Six years ago I wrote an article entitled “God or Atoms” about the question as to whether a modern follower of Stoicism can be an agnostic or an atheist. At the start I emphasized the following:
None of these Stoics appear to have been agnostics themselves but others may have been. What matters is whether they, and other Stoics, would have accepted that someone else could potentially be both an agnostic (or atheist) and a Stoic.
Well, little did I know how much uproar that would cause! Since I published it I’ve been periodically bombarded with comments, emails, and messages online from some surprisingly angry people who feel very strongly aggrieved because they claim I erred by (allegedly) saying that the ancient Stoics were atheists or agnostics. That, of course, is not what I said. We’re all familiar with religious fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and other world religions but it turns out that some individuals also want to approach Stoicism in pretty dogmatic (modern sense of the word) manner. I was somewhat taken aback by the ferocity of the backlash against my (imagined) transgressions, especially coming from other Stoics as we’re all meant to be pretty chill about these things, basically. Among other things, I was apparently a liar, a fraud, a bigot, and a charlatan, because of my views. Here’s a typical example of one email (from a barrage of seven sent in one day) that I received from one particular aggrieved individual who somehow perceived my personal agnosticism as “bullying” and aggressively “arguing down” his own “theistic” conception of Stoicism:
The funny part is that when I first came across you my impression was that you were a self serving egotistical person who had no real interest in Stoicism other than to promote your own business by using [Stoic Week] to give yourself some credibility. But I decided that as I did not really know you I would set such ideas aside and address you according to what you said. And what you, together with a number of other people, said came across as an attempt to argue down (bully?) any person that questioned the limitations of the Stoicism being presented, especially any person who addressed the theistic nature of Stoicism.
(For what it’s worth, my previous businesses, which were a CBT clinic in Harley Street and a psychotherapist training school in South London, had virtually nothing to do with my work on Stoicism, which I’ve now been studying for well over twenty years. And Stoic Week is a registered non-profit project run by volunteers. I can easily just ignore comments like these, and far worse that I’ve received, but I am concerned about other people, especially newcomers to Stoicism, being hounded and bullied online by some of the same individuals. That’s something that moderators, where possible, should step in to prevent. )
Over the past six years, I’ve received quite a lot of emails, PMs, and other comments like that, from various strangers on the Internet. (By the way, it never ceases to amaze me how well some people think they can read your mind and judge your character without ever having actually met you.) According to some of these (pretty angry) “religious” Stoics, I was being dishonest, and misrepresenting things on purpose, and refusing to answer questions or back up my claims. In fact, I spent many hours answering their questions about this topic online, probably far too many hours, trying to explain that my position was not what they seemed to believe! I have a policy, though, of politely withdrawing from conversations when people begin introducing personal attacks, like calling me a liar and stuff, which is what tended to happen when things got heated. One of the criticisms repeated many times by one of my most vocal critics was that my previous article didn’t include any references to modern scholars. I heard that a lot. Well, the article was actually intended to provide my own commentary on the primary sources. It contains dozens of references to passages in ancient texts, and it’s pretty big already, so I didn’t want to turn it into something the size of a doctoral thesis by adding more and more commentary from modern academic authors. It was just meant to be a short blog post! Nevertheless, he was wrong. It does, in fact, contain references to about six or seven modern authors/scholars who have written on Stoicism including Pierre Hadot, Frank McLynn, C.R. Haines, and John Sellars.
I got bombarded with angry comments about this again yesterday, though. So as it keeps coming up periodically I decided to sit down and write a statement explaining as clearly as possible my attitude toward religion, in relation to Stoicism. That way I can hopefully just send this to the people who want to argue about it rather than getting drawn into endless heated debates. (So if you want to find me, I’ll be in the garden listening to the radio and eating watermelon.) Anyway, once and for all, here are my personal opinions on this…
I do not hate religion. I’ve always been fascinated by it, in fact. I am an agnostic, leaning toward atheism, but I’m also very interested in and place great value upon all world religions. As a teenager I read the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Gnostic corpus from Nag Hammadi, which I studied very closely, and many Christian mystical texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing, The Imitation of Christ, Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, St. John of the Cross, and so on. It was actually my interest in Neoplatonism, Christian mysticism and Gnosticism that led me to study Stoicism. However, I was also particularly interested in Buddhism. As a student, I meditated daily, attended Buddhist retreats, and was secretary to the university Buddhist society. (I even have a Buddhist tattoo!) I practised yoga and read many yogic texts. Over the years, I also studied the Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, Chaung Tzu, and even the I Ching, and countless other Oriental scriptures. In fact, although my first degree is in philosophy, I also took courses in cultural anthropology, because I was interested in shamanism and animism. In addition, in the History of Religions department, I studied Buddhism and Hinduism, mainly focusing on the Gita and Dhammapada.
