Thomas More, Saint or Villain?

Some years ago, my family joined a parish named for St. Thomas More. It was the most liberal of the local parishes, so it was a good fit. I was also trying hard to believe, and since I am a lawyer by trade and More is the patron saint of lawyers, it seemed appropriate.

I was asked to possibly lead a discussion group on More. I did not commit, but decided to do my homework. I read Peter Ackroyd’s The Life of Thomas More, which is probably the leading work on his life and is fairly sympathetic to More. Before that, my

Cover of "The Life of Thomas More"

Cover of The Life of Thomas More

knowledge of More was limited to a few movie versions of A Man for All Seasons, which is an unabashed celebration of More.

I read the book, and I really wanted to like More, so I did. But I had to admit that he hunted down and killed a few more Lutherans than I was comfortable with.

It generally isn’t part of the official or popular versions of More’s life that he was an enthusiastic inquisitor. It is not presented that he hated Lutherans more than he loved the freedom of conscience for which he is esteemed by secular folk. Perhaps the man More valued his own freedom of conscience more than that of other people.

I justified. I thought, “But More was doing what he thought was right for the Lutheran: that by burning him here, his victim would avoid the fires of Hell. He was surely wrong, but his motive was good.” I was not satisfied with that justification, however, and it did nothing to address More’s enjoyment of the torture. Ackroyd, who, again, was a relatively positive biographer of More’s, has More saying after the burning of John Tewkesbury, a London merchant, “[He] burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy.” More also fantasized that Tewkesbury was in Hell with a red hot poker in his backside. There is a word for this, and that word is SADISM.

I did not lead that discussion group. Nobody did. I don’t know how I could have discussed More’s virtues without addressing his sadistic behavior, and that would have gone down with members of the parish like the proverbial turd in the punchbowl.

I mean, I am willing to give a guy a lot of slack if he was acting in a manner that he thought was just within the system he knew. I recall but cannot attribute a quote that summarizes the idea: “A man breathes the air of his time.” (Ironically, the man – for it certainly was a man – who coined that phrase clearly breathed the air of his time in excluding his opposite gender.)

But there are certain things that should seem wrong to all people in all times, and one of those wrong things is burning people alive. And then doing so more than once. And what did his victims do to deserve this awful treatment from their fellow human being Thomas More? They sought to think for themselves.

A nice summary of the case against More can be found here. http://moralcompassblog.com/2013/04/11/thomas-more-inquisitor-torturer-killer-saint/

Because I no longer struggle with belief, I see how I was too willing to minimize More’s conduct. Similarly, with respect to the recent clergy rape of children, I was critical (indeed, far more than my fellow parishioners appeared to be), but not to the degree I am today. This is classic in-group behavior: we defend ourselves from outside attack, whether that attack is real or imagined, and even if the attack is wholly just.

Today, I have no affection whatever for More, and see him as just another asshole that his era produced. People of his ilk thrived in authoritarian regimes, whether the authoritarian structure was the state or Church. Frankly, I cannot see the point of revisiting and taking sides in the argument about whether the greater villain of the time was Henry Tudor or the Pope, or their agents Thomas Cromwell or Thomas More. They were all pretty unsavory individuals, regardless of what particular air they were breathing.

I will end with a few relevant quotes from the “Great Agnostic,” Robert Green Ingersoll:

Robert G. Ingersoll. Library of Congress descr...

Robert G. Ingersoll. Library of Congress description: “Ingersoll, Robert (The Infidel)”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Give any orthodox church the power, and to-day they would punish heresy with whip, and chain, and fire. As long as a church deems a certain belief essential to salvation, just so long it will kill and burn if it has the power.”

“The night of the Middle Ages lasted for a thousand years. The first star that enriched the horizon of this universal gloom was Giordano Bruno [a brilliant thinker who was burned by the Church for heresy]. He was the herald of the dawn.”

“Martyrdom, as a rule, establishes the sincerity of the martyr, — never the correctness of his thought. Things are true or false in themselves. Truth cannot be affected by opinions; it cannot be changed, established, or affected by martyrdom. An error cannot be believed sincerely enough to make it a truth.”

I ask you, the reader, to consider: Who is the better person, the better inspiration for us today, Ingersoll or More?

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Synthesizing Epicurean Ethics with an Ancestral Diet; Implications for Vegetarianism

In my recent posts, I have diverted a bit into a discussion of diet. It is clear that readers have found that topic much more interesting than my posts on death, Terror Management Theory, rants on religion, and discussions of Epicureanism in general. And these posts have generated great questions from readers – questions that deserve expanded treatment.

I have proposed that people who are drawn to Epicureanism – usually independent-minded folk – have the right cognitive style to put aside conventional wisdoms, authoritative pronouncements, and self-interested propaganda, and critically reconsider their diet. I have concluded that an ancestral framework is a good starting point for choosing what foods I eat and lifestyle I live. It is a starting point, not the destination. I have concluded that my path should be guided by sound science, and by my personal results.

I am drawn to an ancestral diet and lifestyle based on evolutionary theory. Simply put, what was good for our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years is probably good for us today. I acknowledge that there are some problems with this approach. There is disagreement on just what our ancestors ate, and, of course, different populations probably ate quite differently from each other, so there is no one ancient diet to emulate.

