Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Atheism 2.1: the Tension Between Atheist Politics and Ataraxia

I finally took the time to watch David Silverman’s firebrand atheism lecture. Silverman is the head of American Atheists. Upcoming atheist conventions in unlikely cities likeMemphis, Tennessee and San Juan, Puerto Rico have brought him into my radar, as I’ve recently created content for Ateístas de Puerto Rico and have been very concerned in recent years about the rise of religious privilege and intrusion in the public life in the island.
The inappropriate intrusion of religion in the lives of people in secular societies has had the side effect of birthing a militant atheist movement. Some of us argue that this is a moral necessity of our times, and that if religion had not become political there would be no need for a political secularism. For instance, Daniel Radcliffe recently said “I’m an atheist, and a militant atheist when religion starts impacting on legislation”. He also considers Richard Dawkins one of his personal heroes. Here, notice that he is not always militant: only when it comes to legislation, to politics, to significant societal changes that are backwards instead of progressive, does he feel a need to be militant.
Not Everyone Finds Advantage in Coming Out or Being Militant
The tensions arise when militancy becomes a source of conflict within our families and personal relations, and one must choose between the closet and one’s ataraxia. This is not an easy tension and we should not expect easy, clear-cut answers to ethical questions of this sort.
In one of my recent discussions with firebrand atheists on facebook, the one that frankly inspired this blog, the crux of the tension became evident. Their argument (which I fully understand) was that unless and until atheists begin to come out of the closet en masse, and proudly assume the atheist label, and until we see a normalization of atheism, there will be marginalization and exclusion. In spite of the rise of secularism in recent years, atheists are still one of the most hated groups in America.
But then my firebrand atheist friends called for obligating others to come out of the closet, to out them, to call them hypocrites, cowards, and other names if they don’t come out. This is where I reminded them that coming out can be costly for many people. Atheism (militant or not) can create heated discussions with family members and friends, and even the possibility of exile and alienation in communities and families that are deeply religious. Many ex-Mormons experience deep alienation and are entirely ostracized, becoming pariahs forever in their own communities, and former Muslims sometimes have to fear for their lives. Many Christian churches and families are no different.
Furthermore, some argue that recognizing the label atheist is not necessary at all and doesn’t even make sense. AC Grayling compares it to labeling oneself “a non-stamp-collector” and famously said “How can you be a militant atheist? It’s like sleeping furiously“.
When asked “Does God exist?”, the Dalai Lama smilingly said “I don’t know”. There are many kinds of atheists, from the militant to the very religious Buddhists, to the Epicurean philosopher who simply wants a life of ataraxia and tranquility, who just doesn’t want to be bothered with unnecessary conflict with strangers or loved ones. An atheist does not HAVE to be a militant. An atheist does not HAVE to be anything. Coming out must always be a personal choice based on one’s convictions, priorities and hedonic calculus.
Furthermore, there isn’t enough solidarity in the “atheist movement” to communally sustain the burden of people coming out. I say this because I worked in gay and lesbian non-profit organizations many years ago, and one of the communities that I served was homeless LGBT youth. To me, this is not just about statistics. I can put a face next to the LGBT homelessness problem because I was the one who had to call shelters in Chicago in the dead of winter and try to find some of my clients a place to spend the night.
If an atheist organization does not have the infrastructure needed to assist a homeless 17-year-old who has recently come out atheist in a very religious home, it is ABSOLUTELY IRRESPONSIBLE to invite, much worse to force, that youth to come out of the atheist closet. The atheist community does not have anything like the homeless shelters, non-profit organizations, community centers, hospitals, hotlines, job-search assistance, and many other resources that the gay and lesbian community has had to build over many decades to fight homophobia effectively, and these things took generations of struggle and strategy to build.
There is no need to create unnecessary statistics. Yet at the same time, having worked with LGBT youth, I know viscerally and personally the dangers and evils of religion and I have a firm commitment to fight religious tyranny and religious privilege, and to never deny that they exist.
Instead of outing people, the appropriate strategy should be educational. Many university campuses have an “Ask an Atheist a question” day and other opportunities for interfaith and ecumenical dialogue between secularists and religious people, which are not only chances to fight prejudice but also for closeted atheists to find each other. A militant atheist should, ideally, be a friendly and caring ally in the coming out process, not the asshole that forces a vulnerable youth into communal exile against his will. If a person does not feel safe coming out, then the right thing to do is to make it safer to come out. Organizations like are doing much work in this regard.
I’m not against atheist preachers smashing idols and smiting people’s deeply held beliefs. Many of the concerns that Dawkins–whom I respect greatly–presents in his book The God Delusion should deeply worry us all. I recognize that there is a need today for firebrand atheism. It is a necessity of our times and a natural result of the dangers of religious privilege and tyranny. But militancy is a choice. Firebrand atheism is a personal choice, and only one way to be an atheist. There are many other ways to be an atheist.
Atheism 2.1 and Ataraxia as the End
Atheism 2.0 was introduced in a TED Speech by its main proponent, philosopher Alain de Botton. In his speech, he calls for a less militant, friendlier, more curious and affirming atheism; one that is also more inclusive of women and other ethnicities.
I generally agree with the ideas expressed in Atheism 2.0. However, I specifically use here the term Atheism 2.1 because a dialectical relationship is evolving between Epicurean philosophy and the new atheism where we oftentimes have to remind ourselves that the true goal of life is pleasure, tranquility, ataraxia. Some of us fear losing sight of the true goal established by nature in our heated political discussions, and end up distrusting militant atheism, even as we recognize the huge need for atheism in the public discourse.
Some argue that a true Epicurean must never be militant; they say “lathe biosas”, live unknown. Our compromise with our tranquility must always come first. But I do not agree with this. I do see the point that many firebrand atheists are making: that by coming out and assuming the label atheist, we do make a change in society, we do challenge religious privilege and misconceptions about atheists. And, most importantly, that any and all personal choice must involve hedonic calculus, and that in many instances the long-term profit that emerges from coming out is much greater than the losses. THAT is how it may be appropriate for a true Epicurean to be, at times, militant. Epicurus NEVER told anyone to be a hermit and always challenged people to not base their lives on fear. We must never misinterpret lathe biosas as a call to escape society, reality and life: that is the exact opposite of the realism of our predecessors.
A happy life is neither like a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but like a placid and crystal stream that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens
Atheism 2.1 can probably be labelled ataraxia atheism, to accentuate the cooling effects of a philosophy of abiding pleasure, versus the heated, controversial, conflict-seeking firebrand atheism of the militant secularists.
Perhaps attaching oneself to a particular label does not exactly fully solve the tensions that are inherent in this dialectical relationship between atheism as a moral necessity of our day (culture) and Epicureanism as an eternal ethical necessity of the human condition (nature); but it sets the tone for a different kind of conversation where we never lose track of nature’s end, at least for those of us who have chosen to be naturalist philosophers first and then, maybe, political activists.
So, please remember: @ is not just for atheism. @ also stands for ataraxia.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Minimalismo existencial

