Servitude

This lyrics to the song ‘Servitude’ (Lyrics menu; see also music video under ‘Media’) are mainly about the tendency of society to idealize self-sacrifice and its hypocritical inability to follow that ideal. Think of how often you hear people draw attention to the supposed ‘service’ they have performed simply in order to get what they want:

  1. Want to fool the voters into thinking you give a damn about them? Brand yourself a humble ‘public servant’ at a fundraiser (then fly back home to your publicly-funded mansion on your publicly-funded jumbo jet under the protection of your publicly-funded bodyguards).
  2. Want to graduate? Well, ‘community service’ is required. Just ignore the fact that you’re being coerced into it. It’s a ‘do this or else’ sort of thing. Nevertheless, others will praise you for it. This is the point, right? Or not.
  3. Want to sell lots of pills or pizzas or health plans? Then constantly remind the public that yours is a ‘service-oriented’ company. Just say it, regardless of what it means or if it’s true, and that should be sufficient to make people like you and trust your product.
  4. Want to get on God’s good side? Two words: ‘Church service’. I have to admit, however, it is beyond my ability to comprehend how sitting in a building with others singing songs to a divinity constitutes ‘service’ — unless, of course, we view that divinity as some sort of Medieval Lord who demands song and dance from his serfs for… uh… his own entertainment? Then it almost makes sense, I suppose.
  5. Finally, what about ‘serving the company’ or ‘service to the profession’? When my father died, the funeral director recommended addressing his ‘service’ to his job in the obituary. I guarantee my dad didn’t see it that way. He had busted his ass for countless years for a paycheck, plain and simple. Nothing wrong with that.

Anyway, the problem with all this is that it’s brazenly hypocritical. People pretend to be sacrificing something important to them as if they’re noble and admirable; but in reality, they are using the labels ‘servant’ and ‘service’ to benefit themselves. And when they do so, society rewards them with a nice pat on the belly. This is, however, exactly the opposite of the self-sacrifice that service entails. It’s as if people use the words ‘service’ and ‘serve’ as passwords to prove they’re members of the ‘good people’ club. Beyond that, the terms are empty and meaningless.

This brings me to the second theme of the lyrics: symbol worship. It makes sense that society would care only to flash their ‘service’ to others as an empty token of their supposed virtue because society as a whole is obsessed with symbols over substance, container over content, image over reality.

Think again of all those dutiful Sunday morning worshipers kneeling before… not Jesus or God, but the so called ‘cross’. Bumper stickers, flags, logos, badges, uniforms, trademarks – none of these really says anything substantial about the thing or person bearing them. But they pretend to do so. If you’re a Christian, do you automatically respect those with crosses around their necks? Probably. Should you? Uh, no. No more than a Yankees fan should think he or she has anything significant in common with some random guy on the street sporting a cap that the Yankees corporation branded with their logo. And yet, such senseless solidarity thrives, all at the end of strings pulled by advertisers, corporations, politicians, and priests.

Basically, symbol-minded = simple-minded. Symbols replace thought. They are like the crack of the whip that a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question. The upshot? Society’s symbol-worship and praise of service reveal people’s secret desire to be dominated. They obsessively long for a lord and master to command them. They want to be controlled and released from the burden of thought. They desperately desire to ‘turn the other cheek’ like their idol, but can they?

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

Our Father

“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.” — Mark Twain

The lyrics to “Our Father” (under the Lyrics menu on this site) are straightforward. They are comprised mostly of a variety of descriptions of the atrociously violent acts ordered, approved, or committed by the Jewish / Christian god in the so-called ‘Bible’. Along with the lyrics above, I have included hyperlinks to the relevant passages as they have been reprinted in over 100 different translations at BibleGateway.com.

Aside from “the Good Book” itself (New Oxford Annotated edition), I used as my secondary sources The Skeptics Annotated Bible and Dwindling in Unbelief. Both are excellent websites that I highly recommend for reliable information and humorous criticism.

I have to give credit to the author of these sites, Steve Wells, for having the stomach to rummage through the Bible to compile (and comment upon) the relevant stories. For my part, Judeo-Christian mythology is not something I exactly enjoy reading. In fact, I would rank the experience alongside the nauseous feeling I get when encountering any other racist propaganda or fascist desperation.

