Embracing Secular Philosophies
Part of a series about My Faith Journey.
Having been burned by religion, I was not eager to jump into another religion that required belief in unprovable supernatural claims. (I heard it said that when a person loses their faith, they also lose faith in belief systems.) Instead, I found greater satisfaction in secular philosophies.
The word "philosophy" comes from two Greek roots, which literally translated mean "the love of wisdom". Philosophy is defined as "a rational search for the truth" or "a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs".
I heard it said that "religion offers salvation in the next life, while philosophy offers salvation in this life". I don't know if there will be a next life, but I am sure I need to be able to live effectively in this life, so I have turned away from religion and toward philosophy. Here are some that I like.
I've long been fond of Buddhism, but I was not eager to embrace another religion, so the secular flavor of Buddhism appealed to me more than traditional versions.
Most religions teach its practitioners to believe in some kind of god or gods and strive for a reward in some kind of afterlife. Buddhism instead teaches its practitioners to get in touch with reality. As a result, it does not really fit the traditional definition of religion. Buddhism matches up much more closely with the definition of "psychology" or "philosophy". Nietzsche once remarked that Buddhism was "a system of hygiene", rather than a religion.
Buddhism has the distinction of being the only ancient religious tradition that is compatible with modern science. It also non-theistic and makes no supernatural claims in its core tenets. There are some flavors of Buddhism which make supernatural claims about reincarnation or nirvana, but these are not found in the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path. Secular Buddhists can see "reincarnation" or "nirvana" as symbolic / metaphorical, rather than literal.
Another thing I appreciate about Buddhism is that it doesn't give traditional "answers" to questions, but instead reverses the question onto the person asking. For example, if someone were to ask "Where do we go when we die?" Christianity might have the answer "You go to heaven or hell, depending". Buddhism would instead ask "Why do you want to know where you go when you die?" The intent is to prompt introspection and help the questioner learn a little more about themselves and discover what makes them tick.
This podcast hosted by Noah Rasheta (an exmo) has been very helpful and enjoyable to listen to.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are:
The Eightfold path is:
Side note: Some have noted that replacing the word "right" with "wise" adds clarity.
At its core, Buddhism addresses the problem of suffering and how to deal with it. The word "dukkha" is often used by Buddhists and is tersely (and perhaps inaccurately) translated as "suffering". "Dukkha" could be more broadly defined as any of: disappointment, desires, cravings, bereavement, unfulfillment, or dissatisfaction. Because it is a nuanced word, it is often left untranslated into English texts.
"Suffering" is broken down into three categories. Here is my understanding of them and the coping techniques I've learned:
(1) The suffering of pain: Pain in the here and now caused by aging, sickness, and the slings and arrows of day-to-day life.
I deal with this by trying to accept my current situation rather than wishing for something different.
(2) The suffering of change: This is caused by developing attachments to things that are fleeting. When those things inevitably change, we feel the pain of loss.
I deal with this by remembering that everything in life is impermanent.
(3) The suffering of conditioning: Traumatic past experiences cause us to be triggered by associated present events. Similarly, present trauma might cause us to be triggered sometime in the future. This is sometimes described as "all-pervasive suffering", or the constant haze of anxiety and stress that we all live in.
Meditation helps me with this one as it gives me a chance to challenge my thinking patterns, question the validity of my anxieties, and try to see them more objectively, which in turn releases the power they have over me.
There are three things that keep us mired down in suffering, referred to as the three poisons.
desire, sensuality, greed
fear, hatred, ill will
confusion, delusion, incorrect beliefs
There are several recurring themes in Buddhism that I have found useful:
Note: Difficulty (aka suffering, dissatisfaction, or "dukkah"), impermanence, and interdependence are regarded as the 'Three Markers of Existence'.
Westerners often interpret karma to mean "what goes around, comes around". They sometimes ascribe mystical qualities to karma, suggesting that people will eventually be punished for their wrong actions or rewarded for their virtuous actions. The Eastern / Buddhist notion of karma is somewhat different.
One example: If someone cuts me off in traffic, I might become angry and go home and yell at my wife. She might in turn yell at the kids. The kids might in turn get riled up and hit the dog. So on, so forth. The idea here is that negative attitudes and actions I put out caused ripples that reverberated through the beings connected to me (interdependence).