Vale la pena compartir este artículo sobre el minimalismo existencial de nuestro amigo Alan Furth, un bloguero de Argentina.

Friday, October 3, 2014

E-book (and Free Companion Book) Available in English from Humanist Press

Under the tagline Be Smart About Being Happy, the American Humanist Association and its publishing branch Humanist Press sent their press release to announce that Tending the Epicurean Garden is now available via their webpage as an e-book.

Humanist Press has a heavy focus on e-book technology. The paperback had been available from months on amazon, but what makes the HP e-book a worthwhile investment for people who are interested in the profiting from their Epicurean studies is that readers who buy the e-book directly from Humanist Press will be able to leave comments on the book which, once approved, become forever part of the work.

In addition to this, Lucretius by WH Mallock, with commentary has been made available by HP as a free companion volume to Tending the Garden.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Avoiding the Middle East

When the United States was discovered for the Anglo Saxon world, Colombus came here on a mission, he was trying to find a way to India by avoiding the Middle East. Now this was 500 or more years ago. They were avoiding the Middle East. Shouldn't we learn something?  
And Colombus was willing to defy science because at that time they believe you could fall of the Earth because it was flat. But he was willing to fall off the Earth rather than go through the Middle East.  
Jesse Ventura

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Epicuro en español

The first Spanish-language review of my book has posted, and it’s very positive and foreboding of good things to come. The Spanish version of the book is available inpaperback and Kindle editions. Additionally in recent weeks, a Spanish-language webpage for Society of Epicurus has been created, as well as a Spanish-language facebook group for the Sociedad de Amigos de Epicuro. 
The review was done by Alan Furth, who resides in Buenos Aires, Argentina and is a blogger for Las Indias. He gives an extended overview of the key points of my contemporary interpretation of Epicurean doctrine:
El libro es una resumida pero muy completa introducción a los principios básicos y la práctica del epicureísmo. Pero también brinda una interesante interpretación de las enseñanzas de Epicuro desde el punto de vista de la psicología positiva, la neurociencia y otras disciplinas científicas que hoy en día corroboran gran parte del legado del maestro. 
”The book is a summarized but very complete introduction to the basic principles and practice of Epicureanism. But it also brinds an interesting interpretation of the teachings of Epicurus from the perspective of positive psychology, neuroscience, and other scientific disciplines that today vindicate great part of the legacy of the Master.”
Read the entire review. Use google translate (or any other online translation service) if you don’t understand Spanish.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Occupy Love!


John Adams

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Conchita Wurst Rises Like a Phoenix

I finally got around to watching the video by the winner of the European musical contest, the amazing Conchita Wurst who takes Queer aesthetics and politics to a whole other level. The power of imagery! Society finds the transgression of wearing a beard in drag hugely subversive, yet her effortless talent and her confidence won her the award and the admiration of millions.

Conchita is a political brand. She was bullied as a youth and her appearance is a political act, an affront. Perhaps the prevalence of red in the Rise Like a Phoenix video is meant to symbolize her flaming glory, the blood, the life, and the violence suffered by Queer people daily. Michelle Rodriguez has argued that in most movies with gay characters, the gay character ends up dead of victimized, that this is usually the only way that society will accept a lead gay character: if he is punished for his existence, if his narrative is tragic. This is a curious observation about Queer public figures and their pop culture narratives. But Conchita, she's not a victim: she's resurrected from the violence suffered like a phoenix. 

Conchita is beautiful. Also, the curious choice of her stage name adds another layer of semantics to the androgynous imagery: conchita in Spanish means small shell and is an euphemism for the female sexual organ in some Spanish-speaking countries. And the wurst, well, it's a bratwurst. Although not overtly sexual, the imagery and semantics of her sexuality are artfully and proudly in display. Conchita Wurst did for talent competitions what Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the Rocky Horror Picture Show did for musicals.

