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.
In an article in New American in December 2003, Steve Bonta described Epicureanism thus:
Epicureans believe in an impersonal, indifferent Supreme Being, a universe devoid of spirituality, the absence of an afterlife, and belief that happiness is attained by the pursuit of pleasure. These beliefs cannot be reconciled with that piety and self- restraint so necessary to self-government. (my italics)
In other words we have to be pious (why?), and only religion gives us self-restraint (why?). He thinks we are incapable of working out a moral code without the benefit of priestly input or dire threats of everlasting punishment in the hereafter (why?). This underestimates the ability of human beings to think for themselves. I would remind Mr. Bonta that Catholicism at one point ended up seeming to advocate being miserable (no sex, please) and obeying the powers that be in return for hope of a life in the next world, replete with choirs and harps! In short, his words imply the idea that only threats can make us responsible citizens and decent, caring neighbors. I have to admit that people have to be educated and encouraged to think for themselves – for some it doesn’t come naturally. But why let the priest think for you?
Steve Bonta comes from a long line of people who:
(a) Mischievously misrepresent Epicurean teachings about pleasure (nothing to do with gorging yourself and drinking yourself under the table).
(b) Ignore the things done in the name of religion for thousands of years. Organized religion is increasingly associated with tribalism and human division. Pope Francis is a good man, but even he has a huge job when you consider that 30% of so-called “millenials” in the US are unaffiliated with any religion whatsoever, a growing proportion, and only 36% describe themselves as religious. There is a reason for that.
(c) Fail to recognise the role of religions as essential props of regimes throughout history. (“Sorry you and your kids are starving, but think of your reward in Heaven. Now pay your taxes, or else!”, intones the clergyman from the pulpit. “Obey the law and cause no problems”). One can do better than that!
Penguin Books have been forced to withdraw all copies of a book called “The Hindus: an Alternative History” by an American academic, Wendy Doniger. Doniger talked about the importance of women, sexuality and the very poor of India who exist at the bottom of the caste system of India. This inflamed the good ‘ole boys of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, an extreme conservative Hindu group that polices everything said about Hindus, regularly forcing educational authorities to remove “objectionable” passages from school textbooks and excluding certain books from university libraries. The nearest analogy seems to be the Catholic Inquisition and the merry book-burning that went along with enforcing the faith.
Unfortunately, religious extremism is in this case muddled up with politics, because the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, might well form the next government of India, and although they officially disagree with censorship, the fact is that a religion-based political organisation is vying for power and could use it to terrorize non-Hindus.
So much harm is still being done in the name of religion. Epicurus believed that the Greek gods quarreled and made love on top of mount Olympus and took no interest in human lives. This charming picture was a not-so-subtle way of saying there were no gods to bother with. India could do with an Epicurus, it seems.
Belgium has become the first country in the world to remove all age restrictions on euthanasia, meaning that terminally ill children under the age of 18 will now be able to request a lethal injection from doctors to end their lives. The extension of the country’s 2002 law on euthanasia, approved by parliament last week following a highly charged and emotional debate, means that Belgium will have even more radical laws on mercy killings than the Netherlands, where children aged 12 and above can request to die. The measure had faced strong opposition from an alliance of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders. Belgium will only permit euthanasia where a child is terminally ill and close to death, is suffering beyond medical help, and is able to request and fully understand euthanasia. The request must have been assessed and approved by doctors and psychologists, and must have the support of the patient’s parents. (The Week)
Euthanasia is an Epicurean thing. If you believe in pleasure and happiness, then what could be worse than having a deadly disease or being 24/7 on a ventilator for months or years. Epicurus would no doubt have supported all the necessary assessments and the approval of doctors, but would have said that when life no longer can offer pleasure and fulfillment you should be able to end it, if that were your personal, considered decision. It is your life, no one elses, and no priest should have a say in the matter. The worship of “life” as an end in itself is ridiculous. I personally want to leave this world when I think I can offer no further value or love to my wife, my family and my friends. I don’t want strangers with their own agendas making decisions that do not take into account my wishes.
In a Washington Post article on February 8th, Herb Silverman says, “Many people create a deity who elects to spend eternity only with those who believe in his existence. I would rather create a deity who …..would base her decision on behavior instead of beliefs, who would want a relationship with honest, rational people who look for evidence before taking a position…….My kind of Supreme Being would rather we worship no gods than false gods. He or she would be more loving than the God proclaimed by conservative Christians – one who tortures people forever for not believing that Jesus is Lord”.
