Monthly Archives: September 2013

Seven Sacraments of an Atheist Church.

Christian churches celebrate things called ‘sacraments’, which either mark significant moments in life or promote the spiritual life of the church family. They meet a deeply-felt need, and we would be foolish to overlook them. What might sacraments without god look like? While we might want to develop our own “branding” (there might be things that we, as Epicurean Humanists, specifically want to mention) we should be big enough to recognise that Humanist celebrants have already created wonderful ceremonies that we can learn from.


Baptism has developed as a way of welcoming new children into the family, and there are already Humanist services for this; for example Humanist Baby Namings. These are a way of gathering the community together to commit to supporting the parents.


Baby naming does not confer membership of the church, as that should be the choice of the individual. But some kind of welcoming of an adult into full membership would be a good thing to have. We can draw on the Christian idea of Confirmation as a starting point, or perhaps the Jewish Bar Mitzvah.


This is one of those sacraments that’s not about landmarks in life but about nurturing the life of the community. We’re not yet ready to start prescribing how this might look, but a shared meal (a “fuddle” as they call it in North Derbyshire) would be just the sort of thing to look at.


Again, Humanist Weddings already exist, and can be inspiring and uplifting. I have a variant to suggest; as polyamory becomes a more open life-choice for people, where can they go for a ceremony that respects their commitment? As long as we don”t fall foul of the UK’s current marriage laws, I think we should be providing poly covenanting services.


One of the great sacraments, a fount of tenderness and forgiveness, is the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation (often called “confession”). Confession is good for the soul, and we should absolutely make room for it. Again, this is not a landmark sacrament but one that can be approached repeatedly to help a person break out of toxic guilt.

Consolation for the Dying

The Catholic sacrament of “anointing the sick” is not meant only for the dying, but it can provide great comfort. There’s no reason on earth why atheists should be denied consolation when they confront their own mortality.

Consolation for the Living

For my seventh sacrament I’ve ditched the Catholic one of ordination – I’m not sure that being commissioned to a role in our church should be given any such status – and instead raised the funeral  up to the sacramental level. It’s not only the dying who have to confront their deaths, the survivors need consolation too. Humanist funerals are well established and must be an important part of our ministry.

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The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: IV – Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis was born of Jewish parents on September 17, 1913, in Pittsburgh. He trained as a psychotherapist at Columbia University, where he completed his PhD.

By the late 1940s  Ellis was developing what he called “rational therapy”,  an active and directive type of psychotherapy, and by January 1953, his break with psychoanalysis was complete. In Rational Therapy, the therapist aimed to help the client understand  that it was their personal philosophy that created unhealthy emotional states. This new approach stressed actively working to change a client’s self-defeating beliefs and behaviour by demonstrating their irrationality, self-defeatism and rigidity. Ellis believed that through rational analysis and cognitive reconstruction, people could understand their self-defeatingness in light of their core irrational beliefs and then develop more rational constructs.

Ellis has explicitly said that Stoicism is one of his influences, and he has frequently quoted with approval the line (From Epictetus, “The Enchiridion” sec 5) “folk are not disturbed by events, but by their beliefs about those events”.

Here is a short video from in which Ellis explains the core of his theory.

The approach taken by Epicurean Humanism to this is substantially the same, but tends to be couched in terms of “habits of thought” rather than personal philosophy. So we say that certain habits of thought – called “absolute value judgements” – are the cause of unhealthiness in our emotions, and that retraining those habits is the cure. This requires, not that the person should persuade themselves out of factual beliefs, but that they should inculcate the habit of viewing things from a relative perspective.


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Ethics and pornography

In July 2013, Archie Bland wrote an article in the Independent entitled The truth about pornography: It’s time for a rude awakening” (I do like that “rude awakening”!). In it he argues that pornography is a fact of life, that most people view it at least occasionally, and that it raises ethical questions which our squeamishness prevents us from addressing.

He writes:

In my own consumption of porn, I have always tried to avoid those tropes that I find unsettling. But in the writing of this piece, I have realised that I am not careful enough. I avoid the misogynist video, but I may be careless about avoiding the site that hosts it; I feel bad about the unprotected sex, but I don’t bother going to the great lengths it would require to find the alternative. I am really ashamed about this, and I’m going to take a great deal more care in future. The source of my shame, straightforwardly enough, is not some new-found moral clarity, but the fact that you are now reading this, and so my behaviour has been exposed. For me, at least, the use of pornography has become a semi-public fact.

In isolation, this doesn’t mean very much, except that everyone I know is going to laugh at me for a while. More widely, it might mean quite a lot. What if we ditched the stigma carried by pornography in general, and instead attached it, loudly, to the pornography that we consider to be unacceptable? We have seen this principle applied in so many other areas. People are, basically, too lazy to make ethical choices. The only way to get us to do so is to incentivise us with a little bit of shame.