And not much has changed. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with comparative religion, which endures to this very day. It was first inspired by reading Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. The only major tradition about which I have to confess my ignorance is Islam because my studies in philosophy meant I didn’t have time to attend classes on it at university. As I noted earlier it was my interest in Neoplatonism and Gnosticism that led me to become interested in Stoicism, around the time I finished my philosophy degree, in 1996, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to immerse myself in studying the Stoic literature to this day.
However, I’m agnostic. I don’t know for certain whether God exists, whichever god that might mean. I think he probably doesn’t, because I don’t see much evidence of it, so I lean toward atheism. I don’t, however, hold that view strongly, because I might be wrong. I don’t believe that anyone can know with certainty that God exists and so I view it as ultimately an indifferent question with regard to the goal of life, because it seems to me to requires speculation or a judgement based on probability. And so I don’t really mind whether anyone agrees with me or not in that regard. It’s a matter of indifference to me. (So I’ll be glad when I’ve finished writing this piece if it means I don’t have to keep arguing with angry people on the Internet about it!) 😉
With regard to Stoicism. I have always accepted (like everyone else) that most of the ancient Stoics believed in a provident God called Zeus. Cleanthes, of course, wrote a famous Hymn to Zeus, in which he literally instructed his Stoic students to sing hymns of praise to Zeus, their divine father, creator, and benefactor:
Most glorious of Immortals, mighty God,
Invoked by many a name, O sovran King
Of universal Nature, piloting
This world in harmony with Law,—all hail!
Now, I cannot honestly say with certainty that “all of the ancient Stoics” believed in this for the simple reason that only about 1% of the Stoic literature survives, and there were loads of Stoics, with different beliefs, in different countries, spanning a period of half a millennium. Stoicism was, and still is, a philosophy not a religion. Perhaps others will disagree with my definition of the word “religion”, which is fine, but by that I mean that Stoicism encouraged its followers to question their assumptions very deeply, using the Socratic method, which inevitably meant that the school tolerated considerable disagreement about stuff like theology. (Sorry but the fact is it did.) Traditionally Stoicism also believed in divination, because it followed from their conception of Zeus as provident, organizing and planning the world in a causally determined manner, that the future could be predicted by priests who knew how to read the entrails of sacrificial animals and whatnot. (Like tea-leaf reading but a bit messier.)
What is more, they say that divination in all its forms is a real and substantial fact, if there is really Providence. And they prove it to be actually a science on the evidence of certain results: so Zeno, Chrysippus in the second book of his De divinatione, Athenodorus, and Posidonius in the second book of his Physical Discourse and the fifth book of his De divinatione. But Panaetius denies that divination has any real existence. (Diogenes Laertius)
Strangely, though, even the most ardent proponents of “traditional Stoicism” today don’t seem to go so far as to employ ancient divination. Ancient Stoics were also free to reject the whole concept of divination, though, because philosophical beliefs are based on reason and subject to constant questioning, whereas religious beliefs, according to my definition at least, tend to be based primarily on faith, divine revelation, or cultural traditions. For what it’s worth, that would mean that some types of Buddhism might be better described as a philosophy rather than a religion, although there are other forms of Buddhism that appear to me more like the Judaeo-Christian religions. (Buddhism is a huge and very diverse tradition, of course.)
There were certainly Greek philosophers who rejected or at least radically questioned belief in the gods. (No, seriously there were; such as Theodorus the Atheist for a start, who was a contemporary of Zeno of Citium.) So given the paucity of evidence to the contrary I would say it’s possible that at least one or two guys out of the thousands of ancient Stoics may not have been 100% sure that God exists but, again, whether they did or not is basically indifferent to me. We know that most Stoics were pantheists who believed the whole universe was a single, perfectly rational, living organism called Zeus who cared providentially for humankind. I don’t believe that. We do also know that some famous ancient Stoics didn’t believe that either and substituted other theological beliefs instead, which happens to confirm that the school tolerated diverse opinions and was not rigidly doctrinaire in this regard.
Example #1: Aristo of Chios rejected the importance of theology completely and was considered a renegade or “heterodox Stoic“. Cicero says he was “in a state of complete uncertainty” about whether or not God was alive (“animate”), because he denied God could have sensation (presumably because he has no eyes or ears, etc.) and Aristo also couldn’t conceive of his form. However, although he was considered a “heterodox Stoic” he was still labelled a “Stoic”. There is no reference to Aristo actually leaving the school or joining another school. (Indeed, Marcus Aurelius was inspired centuries later to commit his life to Stoicism after reading Aristo’s books.)
