On Gods and Stoicism

The deep spiritual practice of Stoicism depends on trust in a providential cosmos. While the concept of providence is not difficult to grasp, many moderns attempting to practice Stoicism will find it difficult to assent to…because they simply do not realize how essential providence is to Stoic ethical theory and practice.

‘Providence or Atoms? Providence!’ by Chris Fisher

I have never understood the insistence of some on the necessity of providence, god(s), or any other rational agency for the practice of Stoicism. The ethical teachings of Stoicism seem equally accommodating of a providential agent or irrational causal determinacy (or probabilistic determinacy given quantum indeterminacy). The important thing to grasp is that there is a way that the world is, a certain factness that does not heed our opinions, objections or desires. The question that Stoicism seeks to answer is what best to do about these circumstances.

This strange insistence on a providential agent seems largely grounded in the circumstances and beliefs of historical Stoicism. It is argued that since Stoicism developed in a theistic milieu and incorporated these beliefs into the rationalizations for their ethical prescriptions, that they are somehow inseparable from Stoicism. And yet, ancient Stoic philosophers also believed in omens and other forms of divination, they believed in a materialistic physics that described the universe as a sphere composed of four elements (fire, air, earth, and water) drifting through the void. Must I adopt this four element conception of the universe in order to be a Stoic? Should I look to bird entrails to discern what the future holds for me?

The ancient Stoics cared about reason and physics and saw them as being an integral part of their philosophy, important elements that fed into and informed their ethics. I agree with this premise wish to follow their example of looking to reason and science to inform my ethics. But science and reason are not frozen. These are fields that have advanced through thousands of years of human effort and ingenuity, and to then throw this progress away and cling to outdated Hellenistic notions of the world is misguided, foolish, and contrary to the spirit of the enterprise known as Stoicism.

Likewise, I do not need to believe in the providence of Zeus in order to be a Stoic. Stoicism functions perfectly fine with any number of substitutions one might wish to make. Instead of Zeus, you can believe in the God of Christianity or perhaps Allah from Islam. Or you can do away with the concept altogether and believe that trusting in a providential agent that conducts itself in such a fashion as to be indiscernible from a web of interconnected causal events is the same as trusting in nothing, since the belief does nothing other than ascribe the efforts of our brain to find patterns in circumstantial events to the activities of an unseen actor.

All of these appear to me to be perfectly valid beliefs within the framework of Stoic ethics. Determinacy is certainly an important element in Stoicism. But the particular brand of determinacy you bring to the table does not make that big of a difference. To insist otherwise strikes me as dogmatic and in general opposed to reason and the virtues that Stoicism espouses.

Taking the next step


To the staff of Journey of Faith Church,

I am writing this to inform you that I no longer anticipate attending Journey of Faith Church from henceforth. From my perspective, there seems no point in continuing this practice, as I am not a Christian nor have I been for at least 5 years now. I feel I have done my best to give Christianity a fair chance, for I wrestled for two years prior to losing my faith and now another 5 years of faithfully mimicking Christian behavior after the loss of my faith in an effort to regain it. It has not worked.

I have informed Hyang that I no longer wish to attend church services and community life meetings, nor do I wish to contribute what I feel is my portion of our income to tithing and offerings. However, I will continue to support her commitment and have no qualms with driving her and the children to church or with her giving five percent of our gross income, as this seems fair. I also want you to know that I have had nothing but good experiences with the people of Journey of Faith and that there was no issue other than Christianity and its doctrines that now motivates me to depart.

I do regret the distance this decision will create between me and my friends and acquaintances at Journey of Faith, but the time spent there is almost wholly devoted to a belief system I do not share. My solution to date has simply to try and bear it in silence, but the stress that this causes me has built up to the point where the time spent with my friends there is no longer beneficial to my overall well-being. I have no compunctions with meeting together in a more neutral venue, but I realize now that I have come to increasingly dread my times spent at church each Sunday. This is an untenable situation in the long term and so I felt it was time to make the decision to remove myself from the circumstances that were the source of it.

I wish to thank you, and the membership at Journey of Faith as well, for all of the care and friendship that you have extended me and my family. I made the decision to bring my family to Journey of Faith at a point in my life where my Christian faith was rapidly breaking down. I made that decision in the hope that even if I were to lose my faith, that at least my wife and family would have a place where they could be happy and surrounded by friends in a nurturing and supportive environment. I look back on this decision as probably the best one I have ever made regarding religion and I have no regrets because of it. All of you have more than lived up to my expectations and you should be proud of this fact.

I am sure that I will see many of you in the course of my wife’s participation in the church, and so I cannot say that this is goodbye. Rather, it is simply the next phase in our relationship, and I hope that I will navigate it with grace as I make my way through this uncertain period of my life. Thank you for your time and the patience you have displayed with me.