Also, it is likely that we humans have been evolving rather quickly to adapt to our modern circumstances. But evolution takes time. Some humans began to adapt to dairy, perhaps five to ten thousand years ago. This gave them a survival advantage, since dairy was a rich source of nutrients that the new grain-based agricultural diet failed to provide, and it insulated them from crop failure famines. Today, about one-third of the world’s population can tolerate dairy.

What we need to ask ourselves is this: do Hot Pockets (which have too many ingredients to list here, but include modified food starch, sodium aluminum phosphate, the ever-questionable “natural flavor”, sorbic acid, xanthan gum, locust bean gum, guar gum, and, of course, artificial color) convey a survival advantage similar to dairy, such that we should eat Hot Pockets to bestow an advantage to our children and later progeny?

An evolutionary approach to diet raises questions for readers. Does this approach result in a lot of meat consumption, and isn’t that wrong? Didn’t we evolve as vegetarians? How does a diet that contains meat square with Epricurean ethics?

To me, these questions illustrate the remarkable success that vegetarians have had in advancing their belief system. Even those who are not vegetarian seem to accept that it is the right thing to do. And that makes me sad, as I think of people eating meat and not fully enjoying it because of the guilt they feel.

An ancestral diet need not include a lot of meat and animal foods, like dairy and eggs, but probably the most nutritious diet for most people includes a significant amount of these foods. How much and what types should be determined by each person, based on their own experience and ancestral heritage (those not adapted to dairy, for example, should avoid it).

Is vegetarianism more ethical than other approaches? This is a complicated subject, and deserves a detailed examination. I assert that vegetarianism, and its more extreme variation, veganism, is unsustainable, environmentally destructive, and ethically flawed.

Sustainability, environmental destruction, and food security

The starting point of any discussion of sustainability should be the recognition that what we are doing now — an industrial model of food production — is not sustainable. We are on borrowed time, in terms of soil quality, water resources, and pollution. A vegan diet, especially, is not sustainable. It is terribly damaging to the environment, relying on petroleum inputs to the soil, sterilizing ecosystems in favor of mono-crop systems, and causing chemical runoff that results in major damage to rivers and oceans. An industrial model of meat production is cruel, and relies on the same mono-crop industrial food production system to increase the output of meat and dairy.

TED2013_0053244_D41_0374

TED2013_0053244_D41_0374 (Photo credit: TED Conference)

There appears to be at least one solution, however. Allan Savory gave a TED Talk, in which he proposes returning the world’s grasslands to ruminant grazing (albeit with a modern twist), both for food production and for reversal of desertification and climate change. I am a little skeptical because it is a proposed panacea, but it makes sense. Meat production need not be done in the industrial manner we see today. It could be done in a manner that worked in nature for thousands of years. But grain production is quite new, and has a track record for destroying environments and leading to the sudden collapse of civilizations. I marvel at the hubris of the idea that our radical reshaping of our planet’s biomes is a better option than returning to or mimicking nature. And for those who think cow farts are the problem, I’m pretty sure we did not have a climate change disaster when there were millions of bison in America (estimated at 60 million pre-Columbus) and wildebeest and other migrating foragers in Africa. We need to be smart about returning ruminants to the land, because the grasslands and those animals co-evolved, and likely cannot thrive apart.

Joel Salatin holds a hen during a tour of Poly...

Joel Salatin holds a hen during a tour of Polyface Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then there is the experience of Joel Salatin, a farmer in Virginia. Using livestock management methods that Savory would approve of, Salatin has managed to reclaim depleted farmland, and restore a foot of topsoil. This is unprecedented. We need an army of Salatins.

We should be comparing and contrasting vegetarianism to the humane animal production methods, like those of Joel Salatin, not the industrial system that dominates the market today. This system is dominant due to poverty and ignorance of alternatives. But humanely raised animal products – meat, dairy, eggs – are available and affordable (if we eliminate some of the sugar and processed foods in our diet, and the huge healthcare costs that result). If farmers continue to implement Allan Savory and Joel Salatin’s techniques, which mimic natural systems, we can hope that humanely raised animals are the norm in the future.

The agricultural revolution that began around ten thousand years ago allowed the human population to explode. Grains were critical to this revolution. And while advantages did come from it, including city dwelling, literacy, culture, and civilization, it also caused us to be much less secure. Yes, grains can be stored for a while, but a series of crop failures due to weather, climate change, pests, or poor soil management, will leave a population unable to feed itself. What started as a poverty food (hunter/gatherers turning to wide grains in time of hardship), has become an essential base of our food system, putting us at risk. And, as Allan Savory has told us, desertification of large parts of the globe is the direct result.

Vegetarian myths

We evolved to eat fruit. We don’t have the digestive track or teeth to be omnivores. Meat is unhealthy. Soy is healthy. Where do these ideas come from?

English: Category:Michael Shermer

English: Category:Michael Shermer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a fan of Michael Shermer. A prominent science writer and skeptic, and author of several interesting tomes including The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, Shermer argues that we first develop beliefs (mostly as a result of our childhood indoctrination, experiences, and culture), and then we justify those beliefs by paying attention to information that support our beliefs while ignoring conflicting evidence. We don’t start with a blank slate and build up our beliefs based on unbiased examination of the world around us. It’s all about cherished beliefs and confirmation bias.

