The Unbinding of Isaac and the Manchester Attack

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. – Genesis 22:9-13

The recent events in Manchester, where children died in a heinous act supposedly meant to appease the madness of the god of the desert, made me think of the episodes of child sacrifice in the Bible–like the murder of Jephtha’s daughter, or the attempted murder of Isaac. Many of the audience members were little girls. It seems like the “logic” of the demented fanatic who planned the attack had something to do with how girls should not go to concerts, or enjoy pop music, or do anything fun.

The fact that the attack does not at all surprise me may be a sign that these kinds of terrorist acts have now become officially normal in the West. Militant atheism becomes morally necessary when child sacrifice is treated as normal by men of God.

Let’s say, for the sake of extracting didactic value from the parable, that the events described in Genesis 22 are historical. Might it not be possible that the “angel” or voice that stopped Abraham from offering his own son as a “burnt offering” was …. well, an ATHEIST that happened to be walking by? Is it not possible that a man of no piety, moved by the sight of an old bearded man who was about to raise his knife to slay a child, either impersonated a heavenly voice from a tree top, or showed himself and shamed Abraham, and maybe even provided his own ram to be sacrificed instead? That’s certainly far more plausible than the descent of an angel or extraterrestrial being from the heavens–which then raises the question of why an angel didn’t intervene in the sacrifice of Jephtha’s daughter later in another Biblical book.

I would argue that we need more atheistic angels today engaging in activism on behalf of the world’s children. The Manchester attack specifically targeted young girls in their teens and tweens. But elsewhere in the world, there is genetal mutilation of girls, violence in schools in Islamized countries where fanatics do not believe girls should be afforded access to an education in order to escape the cycles of poverty, and in the US we are seeing the appropriation of the education system by religious groups under the auspices of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an extremist hell-bent on establishing a kind of Christian theocracy in the United States.

One worrisome and undiscussed aspect of this problem is that the ill effects of massive indoctrination frequently take a full generation to be seen–as we saw in Uganda with the Kill the Gays bill, which was advanced about a decade after the Republicans in the US earmarked a full third of money meant for HIV prevention education in Africa for “abstinence only” programs–a coded way of transferring millions of dollars to homophobic churches so that they can spread hatred against vulnerable LGBT individuals in African lands. The connection between the Christian Right in America and the fanatical anti-gay hysteria that led to violence by mobs of Christians and near genocide of LGBT people, was explored by Rachel Maddow and also covered by the Life Media. The main questions raised by these events in my mind are: what do we owe the future generations of LGBT citizens in our own country? How will the children indoctrinated thanks to DeVos’ efforts vote and behave towards their gay neighbors and children in the future, when they’re adults? Will they have a basic grasp of science, and be able to apply critical thinking skills, or will they choose faith over facts?

In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good. – Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 6

Imagined this way, as redemption by an atheist, the unbinding of Isaac takes on a whole new meaning as an act of godless grace and as liberation from the curse of Abrahamic fanaticism. Perhaps it is time for secular angels to emerge again and intervene to proactively protect the children. High on the agenda:

  • We must protect the right of all children to a fully secular education, free from religious coercion and indoctrination, at home and abroad
  • We must confront the genital mutilation of girls (and, perhaps, also of boys) by making it illegal and prosecuting the perpetrators
  • We must make sure that whatever sexual education teenagers get, is free from Platonic / anti-sexuality propaganda by religious groups
  • Religious beliefs are not above reproach: they have REAL consequences in the lives of people who may or may not share them, and many of these beliefs are evil. It is in the best interest of civilized society of investigate and criminalize those who hold and spread dangerous and evil religious beliefs, for the sake of safety. Religious liberty must not be construed as the right to endanger the lives, the health, and the safety of others.

This blog is written in memory of the victims of the Islamic attack in Manchester and in solidarity with all Epicureans and secularists.