He concludes the piece thus:

It is, I suppose, a call for a wanker’s code: a contention that being interested in sex is not the same thing as being interested in violent misogyny, and an appeal for a proper conversation about splitting the one off from the other. Because, yes, we are wankers. But that doesn’t mean we have to be shitheads.

Speaking as a wanker, I found this tremendously heartening. So now I want to ask: how can we promote ethical pornography? The traditional churches have contented themselves with denouncing pornography tout court, because their philosophy (pretty much universally – I certainly can’t think of any exceptions off the top of my head) mandates sex within marriage and celibacy outside it. Therefore anything that might stimulate sexual feelings among the sexually disenfranchised is to be abhorred.

But the Epicurean Church has no such qualms. We support ethical non-monogamy and liberality as being conducive to personal happiness; so on what grounds would we oppose pornography? We believe that, like anything else, it can exist in healthy and unhealthy forms; and we want to promote the healthy and deprecate the unhealthy.

Unhealthy pornography can damage relationships between the sexes by inculcating desperately wrong ideas about sex, by encouraging misogyny and objectifying what should be a human delight. This is not to oppose paraphilias such as submissive/dominant relations or fetishes; it’s up to individuals how they choose to relate to their own preferences. But a pornography that humiliates and degrades women as such, or that systematically discourages a taste for adult sex and encourages infantilisation, deserves to be challenged. And the best way to do this is to promote the good at the expense of the bad.

The church should take its stand on this genuine ethical question; given that there’s nothing wrong with masturbation or sexually stimulating material, how can we make sure that what there is is ethically sourced and has beneficial effects on young people’s ideas about sex? Similar questions might be asked about prostitution and other aspects of sex-work. We don’t have to engage in the business itself (unless we want to) but we could certainly seek out the good stuff and make it accessible.

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A Reading List for the Epicurean Humanist

While the best way to grow as an Epicurean Humanist is within the community and its activities, it’s still very helpful to have a library of texts that can take you deeper into the subject at your own pace. In that spirit, here is a list of books that will, I hope, be of use to people who want to learn about Epicurean Humanism, as we understand it

  • Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion
    By Alain de Botton
    De Botton takes to his subject with his customary verve and insight. Well worth reading. But, as a former active church-goer, I have to say that, when he gets onto the meat of his suggestions, he gives the impression of commenting on a way of life that he has never sampled, except as a tourist. Still, he does (I think) a sterling job of making the case.As a supplementary text, you might like to view his TED talk Atheism 2.0
  • Letters from a Stoic
    by Seneca
    This is one of the absolute classics of Stoicism (one of the philosophies that goes to make up Epicurean Humanism). Although the book is nearly two thousand years old, it remains fresh and relevant today. Seneca writes a series of letters to his friend Lucilius, gradually developing the philosophy in a way that’s both accessible and engaging. Not to be missed!
  • Sense and Goodness Without God
    by Richard Carrier
    Richard Carrier may be the most fearsomely clever person you’ve ever come across, but he argues the case for Metaphysical Humanism in a way that’s easy to follow. Take it slowly, think through what he’s saying, and you will see how it forms a complete and satisfying view of the world. His main target is Evangelical Christianity as it exists in the United States, but Metaphysical Naturalism is a brilliant system whatever your background might be.
  • The Moral Landscape
    by Sam Harris
    One of the accusations sometimes levelled at Humanism is that it has nothing to say about morality. Harris beautifully debunks this, showing how conditional shoulds (for example, “if you want to be happy, then you should behave like this”) can generate a coherent moral system – and one, moreover, that can be tested and improved using science.(“conditional should”, by the way, is not one of Harris’s terms, it comes from the theory of Epicurean Humanism).
  • Travels with Epicurus
    by Daniel Klein
    Klein gently introduces Epicurean thought by this deceptively light tale of a group of friends, old men who meet for coffee and raki at the tavern on their Greek island home. Charming, yet with a real philosophical substance to it.
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
    William B. Irvine
    Before I read this book it would not have occurred to me to associate the words “Stoic” and “Joy”. One of the key words in Stoic thought is “apatheia” which means “absence of suffering”. While this is not to be confused with apathy, it still has rather a negative feel to it, the absence of bad rather than the presence of good. Irvine weaves a modern interpretation of the Stoic method that has Joy at its heart. Thoroughly recommended.
  • Discourses and Selected Writings and The Enchiridion
    by Epictetus
    The Enchiridion (or “Handbook”) is an executive summary of the more substantial “Discourses”, and is an excellent place to start your study of Stoicism. Epictetus was a freed slave who set up a school to teach philosophy to young Roman citizens, first in Rome and later in Nikopolis. These two books are, in essence, the lecture notes taken down by one of his students, Lucius Flavius Arrianus or “Arrian”.
  • The Principles and Practice of Rational Emotive Therapy
    by Ruth and Richard Wessler
    The Wesslers were (and, for all I know, still are) a married couple, both clinical psychologists, who were trained in Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy by Ellis. This is probably the best introduction to the method that I know, much better than most of Ellis’s own writings. REBT has been incorporated by Epicurean Humanism, so this is a text book for the advanced practitioner.
  • Buddha in Blue Jeans: An Extremely Short Zen Guide to Sitting Quietly and Being Buddha
    by Tai Sheridan
    As a religious discipline Buddhism has the great virtue of not needing god. Zen is a highly condensed and practical form of Buddhism, and Sheridan’s manual is a highly condensed exposition of Zen.
  • Modern Stoicism website
    I’ve linked to one article – about the question of whether Adolf Eichmann did evil out of some form of “ignorance,” specifically αμαθια, “amathia”. But the whole site is full of great material. Enjoy.

