in mosques should be in harmony with them. Preachers should follow closely the political and social conditions of the civilised world and deliver their sermons in Turkish, not in a dead language.
Nearly a hundred years later old-fashioned Islamism is back, imperiling Turkish law and democracy, not to mention the position of women in society. In Islam the movement is backwards. The successes of the so-called Caliphate are going to encourage further extremism, and push modern Islam to adopt ever more extreme answers to the problem of how to adapt to the modern world.
The Islamic countries are not alone. In the United States, there is a growing disdain for science. Huge numbers believe in the literal words of the bible, deny global warming and think the Earth was created six thousand years ago.
If you are looking for a “natural” belief, based on reason, science, knowledge and logic, espouse Epicureanism; don’t go backwards into ignorance.
Eleven self-styled “sharia police” vigilantes who patrolled the streets of a town in western Germany and attempted to dissuade people from drinking alcohol were recently arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and misuse of uniforms. The young men, who were led by a German convert to Islam, wore fluorescent orange jackets with the words “Shariah Police” on the back, and told drinkers they had declared the area around Wuppertal railway station to be a “sharia-controlled zone” (“These few teen yobs do not speak in our name,” said Aiman Mazyek, of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims).
Separately, four Islamists went on trial accused of planning to bomb the railway station in Bonn in December 2012. And in an unconnected incident, three suspected members of al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group, were arrested at Frankfurt airport.
Epicureanism is a “live-and-let live” philosophy that stands for moderation, empathy for the poor, friendship, and working together towards a pleasant life, free of poverty and fear. On all countsradical islamism is intolerable. You can choose to believe in supernaturalism if you wish, and that is fine, just as long as you don’t try to convert me or my fellow Epicureans. But when vigilantes appear or heads are cut off …….well, words fail me.
I believe in Spinoza’s god, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, not in a god who concerns himself in the fate and doings of mankind. (Albert Einstein
In other words, God is Nature. Not far from the ideas of Epicurus.
Some American churches tell their congregations that if they believe (and give) they will not only go to heaven, but they will be rich here on earth. These are the so-called “success prophets”, preying on the poor.
I suppose one could argue that the “pastors” involved are at least trying to offer some hope, but in the process they are enriching themselves and knowingly telling a lie. As Epicurus said, “To fear God in expectation of material returns is to act upon groundless expectations and false opinions”.
False philosophies are as bad as false religions. Stoicism, for instance, affirms divine providence and asserts that the social class you find yourself in is ordained by a higher power. Hinduism supports the Indian caste system. (Tending the Epicurean Garden, Hiram Crespo).
Most philosophies, like religions, become successful by bolstering the power of the ruler or ruling class. Stoicism is a good case in point. Whereas its Roman competitor, Epicureanism, eschewed politics, Stoicism appealed to the politicians around the Emperor because it affirmed their ability, power and position, and the natural order of things, which we know is no natural order but mostly luck and being at the right place at the right time, while enjoying the benefits of having the right parents.
Dr. Daisy Grewal of the Stanford School of Medicine published, in Scientific American, the results of a study on anti-atheism. “Reminding people about God, “she concluded, “has the same effect as telling people they are being watched by others. It increases their feeling of self-consciousness and leads them to behave in more socially acceptable ways”. She found that people trusted atheists more when they were reminded of authority figures, like judges and police chiefs. In other words, any divine or secular authority figure will do, and it is the authority vacuum that feels uncomfortable for many people.
Ancient Epicureans voluntarily accepted the authority of a senior member of the community in order to learn how to live a pleasant, Epicurean life. Indeed, if you believe the history, the gurus could be polite but direct and painfully truthful about the shortcomings of their pupils. So Epicureans had authority figures as much as anyone else. My own education made me highly skeptical about them. One should be able to think laterally and out of the box, able to spot both flaws in the arguments of authority figures and their frequent less-than-straightforward motives and objectives.
This is why, despite the hostility of Epicurus himself to politics and politicians, I wander into politics in order to criticize it. So I don’t recognize what Dr. Grewal has to say, and think it’s so much nonsense. Of course, everyone is different, not excluding Epicureans, and one has to accept that some people do crave a masterful person in their lives.
