For many years I’ve internally identified with many of the central tenets of the ancient Stoic philosophy, mostly after reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (Amazon|UK), but it’s not something I’ve seen much about so haven’t really considered it beyond the “Yes, I identify with that” concept that many of us do whenever we encounter a whole or partial philosophy.
I’ve written previously about my exploration of some philosophies and religions, but Stoicism is something I’ve not really spoken about with anyone. It, along with my examination of Buddhism have, largely unconsciously, informed much of my mental wiring with regards to topics such as reactions, drives, ambitions and wants. It affects and informs my interactions with family and friends, my view on possessions and consumerism, many aspects of my personal and working life, and even how I behave in the inevitable British traffic queues.
Imagine my surprise to discover recently on BoingBoing, one of my daily reads, an excellent series of essays on the subject of Stoicism by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, entitled Twenty-First Century Stoic:
They are an excellent introduction to the philosophy, and the comparison to certain aspects of Buddhism resonates with my own experiences. I can’t pretend to agree with everything in these essays, nor do I think the philosophy is without its faults, but by the same measure I don’t completely agree with everything written by atheists or humanists — also worldviews with which I strongly identify.
Even if you are not particularly interested in adopting such a philosophy on life, I recommend looking into what Stoicism is really about. It may surprise you to learn that it’s not really all about emotional passivity and the stiff upper lip. You could read a modern work on the topic, such as Irvine’s own A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Amazon|UK) — or you could go directly to the ancient writings of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Seneca (Letters from a Stoic / Epistulae morales ad Lucilium), Epictetus, and the logician Chrysippus. Their works aren’t covered by copyright, so are available in many places online, including Project Gutenberg.
In about twenty minutes my taxi will arrive to take me to the train station, which with then whisk me into London for the start of TAM London 2010, taking place at the London Metropole Hotel.
To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement. Last year saw the inaugural TAM London, the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting event to take place outside of the US. It was a resounding success and was attended by people from all around Europe from all walks of life — some of whom were household names. During that weekend I made a number of friends, most of whom I have been in regular contact with ever since. Many of us have subsequently joined or started skeptic groups in our own communities and have become more active in our fields of interest.
This year the event is taking place in a bigger venue, as there are far more people attending, and I’m looking forward to seeing those same friends again this weekend, making new ones, enjoying the talks and performances — particularly the world première of Tim Minchin‘s Storm movie — as well as the chance to chat with and get to know people during the breaks.
If you’re a skeptic, atheist, humanist, secularist, or scientist, then the opportunity to commune meaningfully with like-minded people is not to be underestimated.
After all, who said only the religious get to have a social life and sense of community?
Today is a holiday in England and Wales called the Summer Bank Holiday, not a religious one, best known here for being the last holiday before Christmas, the weekend of the Reading Music Festival, and is, in a way, the start of the end of summer.
With the religious origin of many holidays in mind, it was with interest that I read today’s article in Center For Inquiry by Reba Boyd Wooden, where she talks about how holy days meant to bring communities together often seem to have the exact opposite effect, driving a wedge between sects of the same faith. Some points from the article are the differences in subjects and tone fired from the pulpit by different Christian ‘denominations’, and that good people in religion can and would be good even in the absence of their religion.
After all, religion does not make you a good person any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. Surely being good for its own sake is its own reward?
Here’s a partial quote from Reba’s article:
The… minister preached a lot about heaven and hell and said that death is “precious.” … [Was] death “precious” for my nephew and my niece’s husband who died recently in their forties — one leaving two teenage sons?
Here’s the rest of the article: Theology and Ritual Divide Neighbors on Holy Days
There is a certain irony to this post, considering my previous post, but it’s worth my vaguely embarrassed shuffling feet.
As you may be aware, Dr Phil Plait is an astronomer, science blogger, author (most notably Bad Astronomy [Amazon|UK] and Death From The Skies! [Amazon|UK]), public speaker with magnificent on-screen/-stage presence, educator, and also skeptical activist and the former President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). He’s also recently announced that he has a TV show called Bad Universe — the pilot airs on Sunday, 29 August 2010. Enough of the plugs…
During the recent The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 8 conference in Las Vegas, Phil gave a talk that generated quite a bit of controversy in the blogging world — including from a number of fellow skeptical activists. That itself is becoming increasingly more common, but what is entirely uncommon was the messages of Phil’s talk. You should watch it.