As Mr. Silverman says, over the tens of thousands of years of human existence Man has believed in a plethora of gods and goddesses, some personal, some who intervene in human affairs, some who sit and mind their own business on top of a mountain, some who reward or punish individuals in the afterlife, some who care about behavior, some who care about beliefs. There is even an American God who promises to make you rich – provided you make an immediate down-payment. Mmmmh!
Were we in business school we would be told that the market for gods has undergone massive consolidation. The old gods are living in retirement homes, and ancient beliefs, no doubt fiercely held at the time, are no more. Remaining religions are unable to agree on a definition of god, are historically intolerant of others, and are individually convinced they are “right”. Meanwhile, suffering abounds, regardless of belief or non-belief and help from heaven has not so far been forthcoming. It would transform our lives if it did, of course.
Makes you want to be a rational, happy Epicurean, doesn’t it, taking pleasure in life and not worrying about what happens in the afterlife?
(Herb Silverman is founder and president emeritus of the Secular Coalition of America. www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/ )
A new book by Bart Ehrman, “Forgery and Counter-forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics” demonstrates that many of the Epistles were forgeries, designed to reinforce a particular point of view in the new religion that had broken away from Judaism and which was anxious to build up credibility and a (fictitious past). Some of the writing was part of a fierce debate as to whether Jesus was or was not going to return very soon. So far he has not deigned to do so.
Meanwhile Candida Moss, in “The Myth of Persecution” takes an axe to early Christian martyrology, suggesting that it was made up in the fourth and fifth centuries, creating an attitude of inevitable conflict with non-Christians, and justifying the persecution of dissidents and members of other faiths.
The steady drip of expert research is demolishing part of the edifice of belief that has justified church intolerance through the centuries. Epicureanism, on the other hand, has no deus ex machina “certainties” and is a rational variant of humanism, without priests and control-freak leaders, that suits those who think for themselves. Counter-tribal, I call it, a creed for those who tend toward introversion and scepticism about the supernatural. Neither Christianity nor Epicureanism is either right or wrong; it’s about what suits you personally. But you need to know the provinance of the beliefs you are believing in!
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger. Woe to you laughing now, for soon you will mourn” (Luke 6:24-25)
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Mathew 19:30)
“How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God”. (Mark 10:23)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry for you shall be fed. Blessed are you who mourn for you shall be comforted” (Luke 6:24-25).
Just in case you don’t know, all the above are quotes from Jesus of Nazareth.
Wasn’t there also something about rich men and the eye of a needle?
Unknown (apparently) to themselves the christian right in America are supporting a fire-brand revolutionary, a sort of early nationalist, a “neo-communist” (shudder!), who was intent on throwing the Romans out, along with their fellow travelers. He championed the poor, not the rich, and would have deplored the existence of the black underclass, not starved them of education, opportunity and even the vote. Which is why these Americans are not christians, but worshippers of …..what? Money?
Epicureans have nothing against Jesus of Nazareth; it is the hypocrites they find tiresome.
Some while ago the New York Times carried an article by Bob Goldman that proposed Life Panels for the very elderly. These would be groups of friends and professional people with the legal authority to ensure that a person near death actually gets what they have asked for in a nursing home or hospital.
End of life medical costs are huge in comparison to the more modest cost of treating younger people, often running at $100,000 a year or more for the elderly sick. Even a Living Will will not protect you in hospital, because the judgment of the doctors override it when it comes to the mental capacity of the patient. Part of the reason for the reluctance of doctors to pull the plug is the fear of subsequent legal action. This fear is overcome because a Life Panel would take full responsibility and would be be protected from prosecution, deciding on the use of intravenous morphine or a fentanyl patch according to the request of the sick person, thus allowing him or her a timely and respectful death.
We are all living longer, and must face the consequences of this fact. Right-wingers and Roman Catholics, who take the view that all life is sacred, regardless of age and circumstance, might reflect on the huge cost of end-of-life procedures to Medicare, the National Health Service and other national health organisations and the reduction in tax that would result in the adoption of Life Panels.
Epicurus believed that life should be a pleasure, not a torment to aged sufferer and to family. He would approve of Life Panels.
