Many Western atheists are secular humanists, meaning that they think we don’t need religion to be moral, since we have the inherent potential to progress. In reality, says this secularist, our life choices have always reflected only our propensity for enlightening or for deluding ourselves, since the invisible friends posited by religions functioned as mere excuses, projections of our fear, or as tricks to exploit the gullible.
The secular humanist eliminates the appeal to these confusions and restores our pride in being solely responsible for our civilized accomplishments.
Ataraxia and Foolishness: the Ancient Dichotomy
There’s a difference, however, between what we may call ancient and modern secular humanists. To the extent they’re known at all today by the average person, the Epicureans of ancient Greece, for example, are considered hedonists, and if you presume the Epicureans were therefore libertines who were greedy even for lowly pleasures, you’ve imported the modern conception of human nature to the ancient context.
Epicureans, too, were atomists whose metaphysical materialism compelled them to reject theistic religions, but their ethics were comparable to the aims of Buddhism, in that both were defined in negative terms. The ideal personal state, for the Epicurean, was called “ataraxia,” meaning equanimity or freedom from mental disturbances such as fear or worry. “The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future,” said Epicurus.
Pleasure was considered an absence of physical or mental pains, which is to say that pain was the default mental state. The ideal of imperturbability was similar to the Buddhist’s concept of nirvana, except that the latter is more fundamental since nirvana is the lack of any craving.
You can get a sense of the alienness of Epicurean (and Stoic and Pyrrhic) ataraxia to modern sensibilities, by reflecting on the facts that ataraxia was primarily a soldier’s virtue (the goal being courage and calmness before battle), and that the Epicurean followed the ethical logic to its bitter conclusions, by rejecting politics and even sex and family as misleading ventures, since the latter are prodigious sources of stress and worry.
The Epicurean sage was hardly a ravenous libertine, hunting for all manner of pleasures like an aristocrat or a narcissist; instead, this sage was a philosophical warrior who fought against the world’s tendency to degrade him and to imprison him in the common condition of ignorance which turns us into fools blindly chasing after futile ends.
Epicurus thought people are essentially equal to each other, due to our common mortality and existential burdens, so he regarded the political games of domination as grotesque absurdities. “I have never wished to cater to the crowd,” he said, “for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.” And again, “The time when you should most of all withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.” That ideal of introversion is far from the strategic boasts of the show-boating, gregarious and pandering politician.
Instead of encouraging family as a pillar of society, Epicurus taught we should form communities of like-minded virtuous friends, comparable to clubs or non-governmental organizations. He said, for example, “To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.”
If capitalistic industry existed in that period, we could easily see Epicurus condemning it on similar grounds; as he said, “The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure, but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.”
Anti-Natural Renunciation and the Modern Pursuit of Happiness
Can you imagine, then, an agent of the modern happiness industry announcing that politics, business, and sex should be off-limits? That the wise pursuit of happiness requires a revolution against our obsessions with politics, business, and fleeting, artificial pleasures? Evidently, our secular conception of happiness has little in common with the ancient kind, apart from the dutiful rejection of religious nonsense.
One of the first fruits of the so-called Enlightenment, the period of modern philosophy and science that freed us from medieval ignorance and hyper-conservatism was the American Revolution, which enshrined its values in the Declaration of Independence.
As Matthew Stewart shows in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, the Founding Fathers were likely influenced not just by John Locke’s liberalism but by Spinoza’s pantheism and even Epicurus’s hedonism. Nowhere is that clearer than in the opening of the Declaration, where the Founders see themselves as taking on, “among the powers of the earth,” the “equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”
Nothing there about an obligation to apply some heavenly blueprint, but only a natural rivalry between earthly powers — and “Nature’s God” sounds like a cryptic allusion to Spinoza’s pantheism, since “God of nature” is ambiguous: it can mean the God that possess nature or the God that’s identical with nature.