Having a gender-bender as a central figure does not redefine normalcy, but it reminds the culture of the presence and visibility of the Queer fraction or percentage of our humanity that is usually silent or ignored, but every now and then rises like an epiphany. For every aspect of human experience, like with magazines and book series, invariably there is periodically a Queer issue. Sometimes, it happens to also be fabulous.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Tending the Epicurean Garden

My new book Tending the Epicurean Garden is now live on amazon. I am very thrilled that, after the many months of hard work that went into the book, I’m finally able to take others on this adventure with me to discover Epicureanism on its own terms.
There are sources on Epicureanism, but many are indirect and some are hostile. It’s important for us in the Epicurean movement that there exist Epicurean sources for our tradition that explain it on our own terms.
Another reason why this book is extremely important is that there is a huge body of interdisciplinary research that vindicates the teachings of Epicurus, which calls for an update to how they’re presented. This includes not just research by social scientists but also in fields as varied as diet and neuroplasticity.
Epicureanism is not a fossilized, archaic Greek philosophical school but a cosmopolitan, contemporary, scientific wisdom tradition that is alive and changing. I hope you find as much pleasure in reading the book as I found in writing it!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Zealot: How a Muslim Found Jesus and What He Did to Him When He Found Him

I recently finished reading Zealot, by Reza Aslan, of whom I learned after watching the hostile interview that a Christian facilitator from Fox News did of the author.

I must, from the onset, admit that I do not have any particular or definite views about the historicity of Jesus because I'm simply not convinced that it matters much.  It's impossible at this point to determine if Jesus really lived and who he was, plus I'm a non-believer and much more fascinated with the biographies of Epicurus and his associates.

The Jesus Seminar is (so far as I know) the only comprehensive scholarly attempt to find a historical Jesus from out of the convoluted, varied and contradictory scriptures that were written to promote him by the people who deified him.  According to the Jesus Seminar, only about 18% of what is attributed to Jesus was actually said and done by the historical Jesus.  The rest is fiction concocted during the "oral period" between his death and the writing of the Gospels.

I found Zealot a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable read.  Aslan is a great narrator, in fact he teaches the art of writing, and his skill at weaving an intriguing narrative is evident in Zealot.  Characters, many of whom are very likely real people that lived in history, emerge from the pages much more alive, colorful, and complex than when I was subjected as a child to the comprehensive Catholic brainwashing program known as catechism.  Their intentions, their milieu, the politics and the hostilities of the moment in time in which they lived, are much easier to understand and appreciate.

The Fox News interviewee accused Aslan of being a Muslim attempting to undermine traditional Christian faith and presenting Jesus as a terrorist.  The book does that.  It does make a compelling case that the real Yeshua was a seditious Jew who hated Roman occupation and its priestly enablers in the Temple, and who was part of one of many violent intifadas that were organized to expel the most powerful army on Earth from Judea.

Aslan cites references to passages in the Gospels where Jesus calls for violence, and brushes off the many passages where he calls for non-violent conflict resolution.  In the end, we must grant that it is entirely likely that Jesus may have had terrorist sympathies and was later reformed by his worshippers into the peaceful hippie of scripture.  The violent and fanatical Jesus has to be recognized as one of the historical possibilities, after all he wouldn't be the first or only crazy cult leader to have lived.

The mythical Jesus is not the only character that is reformed in light of their historicity.  John the Baptist and Saul of Tarsus are also looked at through a magnifying glass, the myths about them deformed and debunked.  The Baptist becomes Jesus' Guru, who baptised him and sent him on his mission just as Obi Wan Kenobi did with Luke Skywalker. Jesus was John's disciple, but was later made to look greater than John. When Jesus goes on his mission, he tells people to repent and seek God's Kingdom, just as John the Baptist had preached.

Aslan's Baptist reminded me of Bradford Keeney's Shaking Medicine, a book which introduces a shamanic practice of Christianity and which derives much inspiration from the traditions of the Quakers and the Shakers, and of Pentecostals who shake not in fear of God but due to what they believe to be a sign of the power of Spirit.  Keeney argues that Jesus was a shaman, a medicine man who--like many medicine men of primitive cultures--talked to spirits, ordered them around, argued with them, healed the sick, etc.

There is merit to this other version of Jesus.  It's true that, after the initiatory baptismal bath, Jesus went into the desert supposedly for 40 days to meditate and to seek a vision.  This is done in traditional native societies still today.  It's called a vision quest, and it's a necessary part of the initiation after which a person may enter into his new identity as a priest, as a warrior, as a prophet, or as an adult man or woman.  Jesus did not begin his mission until he went on his vision quest.

However, Jesus' vision quest included a curious scene where he's tempted by the devil, who offers him rulership over all the lands. This, Jesus rejects and later, in John 8:44, Jesus tells a group of people identified simply as "the Jews" that they worship their Father, the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning.  This is probably the most shocking indictment in the entire Bible of of the Jewish God as a genocidal monster, by far worse than Jeremiah's diatribes, which funnily include the Bible's own admission of having been falsified in Jeremiah 8:8.