Sincerely,

Isaac Lindgren

A Good God and the March towards Atheism

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I have been considering writing a post on why I was an atheist, but after writing several paragraphs, I realized that there was no way to concisely and logically summarize the reasons since it was a rather messy and complicated affair. However, while the thought process that went into my apostasy was not clearly structured, I believe I can at least offer a syllogistic argument that provides a rough feel for what happened intellectually.

  1. God is good
  2. If God is good, then he would want to intelligibly reveal himself
  3. I am not aware of God intelligibly revealing himself

From this, I had a number of options. God might not be good. God might not be omnipotent, and therefore be unable to effect his will in this matter. Or God may simply not exist, and therefore the God I thought was good and wished to reveal himself to me was in fact fictional and so incapable of acting. There is another conclusion one could reach, and that would be that either premise 2 or 3 are wrong. I can see how someone might try to argue against two, but honestly I don’t believe this to be the case. Paul in Romans seems to be convinced that awareness of God is not only available, but universally known and impossible for an honest person to deny.

Which leaves premise three to be the main point of contention. I simply have no doubt that premise three is true. And since I am unaware of anyone else who has access to the inner workings of my mind, the only way to know if premise three is true or not is to assess my testimony regarding it in the light of past behavior. Have I been prone to lying? Have I exhibited a pattern of deception or dishonesty. Have I recently taken up any behaviors proscribed by Christianity and so have motivation to deny the truth of God’s existence? I do not believe the answer is yes to any of these questions. And if that is the case, then there is no reason to believe I am lying and the veracity of premise three ought to be upheld.

But that convoluted examination is only necessary for those who are not me, who do not have direct access to what I know and do not know. For myself, it is a relatively easy matter. I simply ask myself, am I aware of God revealing himself to me? And the answer is no. I am aware of claims made to that effect, but since I do not know the truth of these claims, I am in no better epistemic position than I would be without them.

And even if we were to purport that I subconsciously know of God (despite the rather explicit nature of Paul’s Roman account), I would simply revert to analyzing the situation the same as anyone who was not me. I would examine patterns of truthfulness and deception in my life. I would evaluate potential motivators for suppression of the truth. And I would come to the same conclusion. There is no pattern of falsehood to point to, no anti-Christian behavior or desires to motivate me to lie. I quite simply had no reason to lie about God. I was content being a Christian, and certainly a much happier person than I was during the process of losing my faith.

Which leaves me with only a few, rather unpalatable choices. Either God is not really God (either because he is not good or because he is not omnipotent), or else God does not exist. I chose the least offensive of these and decided that God did not exist, and this in effect is why I am now an atheist. The actual outworking of this process was much more complicated than this reasoned explanation portrays, but it captures a critical piece of reasoning that was present during the tumult. My hope is that by presenting the matter in such a condensed fashion it might shed some light on the messy real life process that was my loss of faith.

I know the future

I will be publicly denounced as a liar this coming Sunday. How you ask, have I gained this remarkable power? Simple, I’m an atheist and it was announced today that the below passage was going to be preached on:

http://bible.us/Rom1.18.ESV

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

But what to do about this is a much more difficult question. I have no doubts in my mind that I do not in fact see God in the world, never mind seeing it so clearly that it takes a wilful act of dissembling on my part to deny it. But I have no way of defending myself against the accusation. There is no proof, no piece of evidence, that I can supply that will demonstrate the truth of my assertion to the contrary. It is this which I find most galling, that I can be accused of lying in such a way that requires no poof while simultaneously denying me any opportunity to vindicate myself from the accusation.

Since it is impossible for Christians who believe in the literal truth of this passage to not accuse me of being a liar, my only request is that they simultaneously offer me some opportunity to prove otherwise. Anything less would be to condemn without giving the accused any recourse in his own defense. This could hardly be in the service of the truth, and isn’t this what the whole matter is really about, the truth and those who would seek to obscure it in order to perpetuate their wicked desires? If so, then the least these so called defenders of the truth can do is allow the accused some chance to adequately defend themselves so that the truth may be brought to the light and falsehood banished.

the hope of the godless shall perish

http://bible.us/Job8.11.ESV

“Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh? Can reeds flourish where there is no water?

While yet in flower and not cut down, they wither before any other plant.

Such are the paths of all who forget God; the hope of the godless shall perish.

His confidence is severed, and his trust is a spider’s web.

He leans against his house, but it does not stand; he lays hold of it, but it does not endure.

He is a lush plant before the sun, and his shoots spread over his garden.

His roots entwine the stone heap; he looks upon a house of stones.

If he is destroyed from his place, then it will deny him, saying, ‘I have never seen you.’

Behold, this is the joy of his way, and out of the soil others will spring.