In any case, the subversive, secular heresy corrects itself in the next, more famous sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And the document closes with the obligatory allusion to theism, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The “Creator” in question could be interpreted in the pantheistic fashion, but that would still amount to a break from ancient secularism. Whether the basis of these American “rights” is the Christian deity or natural law and power, the “enlightened” American response to injustice isn’t wise in the ancient sense.
Notice, for example, the Founders’ complaint: “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”
But if the secularist’s human rights are secured only by natural laws and earthly powers, clearly the right lies rather on the side of the British king to dominate the weak colony. Moreover, if the factors were only these earthly powers, the claim that all people are created equal would be false, because we evidently have a variety of natural strengths and weaknesses.
For the Founders, then, nature was teleological in something like a Thomistic sense. The “powers” in question were pregnant with value and purpose, because they have the potential to progress, and that potential or Aristotelian telos stands in for a supernatural spirit. People, in particular, have the capacity to freely pursue happiness. Even nonliving things could be viewed as so many raw materials that could be improved upon by human ingenuity.
Rather than enduring oppression like a sage who isn’t interested in the illusion of perfecting her situation with frivolous, tenuous attainments, the Founders threw themselves into politics and war and capitalism to become the American superpower. Their appeal to the self-evidence of our equality was a sham, since America was built on slavery, genocide, and patriarchy.
The Founders’ confusion was due to the Christian influence on modern secularism. The ancients, of course, were blissfully unaware of the centuries of Christian bastardization of philosophy (known as “dogmatic theology”), but modernity in Europe was like a phoenix that was made almost entirely of the ashes from which it rose.
Recall the negativity of the Epicurean ideal: pleasure was only the lack of pain, just as in Buddhism inner peace is the lack of craving. Those were humble rather than grandiose ideals, based as they were on the conviction that the world is an inhuman, indifferent, and absurd place that isn’t geared towards pleasing us. We’re happy in so far as we manage to achieve the virtual miracle of going against the natural flow.
The ancient sage was a most unnatural creature. The natural course was that of the mindless creative destruction that occurs in the universal collisions between unknowing clumps of matter. In their struggle to eat each other or to avoid being eaten, animals add to the sublime amorality of cosmic evolution the curse of being aware of the injustice of what’s happening everywhere. Most people are likewise benighted, although they add to consciousness a conniving, farcical intelligence that intensifies the absurdity of life and of natural existence.
Only the sage escapes by renouncing that predominant trend, by seeking moksha or negative tranquility, abandoning our natural, programmed or conventionally-dictated preoccupations, and by refusing to make a fool of herself. Of course, a sage who shuns religion, sex, and politics was foolish as far as the anti-philosophical crowd was concerned. But those latter concerns were evidently naive and came to nothing, logically speaking, since the opinions of the human herd were thoroughly incoherent, as Socrates, the Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and their Indian counterparts demonstrated.
Instead of rediscovering ancient wisdom, the European Founders of America had to filter their vision through the historical experience of Christendom (perhaps via Spinoza’s pantheism or a strategic deism). Thus they exchanged a supernatural God for a natural one and they confused natural with moral laws, as though might automatically makes for right or as though our ability to be personally free entails the unconditional desirability of that liberty.
If the masses have always wanted to liberate themselves, why have they longed to spend eternity in Heaven to be slaves of an omnipotent master?
The Mixed Blessings of American Liberty
Americans evidently had the power to overthrow Britain, but it was just as clearly only claptrap to bless that power, to pretend American ambition was a sign of “Divine Providence,” since the results of American liberty and empowerment haven’t obviously been solely for the better.
America began by exterminating the indigenous American populations and by using the Bible to justify the sadistic imperial practice of enslaving their workforce. One gift of liberty perfected by the United States, then, is the self-destructive form of what would become “free market” capitalism, which creates monopolies, plutocracies, boom-and-bust cycles, debt slavery, and perhaps the destruction of the biosphere via the parasitic pursuit of endless, unsustainable growth.