St Augustine, according to Alain de Boton, modern philosopher:
It was St. Augustine who came up with the idea of ‘Original Sin’. He proposed that all humans were crooked, because all of us are unwitting heirs to the sins of Adam. Our sinful nature gives rise to what Augustine called a ‘libido dominandi’, a desire to dominate, which is evident in the brutal, blinkered, merciless way we treat others and the world around us. We cannot properly love, for we are constantly undermined by our egoism and our pride. Our powers of reasoning and understanding are fragile in the extreme. Lust – a particular concern of Augustine’s, who had spent much of his youth fantasising about women in church – haunts our days and nights. We fail to understand ourselves, we chase phantoms, we are beset by anxieties… Augustine concluded his assault by chiding all those philosophers who ‘have wished, with amazing folly, to be happy here on earth and to achieve bliss by their own efforts.’
It can be a relief to be told that our lives are awry because nothing human can ever be made entirely straight and that the odds have been stacked against us from the start. Relax! Our sins are simply part of the human condition. (adapted from Alain de Boton’s article on his website).
Augustine was attacking the Epicureans. His point of view is broad-brush twaddle, and a license for those who do mischief to continue doing mischief. “I can’t help hitting old ladies over the head and stealing their belongings, Yer Honor. I suffer from Original Sin”. De Boton, the reason for whose prominence is a mystery, is also suggesting a free pass to baddies (maybe this is why he is prominent!) .
Epicureanism represents everything that is opposite to Augustine and De Boton. It is positive, encouraging and focuses on a pleasant life of calm, serenity and friendship. It also implicitly assumes that, while there are violent and selfish creeps in this world, most of us a capable of good thoughts and good works.
I look forward to comments from my Catholic readers!
“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse,” says Richard Dawkins. Seeming to have anticipated, although not understood, the feminist reaction this kind of sentiment generally evokes, he finishes the tweet: “If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”
Thus Richard Dawkins, once known as a respected evolutionary biologist and author, who demolished the arguments of the creationists, now regarded as a bad tempered crackpot. His message seems to be: “Why won’t we all just learn how to think, damn it! Then we could all live together in a peaceful society where …….women shut up about sexual harassment”.
It is a great shame. This is a man who has huge knowledge and who has a gift for popularizing science. Instead of continuing to educate an ignorant public on what he knows best, he pontificates on every matter under the sun – and makes an ass of himself with bigoted remarks. He understands the scientific method, a process intended to mitigate the interference of human subjectivity in data collection, as a universally applicable way of understanding the physical world. Unfortunately, he thinks it can be applied to everything else, and those who disagree with him are “feeble-minded obscurantists who cling to emotion, tradition or the supernatural to shield themselves from the power of his truth bombs…..To him, the humanities are expendable window-dressing, and the consciousness and emotions of his fellow human beings are byproducts of natural selection that frequently hobble his pursuit and dissemination of cold, hard facts”. (based on an article by Eleanor Robertson, theguardian.com, 30 July 2014)
From an Epicurean point of view Professor Dawkins is bad news. Epicurus was not an outright atheist – he simply believed that the gods refused to get involved in the minor and boring problems of the human race. Were he alive today it is possible that he might concede that there could well be a prime mover who authored the Big Bang, because, simply, know one knows (yet). Epicurus was a rationalist, an atomist and a supporter of the simple science of the day. He would regard Dawkins as now being as dangerous to rational thought and the idea of ridding the world of supernaturalism, bible literalism and blowhard religionists. Moderation is all.
In Sudan a pregnant doctor has been sentenced to hang for apostasy for marrying a Christian man. Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, 27, was raised a Christian by her mother; however, her father was a Muslim. The Court in Khartoum also sentenced her to 100 lashes for having illicit sexual relations, her 2011 marriage having been deemed invalid. The sentence has been deferred until after the baby’s birth, and she can also appeal.
Notice that the man has not been sentenced for seducing a Moslem woman. The Epicurean Court of Justice has just sentenced the members of the Court to twenty years, without sexual relations of any kind whatsoever, for misogyny, sexism, crude violence and misinterpretation of the Koran.
It seems the most extraordinary disconnect: we can discover planets in the solar system that have water on them; we can cure previously incurable diseases – and yet we cannot seem to work out a way of treating women as equals to men in some parts of the world, or allow people to live their private lives without some control freak bullying them and even killing them because of some antiquated religious belief!
This blog spends a certain amount of time knocking organised religion and the control freaks who have inhabited priestly vestments over the centuries. Let us separate the sometimes well-meaning, sometimes ignorant, blather from what we know and what, maybe, we will never know.