Questions for Atheists from CARM

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to answer these questions from the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry‘s page on atheism:

  1. How would you define atheism?
    The absence of belief in god(s).
  2. How sure are you that your atheism properly represents reality?
    The answer to this question depends on the context. Philosophically speaking, I have doubts about knowing anything as it really is instead of how I perceive it to be. On a more practical level though, I don’t see much difference between this question and the next one.
  3. How sure are you that your atheism is correct?
    Sure enough that I do not seek to inform my behavior with any theistic doctrines or dictates.
  4. Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?
    I do not see definite evidence in support of theistic propositions. At the same time, these propositions would seem to indicate that I should be able to do this.
  5. Are you a materialist, or a physicalist, or what?
    I suppose I would be a secular humanist, although this is based more on the label being largely agreeable with me and not something I choose to identify myself with.
  6. Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview?  Why or why not?
    No, I don’t think atheism is a worldview any more than I think a lack of belief in flying pigs is a worldview. I think that atheists have worldviews, but a Buddhist and a secular humanist could both be atheists without sharing the same worldview.
  7. Not all atheists are antagonistic to Christianity, but for those of you who are, why the antagonism?
    I don’t feel antagonistic towards Christianity. I suppose, though, that there could be many reasons for antagonism, ranging from insecurity to childhood trauma at the hands of Christians.
  8. If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny his existence?
    I discovered that an important element of my faith was incorrect. I had been researching the church and Christianity, a search for a singularly authentic form of Christianity and church. I learned that there was no such thing. This discovery precipitated a crisis of faith which I sought God’s assistance to overcome. This assistance never came.
  9. Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?
    I don’t know. I suspect that it would be, but I have difficulty imagining what the world would be like absent something as pervasive as religion.
  10. Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?
    I would give the same answer as above. I would say that I do not believe that Christianity is worse than any other religion, and so I would not think the world is better off without Christianity specifically.
  11. Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?
    I think it is a deeply ingrained habit of thought that is strongly enforced through a multitude of cultural mechanisms.  I do not know if this constitutes a mental disorder or not.
  12. Must God be known through the scientific method?
    No, I don’t think God has to be known through the scientific method, although it would certainly make things easier.
  13. Do we have any purpose as human beings?
    As strictly human beings, no. But we are not strictly human beings. We are fathers, mothers, friends, compatriots, seekers, and dreamers. We are a myriad of things, and we find our purpose not as isolated hypostasis (as though being homo sapien should impart meaning), but within the context of life, a complex confluence of circumstances and intentions, desires and wills, both our own and of those around us.
  14. If we do have purpose, can you please explain how that purpose is determined?
    See the above answer.
  15. Where does morality come from?
    It is fundamentally a social contract, rooted in necessities of being pack animals, built upon by the increasingly complex needs of a growing web of social connectivity. It is both instinct and social experiment, sometimes intentional but often not.
  16. Are there moral absolutes?
    Yes, within the constraints of the human condition. Some things are fundamental for any group of autonomous individuals to successfully cooperate within a social order. You cannot arbitrarily kill or steal. Doing these things destroys the necessary trust that any group needs in order to cohere and function while also violating what any individual would minimally expect from being a part of a group. Such actions would constitute evil.
  17. If there are moral absolutes, could you list a few of them?
    See the above statement.
  18. Do you believe there is such a thing as evil?  If so, what is it?
    See the above statement.
  19. If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that he is bad?
    By his own standard. No one could do what the God of the Old Testament did and be considered good when judged by the Old Testament.
  20. How would you define what truth is?
    Truth is that which we find congruent with the rules of inquiry, the circumstances of our investigation.
  21. Is atheism true?
    Yes, I believe so. I would not be an atheist if I thought otherwise.
  22. What would it take for you to believe in God?
    It depends on my conditions. At one point, it would have been enough to have felt some inner sense of God’s presence. Now, I think the criteria would require something more explicit, an unmistakable act of God, perhaps some direct and immediate answer to a prayer akin to Gideon and his fleece. I cannot say what the future me would take to be sufficient evidence.
  23. What would constitute sufficient evidence for God’s existence?
    See the above answer.
  24. Must this evidence be rationally based, archaeological, testable in a lab, etc. or what?
    At this time, yes, I think I would need something empirical, although not necessarily in a lab. It would have to be something for which the best possible explanation would have to be some supernatural agency.
  25. Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer?  Why?
    I don’t think societies are run by Christians or atheists, but rather by people, who may have Christian or atheist beliefs. I believe there are more reliable measures of how well a person (or persons) would govern than their beliefs on religion.
  26. Do you believe in free will?  (free will being the ability to make choices without coersion).
    If the definition of free will is the ability to make choices absent coercion (the use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance), then yes, I believe in free will.
  27. If you believe in free will do you see any problem with defending the idea that the physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?
    No, I do not see any problem with defending such an idea since being limited and subject to neuro-chemical laws does not constitute coercion.