Equally distasteful is the fact that the Bible is in origin nothing more than one tribe’s attempt to divinely sanction and glorify its own existence to the (violent) exclusion of all others. Sure, other ancient cultures had similar myths. But compared to, say, the ancient Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey, the Judeo-Christian form of self-explanation — with all its irrelevant pedantry, hypocrisy, verbal and narrative simplicity, barbarism, and absurdity — seems no more than the product of scared children and superstitious savages.

One thing I enjoy even less than reading the Bible is debating devout believers. Not a single rational argument is ever likely to convince such people of the absurdity of their beliefs because those beliefs are grounded in faith and authority, neither of which proceeds through anything even remotely close to reason, logic, evidence, clear fact, or common-sense.

For this reason, I don’t attempt to make a case here for why people should suspend their belief in the Bible. I desire to do this about as much as I want to explain to a bratty, snot-nosed little kid sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall why there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Instead, I am happy simply to offer these general reflections and, more importantly, to provide the convenient links to the various passages I reference in the lyrics.

“The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that, yet those best minds warmly justify these crimes, condone them, excuse them, and indignantly refuse to regard them as crimes at all, when he commits them.” — Mark Twain

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

Contagion

“God is not to be feared, death is not a risk. It is easy to procure what is good, while what is bad is easy to endure” (Epicurean ‘Four-fold Remedy’).

Under the media menu of this site, you can find a link to a song that my friend Andy and I wrote (under the band name ‘Misanthrophile’) and the accompanying video I created for it. The lyrics to “Contagion” are in Latin. The lines I used are from the poem “On the Nature of Things” (De Rerum Natura), penned by the Roman poet Lucretius (94 BC – 55 BC). Lucretius was an ardent admirer of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived and taught in Athens roughly 250 years before the poet’s death. In light of his deep respect for Epicurus, Lucretius composed his 7400-line poem to expound the philosopher’s doctrines.

Epicurus bust. Wikipedia.

At the core of this philosophy was the secular, mechanistic view of the universe known as ‘atomism’. In particular, Epicurus (and Lucretius) argued that all that really exists are an infinite number of tiny atoms moving around empty space at random, colliding with each other and forming all the visible stuff and events that we experience in the world according to fixed natural laws.

The idea here is even more relevant to life today than it might seem. Lucretius’ overall intention, as that of his predecessor, is that a rational understanding of why things happen in the world as they do will remove our fear of the gods and of death, thus allowing us to attain true peace and happiness in life.

The human soul, for instance, being purely physical in nature and subject to natural laws, must die along with the body. As a result, Lucretius insists, we can experience no sensation at all after death. Death will be for us just like what it was like before we were born: absolutely nothing.

As for god, a perfect divine being must be content with its existence. This means that god can have no needs, desires, emotions, or worries. God would therefore have no reason to interfere with the workings of nature or human beings. This knowledge, in turn, should free us from the anxiety that comes from our efforts to worship god correctly and to live a righteous life – all in order to avoid everlasting punishment after death.

This is Epicureanism in a nutshell. Now, the lines I have used for ‘Contagion’ can be found at the end of the final book of Lucretius’ poem (book six). There, the poet describes in gory detail the horrific plague that devastated the population of ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War (430 BC).

So how does this graphic plague narrative fit in with Lucretius’ mission to explain the mechanics of the universe and dispel our fear of the gods and of death? Keep in mind that Lucretius is attempting to explain the nature of things. This includes everything that might exist or take place around us: e.g., the earth, sky, stars, animals, humans, the soul, civilization, the gods, hallucinations, the seasons, meteorological phenomena, and supposed miracles.

The basic idea is that nothing comes-to-be from nothing or perishes into nothing, as if by supernatural agency. All things change, come-to-be, and perish because of the combination and separation of atoms, and all according to the immutable laws of nature. Not even god can influence or interrupt this natural flow of cause and effect.