Let me suggest that vegetarian “facts” are an example of this process. Anthropologists tell us that we evolved from other apes, and our diet has changed over time. But it is clear that now we are omnivores, and that the broadening of our diet is what allowed us to thrive and spread around the globe. We were not locked into one tropical area (which is necessary if fruit is the basis of our diet), and we don’t feed on just one plant or animal. If we are lacking the right enzymes or teeth or digestive track to specialize in certain foods, then we invent tools and fire in order to better utilize those foods.

Many people report better health after changing their diets, whether by eliminating animal products or by eating more animal foods (for an interesting case study, read about Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the arctic explorer who, in a controlled study, ate nothing but meat for a year, and thrived). What may explain these seemingly conflicting reports is that each group likely reduced or eliminated processed foods, and the food additives and go with them.

But while switching from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to vegetarianism or an ancestral diet may produce improvements, over the long term the ancestral diet is superior because it is far more nutritious. Grains make up a large part of a vegetarian diet. Grains, however, are impoverished in nutrition, no matter how they are prepared. Eggs, liver and other organ meats, dairy, and meat are nutritional powerhouses, providing more nutrients, and especially fat-soluble nutrients, that simply cannot be gotten from grains.

Studies about meat consumption and health are generally poorly designed (such as by failing to distinguish between cured meats and fresh meats, by having low-quality sources of meat, or by relying on questionnaires so that “meat eaters” are those who eat a lot of McDonald’s burgers, along with fries and a Coke, of course), or misreported by sensationalist media. It appears that fresh meat is not unhealthy.

Soy, the vegetarian source of protein, is an endocrine disruptor and depresses thyroid function. The health benefits and consequences of soy have been researched extensively, and the jury is still out. It is safe to safe, however, that soy has been misrepresented as an unqualified healthy food, and it is the cause of much of the deforestation of the Amazon basin (mostly to feed CAFO cattle, so eat local grass-fed). And mono-crops like soybeans result in the deaths of much larger numbers of small animals (in clearing the land, plowing, harvesting, and as a consequence of fertilizing and “pest” control) than if we were eating large livestock, like cattle.

Ethics

It appears that vegetarians start with the conclusion that eating animals is cruel in all cases, and thus a meat-based diet doesn’t even merit consideration. I admit to once sharing this idea. I contend that meat eating need not be cruel, and the suffering that remains in a naturalistic system of meat production is warranted by the positive outcomes for humans’ health, for the health of the environment, and for the animals themselves (see my discussion of an Epicurean perspective below).

What would a vegetarian utopia look like? Apparently, there would be no livestock at all. Livestock would be of no utility to us, would compete with us for resources, and would be harming the environment with their methane farts and erosion-causing hooves, so we would take steps to restrain their populations. Is it ethical remake the world to remove the kinds of animals it has contained for millions of years? I don’t know, but it appears to be foolish and arrogant, and certain to end in disaster.

No matter what we humans do, we cause harm. To a Jain, killing even a fly by mistake is abhorrent. The logic of vegetarianism, in seeking to avoid harm, is a slippery slope. Since we cannot achieve harm elimination, we must settle for harm reduction. Where do we draw the line? Perhaps we decide that, as agents of harm, we must eliminate ourselves from the system.

Or, we might consider that humans merit consideration. We have value, and so our flourishing offsets some harm to other creatures. I suggest that this angst over causing any harm, is symptomatic of our tendency to view ourselves as existing somehow outside the animal kingdom and nature. We would never fault a wolf for taking down an elk, because it is being a wolf, and the elk, in being eaten, is being an elk. You can pity the elk, but you don’t condemn the wolf. One does not have greater value than the other, and their interaction is part of a complicated web and equilibrium in the world in which they were born. But we humans tend to think we’re more than mere animals, and should break from our primitive ways. I think this thinking is an artifact of our religious worldviews, and artifact that often persists after our abandonment of religion.

I do not argue that cruelty is good. But I think that the operator of a modern-day feedlot or slaughterhouse is more cruel, and a manager of a mono-crop farm more indifferent to cruelty, than our ancient hunter ancestors. We can exist within nature without falsely imagining ourselves either gods or demons.

Epicurus and Lucretius on animal welfare

English: Book 1, page 1, of De Rerum Natura by...

English: Book 1, page 1, of De Rerum Natura by Titus Lucretius Carus, from the 1675 edition by Tanaquil Faber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Epicureanism, pleasure – or the freedom from anxiety – is the greatest good. Security frees us from anxiety. Justice serves to create security. Justice is achieved when humans form social contracts not to harm or be harmed. Justice by means of social contract was a useful human invention, and does not occur in nature as a transcendent norm. See, Principal Doctrines 6, 31, 33. See also, Jo-Ann Shelton, Contracts with Animals: Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 1995, Digital Commons.

But justice is subordinate to security; if security could be obtained without justice, there would be no need for justice (Shelton). Epicurus thought that animals, or at least some of them, are incapable of forming a social contract. “Those animals which are incapable of making covenants with one another, to the end that they may neither inflict nor suffer harm, are without either justice or injustice.” Principal Doctrine 32.