An anatomy of bigotry

A college professor stood up on his chair and said, “If God really exists then let him knock me off this chair?!” Nothing happened as the class sat quietly, and he said, “See!”
An Army veteran stood up and punched him in the face, knocking him out and off the chair, then sat back down. As the professor came to, he looked at his student and said, “Why did you do that?!” The veteran said, “God was busy protecting my buddies still fighting for your right to say and do stupid stuff like this, so he sent me!”

I came across this on Facebook recently, and it immediately struck me as a remarkable piece of propaganda.

  1. The utilization of cultural archetypes to bias in favor of Christianity
  2. The explicit suggestion that God is actively favoring American military activity
  3. The implicit suggestion that physical violence is an acceptable response to religious challenges

American culture has always had a conflicted relationship with intellectuals, and despite the desire for children to have the advantages of higher education, there are still strong undercurrents of anti-intellectualism within the culture. . In contrast to this, there has been a long history of support for those who serve in the armed forces, understanding these people, whether rightly or wrongly, to be more patriotic and authentically American. The use of these two archetypes can hardly be accidental considering the powerful contrast they provide, the anti-American intellectual verses the hyper-American veteran. The overtones are clear in the association of Christianity with one, and atheism with the other.

The history of American exceptionalism, and the religious rhetoric used to bolster it, is as long as the history of the American colonies when before even landing the puritans referred to their new colony as a “city on a hill”. It has justified nearly every American ambition from the continental expansion of Manifest Destiny to today’s neoconservatives embrace of the American hegemony and disregard for international legal and moral constraints upon American conduct in foreign policy. It is in essence a belief that there is some sense of a divine sanction upon America that excludes it from the limitations and constraints of other countries. This is actually a convergence of two themes, one religious, the other secular, but both in agreement with the exceptional place of America in the world.

It is these powerful cultural memes that are synthesized into this short morality tale to justify what would otherwise be understood as an infringement upon free speech and an assault. The veteran has the combined attraction of perceived patriotism and alignment with the divine national mandate allowing for him to overcome the obviously negative qualities of his actions. When the equation is further modified with the professors position in an anti-intellectual culture (never mind the common accusation of socialism/communism within intellectual circles), the emotional weight is more than enough to justify the violence performed against him. He is in fact asking for it after the multiple layers of anti-Americanism applied to him.

What, then, is so wrong with this? The average person might have a chuckle over it, but they aren’t going to take it as license to assault outspoken atheists. But most acts of violence are not committed by the average person. They are performed by those living on the fringes of society, radicals that lack many of the constraints that would otherwise inhibit people from acting out the behavior illustrated in the story. Racist, homophobic, misogynist, and religious bigotry are propagated by the masses, but acted upon by the radical fringe. The problem then isn’t that the objects of such bigotry live in direct threat of the general population, but that they provide an umbrella of cultural justification for the actions of the few. Simultaneously, it contributes to a cultural milieu that is implicitly (if not explicitly) hostile to the denigrated persons, creating a host of opportunities for the prejudice to be informally (and sometimes formally) institutionalized to the detriment of those subjected to it.

There is no room for this type of behavior in a pluralistic society under a secular government that claims to value the contributions of all its citizens and respects their rights without prejudice for ethnicity or creed. But even putting that aside, the above statement ought to have been found offensive even to Christian sensibilities, which would have never condoned physical violence against another human being simply because they challenged the legitimacy of Christianity. There is no precedence in the New Testament for such sentiment, and there is a multitude of passages that advocate the opposite. There should not even need to be a mention of passages advocating turning the other cheek, blessing your enemies, or the example of Paul in Athens for how to properly handle intellectual criticism. The story is a failure on both moral and religious grounds and lies in contradiction to the better aspects of both the country and religion it claims to represent.

Another website makes an excellent point: “The anatomy of bigotry is that someone is not seen as a person, but as a symbol”. It is the essence of bigotry that it dehumanizes its target, strips them of their humanity and personhood and reduces them to a symbol, a stereotype. You are no longer the person you are, with the varied experiences that mark out your hopes and fears. Now you are a nigger, or a jew, an arrogant God-hater (isn’t it funny that even the word atheist is considered derogatory), a fag, or a commie. The list goes on for as many prejudices as the human mind can hold. It is always “one of them” or “not one of us”, us being one of the real people with real lives and real hopes and concerns. Just like in the above story, there are no humans involved, only a hero, a villain, and a narrative that plays out to the proper conclusion for both. It is unfortunate that the harm caused by such stories is not similarly constrained to stereotypes and caricatures.