The temptation scene is reminiscent of messianic prophecies where the messiah would rule from Jerusalem and extract a tax from all the nations, a prophecy that would have required generations of incessant violence to establish a global theocratic empire through jihad.  Judea would have had to gather an army of religious militants large and powerful enough to replace Rome.  The threat of messianic genocide is articulated in no uncertain terms:

The nation or kingdom that will not serve you will be destroyed. It will be completely wiped out. - Isaiah 60:12

Aslan would argue this away by saying that John's Gospel was written late and served as an attempt to clean up the dangerous, violent Jesus after the temple had been destroyed and Rome had proven its might, but it may also represent something that may even be more important than the historicity of Jesus: the intentions of the Gospel authors.  The Jesus movement may have been, in great part, a conspiracy to clean up the bloody history of Judaism and its messianic intentions, and to reform monotheism, to bring it to what it should have been.

In other words, the temptation scene might be an instance where Bible authors reasoned that if we have to live with people who believe in God, then let's make it safer, less dangerous for people to hold this belief.  If Jesus' vision quest represents a demonization of Old Testament messianic prophecy, then the Jesus conspiracy should be reevaluated as having had very good intentions after all, sort of as a benign version of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Dune which controls human history from space by inspiring religious beliefs that it can later benefit from.

Some of Aslan's explanations of how the Jewish Yeshua evolved into the Gentile Christ, and into a God, I was already familiar with and have even written about in blogs like Arguments Against Paul.  What we know today as Christianity is not the faith of Jesus, but of Saul of Tarsus who pulled the teachings out of a hat like the slick trickster that he confessed to be.  What Aslan adds to Paul's story in the book, again, are the nuances never presented in Sunday school but evident in the scriptures about the violent hatred between James, the brother of the historical Jesus and the leader of those who had known him, and Paul who never met Jesus, gave himself the title of apostle, and frequently expressed insolence and disdain for James and the other apostles.

Catholicism is the modern evolution of the Platonic doctrine of Paul, which evolved into the Roman version of Christianity while many other Christianities emerged elsewhere, and are still emerging.  Even we Epicureans have our own Christian Gospel of Thomas Jefferson, titled the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus comes in many flavors ... but to be clear: the historical religion of James, and of his brother Jesus, died with them.

Poverty: Secularism’s True Enemy

In recent weeks, there has been huge controversy surrounding issues of religiosity in the public sphere.  A recent judicial decision that vindicates public prayer as constitutional has greatly polarized the country.  There are political currents, particularly within the religious right, that are pushing for Christianity to have a more prevalent role in public life by imposing Christian prayer.  And there are secularists who are concerned about boundaries, about state-sanctioned indoctrination.  Because religion produces a more docile citizenry, it also indirectly facilitates authoritarian regimes, and many fear that the US is exhibiting tendencies seen in states governed by religion and superstition that are invariably punitive, hostile to civil liberties, and treat their citizens like children.
The first curious fact about the controversy surrounding public prayer is that Christians who wish to impose themselves in this manner ignore Jesus’ teachings on how to properly pray. He called people who pray in public hypocrites, and it’s true that there is difficulty in discerning whether a person who prays in public is merely putting together a show, or if the display of public piety is sincere. A genuine desire to commune with God is, after all, a very intimate, private affair.
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. – Jesus, in Matthew 6:5-6
There is another problem with public prayer: many or most atheists think it’s rude, it’s meant to exclude them and anyone who does not resonate with majority beliefs. There is clearly an overt, religious agenda at play here. Public prayers can be easily framed in such a way as to intimidate or coerce people into voting for certain policies (against the teaching of evolutionary science), or being ashamed of certain solidarities (Gay and Lesbian, Feminist). It's impossible to ensure that public prayer is not misused or politicized.
And so, Jesus thinks his followers are hypocrites when they pray in public, and atheists think they’re rude.
How should Humanists respond to this? As an Epicurean, I’m always cognizant of how people need to sustain their existential health and I feel like the atheist conversation is usually polarized and misses the context within which religiosity emerges. I think we should first evaluate and contextualize the roots of religiosity.
Gregory Paul published in 2005 the findings of his meta-research on the correlation between supernatural beliefs and quantifiable symptoms of societal dysfunction, a study which demonstrated the clear link between religiosity and crime using prison statistics and demographics and census data from many countries, including data on teen pregnancy, educational levels, marriage stability, and so on. Invariably, the more religious communities exhibit higher degrees of societal dysfunction and the least religious communities exhibit higher societal stability. This is known to be the case both when we compare the more religious versus the more secular countries and when we compare the more religious versus the more secular states of the union.
Paul later went on to publish The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions. These studies show that religion is a symptom of dysfunction that is tied to, and often leads to or preserves, an overall lower quality of life.
Intuitively, it always made sense to me that supernatural belief dramatizes a person’s desire to escape reality, and maybe gives a culturally accepted way to do so, but now there is tangible data showing the nuances of this dynamic.
It also makes sense that crime and religiosity coincide, since crime increases with poverty, which increases with illiteracy and lack of educational opportunities, and with lower levels of education there is an increase in religiosity. There is a constellation of factors that must be understood together.  Materialism teaches that people's ideologies and beliefs emerge from their materiality, from their tangible reality, from what they know.  The atheist that arrogantly treats a person's religiosity as a mere symptom of idiocy and as an isolated factor, should humanize and contextualize faith prior to judging it.
Over the last several decades, the wealth gap has widened obscenely and, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a sharp increase in poverty and marginalization in America. Government and Wall-Street-influenced mainstream media try to hide the reality of poverty behind dubious financial data that is concocted by and only relevant to wealthy investors, who have gotten wealthier as the poor have gotten poorer. For a more accurate picture of poverty, one may visit sites that directly service poor populations, like or the National Poverty Center.
Materialist philosophy teaches that there are real necessities that are a pre-requisite for human dignity, for human civilization and for philosophy. People need food, they need shelter, they need wholesome association. They also need time for leisure in order to enjoy the things that make life worth living. As the Uruguayan president Mujica famously said in his diatribe against consumerism and the false values we’ve inherited, people need “time to love”.
When people lack food, shelter, or love, they oftentimes seek the non-tangible, imaginary consolations of religious fantasies. It is much easier for someone who lives in poverty and has nothing, to accept the false consolations of superstition, of an afterlife, the non-tangible consolations of religion. Therefore, the marketers of religions prey on those who have nothing.
What this means for secularists is that one can not effectively fight the prevalence and the saturation of public life with religiosity and superstition without also battling the poverty and the economic marginalization that feeds religiosity. There is no other way.  The secular struggle must, therefore, be re-framed as a struggle for economic justice, a struggle to close the wealth gap, a struggle for increased educational opportunities, and a struggle to end poverty.
Atheism doesn’t have to become a revolutionary political ideal that seeks a higher moral ground than religion, but if an atheist does want to diminish religious intrusion in our lives, he must become an altruistic Humanist in solidarity with the fight against poverty. He must participate in hedonic covenants: commitments to maximize everyone's pleasure and wellbeing, and to minimize everyone's suffering, which ultimately benefit individuals by increasing their stability, peace and safety.