Example #2: Boethus of Sidon was a famous Stoic best known for having totally rejected Stoic pantheism but, again, there’s no indication that he was booted out of the school for that. He wrote several books on Stoic theology and philosophy of nature. We know he believed in provident God but not the pantheistic Zeus of the early Stoics. He believed that instead of permeating the whole cosmos, God dwells far away from us in the sphere of the fixed stars. That was okay because Stoicism was always a philosophy and encouraged Socratic questioning and not a religion based primarily on faith or tradition, or if you prefer it wasn’t a rigidly orthodox and doctrinaire type of religion.
So can you be a Stoic and be an agnostic or even an atheist? The short answer is that I think it’s an indifferent question. If someone managed to persuade me that I couldn’t call myself a “Stoic” if I happen to be agnostic then I’d probably say “Sure, fine, I’ll just call myself something else” and it wouldn’t really ruin my day too much, to be honest. (I’m still waiting to be persuaded.) However, as it happens, I believe that the ancient Stoics considered the central doctrine of their philosophy, as we’re repeatedly told, to be their definition of the nature of the good: virtue is the only true good. It seems to me that as long as you believe that then you’re pretty much a Stoic, whatever else you believe, within reason. It’s all good! It’s crystal clear from the ancient Stoic texts that the definition of the supreme good as virtue was the central doctrine of their school. Cicero calls it the cornerstone of their whole philosophy, for example.
Suppose, hypothetically, that there were such a thing as a modern-day agnostic Sage, someone exceptionally wise, just, courageous, and temperate, who called himself a “Stoic” but who happened to feel it’s impossible to be certain whether or not God exists. He believes that Darwinism and modern scientific cosmology provide a sufficiently plausible explanation for why things around us look almost as though they were designed by an invisible craftsman to work the way they do. So he rejects Zeno’s use of the Argument from Design, in other words, and doesn’t accept that it conclusively proves a provident God exists, called Zeus, who planned everything and cares about humankind. (How many people today do actually believe in the Argument from Design apart from Christian fundamentalists?)
Let’s suppose we had a time machine and could send our perfect “Stoic” back in time to meet Marcus Aurelius. So he’s perfectly wise and just, courageous and temperate, but he’s not sure about the whole Zeus thing. Would Marcus Aurelius say: “Get out of here you fake, you’re not a real Stoic!” I don’t know. Neither do you. I’d guess probably not, though. Why? Because he was a philosopher, first and foremost, and not a religious fundamentalist. Marcus, like other Stoics, believed that virtue is the only true good, and that someone virtuous is therefore good, and could be a Sage, perhaps even if they happen to be uncertain whether Zeus is real or not, or to agree with Zeno and Cleanthes on the theological details.
As most people who have actually read The Meditations tend to notice, Marcus refers to “God or atoms”, or a similar trope, about ten times. (C.R. Haines, his translator, says nine but I’m pretty sure I spotted another one he missed.) Example: “Recall once again this alternative: if not a wise Providence [God], then a mere jumble of atoms…” (4.3). Similar figures of speech are also found in Seneca and Epictetus, all three of our major surviving sources for Stoicism, so personally I take that to suggest this was most likely a very well-known Stoic argument and probably came from an earlier source all three share in common. (As the other two don’t appear to have read Seneca’s philosophical writings, I doubt they were just deriving it from him.) I appreciate other people may believe these passages could be interpreted differently but my belief is that Marcus is saying to himself that even if he didn’t believe that the whole universe was being planned and organized by a provident God called Zeus, who cares about humankind, even if it was all just the chance product of the random collision of atoms, like many people believe today, Stoic Ethics would still be rational and justified in that world. In his “God or atoms” passages, Marcus says that even if we live in a godless world just the random aimless collision of atoms, it doesn’t matter, as long as we are not aimless ourselves but have virtue as our goal (9.28), because we have our ruling faculty (hegemonikon) to guide us using reason (12.14), and we can still view ourselves as part of the whole and akin, like a brother, to all other rational beings (10.6), therefore we would still have no reason to complain or feel harassed (8.17; 9.39). The people who want to argue that Stoic Ethics is inconceivable without belief in God either just completely ignore these and other related passages or they tie themselves in knots trying to interpret Marcus as meaning the opposite of what he actually said, ten times.