Skipping past the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, we should note that Americans didn’t win WWII, contrary to American tradition; the Soviet Union did, and for the next few decades the US used the threat of its nuclear weapons to bully the rest of the world, taking humanity to the brink of nuclear holocaust under Kennedy. For decades, the US subverted democracies in Europe, East Asia, and South and Central Americas with the CIA and American-backed death squads, under the pretense of the Cold War. The US backed corrupt, oppressive, brutal regimes to exploit cheap foreign labour for American and allied corporations.
It’s as though the Founding Fathers had been transported centuries into the future and found themselves not defending freedom from tyranny, but arming, training, and leading the equivalent of the British Empire — over and over and over — against the freedom fighters who sought their independence and right to self-rule. Put differently, it’s as though the regimes of Truman, Eisenhower, the early Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and the Bushes had been transported to the past and had helped the British destroy George Washington’s army, annihilating America in a temporal paradox.
Or it’s as though political freedom were a single precious gem that could have only a few possessors, so that once the United States and its European allies acquired it, they had to sabotage the attempts of other societies to contend for the prize.
After the Soviet Union went bust, the American pretext for global supremacy shifted to the need to defeat the paper tiger of militant Islamism, after 9/11. After the useless bombing of Afghanistan and the war against Iraq’s nonexistent WMD, the tragedy of American foreign policy has given way to farce with a rival finding a way to ensconce itself within the Oval Office in the form of anti-president Trump, a useful idiot of Putin’s Russia (and of authoritarian gangsters in general).
In view of the nature of the United States, happiness for the average American isn’t anything like ataraxia or inner peace by way of withdrawal from nature’s more monstrous processes; instead, the goals are just the needless, primitive ones of recreational sex, domination, and the hoarding of wealth. The chief means in the US of achieving those goals, assuming you aren’t lucky enough to have inherited great wealth, is Third World-style drudgery, whereby at least half of Americans work long hours in multiple, dead-end jobs with few vacations, and only barely make ends meet.
The American virtues are precisely the traits considered vices by ancient philosophers: greed, lust, selfishness, xenophobia (fear of foreigners), jingoism (warmongering), and imperialism (domination of the weak), all of which are epitomized by President Trump, the peerless symbol of our age.
The Cheapness of Secular Humanism
Where does secular humanism stand in relation to that distortion of ancient enlightenment? The American secular humanist is generally left-of-center, meaning she’s neoliberal rather than being a radical progressive who seeks structural change of the American-led world order. This humanist votes for Democrats and is proud of her country instead of being appalled by the world in general like a true wise person.
The secular humanist fell for the media-creation of new atheism, lapping up the scientistic opinions of her idols, known once as the “four horsemen,” before turning to the next media craze when new atheism became boring. Likewise, if this secularist has progressive inclinations, she may support Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but lacking the demonic energy of her Republican adversaries, the secular progressive won’t aggressively fight for what she considers just.
She typically contents herself with correcting micro-aggressions and other petty matters or nonissues, preferring whiny rhetoric to voting. If she does take to the streets, as in the riots in support of Black Lives Matter, she’ll be sure to do so under a preposterous banner that’s sure to go nowhere, such as “Abolish the Police.”
This progressive or Democratic secular humanist doesn’t know how to sell anything and therefore can’t succeed in business or in politics, because what she really wants is too mundane to inspire anyone to create anything like great art. Feeling as entitled as the Founders who pretended the (inhuman, amoral, and indifferent) earthly powers of nature justified their rebellion against British tyranny, what this modern secularist wants is to be happy in the spoiled, infantile sense.
The relevant conception of happiness can be gleaned from the new atheist’s old bus slogan, promoted by Richard Dawkins: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” At first glance, the reference to the lack of worries looks like an allusion to ataraxia, but that’s only superficial. The real meaning of that slogan is that it dismisses what we might call the old, hypermodern atheism of Nietzsche, which is in turn implied by the ancient ideal.
I’ll explain what I mean. If the secular trajectory is of what we call “modernity,” meaning the science-centered liberation of Europe, North America, and other parts of the world from feudalism and theocracy, the secularist’s weapons against tyrants and religion turned against the secularist’s values, creating the hypermodern critique initiated by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Whereas the modern critic used reason to refute religious dogmas and to shame monarchs and dictators, the hypermodern critic uses a deeper clarity to undermine reason itself, leaving us in the postmodern state of relativism, jadedness, and apathy.