Happy Christmas to our numerous readers. Here is something to humbly ponder upon over the holiday:
A new book by Michael Ryan, “Decoding Al Qaida’s Strategy: the Deep Battle against America”, among other things, discusses what it is that Al Qaida and its loose affiliates (and by extension much of the Islamic world) so heartily detests about the West:
- the creation and subsequent abandonment of the mujaheddin fighters against the USSR
- the abandonment of habeas corpus implicit in extraordinary rendition
- detention without trial in Guantanimo
- the humiliation and torture of prisoners in Iraq
- the crude use of drones in Pakistan,Somalia and Yemen
- the NSA’s disregard for personal privacy
- the sense of humiliation meted out by colonial European powers, and the thirst on behalf of so many Moslems for dignity and respect
- the bullying of Moslem countries (Iran is an example) for commercial objectives over many years, and support for reactionary regimes (e.g Saudi, Egypt under Mubarak)
- the feeling that the United Nations, the multi-nationals, internet providers, global news media and even the aid agencies use puppet regimes in the Middle East to continue the colonial project by other means (at least, this is how they seem to see it).
And this does not even address the activities of Israel, which continues its self-defeating policies and land theft, protected by the US. Nor does it cover the distaste of many Moslems for the coarse Western culture that promotes violence, pornography and tasteless vulgarity around the world.
Epicurus would have no time for caliphates, cutting off people’s hands or murdering people in the name of religion. But he might see the point that we seem unable to understand the other side’s point of view or to see the motes in our own eyes. You have to be obtuse not to see that, collectively, we need a wake-up call. In 2014 I hope we can drop the arrogance.
The sultan of Brunei has announced that he is imposing a strict new criminal code based on sharia law. There is already a sharia Islamic court in Brunei, but it mainly handles family matters. Next year, the 280,000 Muslims in the country will be subject to a tough new penal code that is expected to include amputation for theft, and death by stoning for adultery. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, 67, who is one of the world’s wealthiest men, called the code “a part of the great history of our nation”.
Many years ago I visited Brunei and unexpectedly met the sultan in his old palace. It would have been most enjoyable, except for the fact that I had two small, boiling hot, very over-tired children with me. Ignoring parents and good manners, they racketed around the audience room, out if control and sorely embarrassing their parents.
Well, Epicurus would have said that you must put it aside, learn from these life experiences and try to do better. Nonetheless, I read the above news item and got to worry as to whether the behaviour of the children could have been the initial seeds of a new Islamist revolution in Westernized Brunei, as in, “if this is how Western kids behave, I guess I need to introduce the chopping off of hands, stoning and capital punishment” (confession: I could have instantaneously introduced sharia law for the kids myself at the time). It is sometimes the simplest things, never planned or intended, that change the course of events. If this is an example, I humbly apologise to the citizens of Brunei, and hope I am being over-sensitive.
The Pope has just criticized so-called “trickle-down” economics as having no basis either in theory or in practice. “A crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power”. Wonderful!
Trickle-down economics was always an excuse for supporting the rich against the less rich. If it worked at all it would be working now. You have a record gap between rich and poor and a tiny minority earning millions a year. There is absolutely no evidence of “trickle-down”, and no evidence that the Bush tax cuts did anything for the nation or for the economy either, except to encourage some billionaires to say “thank you” to one political party.
Epicureanism stands for moderation and equal opportunities for all citizens. Epicurus would have been appalled that specious theories that are contrary to experience and common sense are peddled to justify divisive policies. But he wouldn’t be surprised!
Thank you, your Holiness!
“Ut sit magna, tamen certe lenta ira deorum est”. (Juvenal, Satirae, XIII, 100). The wrath of the gods may be great, but it is certainly slow.
Epicurus gave a nod to the gods on Mt. Olympus. He believed that they might well exist, but that they were too busy politicking among themselves, drinking too much and seducing the lady gods to have time for humans, and they certainly did not involve themselves in the boring and tawdry minutiae of life here below. Thus, says Epicurus, there are no personal gods that will do anything for you, and it is therefore folly to fear them (Epicurus put all this more poetically; this is the gist of what he had to say).
No country likes to look poverty full in the face, but in America there is a special reluctance to do do. Since the Puritans, Americans have associated wealth with blessing and poverty with curse. According to capitalist ideology, poverty is less a social problem than a series of individual failures. A prosperous middle class showed, until recently, that hard work paid off.
But since 2008 the American middle class has lost its footing. Unaccountability, powerlessness, and the loss of control over one’s own destiny are sapping the morale of people still in work, not to mention those out of it. Those who work for government are “devastated by the capital’s stasis, conformity and corruption”.