How on earth, you may ask, could Marcus possibly believe that Stoic Ethics might be plausible without reference to God? (Or at least people who are really religious sometimes say that.) Well, blow me down if the Cynic philosophy, from which Stoicism itself emerged, didn’t consist of a fundamentally similar ethical doctrine, that virtue is the only true good, without any reference to theology. (As did other ancient philosophies.) Diogenes the Cynic is variously portrayed as saying that the gods don’t exist, that they do exist, or that he’s not sure. He didn’t care, basically. The Cynics, funnily enough, had a notoriously cynical (small c) attitude toward all forms of religion, which they sneered at in all sorts of ways. Diogenes thought it was hilarious, for example, that people would pray for good health rather than just adopting a healthy way of living. He reputedly used a wooden statue of the god Hercules as firewood to cook his lentils. (Hercules was originally a Greek hero and demi-god, incidentally, but according to some versions of the myth Zeus granted him an apotheosis, making him a god in his own right.) The Cynics, the legendary forerunners of Stoicism, were generally perceived as thumbing their noses at all forms of religion and as regarding the question of God’s existence with fundamental indifference, because it was totally irrelevant to their conception of virtue and their philosophical way of life.
Marcus quite possibly, at least in my reading of the evidence, started off as a Cynic before becoming a Stoic. He certainly knew Cynics and had read about Cynic philosophy, which he mentioned in The Meditations. So the notion that you could believe in virtue ethics without bringing God into the equation would hardly have come as a massive surprise to him, contrary to what some people might want to tell you. He knew fine well that lots of philosophers, throughout the centuries, held broadly similar ethical views to his own but didn’t use the existence of Providence as justification for them. As mentioned above, his private letters appear to state that he was finally convinced to dedicate his life to philosophy after reading Aristo of Chios, a Stoic who totally rejected the study of theology. So these observations probably explain why Marcus keeps banging on about “God or atoms” in his private notes: he’s reminding himself that even if doubts do creep into his mind about religion, it shouldn’t cause his Stoicism to waver. He knows, from the example of countless other philosophers, that he still has sufficient reason to live virtuously with or without Providence looking over his shoulder.
Moreover, Marcus and the other Stoics didn’t live in a bubble. They knew about other philosophies. Marcus had also studied Platonism and Aristotelianism under private tutors in the imperial household for years and he’d read Cicero and Lucretius the Epicurean, and presumably a load of other stuff we’ve never even heard of because he was a highly-educated and intelligent man, with a lot of books at his disposal. He wasn’t a dunce. He knew that Skeptical counter-arguments could easily be used to challenge traditional arguments for belief in the existence of God, like the Argument for Design. (“Everything looks like it must have been designed by someone, therefore it was.” – really?) He clearly believed in God but he also realized some people didn’t and that Skeptical arguments had been widely circulated for many centuries that could challenge or refute the traditional Stoic reasons for believing in Providence. So, presumably like many Stoics before him, he bolstered his Stoicism by providing himself with the argument that even if someone logically persuaded him that Providence doesn’t exist and the world is just the pretty side-effect of a load of atoms bouncing around, like the Epicureans and other atomists said, it doesn’t really matter because he could still carry on being virtuous and a Stoic anyway, as long as he follows his own nature, by living in accord with reason.
Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems fairly obvious to me that’s what he meant when he says repeatedly that whether “God or atoms” explain the universe, either way he should follow Stoic Ethics . (See my previous article by the way for all the references to these passages, and everything else I’ve mentioned.) I think that’s why the Stoics were able to consider individuals like Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes the Cynic to be wise and virtuous even though they didn’t share the same theological beliefs as the Stoic school. If Socrates or Diogenes the Cynic walked into Epictetus’ school and said “Hey can I be a Stoic?” would Epictetus boot them out saying “No because you’re not certain that Zeus exists and is provident, get lost!” I don’t know. Neither do you. I’d guess probably not, though. In fact, the Stoics believed Cynicism offered a “shortcut” to virtue, compared with ordinary Stoicism. It’s pretty tricky, though, for anyone who wants to portray the assimilation of Stoic theological doctrines as mandatory to explain how a way of life that completely ignores those doctrines came to be be held up as a shortcut to Stoic virtue.
The ancient Stoics believed that virtue is the only true good, and that’s the central doctrine or cornerstone of their whole philosophy. I think virtually all of them must have believed in a provident God called Zeus but there might have been one or two, over the 500 year period we’re talking about, who weren’t sure because they were doing philosophy and using the Socratic method of questioning rather than just indoctrinating their students into religious dogmas based on the teacher’s say-so. None of the Stoics claimed to have that kind of absolute authority. None of them claimed to be wise: that’s why it’s called the Stoic school and wasn’t (except for a short spell) named Zenonism after Zeno (Zenon in Greek), its founder. There is no Stoic pope. You do philosophy and if you arrive at the same conclusions as them then you might as well call yourself a Stoic. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but if you want to be a Stoic you’re going to have to actually do philosophy. Turns out Stoicism is not a personality cult like Epicureanism or Pythagoreanism were (sorry guys!) and you might actually have to think for yourself rather than just rote learn the sayings of the founders and repeat them like a parrot.