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The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: III – David Hume

Hume was an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, part of the so-called “Scottish Enlightenment”.

In his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), he aimed to provide a naturalistic “science of man” that described the psychological basis of human nature. In contrast to the rationalists who preceded him he argued that not reason but desire explained human behavior. “Reason is,” he said, “and ought only to be the slave of the passions”.

He is generally thought of as being in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist. He denied the existence of innate ideas, saying rather that people can know only those things that they have experienced. He therefore divides perceptions between strong and lively “impressions” or direct sensations and fainter “ideas”, which are copied from impressions.

He developed the position that mental behaviour is governed by “custom”, that is habit or learned behaviour. Lacking direct impressions of a metaphysical “self”, he reasoned that people have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self.

Hume advocated a compatibilist theory of free will that proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. He was also a Sentimentalist, teaching that ethics are based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles. Hume also examined the normative is–ought problem. He held notoriously ambiguous views of Christianity, but famously challenged the argument from design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777).

Kant credited Hume with waking him up from his “dogmatic slumbers” and Hume has proved extremely influential on subsequent philosophy, especially on utilitarianism, logical positivism, William James, philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive philosophy, and other movements and thinkers. The philosopher Jerry Fodor proclaimed Hume’s Treatise “the founding document of cognitive science”.

Reading: Kindle books

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The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: II – Epictetus and Stoicism.

Epictetus was born around. 55 AD, possibly at Hierapolis, Phrygia. The name his parents gave him is unknown; the word epíktetos (επίκτητος) in Greek simply means “acquired.” He spent his youth as a slave in Rome to Epaphroditos, a wealthy freedman and secretary to Nero.

Early in life, Epictetus developed a passion for philosophy. With the permission of his owner he studied Stoic philosophy. When he obtained his freedom, (in the year 68 CE) he began to teach philosophy in Rome. About 93 AD Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city, and Epictetus fled to Nicopolis, where he founded a school.

Epictetus’s philosophy holds that the basis of any philosophy is self-knowledge; that is, how we commonly fool ourselves ought to be the first subject of our study. Logic provides valid reasoning and certainty in judgment, but it is subordinate to practical needs. The first and most necessary part of philosophy concerns the application of doctrine, for example, that people should not lie; the second concerns reasons, e.g. why people should not lie; while the third, lastly, examines and establishes the reasons. This is the logical part, which finds reasons, shows what is a reason, and that a given reason is a right one. This last part is necessary, but only on account of the second, which again is rendered necessary by the first.

Both the Discourses and the Enchiridion begin by distinguishing between those things in our power and those things not in our power. Only our actions are in our power, and ‘actions’ here includes our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. What, on the other hand, is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul.

We have no power over external things. The good that ought to be the aim of our efforts is to be found only within ourselves. The distinction between what is good and what is not good is made by the capacity for choice. This allows us to act, and gives us the kind of freedom that only rational animals have. The right use of the impressions (phantasia) that bombard the mind is in our power.

Not actually about Epictetus himself, but about his near-contemporary and fellow Stoic, Seneca:

Alain de Botton: Seneca on Anger

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The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: I – Epicurus and Epicureanism

Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) founded one of the major philosophies of ancient Greece, helping to lay the intellectual foundations for modern science and for secular individualism. Many aspects of his thought are still highly relevant some twenty-three centuries after they were first taught in his school in Athens, called “the Garden.”

Epicurus’s philosophy combines a physics based on an atomistic materialism with a rational hedonistic ethics that emphasizes moderation of desires and cultivation of friendships. His world-view is an optimistic one that stresses that philosophy can liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural, and can teach us how to find happiness in almost any situation. His practical insights into human psychology, as well as his science-friendly world-view, gives Epicureanism great contemporary signficance as well as a venerable role in the intellectual development of Western Civilization.

Alain de Botton: “Epicurus on Happiness”

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