The frightening thing is that the postwar consensus, in which business, labor and government worked together to guarantee a growing economy, full employment and political stability has been “unwound”. The social compact is now like “Paradise Lost”. The old institutions don’t work, and the void is now filled by “the default force in American life – organised money”. It’s all about “greed and civic irresponsibility”. (Adapted from a review of “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” by George Packer (Faber) in the August edition of “Prospect” magazine).
Those who espouse Epicureanism have to face the fact the they are in a tiny minority – in fact all those with any common sense are as well. As we edge back into poverty of pocket and spirit, back into the conservative nirvana of sub-feudal deference and household servants, let us enjoy friendship, good conversation, laughter and wine, (if climate change lets us), in beautiful gardens. Clearly, religion has failed the majority of us, as has political leadership and institutions. God has proved over the years that he cannot help us, but we can help ourselves.
Pacific Academy in British Colombia, describes itself as “unabashedly Christian to the core” and gives enrolment priority to students whose families regularly attend a Pentecostal church or have experienced glossolalia, also known as speaking in tongues.
Parents who want to enrol their children at Pacific Academy must sign a family statement agreeing with Scripture teachings that marriage is between a man and a woman, (same sex couples are excluded from applying), and a faith statement that “invites God’s Holy Spirit to be active in the daily life of the school.” There is no expectation that students will speak in tongues, headmaster Paul Horban said, but they should be aware before enrolling that the school accepts glossolalia as a gift from the Holy Spirit.
What is expected from all students, however, is service, and that’s emphasized with a biblical phrase inscribed on a wall at the school’s main entrance: “Whoever would be greatest must be least — and the servant of all.”
The non-profit society that operates the school — the Pacific Pentecostal Education and Communication Society — received $5.8 million in government funding last year, which is 50 per cent of the operating grant provided to public schools. (The Week, May 23, 2013)
What this information does not include is any clue about how science, for instance, is taught, if it is taught at all. Are the students taught creationism? Is evolution taught, and if so, how? What do kids learn about global warming, other religions, history, the age of the planet etc? Is the taxpayer contributing to the production of human beings who are ignorant and unsuited to normal employment?
Epicurus would probably have said that the study of religion (all religion) is a valid part of the curriculum, but the indoctrination of kids in one specific religion is against the spirit of modern education. All too many people have at best a fuzzy idea of the meaning of the word “education”. The idea of thinking critically is not associated with religious schooling.
Islamic teachings on whether women have to cover their faces date back to the seventh century. The niqab is not specifically mentioned in the Koran. There are, however, verses that refer to a woman’s obligation to cover herself with the khimar, a type of headscarf, and the jilbab, an outer garment, when in the presence of men who are not relatives. The majority view is that it is acceptable to display faces and hands. The number of women in Britain who wear the niqab, has rocketed over the past 20 years and is now “in the tens of thousands”. It is younger women, many of them British-Muslim converts, who are driving the trend.
The revival is partly linked to the rise in Wahhabism, the branch of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, and other traditionally conservative branches of Islam, but is mainly down to Muslim communities clinging to a vibrant faith as Britain becomes increasingly irreligious. “There has been a resurgence in Muslim identity and many of the religious authorities in Britain are advocating covering one’s face. The idea is that the more covered you are, the holier you are.” Hasan believes few women in Britain are coerced into wearing the niqab. In fact, he says, many of the younger generation are the first in their families to do so: “Rather than understanding the faith in a more nuanced way, as often their parents did, for whom faith is about the quality of your character, your heart and your outlook on life, they seize on literal interpretations. If you lack that depth of understanding of Islam it’s easy to hold on to outward symbols – for men, it’s growing a beard and for young women it’s covering up.”
Some moderate Muslims feel more strongly about it. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued in The Independent recently that fully veiled women “hinder progressive Islam”. She wrote: “We Muslims are already unfairly thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous and suspicious. If it is a provocation for the Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can’t be recognised, it is for Muslims too.” (Adapted from an article by Usama Hasan of the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation).
Epicurus believed in living while you are alive. He advocated pleasure, on the basis that this is the only life you have, and why be miserable? He didn’t advocate excess, but the enjoyment of friends, of nature, of wine (in moderation), and good food( also in moderation). None of this chimes with ascetic Islamism where you can’t even see through your niqab properly, or see obstructions on the sidewalk. If you want to return to the Middle Ages, do so in the Empty Quarter, complete with camel.
Pope Francis has reached out to atheists and agnostics, reassuring them that the Christian God will “forgive” them as long as they behave morally and follow their consciences. He did so as part of his recent interview with La Repubblica, commented upon previously on this blog.