The components of how the hedonic covenant is expressed can be as varied and creative as there are people in society. There are specific and tangible things that can be done, even by the small person, in this regard. Soup kitchens, as well as debt-management, educational, and wealth-building initiatives should all be part of the larger vision. There are lifestyle choices within Humanism that lead to limiting our cooperation with the economic system that breeds supernaturalism and the reduction in our quality of life that comes with it.
Epicureanism teaches about autarchy, the importance of self-sufficiency, and promotes frugality, living within our means, and curbing our mindless desires in order to eliminate vain and empty consumption. It gives us the tools to do the inner work required to exit the vicious cycle of consumerism, which leads to debt, which leads to wage slavery and poverty, which leads to an increased need to cling to false consolations.
Non-religious people do not want to be coerced into feigning piety, or to live in a society hostile to their civil rights, but for as long as poverty increases there will be an increase of religion and superstition in the public sphere.
Poverty is dangerous for society. It leads to greater crime and violence, and it polarizes, divides, and dehumanizes us all. We can try to ignore it, but are never unaffected by it.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Jephthah Affair and the Immorality of Atonement Doctrines

I became acquainted with the Jephthah narrative not through church attendance, as these embarrassing chapters are never mentioned in sermon, but by reading The God Delusion.  It's one of the most shocking chapters of the Bible, one which bears witness to the practice of sacrificing children to Jehovah in spite of frequent polemics against the cult of Molok elsewhere in the prophetic tradition.

I believe Judges 11 to be one of the most important chapters of the Bible.

In saying this, what I'm saying is that if we are to undertake the important task of assessing the values and the character of the Biblical authors, a task which no one considering the validity of any book as a moral guide should ignore, it is impossible to pass this chapter, to deny its grave importance and its moral abhorrence.  I will share here the narrative interspersed with commentary.
1. Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah.
2 And Gilead's wife bare him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of a strange woman.
Following in the family-values tradition of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac whose sons and wives quarrelled perpetually as half-brothers and sister-wives, casting Ishmael into the desert, selling Joseph into slavery, mass-murdering the Edomites for being red-headed descendants of Esau.
3 Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him. 
From the get-go we learn that the sacred story deals with a Jehovah worshipper who is a son of a whore, a man of low birth and bad association.
4 And it came to pass in process of time, that the children of Ammon made war against Israel. 5 And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob: 6 And they said unto Jephthah, Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon. 
7 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress? 8 And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, Therefore we turn again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead. 9 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the Lord deliver them before me, shall I be your head? 
10 And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, The Lord be witness between us, if we do not so according to thy words. 11 Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them: and Jephthah uttered all his words before the Lord in Mizpeh.
In order to regain his honor as a son of a whore, Jephthah agrees to become a General in the army of his half-brothers, who perhaps are hoping he will die at the battlefront.
12 And Jephthah sent messengers unto the king of the children of Ammon, saying, What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land? 13 And the king of the children of Ammon answered unto the messengers of Jephthah, Because Israel took away my land, when they came up out of Egypt, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and unto Jordan: now therefore restore those lands again peaceably.
Land-grabbing is another moral problem in the Biblical narrative.  The decent thing to do would have been to work and save money and buy the land from the inhabitants, or marry one's children to the inhabitants, rather than go in, murder everyone and occupy cities and villages that already have people living and working in there.  But most pious readers of the Bible don't ponder the moral problems related to terrorism and genocide for the sake of land-theft.  This is only one important side-story to Jephthah.  Let's continue.
14 And Jephthah sent messengers again unto the king of the children of Ammon: 15 And said unto him, Thus saith Jephthah, Israel took not away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon: 16 But when Israel came up from Egypt, and walked through the wilderness unto the Red sea, and came to Kadesh; 17 Then Israel sent messengers unto the king of Edom, saying, Let me, I pray thee, pass through thy land: but the king of Edom would not hearken thereto. 
And in like manner they sent unto the king of Moab: but he would not consent: and Israel abode in Kadesh. 18 Then they went along through the wilderness, and compassed the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, but came not within the border of Moab: for Arnon was the border of Moab. 
19 And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said unto him, Let us pass, we pray thee, through thy land into my place. 20 But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his coast: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. 21 And the Lord God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country.
Whenever I find mention of God "delivering people into the hands of" his soldiers, it reminds me of the Muslims who cheered after 9/11, and of the narratives among the pious of how Allah orchestrated the whole episode, how there was a prophecy being fulfilled, etc.  A heinous act becomes not just unavoidable, but virtuous.  I wonder what this means, for instance, when we consider that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to have been 'destroyed by God'.  Were these cities terrorized by God's soldiers in a similar manner?