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Happy Twentieth! – The Pauline War on our “Peace and Safety”

Peace and Safety on this Twentieth of June! This months’ twentieth message concerns precisely our way of greeting each other kindly on the twentieth of every month. The tradition of celebrating a feast of reason on the twentieth originates in Epicurus’ final testament. Admittedly, NewEpicurean.com has been more loyal to the original greeting than I have in my monthly twentieth blogs, but I recently was reminded by a fellow Epicurean of the fact that our twentieth greeting made its way into the New Testament. This reminder made me want to reclaim the greeting and write about it. The passage contains Paul’s post-conversion hostility for the ancient Epicureans and their traditional greeting, without mentioning them directly.

For when they shall say, “Peace and safety“; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. – 1 Thessalonians 5:3

Norman DeWitt, in his book titled St Paul and Epicurus, detailed the many appropriations and replies to Epicurean discourse that can be found in Paul’s writings. It seems clear that he had studied with the Epicureans, was profoundly familiar with the teaching, and felt the need to build a Christian version of the traditions he was familiar with. His insistence on allowing Gentiles to convert to Christianity may also be understood, in part, by his previous (Epicurean) experience with, and fondness for, Hellenizing tendencies.

But Paul didn’t just have an issue with our traditional greeting. In his book, DeWitt argues quite convincingly that a large portion of Paul’s epistolary writings were meant to wage war on the intellectual achievements of the Epicureans. With regards to atomism and the Epicurean focus on physics and on particles, Saul of Tarsus (or whoever may have been using his pseudonym) attempts to argue that Epicureans are “in bondage” to these “weak and beggarly elements” instead of to an immaterial “God”.

But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage – Galatians 4:9

Any survey of the history of scientific achievement and its perpetual tension with religious obscurantism will, of course, make this assertion plainly false. It is clear that religion has kept humanity in bondage far more often, and for longer, than physics and the other sciences. It is also clear that science has emancipated humans from toil, disease, and many other evils.

We have the Epistles of Epicurus to Menoeceus, to Pythocles, and to Herodotus. There’s also a shorter one to Idomeneus. There’s irony in the fact that the literary style and tradition of writing epistles for educational purposes, to be read and studied publicly, started with the Epicureans and ended up appropriated by the authors of the New Testament in order to advance such anti-Epicurean ideas.

In those days, the Epicureans were so successful as a sect in the Middle East–having benefited generations before from the Epicurean missionary work of Philonides of Laodicea–, that the rabbinic tradition had to advance a counter-movement in order to keep Jews from converting to Epicureanism. This is how the term apikorsim came to mean “heretic” in rabbinic literature. The term is used to this day, and the non-religious, atheistic, secular humanist denomination of Judaism proudly adopts the apikorsim identity, and even incorporates specifically Epicurean philosophical ideas into its educational material. Some contemporary Christian humanist congregations (that is, Unitarians) have also transcended Pauline theology and even organized Epicurean gatherings, complete with Epicurus-focused liturgy.

These literary references are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of hostility between religious/Platonic forces on the one side, and the Epicurean/scientific forces on the other side–the proverbial “culture wars”. These wars are old, and still raging. But it’s good to know where we came from in order to be inspired and empowered to decide where we’re going. Please enjoy peace and safety this Twentieth!

New Epicurean page on St Paul and Epicurus

St Paul and Epicurus on Goodreads

St Paul and Epicurus on Epicurus.info

Happy Twentieth, by Luis Granados (written for The Humanist)

Last Year’s Twentieth: Neural Pathways in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

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Sense8: a Hedonist Saga

One woman in Korea escapes jail using superhuman strength lent to her by someone who experiences all her senses in India … or Chicago, or Nairobi in the African country of Kenya. She then steals a car using the skills of a thief who also shares all of her experiences in Germany. These are scenes from the Netflix series Sense8–the second season of which I have been binge-watching since this weekend–, where a group of people from different parts of the world share their senses, emotions, and experiences so that, for each one of them, it’s almost like they have eight bodies, and don’t seem to mind the sensory overload that happens from time to time, instead relishing it.