As Epicureans know, few of Epicurus’ writings survive. Apart from these principal doctrines, and his well-known affinity for cheese, little is known of Epicurus’ views on animals. So, in her excellent article, Shelton turns to the Epicurean poet Lucretius. Lucretius had much to say about our relationships with animals.

[I]n his discussion of the origins of animal life, Lucretius states that the species still existing at his time were those which had adapted well to their situations. Wild species survive because they are endowed with particular qualities which provide them with protection; for example, they are savage, like lions, cunning, like foxes, or swift, like deer. Other species, perhaps less well endowed, such as sheep, cattle, horses, and dogs, sought the protection of humans, and, in a mutually beneficial arrangement, they provide us with meat, dairy products, wool or labor in return for readily-available food and safety from predators. In his account of this process, Lucretius has stated a theory recently iterated by Stephen Budiansky: that domestication is a natural occurrence and that some species choose to move in and cooperate with one another. (Citations omitted.)

Here we have the Epicurean view in a nutshell. Animals and humans co-evolved, and each recognized a benefit to their survival by cooperating. Humans provide animals with security, not necessary a long life. Animals provide services and products, including meat.

Now, whether animals consciously make such a decision is difficult to say. Epicurus appears to have thought animals could not contract, whereas Lucretius said that some could, like horses and dogs. From personal experience, the dogs I’ve known would rather live with their humans than in the wild, but cattle and chickens seem to have no thoughts whatever on this or any subject. In any case, human intervention into the natural order has benefited the survival of those species, and, where we treat them humanely, their lives are likely much better than they would have been in nature.

Gas mask drill for artillery horses

Gas mask drill for artillery horses (Photo credit: National Library of Scotland)

Lucretius speaks on the need for humane treatment of animals. In his discussion of animals used in warfare, he shows that humans are the cause of much of their own unhappiness, in engaging in warfare and as a consequence of violating the human-animal contract by subjecting animals to the unnatural horrors of war. Such is the peril of upsetting the natural order, and is a lucid lesson for us two thousand years later.

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I Am Not [Really] Paleo

This is a continuation of my somewhat-aside discussion of diet.

If you say to someone that you eat a “Paleo” diet, they are apt to think you are silly. The less-smart ones think you are advocating the diet and lifestyle of cavemen, which is impossible to replicate, undesirable to people with modern lifestyles, and likely

Etologic horse study, Chauvet´s cave

Etologic horse study, Chauvet´s cave (Photo credit: The Adventurous Eye)

ineffective, since cavemen were probably sufferers from many diseases, including those related to (sometimes) malnutrition. The smart ones identify the naturalistic fallacy or the fallacy from antiquity, or both, at work.

Paleo is just a convenient, and oversimplified and somewhat misleading, way of describing my dietary approach. I use it because no one, evocative word is available to describe what my real approach is.

My approach is informed by evolution — not an oversimplified, anti-factual version of evolution. I recommend Michael Rose’s blog: 55theses.org, especially his Thesis 51: “At later adult ages, the forces of natural selection progressively fall. At these ages, there will have been less age-specific selection for adaptation to agricultural conditions, even in populations that have been subjected to such conditions for hundreds of generations.” http://55theses.org/2011/03/18/thesis-51/.

Evolution allows us to form a framework, not hard and fast rules, for evaluating diet. It is about what makes ME healthy, not establishing what will make everyone healthy. It is therefore not about making scientific claims, but practicing science on myself. It is about N=1, testing hypotheses on myself, based on this evolutionary framework.

My guiding principles to diet are as follows:

1. Nutrition density of foods. We are malnourished, by and large, in our society, because we tend to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient value foods. Commons foods, including Cheetos, Pringles, donuts, beer, pizza, are low in nutrients and high in calories. If you plug these foods into a food database, you find they have calories, and little else. When the majority of calories are derived from these foods, an individual will suffer from deficiencies of various vitamins, minerals, and other necessary nutrients. Doing so over long periods of time will affect health. That is not difficult to fathom.

Eating roast beef with sweet potatoes and butter is much better for nutrition than a pizza or a burger with fries. And, since sugar has no nutrition value at all (other than for energy), the larger the caloric load of sugar, the greater the malnutrition. This problem

Grass Fed Beef

Grass Fed Beef (Photo credit: krossbow)

is further exacerbated by the depletion of our soils of basic nutrients, so it is important to be mindful of getting commonly missing nutrients (like magnesium, selenium and iodine). Eating eggs — especially pastured eggs — regularly and seafood or shellfish at least occasionally, and supplementing selectively (especially magnesium, vitamins C, D, K2, and Chromium), will address nutritional deficiencies.

2. Food sensitivities. In part, mine is an elimination diet, aimed at discovering food sensitivities that result in poor nutrient absorption or depletion/malnutrition, cravings, overconsumption of calories, digestive disorders, and various autoimmune disorders, including Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Type I diabetes, Lupus, MS, RA, Addison’s, Grave’s, and celiac, and possibly Type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Food sensitivities may also lead to chronic inflammation, and heart disease and cancer as a result. Do a Whole30, and see for yourself. http://www.whole9life.com/2013/08/the-whole30-program/

I have concluded that dairy (other than butter), and probably alcohol as well, are problems for me. Eating a Paleo + dairy + alcohol diet (meaning no grains, seed oils, or legumes) for a few years was helpful, but eliminating the dairy and alcohol on a Whole30 intervention led to nearly immediate cessation of food cravings, overconsumption, and fatigue. I make no claims about what it would do for you, but it won’t hurt, so why not try and see?