These ripples may or may not get back to me, but the energy I put out infiltrated through the system. This notion of karma isn't mystical at all, nor does it guarantee (or even suggest) that some cosmic punishment / reward will be revisited upon me.
The upshot of it all is that if I want to live in a positive system, I need to put positive energy into it. A key component of that is for me to analyze negative feelings / attitudes when they emerge in me and deal with them before they take root and spread. This concept of karma is compatible with modern psychology / Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Another thing that impressed me were Buddhist koans, which are questions / propositions designed to open the mind. These were refreshing after having been spoon-fed a steady diet of thought-terminating cliches throughout my upbringing in Mormonism (also here).
Some examples of Buddhist koans are:
With its roots in Eastern mysticism, many Westerners may find Buddhism less accessible or difficult to approach.
The constant emphasis on meditation and introspection steers one toward a monastic life. As a result, it can appear too individualistic or self-centered.
The notion of "detachment" is often ill-defined and can lead a person to believe that they should detach from all relationships, separate themselves from society, etc. Again, this reinforces the idea of living a monastic life, which may not suit everyone or even be practical.
Related: Buddhism does not seem to place much (enough?) emphasis on community, civic duty, etc. (By contrast, Confucianism places a large emphasis on community.)
The idea of the "no-self" can feel a little nihilistic.
Buddhism can come across as very pessimistic or life-negating, with a pursuit of escaping an existence dominated by suffering.
The notion of "enlightenment" is ill-defined and possibly too idealistic, presenting a carrot on a stick that its practitioners can never actually grasp.
The Buddha taught that the ego needs to be overcome, but had his followers call him "perfect one", which seems a little egotistical. (And proof that Buddhism is man-made.)
The emphasis on suffering and accepting reality can lead people to passively accept hardships, rather than trying to combat or alleviate them.
Related: The teaching of accepting reality can come at the expense of teaching that we have the power to change our reality if we apply ourselves.
Buddhism does not seem to place enough emphasis on virtuous traits like assertiveness, standing up for oneself, speaking out against injustice, etc.
The Buddha might not have actually been a real person. He may have been a legend or just a fictional character outright. (Though some would argue that the teachings are more important than the historical figure.)
See this article: Criticism of Buddhism.
Stoicism is a secular philosophy for living that flourished in ancient Greece & Rome. Nowadays, we think of a "stoic" as someone who doesn't cry at funerals, but it's actually a logical / naturalistic system of ethics that includes contemplation, discerning between what we can control and what we can't, overcoming desire for pleasure / fear of pain, and pursuing excellence of character. (It is sometimes called "The Buddhism of the West".)
Most Stoics were pantheists who saw nature / the universe as "God" and proposed that we should use our faculties of reason to determine how best to live and thrive in the natural world. Most modern stoics tend to be nontheists. Stoicism is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in the modern age. I've heard it claimed that the underlying principles of Stoicism make up the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Stoics believed that the universe was made up of a series of cause / effect situations which they described as Logos. (This compares to the Buddhist notion of "causes and conditions".) They believed that they could come up with a philosophy that could help them to live in this imperfect world, rather than striving for some hypothetical, perfect, afterlife which may or may not ever come.
The four main pillars of Stoicism are:
There are a handful of Stoic proverbs that have stuck with me:
Good / short introductory videos:
10 Themes of Stoicism (14:59)
Introduction to Stoicism (14:19)
The first noble truth in Buddhism is: "In life, there is suffering". Stoics take a much more proactive attitude toward suffering. Stoics believe a person should contemplate worst-possible scenarios at the beginning of each day. In so doing, they can avoid abject thoughts and covetousness. (Much like the ideal of "detachment" in Buddhism.)
Stoics believe that "virtue is the sole good" and that misfortune provides us with training opportunities for developing virtue (much like a soldier trains for battle). A Stoic mantra to start one's day is: "Today I will face mistreatment, injustice, insult, and injury -- And I will welcome it because it will give me an opportunity to practice virtue!"
This quote sums it up nicely:
"Misfortune, nobly born, is good fortune." -- Marcus Aurelius
A modern equivalent that I heard was "You will never regret doing the classy thing".