I think the success of the series has to do with our hunger for a diversity of experiences. Experiencing the sensorial input of people in many cultures implies that each sensate can taste many spices, dishes, and culinary offerings that are not immediately available in their vicinity. Also, almost every variety and combination of human sexuality is represented among the sensates, who then know what it feels like for a man to make love to another man, or for a woman to make love to a trangender woman.

Sense8 is the brainchild of the transgender dynamic duo the Wachowskis (formerly known as “the Wachowski Brothers”), who both transitioned and now live as women named Lana and Lilly Wachowski. They are best known for having produced The Matrix trilogy. Some of their other sci-fi films include Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, both of which were visually spectacular.

It makes perfect sense that Sense8 is the product of transgender minds: the idea of body and mind as not always matching, of exchanging experiences with other bodies, might be what it feels like when your body does not feel like it matches your soul due to gender identity. The creativity of the Wachowskis–and their willingness to play with gender identities and roles–reminds me a bit of African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler, who won Hugo and Nebula awards for her out-of-the-box literature.

In what ways do we become more by experiencing more? I’ve written before on the materialist conception of identity as rooted in habitual experiences and actions. Obviously, the limits of the film or TV medium do not allow the viewer to experience the entire range of sensorial exuberance insinuated by the plot, but I would still recommend the series for the eye candy (of which there is a lot) as well as for the questions it raises about the relationship between identity and sensory (or other) experience, how sentient beings transform their identity by transcending their senses and experiences, and how collective identities are built via shared experiences and multi-layered communication.

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Epicurean Canon Video

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“I Call You to Constant Pleasures!” – Epicurus

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Strike A Pose

I recently watched the documentary Strike a Pose. I expected it to be mere pop-culture frivolity, which I don’t often indulge in, but I thought it would help me reminisce about friends that are no longer here and whom I miss. The documentary is the reunion, 25 years later, of the dancers from Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, during which they also produced the ground-breaking Truth or Dare documentary. Anyone who remembers that era, might associate it with the song Express Yourself and with Madonna’s rawest, most sexually uninhibited years.

There were a few key elements of the documentary that moved me. Two of the dancers came out as HIV+ and both teach dance as their profession. One of them died from AIDS-related complications in 1995. A few of them did not make the most of the doors that opened and the opportunities that emerged from having toured with Madonna, and either succumbed to drugs, or alcohol, or both. One of them, Kevin Stea, looks absolutely gorgeous at 47 and is my Platonic crush.

The film struck another chord for me, as I have recently been reading the book The Sculpted Word–which evaluates the ancient sculptures of Epicurus and the other founders of my philosophical tradition from the perspective of art history and of their effect upon the psyche of early converts to Epicurean philosophy. I’ve been thinking about the role of aesthetics and of art in Epicurean spirituality.

Like the Truth of Dare phenomenon did in the “gay” nineties, the documentary revisits the affirmation of the flesh and of carnal desire as an act of power. In the nineties, this affirmation emerged during the AIDS health crisis, as society was hysterical with panic against the gay male community, and certain religious groups waged a cruel war against what they saw as “evil” pleasures.

Let’s take a moment to consider Truth or Dare within the broader project of Madonna’s brand and career. Of Italian and Catholic upbringing, she adopted a self-conscious appropriation of the sacred feminine imagery in her ancestral faith–that of the Virgin Mary, a Goddess in all but name who had been desexualized, made the epitome of obedience, and domesticated by a patriarchal church–and she imbued that imagery with desire, with sex, with all the worldly attributes that the Immaculate Virgin had been denied. Madonna (Our Lady, in Italian) was no longer the pure Queen of Heaven. The name and the icon was now as earthly as it could be re-imagined: the word “Madonna” would forever be associated with one of the most emancipated women in history, a pop icon who is sexually uninhibited and who even proudly calls herself a Material Girl. Material, as in non-Platonic, as in non-heavenly, as in carnal, not merely as in attached to wealth. All the masks, all the hypocrisies of the church, would lay dismantled at her feet throughout her career. The church may consider Madonna a false idol, but is she really the false one? Is the so-called “virgin” Mary a real woman? Are real, wholesome women asexual, Platonized versions of womanhood?