If one has doubts about the existence of a god who apparently has time to concern himself with the morals, petty doings and beliefs of us mortals, insignificant specks in space and time, why should one be bothered one way or another with the Pope’s views? We should, like all educated and civilised people, listen to the Pope with respect, but I don’t think Epicureans should pause a moment to ponder his “forgiveness”, or that of the god he claims to speak for. I guess atheists and agnostics follow their consciences and share about the same level of morality as any average Christian. So, in a presentation that is otherwise encouraging, this is patronizing.
Epicurus bowed to the gods of Ancient Rome. He thought that they might well exist up there on Mount Olympus, but if they did they spent their time eating, drinking and quarreling (and seducing one another), and did not involve themselves in the lives of mortals, let alone dispense “forgiveness”.
But, patronizing or no, it is reassuring to have the Pope thinking positively about us, instead of anethematising us. Keep talking, your holiness.
The interview recently given by the Pope is most interesting. Here is the first Jesuit Pope for centuries, a subtle and clever man, who has kept his real feelings hidden well enough to be elected. The Jesuits were known as a the “storm troopers of the Counter-Reformation”, and here they are again, trying to combat justified disillusionment and steer the church in a more modern and inclusive direction.
But with gentle hints. He makes a big thing of taking time making decisions. He stresses the need to consult. He notes the Church has been wrong before. He says he is, first and foremost, a sinner himself. He talks about discernment (by which I assume he means judgement) and the context of time and place. This latter phrase is important. He may realise that persecuting homosexuals and opposing their marriage is ridiculous when it is now scientifically clear that homosexuals are such by the accident of birth, not choice. He may understand that the biblical exhortation to “go forth and multiply” was fine in the Iron Age but is inappropriate with a global population over 7 billion (in other words, let’s drop the campaign against contraception?). He also knows that most people hate the idea of abortion and only go through the ordeal with very good reason. To condemn women and force them to have unwanted children is cruel.
Epicurus would approve of this measured approach, but in reality the Pope is firing a shot over the bows of the old reactionaries. If so, it may prove a wild ride. Good luck!
The greatest threat to the future of the human race is the number of humans. And yet this subject is rarely raised. Businesses want a growing population to swell the growth of demand, and thus profits. But a growing population requires an expanding social and physical infrastructure, such as roads, schools and hospitals. It is also a fact that a growing population puts an unbearable pressure on water resources, forests, arable land, and the things that nature provides and sustains us, and exacerbates the problem of global warming caused by human activity.
I have just returned from Istanbul, a wonderful city, but one where the teeming mass of locals seems to be 30 or under, and where older people are noticeable by their relative absence. This phenomenon apparently applies all over the Middle East in particular, fueling the current political unrest. How do you offer livelihoods to such huge numbers?
Even in London you are struck by the baby boom and the number of push chairs on the streets. Common sense tells us there has to be a limit.
Commentators tell us not to worry – the rate of world population increase is declining. What they don’t tell us is that it still continues to grow and that it grows from a hugely inflated base. Their handling of statistics isn’t exactly dishonest, just misleading.
The short-sighted silence about this subject is exacerbated by the world religions, notably the Catholics and Moslems, who believe that life is sacred but are silent about its quality. God will not actually provide, my friends! You are living in dreamland. Epicureans should expose the dangers facing the little children (not to mention the less little) in the world today and not be afraid to talk about this worrisome subject. What will become of this and future generations? How you reverse the trend when the media themselves refuse to draw attention to it is a problem. We must do what we can.
Rationalist campaigner Narendra Dabholkar, was assassinated recently for exposing the fraudulent practices of “miracle workers” in the state of Maharashtra. He had collected evidence showing how thousands of women are victims of “vicious” magic rituals, often at the behest of male relatives; in remote areas they’re even burnt as sacrifices. And he had shown that far from doing anything to stop such abuses, state ministers, keen to secure the votes of Hindu traditionalists, actively patronise the “saints” and magic men, sometimes resorting to black magic themselves to try to destroy rivals. Every case of exploitation that Dabholkar exposed turned out to involve some guru sponsored by a politician. The traditionalists felt threatened by the success of his campaign and the situation became critical when he seemed on the verge of gaining enough votes in the state parliament to ban such practices. Doubtless that’s why he was killed. (Kumar Ketkar, Tehelka, New Delhi)
Epicureanism stands for the rejection of superstition, miracles, and con-men.