3. Novel, possibly harmful, food additives. These are a big wildcard. They are new to humans, contribute nothing to nutrition, and are likely culprits in bad health outcomes. Also, they nearly always appear together with low-quality, non-nutritious, highly-

Hot Pockets Limited EditionFour Cheese Garlic ...

Hot Pockets Limited EditionFour Cheese Garlic Pasta Bake (Photo credit: theimpulsivebuy)

refined, grain-based, seed-oil-based, cheap “foods.” It’s a no-brainer.

4. Learn to cook. You cannot control what you eat unless you prepare it yourself. You cannot trust the knowledge or intention of any cook. Also, a skilled cook can prepare food that is better tasting, fresher, and MUCH less expensive than any restaurant meal. It also fosters good family interaction, and is a wholesome, relaxing hobby. An hour in the kitchen beats an hour in the gym, or the bar.

The “elevator pitch” for what I do is this: eat less processed food, eat more whole food, eat fewer calories, and learn to cook. But, when I need a short descriptive label, I say I eat “paleo.”

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Epicureanism and Diet

“Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish.” – Epicurus, Fragments §39. The Essential Epicurus (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1993), p. 95

“THE PHILOSOPHY OF LUXURY.—A garden, figs, a little cheese, and three or four good friends—that was the luxury of Epicurus.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, Part 2 [Project Gutenburg, Ebook 37841], § 192.

Modern followers of Epicurus are an unstudied lot. It appears, absent any study of modern Epicureans, that they are independent-minded. They are not big on conformity, they abhor authority, and they think for themselves. They generally seek independence, self-sufficiency, and a simple life.

What has this to do with diet? In my personal life in recent years, I have had three great interests. Those interests are freethought, Epicureanism, and the merits of an ancestral diet. And my personal experience is that there is a lot of overlap between these interests, and the people who share them.

For the uninitiated, some definitions are in order. “Freethought” is a euphemism for secularism. According to Wikipedia, “Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”. Freethinkers do not hesitate to defy cultural taboos or political or religious authorities on questions of theology and cosmology. One theory for the recent popularity of freethought is it is a reaction to the events of 9/11, when atheists and agnostics realized that remaining silent and respectful of non-truth-based belief systems can lead to tragedy. While many freethinkers are liberal, many others are not, and fair numbers of Libertarians and Objectivists will claim the label.

Robert G. Ingersoll. Library of Congress descr...

Robert G. Ingersoll. Library of Congress description: “Ingersoll, Robert (The Infidel)”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Epicureanism,” as modern Epicureans know, is not about the pursuit of fine food and wine. Rather, it is a philosophical belief system, and an approach to achieving a happy life. It is not about hedonism and debauchery; those are the libels of its ancient enemies, including Stoics and the followers of other ancient philosophies, and later the Catholic Church and Protestant faiths. Epicureanism’s tenants are summarized in the Tetrapharmakos, or four-part cure:

Don’t fear god,

Don’t worry about death;

What is good is easy to get, and

What is terrible is easy to endure.

The devil is in the details. I’ve written on the Tetrapharmakos previously, but suffice it to say, for this discussion, that happiness is found by eliminating fear and worry about the gods, protracted pain and death, and by cultivating a simple life with friends.

Like freethinkers, Epicureans defy tradition and authority. They value evidence and truth. They seek to withdraw from the politics of the day. They face slander for their deviance.

Then there is an ancestral diet. I maintain that we Epicureans and freethinkers should have an affinity for this sort of diet, largely because our cognitive style – our willingness to defy authority in the pursuit of truth through evidence – favors our exploration of our own diet without dogmatic preconceptions. We should also be interested in what makes us healthy, since minimizing pain is a major tenant of Epicureanism.

An ancestral diet is sometimes known as a “caveman,” “paleo,” or “primal” diet. These terms are less accurately descriptive of the diet than “ancestral,” and those names have been ridiculed, just like secularism and Epicureanism. It is described as a framework for hypothesizing about what foods and behaviors are best for us, based on evolutionary biology. But, its proponents stress, it is just a framework; evidence is required to substantiate hypotheses.

It is axiomatic in biology that animals thrive in the conditions under which they evolved. An animal that evolved in a hot, dry environment would do poorly if its environment suddenly became wet and cold. We have no problem recognizing this principle when discussing animals. What foods should a lion or wolf eat? Clearly, meat. What about fruit bats? Fruit, presumably.

But when we talk about humans and our favorite animal companions, the reasoning frequently breaks down. What should our dogs and cats eat? Apparently, grain- and vegetable-based commercial pet foods.

I have some friends who own two young rescue cats. I proselytized to these friends about how we should all eat an ancestral diet, one with fewer grains, sugars, and novel additives. They bought into that, although they were unwilling to deny themselves their favorite sweet treats. I would say they now are like alcoholics who have decided to switch from liquor to beer.