In her video Like a Prayer, we see that a black saint comes to life and is wrongfully convicted for a crime. We also see burning crosses, which hint at the role that religion has played in perpetuating racial oppression in America. In Oh Father, the lyrics say: “If you never wanted to hurt me, why am I running way?

In Strike a Pose, we see that by dancing, these artistic souls carried out gay liberation. They fought and helped millions of fans to proudly fight the internalized self-loathing, and the external abuse from society. They helped a minority who was powerless to feel power through self-expression. They helped many to be authentic through creativity.

Liberation through dance. Self-creation as an art. Liberation through the mere strike of a pose. Consider that. Where have we heard this before? This is a Nietzschean idea: art as imbued with meaning, as an act of power and of sculpting the self, and of liberation.

Of course, art is not a static thing. We may be able to sculpt our identities by striking a pose, but then–as with a ritual–that moment is gone, and we return to reality, to the world, to a society that is still homophobic. But we are perhaps transformed, as if we had been initiated into a Greek mystery.

We may have mostly forgotten about it, and the younger generations never lived through it, but the legacy of the Truth or Dare phenomenon–and of the “gay” nineties–lives on and these newer generations reap the benefits of that revolutionary, artful embodiment of an inner transformation that happened when it was most needed. And it did as much for the redemption of the flesh and of desire, as it did for gay liberation.

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Happy Twentieth! In Defense of Pleasure

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere! Among the good news this month: we deepened our understanding of Diogenes’ Wall and SoFE has a new member, our good friend Jason–who is also, together with Tom of the Epicurus for Modern Times facebook group, one of my patreon subscribers. Many thanks to both of you for your kind support! Unfortunately, the bad news: we lost an Epicurean friend from Australia, Amrinder Singh, in a plane accident. He was a small-plane enthusiast. We have a picture of him doing what he apparently enjoyed most: we can see the Herculaneum pig icon on his helmet, which is indicative of how much he loved Epicurean philosophy. Soar high, Amrinder!

The month of April marks the beginning of spring on the northern hemisphere, where all of nature awakens to the beautiful mysteries of Venus, to life, to fertility, to sex, to pleasure.

I invite you to carry out an experiment. Utter the word “Pleasure” time and again, and write down what impressions and what memories and what free association comes up in your psyche.

When I started studying Epicurean philosophy–and although for about twenty years prior to this I was no longer involved in the Catholic faith of my childhood–I initially noticed that the word Pleasure had been damaged in my mind by Christian ideas. According to PD 20, “the mind does not shun pleasure”: this resistance came from culture, not from my own nature. Perhaps a vain association with sin, with decadence, with things that are forbidden, dangerous, shocking or vulgar, was still there.

vThe Goddess Venus was–and still is–vilified and frequently associated with harlots for her exuberant embrace of pleasure, both carnal and otherwise. Many people have grown up with unevaluated inhibitions and biases, and never think to even once question these underlying–and often unconscious–beliefs and impressions.

New Epicurean posted an essay years back in defense of pleasure with the opening poem to Venus in On the Nature of Things, where Venus is replaced with “painlessness” so as to drain the poem of its refined vitality. The idea is to refute the anti-Epicurean claim that what our sources mean by Pleasure, is merely absence of pain and not a positive state of delight. The noble Epicurus and Metrodorus were men of decency! They could not possibly have meant Pleasure when they spoke of Pleasure!

Well, one thing that the Epicureans were known for was plain speech, and yes: we mean Pleasure when we use the word Pleasure. And this fits within the larger vision of reconciling us with nature in order to correct the damage done by Plato: Epicurus wanted to train people to trust their own senses and faculties, to trust their own instincts and nature again.