“When Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned broadcaster, bought Al Gore’s cable channel for $500m to gain a toe-hold in the US market, executives knew they wouldn’t “get the red-carpet treatment”. But the station’s experience in Britain – where initial scepticism gave way to critical acclaim – might have persuaded them that a similar feat could be pulled off in the US. No one foresaw “the level of hostility” they would actually meet. The channel launched last month with half the expected advertising after evangelical groups called on followers to boycott any product featured on “Terror Television” (or “Al Jihad”). Now a Republican lawmaker, Kieran Michael Lalor, has written to the bosses of the US’s biggest cable operators demanding they drop Al Jazeera from their basic packages, “or face commercial sanctions””. (Katherine Rushton, The Daily Telegraph).
The ignorance of these people is astounding! If they bothered to watch Al Jazeera and find out something about it, other than the fact that it is owned by Qatar, they would discover a TV channel that not only reports world news, but analyses it from every angle, They would learn that the staffing is safely Western and the coverage thoughtful. It is giving the BBC a run for its money in the UK, and subscribers actually learn something about the background to the news. In contrast, American news services rely on news agencies for their material, have few correspondents on the ground, and, (pace Fox News) the coverage is biased and full of personal views, irrelevant debate and comments from people with no international knowledge or perspective.
Al Jazeera is the best news channel to watch for those with open minds, that is, Epicureans.
The British National Health Service, spends vast sums fire-proofing itself against claims. Every patient seems out to sue someone, either for causing their misfortune or treating it wrongly. American defensive medicine has arrived in Britain. NHS trusts let personal injury lawyers advertise their services in hospitals and even set up offices inside them. Ambulance-chasing lawyers say “no win, no fee” ads help the vulnerable. “This is utterly immoral and predatory, the ruin of all of us. (Melanie Reid, The Times).
This is a relatively new phenomenon in Britain and a direct import from the United States. Republicans point to the activities of lawyers adding to the already huge cost of healthcare in the US, and they have a point. There are too many unfair attacks on doctors, most of whom do a good job. It is over the top (and thus un-Epicurean). Too many lawyers enter the profession, that is part of the problem, and they have to follow ambulances to make a living. We, the taxpayers, pay the price. Ridiculous!
Atheists are smarter than those who believe in God. At any rate, a couple of surveys suggest they tend to have higher IQs. But when it comes to who lives a healthier and more fulfilled life the advantages are all on the side of religious folk. in 2006, researchers at the University of Texas found that the more often people went to church, the longer they tended to live; a Duke University study found churchgoers tend to have lower blood pressure and stronger immune systems. Other recent studies show that believers recover faster from surgery than their heathen peers, and have better outcomes from breast cancer and coronary disease, even after adjusting for the fact that they tend to smoke and drink less, and take fewer drugs. They enjoy better mental health, too, as a UCLA study of college students has found. To top it all, believers are nicer: they give more to charity than atheists, “who, according to the very latest survey, are the meanest of all”. Atheists smarter? I don’t think so. (Sean Thomas on Telegraph.co.uk.24aug)
Note that the studies are all American,and that in America atheists come close to Al Queda terrorists in the public esteem. In the US charity giving statistics are skewed by including church expenses as charitable giving. A recent study shows that church goers give money for the church buildings and for the upkeep of the pastor, but fall well behind atheists in giving to charity. And how do you arrive at a professional finding that one group is “nicer” than another?
As for the assertion of the writer about health this is counter-intuitive. Everyone knows that African Americans are very religious, and yet the statistics show that their longevity is less than whites, and their health is generally worse. Disentangling the effect of church seems somewhat tricky.
Are these studies quoted based on hear-say? Which churchgoer is to admit churchgoing doesn’t make you feel better and get you over breast cancer and coronary disease? And what constitutes churchgoing – once a year, once. a month, every week or every day? Don’ feel you have to believe all this!
On the return flight from his trip to Brazil last month Pope Francis astonished reporters by holding an 80-minute press conference, in the course of which he remarked: “If a person is gay and seeks God, and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” What a change after weary years of moralising on sexual ethics. After the eight-year “twilight” pontificate of Benedict XVI, so mired in scandals, this is the facelift the Church needs. (adapted from reports in Le Monde and Der Standard, Vienna)
But there is no change to doctrine: he may want the Church to treat gays with respect, but he said nothing against its continuing “zero tolerance” for homosexual acts. He also reiterated that the door is closed to women seeking ordination. But atleast he has a genuine concern for the poor and has little patience with Vatican corruption. Epicureans should raise one out of three cheers.