In last month’s post “Down to Earth“, I discussed Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of rich simplicity, what Buddhism calls the Middle Way. Rather than the vain pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of power or material possessions, the true source of contentment lies in the simple pleasures of life that are available to everyone, regardless of social status.
Some of the comments mentioned Epicurus, a person I should write about more often. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who taught a system of values that was more like modern secular humanism than any other philosophy of the past (with the possible exception of the Carvakas). Although he believed that the gods existed, he taught that they were material beings who took no interest in human affairs, or in anything besides their own blissful contemplation. He also taught that death was not to be feared, because the person who is dead no longer experiences anything and therefore is not suffering.
Epicureanism put the emphasis on pleasure, not as mindless hedonism but as reasonable indulgence in the good things available in life. Valuing intellectual pleasure more highly than sensual pleasure, it recommends the cultivation of friendship, an ethic of simplicity, and an attitude of tranquility in the face of life’s trials. Ironically, “epicure” in popular parlance has come to refer to a connoisseur of food and drink, which Epicurus arguably considered the least important of life’s pleasures.
The Epicurean view stands in opposition to the religious idea of imaginary crimes, where certain activities are forbidden not because they cause any harm to human beings, but solely because they’re believed to displease God. I consider that, when it comes to attracting people, this is an advantage for atheism: we don’t have to teach excessive self-denial, nor demand that people abstain from things they would like to do just because an ancient dogma says not to. Nor do we have to teach, as many religions do, that happiness is frowned upon and that the proper attitude toward life is one of renunciation or constant repentance. We should not promote thoughtless indulgence, but we can teach that people can partake responsibly in the good things of life.
For instance: We do not have to believe, as some religions do, that certain foods are off-limits and may not be consumed no matter what. I respect the opinion of people who abstain from eating meat on ethical grounds, but the arbitrary nature of religious dietary restrictions – demanding that foods be prepared only in certain specific ways, forbidding the mixing of foods that are perfectly allowable individually, or banning the eating of some animals but not others that are equally sentient – is nothing but irrational self-denial. An atheist can be a true gourmet, sampling all the different flavors and cuisines of human culture, and tasting the full palate of sensory experience.
We do not have to believe, as many religions do, that alcohol and other intoxicants are sinful or forbidden. Again, there are people who abstain from these substances for valid reasons. But a mature and rational adult is certainly capable of making responsible use of them, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. The quest to alter one’s consciousness for pleasure or ritual is as old as humanity, and in moderation, is a source of harmless relaxation and enjoyment.
We do not have to believe, as nearly all religions do, that sex is a mysterious and dangerous thing that must be practiced according to strictly prescribed rules. Everyone is familiar with the arbitrary and irrational restrictions that religious belief places on sexual expression: that sex should never be simply for the sake of pleasure; that you should only have sex with one person over the course of a lifetime; that women should not exercise sexual autonomy; or that sex is always immoral unless a member of the clergy gives consent. None of these rules are grounded in reason; they spring from ignorance, superstition and fear. Sex has real power to form (or shatter) emotional bonds, and if practiced irresponsibly, to lead to the spread of disease or unintended pregnancy. But sexual expression is enriched by diversity just like every other area of human culture, and an atheist knows that there is more than one way to have a healthy sex life.