Consequently, the various imperfections of the world must also have specific causes, especially the countless disasters that afflict humanity, seemingly for no reason, or in the eyes of believers, because of god’s wrath. For instance, Lucretius offers a natural rather than supernatural explanation of lightning, which was often seen to strike even the temples of the gods. Similarly, he explains volcanoes and earthquakes as the result of natural processes underneath the earth’s surface.

It is within this context that Lucretius turns to the plague. He reminds us that world was not made for us. Disease, he says, has a physical cause in the combinations of various types of atoms which accumulate and upset the balance of health. He also discusses what we know today as infection and contagion, as well as the influence of climate as a factor in the spread of disease.

Plague in an Ancient City, Michael Sweerts. Wikigallery.org.

As mentioned, Lucretius’ description of the plague’s symptoms is graphic. In addition to the lines that I have translated above, the poet describes anxiety, incessant retching, convulsions, and exhaustion. The sufferer’s body was cold to the touch, but the inside burned to the bone. Medicine was useless. Some people jumped into streams and wells in a futile effort to quench their constant thirst. Delirium and hallucination set in. Breathing was nearly impossible, and sweating profuse. Putrid blood flowed through the nose. After nine days of agony, along with uncontrollable twitching, coughing, and tissue deterioration, the victims would finally die.

The plague also had severe social consequences. Unburied corpses littered the streets. As soon as people got sick, they fell into frenzied despair. Ironically, many committed suicide. Those who dreaded death most refused to tend to the sick. But they too succumbed, as did those who tried to help the victims. Lucretius also describes parents stretched out over dead children, and dying children clinging to the bodies of dead parents.

Finally, and most relevantly, the temples and shrines of the gods were filled with corpses. Lucretius emphasizes how little believers’ reverence and worship of the gods mattered in the end. The entire nation was in terror, and lawlessness ensued. Some families even began to use other people’s pyres to burn their own dead, which often led to disputes and bloodshed.

Lucretius’ tragic picture of the Athenian plague shows us humankind at the mercy of natural forces beyond the power of their own knowledge, science, and religious customs. It depicts the inevitable suffering that human beings face in a world that was not made for them. Ironically, the power that comes from knowledge of the atomistic structure of the universe reveals the painful fact of our ultimate powerlessness within a hostile world. Most of all, the narrative strongly suggests that god does not care a bit about the welfare of human beings.


The occurrence of extreme, senseless suffering is not restricted to the ancient world. We need only turn our thoughts to the recent disaster in Nepal. We have all seen the clichéd memes on social networking sites expressing prayers for the victims and survivors of the earthquake. Such responses make even less sense than the disaster itself. If god has the power and will to alleviate human suffering, then why would he wait until enough people asked him to do so?

As my mother used to say, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” Nature is a cruel killer who indiscriminately attacks young and old, innocent and guilty, rich and poor, healthy and sick. Consider yourself lucky if you get through life without experiencing serious suffering, sickness, or misery. Only deluded, narcissistic fools would consider it a divine blessing granted specifically to them… and why? Just because they had gained divine favor by praying, kneeling, or chanting in the prescribed manner? So Jesus says: “Clasp those hands real tight, and get down on your knees, or I won’t help those little children I allowed to be crushed by falling debris!” Do I understand that right?

The specific function of a mind is to think — to figure things out according to common sense and reason. So what does reason say about all this suffering? Either god doesn’t know about it, doesn’t care about it, can’t stop it, or doesn’t exist. Those are the only options. Of course you could simply ignore the rational workings of your mind and cling to faith — convince yourself that god was ‘ready for’ the victims of the plague or the earthquake, or whatever other disaster.

You could convince yourself that the suffering all makes sense in god’s mind, but not ours. (Of course, leave out the part about how our own tiny, limited minds could know even that much.) Reassure yourself that despite the victims’ unspeakable suffering, it is all part of the plan of a god who loves them very much. But this is not love. Most of us had unquestionably loving parents who would never allow us to suffer in such ways if they had any say in the matter. Whatever was at work behind the scenes during the Athenian plague or the Nepal earthquake, it is not what any sane person would recognize as ‘love’.

