Thursday, 14 February 2013

Moderate religious extremists

A while ago, I was listening to the In Our Time programme about Epicureanism when this quote (which I've shared before) popped back into my head:
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

The Epicureans accepted the notion of gods. They were cool with the contemporary pantheon of divinities, but they had some radical ideas about the nature of those gods. Their ideas show how 'other possible gods' can be almost completely unlike the single, all-powerful, all-wise, loving, interventionist, moralistic creator/saviour God worshipped by the vast majority of today's believers.

Here's a taste of how wildly different 'possible gods' can be:

Monotheistic God Epicurean gods
He created the universe They didn't create the universe
He is made of some sort of spiritual essence that's different from the matter we know about They are made of atoms (like everything else in the atomist universe posited by philosophers like Democritus)
He is all powerful Their powers are finite
He cares about humanity, rewarding and punishing individuals according to merit They are non-interventionist beings, blissfully indifferent to human affairs

He can offer eternal life to humans

They are immortal, but are unable and unwilling to bestow eternal life on humans

The relevant Wikipedia entries on Epicurean views of religion and philosophy are a good place to start, if you want to put a bit more meat on the bare bones of my summary.

The Epicureans, with their do-nothing small gods, occupied one extreme of the theistic spectrum. Today's most successful and influential religions have staked out their theological position at the other extreme, with a Big God who created everything, can do anything and cares about everybody.

Because the Epicureans' gods lived in their own distant, blissful realm, neither blessing or punishing humans in this life or in the hereafter (which the Epicureans didn't believe in, anyway), Epicurean philosophy concentrated on the here and now, in maximising pleasure and minimising pain in this life.

Hostile writers from the big monotheisms later misrepresented this 'hedonism' as a weak-willed, mindless chase after fleeting sensual pleasures. Epicurean writings, though, didn't recommend the endless pursuit of such instant gratification. The real Epicurean philosophy of life stressed avoiding excess and the proliferation of unnecessary and artificially produced desires,* whilst cultivating moderation, friendship, mental tranquillity and the mental discipline needed to banish fear and pain.

The caricature hedonist might sound like Peter Stringfellow, but the real deal probably had more in common with a Buddhist monk (Epicureans were, according to some scholars, vegetarians and Epicurus himself was celibate, although he didn't impose this particular form of self-denial on his followers).

The two extremes of the theistic spectrum have fared very differently over the last millennium and a half.  It'd be hard (although worth the effort) to ignore the three and a half billion-odd Christians and Muslim believers on the planet today, but you'd have to search hard to find a single Epicurean these days. In fact, you'd have to search pretty damn hard to find somebody who could actually define Epicureanism properly - if pressed, a lot of people would tell you that it had something to do with a love of fine dining and vintage champagne (no wonder people get confused when "Epicurious" is the name of a foodie site and "Epicure" a brand name for deli products).

Part of this is down to the suppression of Epicureanism, which was seen as heretical by the dominant monotheistic religions, along with the deliberate misrepresentation of Epicurean ideas by various spin doctors of divinity. But that still leaves the question of why the 'possible gods' at one extreme of the theistic spectrum gained so few adherents, whilst the all-powerful monotheistic conception of God attracted so many followers.

Well, having the ear of the powerful can't have done monotheism any harm, but I think that the underlying reason why Big God decisively beat the Epicureans' small gods is even more obvious. Big God (allegedly) does far more stuff for His followers.

The small gods do sod all for believers. It's pointless praying to them, because they never answer your prayers. If you want to master the troubles of this life, you're on your own with whatever strength of mind and philosophical attitude you can get together. And when this life is over, well, there may nothing to fear because your consciousness will be gone, but that's less attractive to creatures with a hard-wired survival instinct than the inducement of eternal life in a state of bliss.

You can't accuse the small gods of is over-promising and under performing - they're never going to do anything for you, and that's made perfectly clear from the start.

Contrast this with the promises of eternal joy and infallible justice held out by Big God and you can see who's got the more compelling election manifesto.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.
Revelation 21:4-6

Of course, the things people promise in order to get elected aren't always precisely the same as the things they actually deliver once your vote's in the bag, although it's hard to check whether an ineffable entity who moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, has actually delivered, especially when one of His key deliverables can only be verified once you're dead.

Of all the possible gods, people of faith seem to overwhelmingly favour the one who (via His representatives on earth) promises to do the most for them. Who'd have thought it?

Call me a nasty old cynic if you like, but this seems to sit rather uncomfortably with the idea that Big God's followers are selflessly displaying 'submission to the will of God.'  After all, Big God makes big promises, promises that - if true - would fulfil humans' deepest existential desires. Would humans really love Him for Himself and submit to his will if He didn't? Maybe the faithful have gradually dismissed all the possible gods who wouldn't deliver the things that humans most want to be true and retained only the one who faithfully submits to the will of humankind.

It'd be ironic if the unpopular, limited gods of Epicurus actually exist and Big God, with His huge fan base, doesn't. I've no reason to believe in gods, but I'm agnostic about the idea of intelligent aliens existing somewhere else in the universe. Entities belonging to a civilisation millions of years in advance of our own might seem like gods - like the limited gods of the Epicureans, anyway. Intelligence may be mind-bogglingly rare, but space is mind-bogglingly big, so who knows?  Real aliens might resemble the Epicurean gods in another way.

The Fermi paradox asks, 'if there are many planets in the galaxy capable of supporting life, and a few intelligent species who've had millions of years' head start to explore the galaxy, then how come they're not here already?' There are plenty of possible answers to that question - for example, that it's wrong to posit more than one intelligent species (intelligent life was such an unlikely freak accident that, even in a galaxy of billion of stars, we're the only example). But, just maybe, they are out there, living what we earthlings would consider a blessed existence, with powers we can only dream of, capable of contacting us, but, like the Epicurean gods, pretty much indifferent to our boring little Type I-minus civilisation.

*One of the less attractive aspects of the Epicureans' otherwise moderate and civilised philosophy of life (IMHO) was a mistrust of learning, culture and social and political engagement, on the grounds that these things would give rise to desires that would be hard to satisfy and therefore disturb a person's peace of mind (see the Athenian definition of an idiot).