You’d need to have been asleep to not have seen how deeply important that message was to Phil. I’d be hard-pressed to recall any speech I’ve seen or heard that is so deeply impassioned, compassionate and humanistic. Everything he says is correct.
It truly is far too easy to mock the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, to score cheap points, to shout the doctrines or proofs of our own position over others, to be abusive and insulting, to treat others as sub-human or idiots. You may say (as some of the talk’s detractors do) that this is justified in light of what they or those they identify with have done, but the fact remains that if you’re not behaving like a grown-up when discussing these topics, you’re deliberately expending time and effort showing others how smart you are while confirming both that skeptics are dicks and closing that mind to further discussion. I have better things to do with my time.
It’s impressed me deeply enough to see about how I can re-think my approach to the topics I write about. Stay tuned, sports fans.
I think I’ve made it pretty clear throughout this blog that I respect humanity, but I have no respect whatsoever for humanity’s religions. Beliefs have no automatic correlation with reality (experience has shown me they’re often in opposition to it), but beliefs do encroach upon reality in the actions of believers, giving us subjugation, torture, and wars all in the name of a name in a book. And it’s nearly always the name and book most popular in the country in which your parents were born. Your god smiles upon the arbitrarily accidental location of your birth! What a happy, joyous coincidence! Divine serendipity!
That’s not to say that some religions have no redeeming qualities — such as social cohesion, charity, comfort and a sense of purpose — but none of those positive qualities are unique to religion. (Unfortunately for humanity, the negative results mentioned in the previous paragraph aren’t unique to religion, either, though the justification is).
If you’ve ever wondered why I think this way, I think this quote sums it up perfectly:
“I like to point out how irrational it is to have any reverence for religion at all. We look at the ancient Greeks with their gods on a mountaintop throwing lightning bolts and say, ‘Those ancient Greeks. They were so silly. So primitive and naive. Not like our religions. We have burning bushes talking to people and guys walking on water. We’re… sophisticated.'” —Paul Provenza
It goes hand in hand with this equally excellent quote:
“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” —Stephen Roberts
Such words are doubtless confrontational to believers in any deity but, in the absence of evidence for any religious text or doctrine being ‘real’ or ‘true’, they do serve to illustrate the logical chasm that exists in people who contend that their god(s) is real and that your god(s) is clearly an imposter or a delusion (they think you’re mentally abnormal). And with the latter quote, once you’ve excluded all other gods but your own, it’s really only a small step to freedom.
I don’t expect you to agree, but I do expect you to think about it. As I have probably done for your religion (as explained in earlier posts).
Hat tip: LOLgod
As a godless heathen, many religious people that I know and love expect me to treat events such as Christmas not only as a “normal day” but to be positively antagonistic towards it, and seem surprised that I’m happy to give gifts and participate. While it’s true that last Easter I did (and will continue to) poke fun at one of the popular myths surrounding it, with the exception of religious privilege, none of that really matters to me.
The origins of such celebrations doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate or enjoy the human and relationship aspects of them. With Christmas* — particularly now I live in the northern hemisphere, where the seasons give it sense — I enjoy the symbolism and generosity of giving and receiving gifts and the knowledge that it’s the half-way point of the winter season, as marked by the shortest day. And but for seasonal thermal lag, it’s all downhill from here and the promise of spring is just around the corner.
So whatever your beliefs or philosophy, I wish you and those you love the best of the season this way: Reason’s Greetings!
Thanks to Crispian Jago for kindly allowing me to use this image.
Check out his Science, Reason and Critical Thinking blog.
This post may cause trouble. There’s an issue that’s been bothering me since before I began to self-identify as an atheist (among other labels that we pigeonholers of a people like to place upon ourselves and others) that bothered me then, but does so even more now.
I have a problem with atheists who denigrate people of faith just because they hold a faith. There, I’ve said it.
My mother’s uncle turns 80 in January and he’s a Methodist lay-minister, hobbyist philosopher, critical thinker with many interests, and is a lovely man with whom I get on famously. Or did, until Easter when he saw the Atheist Bus Campaign sticker on the back of my car. His immediate, unthinking reaction was to turn to me and utter, “Oh, so you’re one of those?” By “those” I assumed he meant an atheist, so I said yes. No big deal, asked and answered simply and matter-of-factly, like “Do you like grapes?” and “Yes.” It’s now almost December and we’ve only just recently managed to establish dialogue that doesn’t include preloaded assumptions. It’s not that he wouldn’t talk to me anymore, but rather that everything he said, did and thought regarding me was now coloured with negative expectation: a shit-coloured filter.