Once, half-joking, I suggested that their commercial cat food probably wasn’t best for their felines. I mean, one of the main ingredients is wheat. Sometimes pet foods have peas, potatoes, or carrots. Since when do cats eat wheat, peas, potatoes or carrots? My friends thought that this was rather funny. No, they would stick to their cheap, commercial pet food.

They returned from the veterinarian a few weeks later with a diagnosis of gum disease for one cat, and a wheat allergy for the other (which explained its explosive diarrhea). They were instructed to brush the one cat’s teeth regularly, and feed the other an expensive cat food. I don’t think it has dawned on them that these problems derived from their poor diet, and expensive cat food and tooth-brushing would be unnecessary if they just fed those cats some things that cats normally eat. But what do I know? I’m not an authority.

We humans are hopelessly devoted to authorities: doctors, governmental agencies, food advertisers. So we seek health by incorporating “healthy whole grains.” We look for heart emblems on cereal boxes. We go to our doctors and learn we are getting sicker each year.

I first became curious about the effect of our modern diets on our health outcomes several years ago, when I was researching my family history. One source of information on my ancestors was their death records. From these records I was able to determine their ages and causes of death. I found that my grandparents’ parents and grandparents – all farmers, who ate lots of saturated fats — regularly lived into advanced age. My grandparents managed to live just as long, but only with modern medical interventions, including powerful pharmaceuticals and heart bypass surgeries. My parents both died young. I noticed what appeared to be a trend. It wasn’t enough information to draw conclusions, but it got me thinking.

I will not attempt to fully explain an ancestral diet in this post, as the subject is complex and deserves investigation by each individual. For those who are interested, I suggest that some of the better authors in the field are Paul Jaminet, Robb Wolf, Gary Taubes, and Nora Gedgaudas. Feel free to research on your own.

English: Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave. Th...

English: Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave. The absence of the mane sometimes leads to these paintings being described as portraits of lionesses. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My takeaway message is that people who think for themselves, distrust dogma handed down by authorities, and feel their health is not all it could be, should be predisposed to explore an ancestral diet on their own.

Epicurus, we know, was an empiricist. If he was alive today, he would not care what the academies of cardiac doctors say, not when he has PubMed available to research on his own. And when his doctor’s advice failed, he would not agree to do more of the same in hope of a different result. He would try something else, and he would think for himself.

Epicurus ate a simple diet. He was known for liking cheese, bread, dates, water, and weak wine. I would not see those particular foods as healthful just because he liked them. Rather, I suggest that those were simple foods available in his world. That is not a bad template for us. Simple foods in our modern world include fresh meats and vegetables, and other foods that have been around a long time: butter, nuts, olive oil, seafood. These foods probably are good for us. Foods that are new to humans, like those that are highly processed and contain several novel ingredients, should make us wary.

Heroic piggy!

Heroic piggy! (Photo credit: F. Tronchin)

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Christopher Hitchen’s Poisoned Chalice Speech

As he faced his own death from cancer, the great polemicist and master of the English tongue Christopher Hitchens gave this summation during a debate in 2010. It will surely gain fame in future years.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to answer Bill’s (Dembski) implied question… Why don’t you accept this wonderful offer (of eternal life in heaven)? Why wouldn’t you like to meet Shakespeare, for example? I don’t know if you really think that when you die you can be corporeally reassembled and have conversations with authors from previous epochs. It’s not necessary that you believe that in Christian theology and I have to say that it sounds like a complete fairytale to me. The only reason I want to meet Shakespeare, or might even want to, is because I can meet him anytime because he is immortal in the works he’s left behind. If you’ve read those then meeting the author would almost certainly be a disappointment. But when Socrates was sentenced to death, for his philosophical investigations and for blasphemy for challenging the gods of the city, and he accepted his death he did say, “Well, if we are lucky perhaps I will be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters, too.” In other words, that the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true could always go on. Why is that important? Why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don’t know. But, I do know that it is the conversation I want to have while I am still alive. Which means that to me the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet… that I haven’t understood enough… that I can’t know enough… that I am always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I’d urge you to look at those who tell you, those people who tell you at your age, that you are dead until you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children. …and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way. Thank you.

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“Like” if true!

Religious belief is a very poor comfort for people. One indicator of that truth is the number of Facebook messages I receive that say something religious (e.g. “Jesus is our Lord and Savior,” “God Answers Prayers”), followed by a directive that the reader should “Like” if true, “Share” if true, or something similar. I once received one that said “Like” if Yes, “Comment” if No. I looked at the comments, which uniformly said merely “Yes.”

I have nothing against people sharing their beliefs, but do they really think that doing so MAKES something true? Can we vote to make something real? What is happening here?

As an aside, I struggle with participating on Facebook. I have a real-world friend who has quit it twice. It is a venue that encourages people to behave narcissistically, and we would all be well-advised to employ a little more self-editing of our thoughts before posting. But I value it because it gives me a window into the lives and thoughts of a wider group of people than I would otherwise engage with. It gets me outside of my echo-chamber, my in-group, my comfort zone.

I think that people, even the most religious of people – those most seemingly confident and expressive of their beliefs – recognize at some level the obvious silliness of those beliefs. It is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Often, the religious do not read their Bibles. Isn’t that odd? I mean, to them, this is only the most important matter in their whole lives: properly understanding what their god wants from them so they can live forever in a paradise. So you would think they would at least pick the thing up and read it!