Something that impresses me about Stoicism is the variety of the major players who developed and practiced it:
If Stoicism can work for people from all of those walks of life, that tells me that it has some real value.
Epictetus believed that a "true" practitioner of Stoicism didn't exist and that if one did, he would be closer to the gods than to men. They used the term Ataraxia to refer to a lucid mental state that is free from distress. (This compares somewhat with the rarity of finding a fully enlightened Buddhist.)
The following quotes sum it up:
"By the gods, I would love to see a Stoic, but you cannot show me one fully formed." -- Epictetus
"And if you come across a man who is never alarmed by dangers, never affected by cravings, happy in adversity, calm in the midst of storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, is it not likely that a feeling will find its way into you of veneration for him? Is it not likely that you will say to yourself, ‘Here is a thing which is too great, too sublime for anyone to regard it as being in the same sort of category as that puny body it inhabits.’ Into that body there has descended a divine power." -- Seneca (This sounds like a good description of someone in Fowler's Stage 6.)
I found some Stoic-themed podcasts that I enjoy:
There are also a couple of one-off episodes about Stoicism that have been featured in other podcasts that are not strictly stoic-related.
"Man conquers the world by conquering himself." -- Zeno of Citium
"Steel your sensibilities, so that life shall hurt you as little as possible." -- Zeno
"The end may be defined as life in accordance with nature or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe." -- Zeno
"Wellbeing is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself." -- Zeno
"Happiness is a good flow of life." -- Zeno
"There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will." -- Epictetus
"It is not things that upset us but rather our view of things." -- Epictetus (This compares to the "Right Perception" aspect of the Eightfold Path.)
"It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters." -- Epictetus
“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen and you will go on well.” -- Epictetus (Note how closely this quote compares to the Second & Third Noble Truths of Buddhism.)
"Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants." -- Epictetus (This sounds tres Buddhist.)
"When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger." -- Epictetus
"Difficulties are things that show a person what they are." -- Epictetus
"The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests." -- Epictetus
"He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." -- Epictetus
"Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit." -- Epictetus
"The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things." -- Epictetus
"Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune" -- Seneca
"We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality." -- Seneca the Younger
"Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all: the fear of future suffering and the recollection of past suffering. Since the latter no longer concerns me and the former concerns me not yet." -- Seneca
"True happiness is... to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future." -- Seneca
"Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness." -- Seneca (This would be an excellent quote for Humanism.)
"A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials." -- Seneca
"It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult." -- Seneca
"As long as you live, keep learning how to live." -- Seneca
"Expecting is the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow, it loses today." -- Seneca
"It is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it." -- Seneca (A good quote for Absurdism.)
"Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it." -- Seneca
"The pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of the brave man... It is more powerful than external circumstances." -- Seneca
"A man who suffers before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary." -- Seneca
"There is no person so severely punished, as those who subject themselves to the whip of their own remorse." -- Seneca
"A man is as miserable as he thinks he is." -- Seneca
This next quote needs some context: Emperor Nero commanded Seneca the Younger to commit suicide after being implicated in a plot to kill him. Seneca's wife & children were sobbing as he was led to his death. He "comforted" them by saying: "What need is there to weep over parts of life when the whole of it calls for tears."
"The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing." -- Marcus Aurelius
"Misfortune, nobly born, is good fortune." -- Marcus Aurelius
"You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength." -- Marcus Aurelius
"The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts." -- Marcus Aurelius
"The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury." -- Marcus Aurelius
"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." -- Marcus Aurelius
"Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears." -- Marcus Aurelius
"Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul." -- Marcus Aurelius (I think Buddha would approve of this one.)
"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature." -- Marcus Aurelius
"If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it." -- Marcus Aurelius
"I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others." -- Marcus Aurelius
"Anger cannot be dishonest." -- Marcus Aurelius
"The universal order and the personal order are nothing but different expressions and manifestations of a common underlying principle." -- Marcus Aurelius
The word "virtue" is nebulous and highly subject to personal interpretation. (Though some might see that as a feature, not a bug.)
Stoicism makes a hard distinction between "things you can control" and "things you cannot control" but neglects to recognize that there may be shades of grey between the two. The middle ground could be labeled "things you can influence".