I often say that faith is a mental illness. Of course, this metaphor is meant to be provocative. But the similarity between faith and delusion is striking. Faith is a matter of stubbornly denying whatever conflicts with one’s beliefs regardless of reason and common sense. An adult who goes through life refusing to accept conclusions that contradict what they simply feel to be true no matter how strong the contrary evidence is a person who is not using his or her mind in a healthy, sane manner.

Lucretius’ point is that a rational view of the universe allows us to see an event as horrific as the plague as far less of an illness than religion. Religion and the fear of death that inspires it are the real contagion.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

In defense of cynicism

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” — Mark Twain

It’s fair to say that in our culture a stigma exists against individuals who disconnect from society and religion (skeptics, misanthropes, cynics, atheists, etc.), all of which exhibit their own sort of cynicism in varying degrees. (Note: I’m not equating atheists with cynics. In fact, these days, a good number of atheists tend to be humanists and thus maintain positive feelings about society. It’s just that I don’t think in absolutes, so I don’t really believe there is such thing as a ‘cynic’. But there are varying degrees of cynical attitudes and perspectives. So on this view, atheists by definition are cynical about religion.)

As part of this stigma, society tends to see cynicism as some sort of disease, whether physical, psychological, social, or spiritual. Distrust is seen as a mental illness.

Consider the following examples:

  1. Distrust and an anti-social personality are key symptoms associated with what psychologists call ‘PPD’, or ‘Paranoid Personality Disorder’;
  2. Distrust of authority and anti-social behavior are key traits among conspiracy theorists, whom mainstream society has been trained to look down upon as a bunch of lunatics;
  3. Cynicism and pessimism are linked to higher rates of depressiondementiaheart diseasecancer-related deaths, and mortality.

Wow! Optimism — the true panacea, discovered at last! Of course, none of these articles considers, if there really is such a link, whether cynical personalities can in fact be changed and “cured,” any more than any other sort of personality. I certainly don’t recall ever selecting my particular personality. It’s just kind of what makes me… me, you know? But the point isn’t to understand cynicism. It’s just to make oneself look good by making cynicism look bad and blaming it for the supposedly bad things that happen. Hmmm… sounds exactly like what some in the optimistic crowd say about cynicism.

Google ‘cynicism’ and you will find yourself inundated with — what!? — intensely cynical reactions to cynicism. Ironically, however, it is not the cynics who have these reactions, but those bragging about, or at least implying, their own optimism or healthy idealism. What about ‘glass half full’? Here’s a list of the usual clichés:

Cynicism is: ‘for losers’, ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, ‘a waste of intellect’, ‘a missed opportunity to improve the world’, ‘blind’, ‘unattractive’, ‘intellectual cowardice’, ‘a cop out’, ‘rooted in fear’, ‘unrealistic’, ‘toxic’, ‘pitiful’, ‘naïve’, ‘intellectual treason’, ‘cheap’, ‘impotent’, ‘contagious’.

So cynicism is for ‘losers’, is it? Aww, shucks. The last thing I want is to be called a ‘loser’. Goddamn half-empty glass… gonna make me unpopular. Remember name-calling as a child? The fact that so many adults cannot avoid perpetuating the label- and clique-mentality of high school kids is one thing that makes me especially cynical.

This sort of cliché, stereotyping, slogan-based criticism of cynicism also seems to be fashionable among late-night comedians:

  • “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us” — Stephen Colbert
  • “All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” — Conan O’Brien
  • “It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” — Craig Ferguson

This is strange stuff coming from sarcastic men whose job consists of deconstructing and ridiculing everything that comes their way. Maybe they feel guilty for creating hordes of mindless drones who believe they are gaining genuine political awareness simply by watching the late show. Or perhaps they see themselves as similar to smokers who warn their children not to smoke. Whatever the reason, George Carlin would be rolling over in his grave – if he gave a damn.

The problem with such reactions to cynicism is that they are hypocritical, trite, and grounded in unrealistic stereotypes. A particularly cynical attack on cynicism can be found here.

The author repeats the usual claims — that cynics are ‘cowards’, ‘lazy’, ‘afraid’, and somehow cultivate a false appearance of sophistication and depth. Oh no! Please don’t call me a coward!! Anything but that!! Of course, the author simply states all this and fails to back any of it up with specific examples or argumentation. Regurgitate those clichés!