When military victories are attributed to divinities, people feel their hatreds vindicated and they alienate themselves from their most sinister intentions and goals, which they only recognize indirectly through apocallyptic or religious imagery.
22 And they possessed all the coasts of the Amorites, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and from the wilderness even unto Jordan. 23 So now the Lord God of Israel hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess it? 24 Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the Lord our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess. 
Curious sleight of hand.  We steal your land, but because our God gave us military victory then the land is ours.  If your God had given you stolen land, it would be yours.  Again, there is no notion of justice or fairness.  Gods will do what they want and what they do, is done and it's right because they do it.  Period.
25 And now art thou any thing better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them, 26 While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that be along by the coasts of Arnon, three hundred years? why therefore did ye not recover them within that time? 
27 Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the Lord the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon. 28 Howbeit the king of the children of Ammon hearkened not unto the words of Jephthah which he sent him. 
29 Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon. 30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
Now, notice that it's the Spirit of God that inspires Jephthah to make the vow.  Again, Jephthah, being a man of God and a man of faith, in fully surrendering to God, alienates himself from his vows and his deeds so that whatever happens is the deed and the will of God.  Let's see where this takes him.
32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them into his hands. 33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.
He terrorizes twenty cities.
34 And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.
When he became possessed by the Spirit of his God, he had promised to his God that he would offer whatever came first out of his house as a burnt offering to Jehovah.  His daughter was ecstatic, hadn't seen him in months, and naturally couldn't wait to see him.  According to the authors of the Bible, it was his daughter that the Spirit of God wanted offered as an innocent, pure victim in the pyre.

Notice he blames her.  He says it's his daughter that "brought him very low", not his God who, he believed, had all along been hungry for innocent human victims.  But he did not believe his God or his religion had "brought him very low".
36 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.
The Bible's wisdom tradition has many wholesome verses, but the one that is most false and immoral is the one about how fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom.  In what way can we find prudence in this one narrative of fear of God?  It was fear of God that led Jephthah and his daughter to the following course of action.
37 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. 38 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. 
39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, 40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.
- Judges 11, King James Version of the Bible
Noticed how the sacred narrative accentuates that "she knew no man".  She had to be innocent.

There is another episode of human sacrifice where David hangs relatives of King Saul on a mountaintop in order to appease Jehovah's anger during a dought.  King David did this under the whispers of prophets who believed that the innocent had to die to atone for the crimes of the evil.  The crimes of King Saul were to be atoned by murdering his relatives, except those who were near and dear to David's beloved, Jonathan.

Now, notice that elsewhere it is under God's command that tribes (like the Amalekites, whose only crime was to live in coveted land) are massacred.  This judgement against Saul (or his relatives) therefore is an arbitrary act of "justice".  Genocide is only evil when God doesn't order it.  It is not evil when he does order it.  Also, at no point do the pious use God as an excuse to advance non-violent ways to resolve conflicts. These could have been moral stories, if truly moral and non-superstitious people had written them.
1 Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites
2 And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.) 3 Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the Lord? 
4 And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you. 5 And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel, 6 Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord did choose. And the king said, I will give them
7 But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the Lord's oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. 8 But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite: 9 And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest. 
- 2 Samuel 21, King James Version of the Bible
And so we see here that this experiment of the introduction of God into human affairs and into history severely confuses the moral compass of men, introduces arbitrary notions of atonement and vengeance that have nothing to do with true justice and where the innocent pay for the crimes of the guilty.  When asked to die, some of these innocent victims have to be "delivered into the hands" of their killers while others accept the decrees of perceived authority figures, but no one who is innocent chooses martyrdom over life when given a choice under normal circumstances.

Perhaps, after killing so many innocent people and leaving so many orphaned in the twenty cities that he attacked, Jephthah unconsciously used his vow as a way to punish himself for the evil he had done.  Perhaps when we help to create an unjust world, we have such difficulty understanding how we are free to do so, that we use religion to torment our souls for cause of this freedom.  If this is the case, then here we see the very spring and the very root of religiosity.  Maybe men who are not evil do not project themselves against such evil religious fantasies, but does this makes religion less dangerous?

Supposedly, Christians believe that Christ was to be the last human sacrifice that would appease their God, but after Christ died the Christians sacrificed thousands, maybe millions, during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and today in countries like Uganda and Nigeria children are still being sacrificed (the religion-friendly media says by witch doctors, but invariably they cite Abraham's near sacrifice of his son as their moral justification).  In Uganda, the Kill the Gays bill has gained continuous traction and been partially approved.