Stoicism can come across as a little fatalistic. Believing that you are constantly tossed about on the winds of chaos can feel a little hopeless.
Humans have evolved to feel things. Constantly reinforcing having an attitude of indifference seems to go against what we have evolved to be.
It could be said that Stoicism tacitly encourages passivity by teaching people that they should accept their lot in life. (Some of the most prominent Stoic philosophers were noblemen & rulers who may have taught Stoic philosophy to the masses as a way of "keeping them in their place".)
Related: Stoicism teaches that we should accept reality but does not emphasize that we can alter / affect reality. One example: smallpox exists, but if we had all just stoically accepted that as a reality, no one would have ever invented a vaccine.
Stoicism is very individualistic. It encourages following a path to self-fulfilment, but does not emphasize helping to fulfil the lives of others. There is little emphasis on community.
Related: By teaching that all you can control is yourself, you can become neglectful of doing good works for others.
See: this Reddit thread: Criticisms of Stoicism.
Humanism uses reason, rationality, and critical thinking to arrive at the conclusion that we should behave in an ethical way. It uses reason rather than "because God said so" to promote nonviolence and cooperation. A Humanist would think along the lines of: Let's identify the things that promote the greatest amount of well-being and do more of those. Let's also identify the things that cause suffering and do less of those. Humanism relies on secular rather than religious means to promote good behavior and values individual freedom over group conformity. Another way I heard it put: Humanism is about doing what's best for humans; Christianity is about doing what's best for Jesus.
The 14th century scholar Petrarch is widely regarded as the founder of the Renaissance and the founder of Humanism. He became disenchanted with the Medieval notion of ethics defined as strict obedience to God and thought that people could engage their rational faculties to make ethical choices. Humanism flourished during the Enlightenment, the intellectual tradition that started in Western Europe in the 1700's.
Some core principles of Humanism are:
Tools used by Humanists are:
See: What Was Humanism? (7:53)
See: AC Grayling - Humanism (56:44)
See this series of videos on Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry (playlist of 4 vids, approx 12 min total)
Many people who lose faith in their religious upbringing wonder where they will get their morality from post-religion. Here is the dirty little secret: Humans don't get their morality from religion, religion got its morality from humans, and then they bundled it up and sold it back to us for a price.
If you look at numerous other animal species (particularly mammals) you will find that they behave in a way that promotes group cohesion, cooperation, and well-being. This is not by accident. A species that displayed only selfish / destructive behaviors would have died out a long time ago. Our ancient hominid / primate / mammalian ancestors developed social behaviors that include a sense of morality and we are the lucky inheritors of that.
I have heard Christian preachers say that "the laws of God are written on your heart". I understand the sentiment. I also understand that they're phrasing the concept in religious language that is familiar to them. If I were to phrase the same concept in secular language, I would say that humans have evolved to be moral creatures, it is hardwired into our DNA, and that is something that should be celebrated.
See also the writings of Jonathan Haidt, who largely argues that humans are inherently moral creatures as a byproduct of having evolved to be a cooperative species.
My favorite Humanist parable is the story of The Good Samaritan from the New Testament: A traveler is robbed & beaten by thieves who leave him for dead on the side of the road. A Priest and a Levite pass by, but do not help him, but a passing Samaritan does help him.
Humanism is very anthropocentric, being framed relative to ourselves. Many religions are criticized for instilling a sense of elitism, but Humanism falls prey to this same pridefulness by espousing human morality as possessing some kind of superiority. Nietzsche criticised Humanism for being "a secular version of theism".
Humanism celebrates that we have inherited a sense of morality from our primate / mammalian ancestors, but neglects to recognize that we have also inherited some less-than-virtuous traits from those same ancestors, including violent tendencies, predation, laziness, and conformity.
Related: Humanism may be too idealistic. History is replete with examples of humans behaving in "inhumane" ways. In all fairness, we should recognize that such bad behaviors are also a product of human nature, but advocates of Humanism often disregard these examples in favor of praising the "good" parts of human nature (confirmation bias).
Humanism as a philosophy comes across as a bit underdeveloped. It lacks the systemic qualities that we find in more well-developed, comprehensive, philosophies (such as Stoicism). This may be due to the fact that it is "younger" than its more well-established siblings.