Interestingly, this person also insists that if all the cynics and skeptics in America “made noise,” and worked actively “for the restoration of a democratic republic, justice, and the rule of law,” then things “would instantly change for the better.” You know, that sort of thing is very easy for a blogger, comedian, politician, or some other talking head to say because they get paid to spend their time and effort “actively changing the world for the better.”

I laugh at this sort of advice. It presumes that people adopt cynicism by choice and can just choose not to be cynical. Simply push the happy button in your soul and ‘bam!’ — you no longer notice or care about the insurmountable obstacle of lies, hypocrisy, and corruption in politics.

But seriously, such critics, if they really want to change attitudes, need to take a step back and reevaluate what they think is the cause of cynicism. I assure you it is not the cynic him or herself. If you want to fight cynicism, at least on the political level, then point that scathing finger at this sort of thing: here and here. Let’s not get distracted from the real problem.

“Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.” — Mike Royko

I mean, I get it. A representational form of government is largely incompatible with widespread cynicism and apathy. But more importantly, so are all the power, wealth, security, and status that accrue to political representatives. So the politicians need the talking heads to be cheerleaders, encouraging their mostly young, brainless, TV-watching audience to believe in the system, to hope for change, and to adopt other such useless states of mind. Go team!

Professional politicians and the mainstream media loathe the cynic because the cynic reveals their game for what it is. Such honesty threatens the illusions they must create to maintain power. And so, instead of facing the cynic’s criticisms head on, they attack an abstraction. They set up a token cynic, a straw man to knock down so they can appear caring and productive. Yet no one really exists exactly like the people they describe. Reality is far more complicated and interesting. But polarization sure is a nifty means of thought control.

A common cliché is that cynics are apathetic or lazy. Most cynics, however, I have ever known or have known about are hard-working, productive individuals who care quite deeply about what is happening in the world — at least more so than the many who wear optimism as a mask. They are just honest with themselves in admitting that they don’t have the faith that things can or will improve. You can’t force faith.

Another little platitude that passes as wisdom is that cynics live miserable lives, so we ought to refrain from being cynical. But this is like telling a gay guy he shouldn’t choose to find other men attractive. In the end, the stigma against cynics and those like them stems from the usual ignorance and prejudice of people who don’t understand what they fear. Cynics need not be miserable. Some are. Some are not. Some are sometimes. Some are severely unsatisfied with society or politics or religion, but perfectly happy in their personal lives.

A misanthrope, for example, can find satisfaction in knowing that he or she is conscious of the lies and hypocrisy that define society. Such individuals find true contentment, at least, in trying not to perpetuate the tribal game of make-believe. There can be pride in refusing to stick one’s head in the sand or to whitewash what can be very ugly facts about our social existence.

Speaking of make-believe, here’s a Christian take on cynicism, which pretty much sums up the sort of hypocritically discriminatory perspective from which society tends to represent the cynic:

“A cynic is self-centered. Jesus is self-giving. A cynic has a low view of humanity. Jesus died for humanity. A cynic builds himself up by mocking others. Jesus lays down his own life so others can be filled with life. A cynic assumes people in the end get what they deserve. Jesus does all He can to ensure as many as possible get what they do not deserve.”

This is great material — fuel for the fire. You just can’t make up stuff like this. It is as real as it is fake. The author concludes: “Don’t get me wrong, Jesus loves cynics. He died for cynics. But not just to save them; He died also to change them.” Why in the world god would require the brutal death of his ‘son’ to ‘save’ a cynic the author does not say. But perhaps that’s just me being cynical — you know, using my mind to think through the implications of astonishing claims.

Face it: Faith, not cynicism, is a mental disorder. The tendency to place unwarranted trust in religion, society, self-servinig politicians, and others is no different than childish fantasy.

I have always found the phrase ‘beating a dead horse’ to be delightfully cynical. Coincidentally, that’s precisely how I feel at the moment writing this. So I’ll just wrap up with another comedian’s quite sane assessment of faith:

“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do.” — Bill Maher

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.