An Epicurean Answers Habakkuk's Questions

It's rare to encounter a prophet who acknowledges the powerlessness of his gods to bring good, destroy evil, and fix the world. Rarer still to find one who acknowledges the evils that religion brings upon humanity. Habakkuk is one of the lesser, little-known prophets from the Old Testament, and one who bore witness against his own god and questioned him about the existence of evil, injustice, and suffering in the world. His disappointment is typical of those who confuse virtue with credulity.

O Lord, how long must I call for help before You will hear? I cry out to You, “We are being hurt!” But You do not save us. Why do you make me see sins and wrong-doing? People are being destroyed in anger in front of me. There is arguing and fighting. - Habbakuk 1:2-3

Habakkuk establishes that his god does not listen to the prayers of his people, and is indifferent to the violence that surrounds religious community. His second question then desperately attributes agency and volition to divinity, giving to divinity power over choices and avoidances. It is God that chooses evil people to punish presumably good and righteous people. It is God who favors those who do wrong. An ancient Epicurean would have considered these passages blasphemous. The prophet also engages in passive-aggressive appeasing of his god by attributing holiness to him, even while confronting him with his inaction in the presence of the evil seen everywhere, which indicates that the prophet still has unmet expectations and false beliefs about divine intervention in nature.

Have You not lived forever, O Lord, my God, my Holy One? We will not die. O Lord, You have chosen them to judge. You, O Rock, have chosen them to punish us. Your eyes are too pure to look at sin. You cannot look on wrong. Why then do You look with favor on those who do wrong? Why are You quiet when the sinful destroy those who are more right and good than they? Why have You made men like the fish of the sea, like things which move along the ground that have no ruler? - Habbakuk 1:12-14

He specifically later mentions the Babylonians, so that we can imagine that he is perplexed at certain events in his recent history and can't reconcile this with his Jewish doctrine of divine intervention in history with the goal of people-building. We later see the depths of the prophet's spiritual disease in what might be the most blasphemous utterance in Habbakuk, but here the prophet intends it as praise.

Disease goes before Him, and much trouble comes after Him. - Habbakuk 3:5

Another translation uses pestilence in this verse: God has now degenerated further, into a bio-terrorist. He is later asked whether he was angry at inanimate things, like rivers and seas. Habbakuk's God not only is powerless to stop evil. He uses evil people to punish the good, and is essentially a Plague everywhere he goes. It's unclear why he's understood as holy instead of evil.

Now, since conversation is impossible with a divinity, as the Indianos reminded us recently, it falls to us to answer Habbakuk's questions to his god and to resolve his disappointment, which is a typical symptom of the cognitive dissonance seen in the souls of many sincere theists, and which is based on their false views and expectations which are not based on the study of the nature of things. Let's begin where the Masters in our tradition say we should: with the Canon, with empirical evidence, which should always be the starting point in all of our reasonings. According to studies linking crime, societal dysfunction and religiosity, the correlation is clear, observable and undeniable:

Despite the best efforts of “pro-life” Americans, abortion rates are much higher in our Christian nation, and lowest in relatively secular ones such as Japan, France, and the Scandinavian countries. In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. This would seem to indicate that there is a positive correlation between religiosity and dysfunctionality, but what does that mean?

As this has been such an on-going and prevalent problem for most of human history, there are several Epicurean commentaries on this confusion of values created by popular religiosity.

In an argument reminiscent of what ISIS is doing in Syria and Iraq, Diogenes argued in his wall that the most religious and superstitious people of his day were also the most evil (presented here against Ptahhotep's Maxims), and Polystratus also argued at length that one who follows virtue without studying the nature of things, loses all virtue, that his virtue comes to nothing because it degenerates into trembling superstition, moralizing arrogance (this view was also expressed by Lao-Tse in the Tao Te Ching, where he argued for grassroots virtue), and many other inconvenients.

In any case, the fact that even virtuous actions often have no advantage because, in the cases mentioned above, men show too much arrogance or fall back without reason into superstitious fears, and because in other actions in life they make many mistakes of every kind, so that no one really exhibits virtue.

The confusion of values produced by bad, primitive theology is one of the great diseases in the human soul. It has made people surrender to the worst in themselves and others, and disown their own agency, volition, and power. It's why good people who are religious sometimes do horrible things. These beliefs not only impede our spiritual and psychological health and maturity: they also impede our happiness, our pleasure, our ataraxia and equanimity. They add to our suffering instead of taking away from it.

The responsibility to create a happy, pleasant, beautiful life here on Earth is ours, and only ours, and entirely ours. Let's have enough self-respect and compassion to put aside the childish things that keep us from taking that responsibility seriously.

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Comment by Gerald Payne on June 30, 2015 at 6:05am

Peoples yearning for purpose in their lives has been the driver of religion throughout. The indifference in the natural world has seemingly forced people to invent a world more orderly, and directed by imaginary gods, without which, the hypotheses would carry little weight. If the future was fixed and certain people would accept it as inevitable and get on with their lives, without any need of, or recourse to, comfortable make-believe; that it's not fixed and certain creates anxiety.

This god they profess to have faith in is just a symptom of their fear of the unknown, the desire for certainty in a universe that doesn't subscribe to it. When looked at objectively only irrational pathological fear could induce intelligent adults to believe in flying horses and people walking on water. Anything it seems is acceptable except reality; ironically people would rather die than face the truth of their own mortality, it's led to a mad hatters tea party idea of societal values totally devoid of ethics, and a mummified mind-set more in tune with the past than the present.

How long this disassociation from rationality will persist will not depend so much on the fall of religion as on rise of real instructive education.

 

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