What is that deeper clarity? It’s the existential horror of seeing how disconnected the entire human project is from cosmic reality; it’s the dread of objectivity, the angst and alienation from realizing that most people are beholden to asinine, degrading daydreams. This is also the clarity that required the soldier’s courage in the ancient world, since war was an apt metaphor for the purist application of the philosophical perspective.
The philosopher, sage, or truly enlightened person is at war with reality. To be sure, she somehow overcomes the horror, dread, alienation and other existential ills, but she alone faces them in the first place, because only she steps onto that battlefield. She alone appreciates the depth of our existential predicament: alone among the herd of religious or secular dupes, she knows what the natural world really is and entertains no illusions about where we fit into that world.
To return, then, to the bus slogan, its idea is that we can easily choose to stop worrying and enjoy our life, knowing that God is dead, without any need for the equivalent of martial discipline. That’s the slogan of the spoiled consumer who’s used to getting whatever she wants at the touch of a button, of the consumer who’s at peace with American imperialism and with all the neoliberal conceits and degradations. This secular humanist who’s effectively just a consumer or a stooge of plutocrats has been so infantilized by corporate powers that she expects little more from capitalism and democracy than to be entertained by them.
Alternatively, this is the centrist slogan of the Christianized secularist who deifies nature in the wrongheaded fashion, not realizing that the God of Nature would be closer to Schopenhauer’s monstrous Will than to benevolent Jesus.
Our Existential Plight
How, then, should atheists think of human nature? Should we take pride in what we fundamentally are? If we dispense with the quasi-Christian conceit that we have a progressive natural purpose or inclination, we find we have certain traits such as consciousness, intelligence, freewill, empathy, and creativity which can be used for good or for ill, like all tools. There are no univocal or permanent blessings.
We’re conscious of what’s beautiful and of what’s hideous alike. Our smarts enable us to reform or to commit evil acts with greater efficiency. We’re free to help or to hinder, to succeed or to fail. If we empathize, we’re motivated to help the downtrodden, but we’re also compelled to be paralyzed with suffering on behalf of the uncountable throngs of nature’s victims.
Any human nature made up of some mixture of those traits is less important than our defining moment when we attain a deeper perspective and recognize our existential predicament. The most human act isn’t to hunt a bear, to solve a scientific equation, or to paint a picture, nor is it to go to war or to get married or to drive a sports car. Our existential endpoint is to understand the absurdity of all such endeavours, given the mindless, arbitrary, and preposterous universe in which those actions take place.
Again, the ancient sages seem to have intuited the insights that the existential philosophers later formulated at length. Indeed, these insights are implicit also in the mystical side of many religions, which treat God as a symbol of a terrifying cosmic mystery. For Epicureans, the ideal mental state is only a lack of worry, because despair is precisely what follows from the materialist’s dismissal of the wishful thinking of exoteric religions, as Nietzsche made clear for all time.
“God is dead,” Nietzsche wrote. “God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?…Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
If the secular humanist defines her worldview in terms of pride in self-made progress, in the advances of science and business, government and popular culture, the old, primary atheist returns to the ascetic anti-naturalism of the ancient sages, via the shortcut of hypermodern skepticism.
This inconvenient skeptic hastens to burst the humanist’s bubble and remind her that as far as anyone can tell from the fruits of modern secular labour, that pride must be more than ironically satanic. I don’t mean to suggest there’s an evil spirit controlling our activities; rather, Christians only demonized the human project of attaining godhood, of creating a new, human-centered world and of thereby repudiating the indifference of the wilderness, of “God’s Creation.”
As far as philosophy is concerned, our human nature is to (a) succumb to the pit of despair, once we appreciate our metaphysical situation, (b) escape from that pit by ignoble means such as the delusions of mass religion or of secular-humanistic or neoliberal substitutes, or (c) climb out with honour and grace. That’s our underlying pattern.