Humans are still sacrificing their humanity to the One God just as they did to the Many Gods before, with the Aztecs, the Phoenicians and other nations.  Monotheism is not, as we have been repeatedly told by its proponents, morally superior in any way to polytheism when it comes to our dehumanization.  The amount of our Gods does not solve the problem of religious tyranny.

We must conclude that Molok still lives, that he returned Bible in hand and is still claiming victims.  Slaving away under the yolk of Moloks, the infantile will never mature into true, dignified men.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Capitalism and altruism are incompatible. - Ayn Rand

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Perils of Alienation

Religion then becomes the practice of alienation par excellence: it supposes the rupture of man with himself and the creation of an imaginary world in which truth is invested upon the imaginary.  Theology, affirms Feuerbach, is a psychological pathology. – Michel Onfray’s Traité d’Athéologie
I recently watched a documentary on the Heavens Gate cult, which concluded in the peaceful, even glad, suicide of 38 cult members during March of 1997.  Cult members made frequent references to “the next evolutionary kingdom above human” and made it clear that they firmly rejected their humanity, their bodily identity, their Earth identity.  The goal of life, they believed, was to become post-human.
Literally believing themselves to be working towards becoming asexual alien-like beings, cult members exhibited a severe hatred for the body which, like that of Paul of Tarsus, culminated in a strict ascetic lifestyle with its many attached neuroses.
In addition to the non-physical forms of self-mutilation (the denial of libido, the severance of normal family and social ties, etc.) several of the males who commited suicide were also found to be castrated.  Their ascetism led them to idealize a non gendered state, not too different from what monks in many traditions aspire to attain, or from Catholic priests who wear female-like robes and aspire for an unnatural, asexual, angel-like ideal.
They wanted to be anything but the sexual beings that we all are, to escape the accusation that they were animals, an accusation which was entirely accurate.  Mammals, in fact.
I mention the parallels with the Catholic cult in specific because, in addition to its central symbol being a bloody scene of human sacrifice on a cross, it has a long and well-documented history of sadistic practices based on that very idea of sacrificing our humanity.  When libido is denied it becomes distorted and at times results in sexual activity with minors, or in mutilation of the self or the other.  During the medieval days when Christian ascetic hysteria was allowed to run rampant, sexual torture of women accused of witchcraft included the mutilation of women’s breasts, and the sexual and non-sexual acts of torture carried out by the Holy Inquisition involved awful acts such as removal of the eyes (as per the Gospels, where Jesus orders his followers to cut their eye off if it leads to sinning).
Because such acts are now illegal, many priests and monks now resort to more private expressions of their sadism like the mortification of the flesh practices in Catholicism, in which the body is punished in order, supposedly, to strengthen one’s will (because “the flesh is weak”).  It’s a much more common practice than most people realize.  Pope John Paul II, we learned after his death, practiced self-flagellation.
Mortification means “to make (-ficare) die (morti-)”.  The idea of this form of ascetic sadism is “make the flesh die”.  It becomes clear that these practices of self-mutilation, castration, suicide, and other forms of radical denial of the body and the bodily identity, only make sense within the context of a death cult that idealizes non-life, non-physicality.
I find it dangerous that many secularists spend so much time accurately calling the death-cults by their proper name, but focus so much on the Abrahamic religious problem that they fail to recognize the other immaterialisms, the more New-Agey and seemingly innocent ones like the Heaven’s Gate cult that took 38 lives in 1997.
The adherents of the cult felt that they were not as credulous as the common Christian because, to them, angels were aliens … and everyone knew aliens existed.  It was aliens, not angels, who artificially inseminated the Virgin Mary.  It was aliens who appeared to Jesus at Gethsemani.  As we enter deeper into a scientific age, aliens in a cult can easily replace angels and gods.  In fact, according to official Mormon doctrine, the God of the Mormons is an human-like alien that lives on planet Kolob with his multiple wives.
And so it’s important to recognize that not all the death cults fall strictly within traditional Abrahamic religiosity.  The Heaven’s Gate practice of alienation, literally, sought to make aliens of humans and was as radical a negation of our humanity, as radical a practice and a program of de-humanization, as the Christian monastic attempts to become an asexual angel.  Hatred of the body, of the natural self, of the human animal, permeates these traditions.
The Death Cult in its Most Naked Form
Santa Muerte
Fear was the first thing on Earth to create gods.” — Lucretius
It’s understandable, in cultures where life here on Earth becomes unbearable, that people will want to transcend life and alienate themselves from their physical, inescapable reality.  But, in addition to the physical dangers of alienation, there is also a psychological and social toll.
In recent years, the cult of Santísima Muerte (Most Holy Death) has taken over Mexican culture so completely that even the most mainstream-appearing Mexicans are ready to defend the practices and beliefs of the cult, which is (many believe falsely) attributed to the indigenous beliefs of the pre-colonial past.
With copious depictions of what looks like either the Grim Reaper or He-Man’s Skeletor in drag, the cult of Holy Death is not just for celebrants of Halloween.  It is the most visible cult in Mexico.  Gang members have oftentimes commited ritual killings in her honor.  The drug war in Mexico, according to some estimates, has taken over 70,000 lives in recent years and made the country virtually impossible to govern.
Ultimately, the worship of death is a recognition that we are all the mercy of our mortality, that we will all be reaped.  Many people involved in the cult try to bargain with Death, in this way negotiating the frail balance between their constant fears and the need to leave the house daily and have normalcy.  Perhaps the cult of death comes naturally to a people accustomed to daily killings, to seeing death everywhere.  But why should it follow that we should surrender to the impulse of death instead of the impulse of life, merely because she stalks us and haunts us persistently?
A detailed comparative evaluation of the Santisima Muerte cult in Mexico versus the kindred Hindu cult to Mother Kali is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s just say that, while Kali is like a jealous lioness protecting her cubs, Santisima Muerte appears to be a much less tender Mother in Mexican culture.
What must be said here is that there is no need to worship death or be fascinated by it.  Instead, we should take the tonic of the second cure that Philodemus gave us: “There is no-thing to fear in death”, and see her for what she is.  Non-being.  She is not there.  There is nothing, no-thing to fear literally.
Grounded as natural beings
But there must be another cure in addition to taking refuge in Epicurean doctrine.  This, I believe, is the cure of what I like to call groundedness: to confidently stand within our physicality, within our humanity and our nature.  To be and to want to be what we are, no more, no less: mortals, Earthlings, humans.
That we are animals, mammals, one species of hominids descended from the great apes, is not a source of shame or of pride, it is simply a given.  We are beings of nature.
This is why, prior to the study of Ethics, Epicurus advised the study of the Canon and of PHYSICS: a good foundation of understanding about the nature of things is needed in order to live a good life.  The science of ethics can only be grasped after we understand Physics.  All true philosophy must be based on the study of nature.  We DO NOT believe that it’s healthy for people to have to choose between science and spirituality: the only acceptable form of spirituality must have a firm scientific base.
Viewed against the backdrop of these cults and the forces that create them, our animality and naturality should perhaps be even seen as having some redeeming value.  Even if we live stressfully, it’s true that the fight-or-flight instinct saves lives.  Even if we have strong body odor, it’s true that sweating saves us from overheating.  And if we hate excreting waste daily, we should only try to imagine what would happen to us if all the toxicity stayed in our bodies instead of being released.  Whatever we hate in our nature is the fruit of countless generations of natural selection and exists for a reason.  In the end, it’s always best that we are natural beings.
Natural selection is the true way in which we’re chosen.  Religious people have unnatural beliefs about chosenness: the main argument against those beliefs is that a vast number, if not the majority, of the Jewish people are actually atheists.  In what way does it matter that some believe Jews to be God’s chosen, if most of them have chosen not to believe in God?  Humans bear the burden of freedom and can not be chosen in this manner.  But natural selection has always allowed the best adapted members of a group to pass on their traits and knowledge.  It’s not difficult to understand how gifted and blessed we are as natural beings, perfectly suited for our habitat and our planet.  This is how the third cure given by Philodemus can be easily grasped: the things we truly need are easy to procure because we emerged as beings suited just to procure those things.
If, without denying our mortality, we develop a fully indifferent attitude towards the alienating forces, no matter how omnipresent Death may seem, we can then easily focus on life and remain imperturbable in the processes of living, of caring for each other, of exercising, of eating, and all of our other natural activities.
I remember that when I took martial arts classes, I felt like I was at the top of the world after my trainings.  It was an amazing mood-booster to find myself happily in my body, to see how it has the wisdom to produce ecstasy not just through the erotic or ascetic arts of reaching an orgasm or doing yoga, but also through dancing, exercising and singing.  The body can be an ally in our liberation.  We can be free AS the body, never needing to find ourselves outside of it.
There are fair warnings both in life and in all the wisdom traditions against the dangers of being embodied as human, but these should not lead us to cowardly escape.  There is nothing wrong with dreaming of freedom, but this freedom has only one healthy outlet: as an Earthling, as a natural being, as a human, starting from where we are.
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Saturday, February 22, 2014