We know that the universe is 13 billion years old. We know it is expanding and might well contract sometime. We know the universe is flat, we know a little bit about dark matter, and we have a sneaking suspicion that our universe may be just one of many, and that we on Earth could be one huge accident, a one in a billion offchance. In other words we are alone, an exception in a dark, cold space. Every year we know more, but what we may never know is what preceded the big bang and why, out of what did we come and into what are we expanding. The idea of space without end or purpose is hard to fathom.
So when a religious person “quotes’ God saying, “I said I made the universe, but I never said how I did it, or why”, then we have to concede that, since we know so little, it is arrogant to say that there can be no Prime Mover. What the odds are against is the personal god of the Christian church who hears and answers prayers about petty matters. Prayers may be psychologically efficacious, but the chances of anyone out there answering and doing anything about them are all down to coincidence and chance. What we can agree on is that the universe is mind-blowingly wonderful. But, as matters stand, we simply don’t know what preceded the big bang. Mind you, given the speed of scientific progress even this might be solved in due course. Who could have foreseen, in 1900, the state of knowledge in 2014?
Meanwhile, Epicureans can say “I don’t know” or even espouse the idea of the prime mover, and no one should mock them. To say “I don’t know” is o.k. Meanwhile, the whole subject is amazing and exciting.
Morals are simply the accumulated common sense of scores of generations of people gathered together in settlements, villages and towns. How, they asked themselves, can we live together? The rules they made up as a result are now called ethics and morals, including common sense ideas like not lusting after your neighbour’s wife, nor his ass.
Where organised religion has been useful is in codifying these rules of conduct, not making them up. Many people are alive to the sudden opportunity or the next temptation, but at least the muftis, rabbis, mullahs and priests remind them of the rules. Otherwise some might slip into careless ways, shall we say. The Ten Commandments comprise a typical, handy list.
The other thing organised religion is good for is to frighten, or, more kindly, discipline the populace. This it does by threatening fire and brimstone and telling the guys to obey the ruler and pay their taxes, or they will end up in hell. If you are a king this is rather a useful prop to your regime.
But to go further and claim. as some do (e.g Mr. Theo Hobson) that without religion there is no morality is, in my opinion, bunkum. Epicurus believed that law and morality change according to the needs of any particular society and epoch. This couldn’t be the case if they are determined by an eternal god.
In Senegal the test of success is still to have a big family. In the Washington Post of March 16, 2014 Allyn Gaestal interviewed a 76 year old farmer called Hadji Fally Diallo, who has taken the writings of the prophet literally and has three wives and 30, yes 30, children. “With 30 children some can go into the fields, some can deal with the cattle, some can go abroad. It’s a lot of money you can have with this size family, so that is a lot of power”.
If you hadn’t read it in the Washington Post you would never have believed it (and maybe we shouldn’t, it is so irresponsible). Here we are with a world population of 7 billion, stressed for water, facing global warming and high food prices, and this man is oblivious to it. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the imams, who will have nothing to do with contraception, better family health or the economic benefits brought with smaller families. The prophet tells them: “You are my people. Multiply”, and “It is the duty of god to take care of the family”. Duty?
The hadji should get on his bike or bullock and find work for himself, not expect his wives and children to do it all for him. This is the Epicurean way – fairness and the equal division of labour and effort.
Even with 70,000 animals on board, Noah’s Ark could have floated, say researchers at the University of Leicester. If the Ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high it could have accommodated samples of all the planet’s animal species (estimated to have been numbered around 35,000). The team, at the University of Leicester, worked out that the Ark was around 472ft long (roughly half the length of the Titanic). They then estimated the weight of the animals that would have needed to get on board, the density of the water, and its buoyancy force.
Fellas, it’s just a story. It might possibly have a tenuous, historical basis, but mainly it’s a tale to illustrate a religious point about god’s wrath etc, a story to frighten the believers (frightening is big in the bible). Epicurus would have been all in favour of the description of the flood, as presented in the wonderful English of the King James bible. But he would have treated it as literature, not fact. Don’t take it so seriously. And go and do something scientifically useful for the rest of us!
Two previous Popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, have been canonized. You are supposed to be canonized after extensive scrutiny and two examples of miracles (successful intercession with God) are established. If you are immediately and permanently cured overnight from a terminal illness after praying to a saint, then that is a miracle.
Epicurus would probably say that if praying to a saint cures you, then why not do it. Science and medical documentation do not come into it. You are alive and happy, and you believe what you believe. Others of us would prefer to be treated by medical experts, based on scientifically established principles and a stellar track record. Two cures, immediate and permanent, are not enough for me, speaking personally.