Humanists are sometimes critiqued as spending too much time attempting to convince people of the nonexistence of God, at the expense of offering an alternative for living well in a world without God (emphasizing the negative rather than the positive).
The best examples of champions of Humanism are actually people who came from a religious background, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and possibly Mother Teresa. If Secular Humanists want to demonstrate that we can reach the pinnacle of humanity without religion, the onus is upon them to produce a champion that is on par with Religious Humanists.
Secular Buddhism, Stoicism, and Humanism are my three favorite philosophies for living. Each of them is compatible with modern science and with each other. I also appreciate that they are all concerned with building some kind of wholesome state(s).
I seem to get more out of the set of them than I would for any one of them on their own. The main thing I get from each of them are:
Another way of looking at it: If you were to imagine three concentric "rings", Buddhism is at the innermost ring (inside my mind), Stoicism is the middle ring (my personal behavior), and Humanism is the outermost ring (my interaction with others).
I also appreciate that none of them are "closed" systems.
As of the time of this writing, I consider myself to be in Fowler's Stage 4: "Individuative-Reflective", so I suppose it is fitting that I favor philosophies that promote individual development, encourage reflection (either in the form of meditation, contemplation, or introspection), and are secular in nature. Someday I might move to a different stage of faith (say, Stage 5) and not have as much use for these three philosophies.
I've made attempts to boil it all down to a handful of points and I've come up with the following:
There are a handful of other useful philosophies / writings I've found helpful that I'll briefly mention here.
Stoicism was one of four prominent philosophies of the post-Platonic era. The others are:
These were developed by 19th century philosophers who turned the problem around from addressing external dilemmas, to instead addressing how a human subject reacts when confronted with the nonexistence of God and the irrationality of the universe.
The Four Agreements is a book by Don Miguel Ruiz that remixes ancient Toltec wisdom for a modern audience. These "agreements" are personal codes that you choose to live by, or agreements you make with yourself about your own conduct. They are:
Meditation has become my alternative to prayer. Numerous traditions employ meditation, including Buddhism, Stoicism, Rosicrucian, and even secular atheism.
I once heard Sam Harris say that "We experience the greatest suffering when we are lost in thought". The purpose of meditation is to allow us to be present for those thoughts, to distance ourselves from them, and to analyze & question them. In so doing, we can find greater peace.
One of the remarkable qualities that humans possess is plasticity. We are born "earlier" than most species and require parental care for a (relatively) long time before we are able to function on our own. As a byproduct, our minds are not fully formed when we are born, but remain malleable long after we are born. This enables someone born in the Amazon jungle to adapt to the unique challenges of a tropical environment, and someone born in the Yukon to adapt to the unique challenges of an arctic environment. One of the goals of meditation is to take a proactive approach to shaping the plasticity of our mind. We can challenge old thinking patterns and form new ones; we can reprogram our mind.
Here's a basic mind-clearing meditation technique. This is especially useful when I'm trying to get to sleep at night. Here's the basics of what I do:
1. Establish a regular / rhythmic breathing pattern.
2. Allow thoughts to pass through your mind like clouds through the sky. Do not force thoughts to enter, do not force them to leave. If you find yourself becoming distracted by your thoughts, re-focus on the breath.
3. Be non-judgmental about the thoughts that pass through. Some of them will be weird or strange. Don't try to evaluate them, and do your best not to react to them. Just accept & observe those thoughts. They'll pass soon.
4. After awhile, my mind clears. It's much like a jar of muddy water. The only way to get the water to clear is to stop shaking the jar and let the mud settle to the bottom.
I find that when I do this, I'm able to fall asleep more easily and sleep more soundly.
Listen to How to Meditate for more.
There's a pair of scenes from the end of The Matrix that illustrate the value of meditation.
In one scene, we see Neo on the neuro-interface chair, eyes closed, peacefully observing his thoughts while the medusa robots wreak havoc all around. My takeaway: Even in the midst of chaos, meditation can help me to find grounding and inner peace.
The paired scene shows Neo in the Matrix, halting the bullets coming toward him. He is able to pluck the hovering bullets out of the air and examine them, after which they fall to the ground. My takeaway: When I can objectively observe my (anxious) thoughts, they lose their power to cause me distress.
Props to the Wachowski sibs for helping me to gain these insights.