And this Pleasure isn’t only “mental” or “Platonic” either. Vatican Saying 51 warns us to apply hedonic calculus and to try to avoid certain dangers that come with sex, but does not advise against having sex (presumably because celibacy is unnatural). Principal Doctrine 20 explains that it is not in our nature or in the nature of the mind to ever shun Pleasure.

No separate category for the carnal pleasures is invented in the early sources, as far as I know. Also, biographer Diogenes Laertius–and Bailey, in his Extant Remains–attributes this saying to Epicurus: “I know not how I can conceive of the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste, of love (that is, sex), of hearing, and the pleasurable emotions caused to sight by beautiful form“.

Here is Lucretius’ poem. If you wish to carry out the experiment that New Epicurean suggests, where references to “Venus”, “Goddess”, etc. are replaced with “painlessness”, feel free to go ahead, and to also engage in the free association experiment detailed above. As for myself, in this Twentieth of April I would not blaspheme against the gifts of life and of nature. On the Nature of Things does not begin with a poem in honor of self-narcotization and anesthesia: it begins by honoring and taking refuge in the beautiful mythical and poetic embodiment of Divine Pleasure, who has the power to tame even Ares.

Delight of Human kind, and Gods above;
Parent of Rome; Propitious Queen of Love;
Whose vital pow’r, Air, Earth, and Sea supplies;
And breeds what e’r is born beneath the rowling Skies:
For every kind, by thy prolifique might,
Springs, and beholds the Regions of the light:
Thee, Goddess thee, the clouds and tempests fear,
And at thy pleasing presence disappear:
For thee the Land in fragrant Flow’rs is drest,
For thee the Ocean smiles, and smooths her wavy breast;
And Heav’n it self with more serene, and purer light is blest.
For when the rising Spring adorns the Mead,
And a new Scene of Nature stands display’d,
When teeming Budds, and chearful greens appear,
And Western gales unlock the lazy year,
The joyous Birds thy welcome first express,
Whose native Songs thy genial fire confess:
Then savage Beasts bound o’re their slighted food,
Strook with thy darts, and tempt the raging floud:
All Nature is thy Gift; Earth, Air, and Sea:
Of all that breathes, the various progeny,
Stung with delight, is goaded on by thee.
O’er barren Mountains, o’er the flow’ry Plain,
The leavy Forest, and the liquid Main
Extends thy uncontroul’d and boundless reign.
Through all the living Regions dost thou move,
And scattr’st, where thou goest, the kindly seeds of Love:
Since then the race of every living thing,
Obeys thy pow’r; since nothing new can spring
Without thy warmth, without thy influence bear,
Or beautiful, or lovesome can appear,
Be thou my ayd: My tuneful Song inspire,
And kindle with thy own productive fire;
While all thy Province Nature, I survey,
And sing to Memmius an immortal lay
Of Heav’n, and Earth, and every where thy wond’rous pow’r display.
To Memmius, under thy sweet influence born,
Whom thou with all thy gifts and graces dost adorn.
The rather, then assist my Muse and me,
Infusing Verses worthy him and thee.
Mean time on Land and Sea let barb’rous discord cease,
And lull the listening world in universal peace.
To thee, Mankind their soft repose must owe,
For thou alone that blessing canst bestow;
Because the brutal business of the War
Is manag’d by thy dreadful Servant’s care:
Who oft retires from fighting fields, to prove
The pleasing pains of thy eternal Love:
And panting on thy breast, supinely lies,
While with thy heavenly form he feeds his famish’d eyes:
Sucks in with open lips, thy balmy breath,
By turns restor’d to life, and plung’d in pleasing death.
There while thy curling limbs about him move,
Involv’d and fetter’d in the links of Love,
When wishing all, he nothing can deny,
Thy charms in that auspicious moment try;
With winning eloquence our peace implore,
And quiet to the weary World restore.

Lucretius’ Poem to Venus, De Rerum Natura

Further Reading:

Venus as Spiritual Guide: the Value and Use of Mythography in Wisdom Traditions

Last Year’s Twentieth: The Well Walled Fortress of the Wise

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