What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover. (Seneca, Letter 33)
Epictetus is even more emphatic. He repeatedly warns his students that reading the books of famous Stoics such as Chrysippus and committing their teachings to memory is just another vice, a sort of intellectual vanity, unless they actually learn to think for themselves and apply philosophical reasoning in daily life. He says that the real evidence of having learned Stoicism should be visible in someone’s ability to master his fears and desires, like the physique of an athlete is evidence of their training. We should judge him by the signs of virtue he exhibits in life, not by his ability to recite a catechism of “orthodox” Stoic dogmas – indeed, that would be absurd.
In any case, by the time Marcus Aurelius was around the whole Stoic movement was pretty loosely defined and leaderless but he was still famous, even in his own lifetime as a “Stoic” philosopher. If Marcus Aurelius woke up one day and said “Hmmmm… God or atoms? You know, I’m not 100% sure about that bit anymore but I still agree with the rest of it” would people have stopped calling him a Stoic? Probably not, right? As long as he still lived like a Stoic, exhibited the Stoic virtues, and was committed to the belief that virtue is the only true good. To hear some people talk these days, you’d think there were “Stoic police” going around making sure of everyone’s Stoic orthodoxy but, guess what, there weren’t! In Marcus Aurelius’ day there wasn’t even a leader of the Stoic school so there was nobody with the authority to enforce any sort of rigid orthodoxy any more than there is today – thank goodness. The last Stoic scholarch (head of the school) was Panaetius and he’s been pushing up daisies, six feet under, since the second century BC, nearly three hundred years before the time of Marcus Aurelius.
At the end of the day, though, it’s fundamentally indifferent whether you call yourself a “Stoic” or not. The only advantage is that you can more easily hang out with other fascinating people who like to call themselves “Stoic”, most of whom happen to be agnostics or atheists anyway, whether the fundamentalist-types like that or not. By contrast, if you said “I’m totally into everything Marcus Aurelius said and I try to live my life by it but I’m not actually a real Stoic because I don’t worship Zeus” most people would probably look at you like you were crazy. By the way, people who are really into religion and Stoicism nevertheless vary tremendously in their level of commitment to the ancient traditions. One guy got really annoyed with me for using the phrase “worship Zeus” although that’s literally what the ancient Stoics were talking about. I pointed out to him that another guy I’d been arguing with online actually had a profile picture of himself dressed in the robes of an ancient Greek priest and that he did literally worship the Greek gods. (Over the years I’ve met quite a few modern-day individuals who combine Stoicism with Hellenistic religious practices.) At the other end of the scale someone who was arguing with me about how all Stoics absolutely must believe in divine Providence suddenly changed his tune after admitting that he didn’t know what the word “Providence” means (pronoia in Greek) and I showed him a dictionary definition. “Oh, if that’s what it means then, no, I don’t actually believe in it; sorry for bothering you.” Often, I find that the more determined someone is to argue to the death about something on the Internet the more likely it is that they probably haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. There are plenty of people online who will argue with you about Stoicism until they’re blue in the face and call you all sorts of idiots if you don’t agree with them. Then, a few hours, or days, later they’ll casually admit they’ve not actually got round to reading any books on the subject yet. That’s life, folks: welcome to the Internet!
So, anyway, if you’ve got to the end of this and you’re a super-religious Stoic who’s still really angry with me for not being sure whether God exists or not then, well, thanks at least for your patience. I really don’t hate you or anything you believe. I’m just not 100% sure you’re right. I also think that, especially as Stoics, we should all be more tolerant of others who happen to disagree with our beliefs. In any case, being so angry and sending me these emails and messages calling me names probably just does you more harm than good, my friend. If you ever want to talk about it in a sort of friendly dispassionate way feel free to get in touch, though. Thanks! 😉
Just out of curiosity, I polled my Facebook group for Stoicism to find out their religious views. Surprisingly, most of those who responded (n=663) are atheists, and agnostics like me are not the majority.
- 50% – I’m an atheist.
- 29% – I’m an agnostic.
- 14% – I believe God exists but I don’t believe he resembles the Stoic conception of Zeus or Providence.
- 8% – I believe God exists and he resembles the Stoic conception of Zeus or Providence.
So 78% are either atheists or agnostics, although they’re “into” Stoicism, and only 22% believe in God, either Stoic-style Zeus or some other definition.