New Philodemus series at Society of Epicurus

  • The following are the first two in a series of reasonings based on the writings of 1st Century Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara, who taught philosophy in Rome and whose scrolls were kept in the Herculaneum and, in the year 70, mostly destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius explosion.

  • His scrolls were rediscovered in recent centuries and fragments have been brought back to see the light of day, which allows us to be able to taste the ripened fruits of Epicurean philosophy as it was taught in a second layer of culture --wealthy Rome, no longer the philosophy's Hellenic Greek cradle.

Peri Oikonomias (On Property Management) is a commentary on a previous work by the same name that emerged from another school of philosophy.  It presents an Epicurean manual on how to manage our estate.  In these two pieces written for the Society of Friends of Epicurus, I distill the teachings of Philodemus for a contemporary audience and considering how the teachings can be applied in the contemporary world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Boycotting Homophobia

A list of sponsors of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics is graciously provided by the host country.  It includes Coca Cola and McDonalds among its sponsors.

For more on why there is a boycott, you may want to visit the Boycott Sochi facebook page.  An article from the Spectator argues that Putin chose to pick on the wrong minority, and on how it will backfire.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Happy 20th! is live

January 2014 saw the inaugural issue of the Society of Friends of Epicurus' newsletter, titled Happy 20th.  SFE is the first contemporary attempt a Humanist missionary work of this kind and is dedicated to the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens.  If you're interested in Humanism, philosophy, prudence, criticizing consumerism, living a frugal and simple lifestyle, minimalism, Zen, and critical thinking, please subscribe and share!