As it was, this evening’s conversation started with his enquiry about me attending Christmas lunch with them, as I’ve done most years since moving to England. For some reason his expectation was that now I am the A-word I’d not participate in “Christian festivals” and even be antagonistic towards them. After pointing out that on one hand nearly all Christian festivals were pagan festivals long before the Catholic church came along and usurped them, and on the other hand I recognise that it’s human nature to participate in ceremonies and rituals of the passage of time, seasons and events, and such things possibly pre-date religion. He’s mollified, and Christmas is back on. Yay, status quo.
This brings me to the point of this post. The reality-based community with which I identify are more likely to use — and use successfully — logic, reason and critical thinking in arguments against everything ranging from philosophy to religion. And it’s wonderful. I mean it.
But there a section of this community that not only antagonises people of faith (I can intellectually understand this, if not agree entirely with) and often does so by using logical fallacies and cognitive biases, some of which include straw man, ad hominem, false dichotomy, sampling bias, and bias blind spot. (You’ll probably find unintended examples of these throughout this blog). I doubt you’ll find many atheists who won’t challenge religious fundamentalism and zealotry with gusto, facts, science and logic. And rightly so. But to extend that a little, a number of atheists cannot understand how any otherwise rational and intelligent people could possibly also have religious faith — particularly if they work in a science profession — so they must clearly be deluded or poor thinkers.
And then this argument often rears its head: the religious moderate is as bad, if not worse, than the fundamentalist. The rationale for this often being that moderation allows the presentation of an acceptable face of a brutal, primitive set of dogmas, or facilitates that faith’s entry through an otherwise closed door. As if, somehow, they’re all as bad as each other. To anyone who’s thought about this seriously for a moment, this is clearly not true. Yes, there are monsters in positions of power in any religion, just as there is throughout the general laity, but to caricature every member of a faith in that way is disgusting. It makes a mockery of the critical thinking and logical arguments that person holds to be valuable and worthwhile, because that person has exercised none of it.
My great-uncle has reacted and behaved the way he has with me because of the public face of modern atheism, with its often total disregard for the feelings and sensibilities of the average person — despite the fact he’s never seen any of those negative, judgemental or intolerant qualities in me. In its zeal to slap down the worst of faith and try to stem the tide of stupid overtaking the world, that form of atheistic expression is harming normal people. Those may be people who simply have not yet reached a point in their lives where they’re able to objectively reflect upon the inconsistencies and logic problems of their own faith when compared to the world around them.
There is something of which I am unequivocally certain: this perceived New Atheist “all guns blazing” approach isn’t going to work.
It’s the argumentative, brow-beating equivalent of the outlawing of religion in China and the former USSR. How can it possibly work against faiths that get excited about martyrdom? And I’m not just talking about Islam here: most major religions revel in the chance to play the oppressed, downtrodden and beaten servant of their god. They simply say, “I will practise my faith regardless, and any punishment I may receive will be my sacrifice to <insert deity here>, which will reap me rewards in <insert afterlife here>!”
Yes, it’s awful that in the 21st century billions of the world’s population are still slaves to Bronze Age superstitions. But no, screeching like a banshee at your neighbour isn’t going to make them suddenly say, “You know what… you’ve been insulting everything I’ve ever valued for years now, but I see it now: you’re right!” Just because something may be provably wrong, it doesn’t mean that an otherwise intelligent person will see it that way — you’re staring in the face of cognitive dissonance.
So am I advocating appeasement? Certainly not. But a large number of worldwide scientific community do not consider themselves atheists. Are they to be excluded from scientific endeavour? Again, certainly not. The same is true of the average member of the public. Religions and superstitions may be laughable and ridiculous, but they kill thousands of people every day and are not to be underestimated in terms of their importance to the people that hold them. And some of those people may love you and be hurt deeply whenever, by inference, you call them imbeciles.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is — or even if there is one, at least that doesn’t involve totalitarianism — but I am certain that the lumping of people like my great-uncle in the same basket as a religious terrorist is wrong. And yet I see it every day in the atheist blogs I read, and in the other atheistic and even new media I consume: the deliberate misrepresentation of members of a faith as if they’re all as bad as the worst public figure in that faith. It’s wrong and it has to stop.