Wenceslas Hollar - Garden of Eden (State 2)

Wenceslas Hollar – Garden of Eden (State 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But they don’t, and probably because they know a few things it contains, and they really don’t want to confront those. Talking serpents and donkeys. Contradictory teachings (three different sets of the Ten Commandments, for example, none of which outlaw slavery, rape, or child abuse, but four of which deal with whom to worship). God-endorsed genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, cruelty.

I recently heard a Catholic priest instruct junior high students on how to read their Bibles. He advised them to skip the beginning, and go straight to the good part: the New Testament. Good idea, if you want to avoid creating atheists. Except the New Testament, too, is sexist, racist, full of contradictory facts and teachings, and threatens nonbelievers with eternal torment merely for not believing.

Anyone new to the religion, meaning anyone not indoctrinated as a child into these beliefs, would look at this the same way as an adult first hearing about Santa Claus or Krishna or Allah or Thor: it is obviously myth, and rather silly myth as well.

Primitive, silly mythology cannot be reasonably believed. We can pretend to do so, but we cannot force ourselves to believe. It is not a matter of choice. Can you the reader convince yourself that Santa Claus is real?

Unbelievable religious beliefs fail to comfort us from what we fear: death, and separation from loved ones. We need that comfort. So we try to convince ourselves of the unbelievable. How can we prove something we can’t see, touch, feel, hear? Many such things are proven by the scientific method. We prove them by their effects. I cannot see oxygen atoms, for example, but I can reason their existence by their effects. With advanced technology, we can confirm their existence and nature.

No one has yet done this for their god. Studies of the effects of prayer, for example, have not shown any positive effect.

Some religious claim they have found those effects in the complexity and beauty of nature. This does not prove any god. It only shows the shockingly bad science education we receive in this country. And, as we’ve learned time and again, an inability to fully explain some aspect of nature is not a proof of a god.

But if there is no god, argues the religious person, from where do we get our morals? Again, an inability to fully understand some issue is not a proof of a god. But the answer here is fairly obvious: we do not get our morals from the Bible. Would you sacrifice your child if you heard a voice in your head telling you to do so? Abraham would. Should we re-impose slavery, which is condoned by god in both the old and new testaments? Should women be quiet in church and not instruct men regarding religion, as Paul says?

Our morality is BETTER than that of the Bible, better than that of the Catholic Church, better than that of any Abrahamic religion. It likely begins with our biology. We need to cooperate to survive, so we have tended to be social creatures. We sacrifice ourselves for the good of the tribe, are altruistic, and behave in a manner that promotes unity.

But this will only explain the values that all humans share, which appear to be few, such as prohibiting unjustified murder. Where different cultures disagree, the answer is also somewhat obvious: we get our values from our cultures. These cultures are influenced by their religions, but are not limited to them. So, for example, our culture decided to let women flourish and outlawed slavery, in opposition to our religious texts.

But what about death? That is the big problem that needs to be addressed by every human. Religion promotes a fantasy of a blissful family reunion that lasts for an eternity. This is such an obvious wishful fantasy that we should doubt it is true. But it is the only method of dealing with death that is widely known in our culture, so it is the one we cling to.

graveyard

graveyard (Photo credit: ravensong75)

There are alternatives. If death appears to be unavoidable, then we shouldn’t be trying to deny it, but rather deal with how we WORRY about it. The challenge is not to defeat death, but to eliminate the anxiety about it. The religious are not defeating death, they are just reducing their anxiety by trying to believe the unbelievable.

One method of dealing with death anxiety is to critically consider the idea of living forever. Consider eternity. It’s a really long time. It never ends. Anything you could ever now want to accomplish or could ever in the future wish to accomplish would be accomplished, with time to spare. Eternal life would be the ultimate form of torture, even if there is no Hell. Think about it for a while. If the Christian heaven exists, you will get to think about it for a very long time.

Our fear of death largely stems from a sense of loss of self – the idea that we will experience being dead, and regret not being alive. Which, of course, isn’t true. Upon death, we cease to experience anything. So, we have no ability to sense being dead, to sense the passage of time, or to feel regret. The experience of being dead is like the experience of pre-birth, which is to say no experience whatsoever. Mark Twain quipped: “I was dead for an eternity before I was born, and it did me no harm.”

Nature

Nature (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn_BE_BACK_IN_SEPTEMBER)

Centuries before Christianity, a Greek named Epicurus formulated a recipe for a happy life. It is called the Tetrapharmakos (meaning “four remedies”). The recipe is:

Don’t fear god,

Don’t worry about death;

What is good is easy to get, and

What is terrible is easy to endure

You can read more about it here.

Philosophy (Epicureanism), and philosophical religions (Buddhism, Daoism), are much more effective than clinging to false beliefs. They directly address the real problem: our anxiety about death, rather than denying reality.

Religious believers without knowledge of the nonreligious alternatives for dealing with fear, and lacking evidence of their god or any good argument for its existence, need reinforcement of their belief. They get that from authority: their priest, minister, media sources, etc. And they get it from their fellow believers. The more “Likes” they get, the better they feel. A large number of people cannot be wrong, right?