It is believed that the end of the ice age saw massive flooding as the ice receded, so the legend of Noah may have had some basis in historical fact, even though it is presented in the bible as a survival parable and folk tale. There are so many practical, er, difficulties with the story, if taken literally, that sensible people regard it as more a piece of poetry than an historical account.
But out come the nutters, protesting as usual, as if they had any better idea of what actually happened than you or I. These Old Testament tales are simply tribal, half- remembered histories, recounted and altered – generation by generation – down the centuries and put on papyrus by some smart scribe with no evidence before him, except for what his Dad and Grandad told him. You shouldn’t take them too literally.
However, Noah is important to Epicureans in one respect: Noah is represented as respecting and loving the beasts of the field and the fowl of the air, which is more than a lot of self-professed religious people do nowadays, causing deep stress among their fellow creatures and driving them to extinction. We should honour Noah for his sensitivity and care for the environment.
I find it morally repugnant to bring into this world children who are unwanted and unloved.
If the principal objectives of Epicureanism are happiness and contentment, then it follows that children should be conceived, born and reared in warmth, love and friendship. Force majeure employed by those claiming to know the mind of God seek to force women to forego family planning and bear children, often conceived in violence or indifference. This is the cause of lifelong misery and unhappiness for many millions and untold social problems, mostly among the poor and socially deprived.
One of the biggest problems facing the world is over-population. The reluctance to address it arises from several factors, but one of the most disturbing is the belief of most religions that life should be preserved at any cost (literally). This attitude is primeval. It goes back to the days when the population was small, the planet large and empty, and lives short. Families relied on the annual birth of a child for labour in the fields and support in old age.
Now we have 7 billion people, insufficient water, land and jobs. Climate change is reducing food production, and growth has stalled. Still the ideologues insist that crippled and autistic babies be brought into the world and that women who raped should bear the resulting children. No matter that they are unloved. This attitude is at best unrealistic. I would maintain it is cruel as well as being stupid.
Please would a religious person who supports the “life at any price” doctrine explain why they think they are right? I genuinely want to know.
There is an emerging trend in British universities towards gender apartheid. This has no foundation in Islam. Indeed, the Koran explicitly sanctions the concept of legitimate social intermingling in Chapter 24:61. The distorted dogma of sexual segregation is an archaic pre-Islamic patriarchal throwback that is now in vogue in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. This non-Koranic custom is currently gaining traction in the UK because of uncontested Wahhabi-Salafi propaganda. Religious zealots are imposing their contagious sexist doctrines, financed by Saudi petrodollars, to recreate a mythical seventh century Utopia. But this anachronistic male chauvinism is not what pristine Islam teaches. Indeed, Koranic Islam actively champions an erudite, enlightened and egalitarian way of life that embraces dignity, justice and parity for everyone. This is a primitive blight. Right-thinking Muslims must not allow a foreign-inspired ideology and local fundamentalists to poison the content and character of British Islam. (Adapted from a letter to the Independent from Dr T Hargey, Director and Imam, Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford).
How refreshing to see an imam standing up for common sense and opposing the medieval views of desert camel drovers! Epicureans might not share Dr. Hargey’s devotion to Islam, but certainly applaud these reasonable and decent views. Britain has welcomed immigrants from all over the world in huge numbers. There has to be a limit to how a small number of them are allowed to bully and cajole their fellow citizens into practices antithetical to the prevailing culture of freedom and equality (which begs a question, but it approximates the truth!).
Scientology is hard to take seriously. Its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, claimed that 75 million years ago a galactic dictator called Xenu brought billions of people, known as Thetans, to Earth (then known as Teegeeack) and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Today, their frozen souls “loiter and make us crabby unless we know how to deal with them – which is, obviously, by joining Tom Cruise and John Travolta in becoming a Scientologist. Yet, silly though this sounds, is it really any less plausible than, say, the burning bush that spoke to Moses? People call Scientology a cult, because it is accused of separating believers from their families, fleecing them, and bullying those who leave. Yet there are few religions that have not faced such accusations.