The religious person’s discomfort that comes from doubt leads to a need for unanimous agreement with those beliefs, and explains the persecution of nonbelievers and people of other faiths over the centuries and today. The killing of Jews, nonbelievers, and others during the Inquisition, for example, flows from this insecurity: even one rational questioner or dissenter threatens the whole belief system, no matter how dominant the belief is in the existing society.

Notice that Facebook does not offer an alternative to “Like.” Facebook is just a new means of reinforcing belief by maintaining the illusion that a belief is uniformly believed.

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Contrasting The Nicene Creed and Epicurus on the Nature of the Gods

The founding statement of belief of the Catholic Church, and many other Christians, is The Nicene Creed. Composed at and modified after the First Council of Nicea in 325 C.E., at the direction of the Roman Emporer Constantine, the Creed is a statement of orthodox belief. It was Constantine’s effort to make the religion more uniform. A uniform, orthodox religion is useful to the state because it promotes a sense of community and common identity through the empire, and provides an orthodox authority that can be a useful tool of coercion.

Often ignorant of the purposes and historical context of the Creed, many Christians today repeat its words without a full understanding of their meaning. I think it is interesting to contrast the Creed – a complex, inelegant, befuddling work, obviously a product of a committee – with the simple and compelling logic of Epicurus on the subject of god(s).

First, I will lay out the Creed, in the form approved by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops:

Nicene Creed in cyrillic writing

Nicene Creed in cyrillic writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe in one God,

the Father almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

the Only Begotten Son of God,

born of the Father before all ages.

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation

he came down from heaven,

and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,

and became man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,

he suffered death and was buried,

and rose again on the third day

in accordance with the Scriptures.

He ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory

to judge the living and the dead

and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,

who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins

and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Creed is a statement of faith, most of which is devoted to describing the nature of the Trinity. This requires a lengthy and nuanced presentation because nothing in nature or logic would support the idea of one eternal and all-powerful god being composed of three beings that are all one being and yet not coequal. Thus one part of the Trinity is “begotten” of another “before all ages” (outside of time?), and another “proceeds” from the other two (whatever that means).

Notice that the Creed says little about what is nearly universally believed by Christians: that their god is a perfect being, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, all-loving, and who acts in the world and our daily lives. It only makes it eternal and all-powerful.

What does the Creed tell us about what this god wants from its people? Since it is mostly a statement of belief about the nature of the Trinity, it doesn’t say much about ethics. It tells us that forgiveness of sins through “one Baptism” is part of the belief, and by its proximity in the Creed implies that forgiveness of sins has something to do with the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. It says “for our sake” Jesus was crucified, and that he will return to judge the living and the dead. And it says the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets. So, while it doesn’t directly say anything about how one should conduct oneself, one could reasonably deduce from the Creed that we will be judged, and hence our futures in an afterlife determined, based on whether we are baptized and whether we follow the teachings of the prophets, thereby avoiding sin, or offense to the god.

Particular attention is given in the Creed to defining the relationship of Jesus to the almighty god. The Creed was a catholicizing document, intended to combat perceived heresies. So, Jesus is a “true god,” “begotten, not made,” “consubstantial,” directly involved in creation of the world and born before all ages. At the time of the council and for centuries afterwards, different groups of Christians believed that Jesus was not divine, or was not incarnate, or was made by the creator god sometime after the creation of the world. There is considerable historical evidence of these beliefs (Gnosticism, Marcionism, Docetism, Arianism), but without such evidence we could deduce them by the fact that the council felt it necessary to refute them in the Creed.

It is apparent that the Creed is a basic outline of belief, and doesn’t fully explain the beliefs of Christians. But it demonstrates the complexity of this cosmology, and the difficulty inherent in explaining it in a cogent manner. Compare, now, the teaching of Epicurus as to the gods:

A blessed and eternal being has no trouble itself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence it is exempt from movements of anger and favour, for every such movement implies weakness.

Principal Doctrine 1 (Hicks Translation). http://lexundria.com/epic_kd/1-40/hks10

Portrait of Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean...

Portrait of Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean school. Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epicurus’ cosmology of the gods is virtually non-existent. If they exist, then they are perfect. If they are perfect, then they want nothing. They don’t want to be worshipped. They don’t want to be entertained. They don’t want anything. Therefore, they don’t have any expectations of us.

Since they don’t want anything from us, Epicurus’ gods don’t judge us. They don’t punish us. They don’t reward us. Therefore, there is no reason to give them any consideration.

Where the Creed, and all Christianity, goes wrong is in simultaneously professing a faith in a perfect god, and believing that their god has imperfect traits. The Bible provides numerous examples of its god’s capriciousness, self-professed jealousy, and evident cruelty, just to name a few traits. The Bible illustrates several failures on the part of the god, including the imperfection of its human creation. These failures require periodic “reboots” of the human race: the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus. An all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful deity would not make imperfect humans and then be surprised, angry, and vengeful when they fail because it would have known they would fail before it created them.

Even without these evidences of imperfection (if, for example, the Bible was not considered authoritative), the Christian god’s mere desire that people not sin or that they repent from sin, and its interference in human affairs demonstrates its imperfection.

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