If the consequences of religious toleration ever seem silly to you, said Boyd Tonkin in The Independent, then you only need consider the alternative “in 17th century England, maybe, or in the Central African Republic today”. Religious liberty is of course “essential to a free society”, said The Times, “but that doesn’t mean that Scientology should be given, for instance, the same tax advantages as more respectable religions. We must be tolerant, but we needn’t be respectful to a crank organisation espousing absurd doctrines concocted by a pathological fantasist, plagiarist, bigamist and charlatan”. (Tanya Gold in The Sunday Times).
Epicureans have no need of these ludicrous beliefs. The pursuit of happiness (Jefferson was a follower of Epicurus), of friendship, of love, of wonder at the world and universe, and of the acquisition of knowledge are more than sufficient.
Religion has been pushed back by science to the extent that an all-seeing God, in the image of Man, overseeing every minute of his life, seems unlikely. And if science has proved that the whole universe can emerge from nothing, then the final and only justification for organised religion has to be the inculcation of morality: the last bastion.
Where did morality come from?
One of the earliest pieces of written morality are the Ten Commandments (like a lot of the Old Testament, adopted from previous or parallel cultures. But it was written down, which showed progress). But I call the Ten Commandments the “Ten Reminders”, because they are so obvious to any intelligent person interested in self-preservation and simply getting through life without constant battles with the neighbors.
The idea that murder, theft, coveting you neighbor’s wife or his ass is some sort of revolutionary and blinding revelation is too silly for words. By the time of Abraham humans had settled, and were farming, a lot of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. They were few in number, but they were gathered into villages for defense and mutual support. You can be sure that basic morality and the idea of law, or rules of conduct, were already established. Why? Because it was the obvious thing to do in order to survive. It went along with the whole idea of tribes and villages and being gregarious.
Epicurus would probably tell us that tnis is all very reasonable, but it doesn’t preclude parents giving their children moral instruction and moral example, discipline and self- discipline. Regrettably, with the decline of community and the rise of hyper-capitalism (otherwise known as selfishness and greed), it is ever more important to drill into children the Ten Reminders. And, while they are about it, they could add a few other good principles about getting on with other people. Epicureans may not want to go to lots of meetings , but they value a community.
Until recently, tough restrictions forced Spanish women to go abroad for abortions – in such numbers that regular charter flights to London were set up. In 2010 the Socialist government introduced a new law permitting early-term abortion, bringing Spain into line with the rest of Europe. But now conservative justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón wants to turn back the clock, allowing abortion only in cases of rape and severe ill health – to the delight of Spain’s Catholic Church. Voters overwhelmingly oppose the change, but he’s standing firm, arguing it will help protect a woman’s “right to maternity”. He even claims an increase in birth rates is just what Spain needs to get the economy moving.
The new law does not allow for abortion where the baby is likely to be born with disabilities. It does require two doctors to agree that giving birth will cause the patient harm, while under the old law only one was needed. Poor women are expected resort to illegal backstreet clinics, while the better-off will have to go abroad, as they always did before, entrenching class divisions. (Edited from an article in The Week).
Epicurus, the first known philosopher to welcome women as equals into his garden groups, would strongly support allowing women to make their own choices, and would have opposed this persistent intrusion into the bedroom that is a hallmark of reactionaries, nearly all men (!), mark you. And, by the way, making abortion difficult does nothing statistically to increase the population. Another myth. How long do we have to be patient and polite with these people with antediluvian attitudes?
The US Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that same-sex married couples in the US are to be granted the same rights under federal law as heterosexual couples – even in states where gay marriage is not permitted or recognised. In a move hailed as a legal landmark by rights campaigners, Holder said all justice department employees – “in every courthouse, in every proceeding” – would be required to give same-sex marriages full and equal recognition under the law. Those rights include the right to refuse to testify against a spouse; the right to visit a spouse in prison; the right to file jointly for bankruptcy; and the right to federal benefits for the surviving spouses of police officers.
Epicureans welcome this belated granting of a basic human right. In their preoccupation with increasing population (and their own adherents) the world religions anethematized homosexuals, who are born thus, not made. Can I say that again? Born, not made! The discrimination against non-heterosexuals, still nastily current in countries like Uganda and Nigeria, is unjust. The Catholics in particular should be ashamed of their outdated and (yet again) un-scientific proscription of homosexuality.
I know someone who thinks that we need many more homosexuals, not less, because of the over-population of the world. Over-population actually presents the greatest threat – barely debated – to continued occupation of the planet by humans. We are wrecking it, and what organised religion should be doing is promoting family planning, not banning it, welcoming same-sex marriage not anathematizing it. As for Uganda and Nigeria – words fail me.