The following article was written by Matt Jackson for Society of Epicurus.
When I first began seriously studying theology I was introduced to the concept of the Absolute. The Absolute does not belong to one tradition or religion, but rather it is an axiomatic answer to bottomless metaphysical speculation. The Absolute is the product of idealist philosophy that has overreached its goal and must give all rational and sensible thought to a vortex that absorbs all concepts. Anyone who has meditated on this concept must remain in some way close to a personalized image of God or risk being pulled into a whirling, undifferentiated reality that has no center. This is how one can experience what San Juan De Cruz coined “The Dark Night of the Soul” a feeling of utter existential crisis. To observe the attribute-less and divinely simple One, is to observe nothingness and void.
I can tell you that I experienced this feeling while deeply contemplating the works of Plotinus and the other Neoplatonic philosophers. This feeling repulsed me and I fled from all study and contemplation. I came to Naturalistic view of the physical world that elevated the natural world to what actually IS and not what is imagined. I remained agnostic to the concept of God and only pursued the natural disciplines that are obtainable with my faculties. I came to Epicurean philosophy after reading an introductory book on the subject and discovered an online community of likeminded philosophers seeking happiness as life’s goal. I realized that Natural philosophy’s end is with human happiness and it cannot have a higher goal. The Hedonistic Naturalism of Epicurus has helped me reevaluate what the goal of my life should be and not worry about unverifiable concepts that lead to anxiety
One thing that has come up since I began examining the works of Epicurus is the Epicurean concept of Deity. Since I have spent years studying the deities of various popular religions I feel it is necessary to differentiate between not only the particular deities, but also the philosophical lens in which they are viewed. We can start here in the present and move our way backwards. The God of popular monotheistic religion today bears only superficial resemblance to the deities of ancient cultures. We may start with the Judeo-Christian God who is closely related to the Arabian Islamic Allāh. As this God stands in the present, he has become an Omniscient and Ominpotent deity that has many contradictions within himself. We see this because of the heavy platonic influence on the early Church and Jewish thinkers. The earliest Church Fathers like Clement and Origen were students of Greek Philosophy and tried to fuse Christian thought with Greek concepts, likewise Jewish writers like Philo and Maimonides also elevated the negative theology of platonic and neoplatonic idealism to a very high level.
But this changes a God who is claimed to have attributes and a very particular personality (jealousy, anger, regret). Divine Simplicity becomes absurd when reading about the exploits of God in Genesis or 1 Enoch. The El/YHWH of the Hebrew Bible has far more in common with Ba’al, Marduk, and Indra than he does with the Absolute One of Plotinus and Numenius. The main difference between the El/YHWH and the others is that he has an absolute intolerance for the worship and presence of foreign deities, whether they exist or not, they are not to be thought of or worshipped. Thus it is impossible to reconcile the current theological and philosophical formulas with the earliest scriptures. So we have two different “Gods”, the original archetype that has form/personality that is shared across ancient cultures and the Absolute, divinely simple being that is simply a philosophical answer to a syllogism.
So where does that leave me? Well honestly, I denounce an abstract idealist entity. I find no pleasure in it and it cannot be reconciled with scriptures and the myths. The Epicurean concept of deity appears to be more in line with the original vision of what a god is. The Epicurean gods appear as physical beings that are perfectly happy in their own existence and do not meddle in the affairs of mortals. They are not creators, but rather role models for mortals to aspire to, whether they are truly real or merely allegorical thought objects. They are beings that CAN enjoy pleasure, whereas an attribute-less Absolute has no ability to take pleasure in anything. It is true that the Epicurean belief in deities is the equivalent to an agnostic Deism, basically the gods are recognized as existing, but they are not worried about. But truly an atheistic view is not incompatible and may even be more practical for many.
I am left with the gods of the Epicurean Garden and the old gods of Mount Sinai and Olympus as my only viable choices. The Absolute simply does not exist and any diluted theology that contains any influence of it IS foreign to the gods and is utterly rejected.
Looking at all these gods from the Epicurean lens I see that the natural world is all that exists and that gods (at least today and the last 2300 years) do not come thundering down from the mountains with lightning bolts in hand. So I lean toward the Epicurean view that if the gods are indeed real, then they are utterly absent from human affairs and do not supernaturally intervene. It is simple to see this fact every day. It requires no oracle or priest to confirm it.
So as the first line of the Tetrapharmakos says: Ἄφοβον ὁ θεός”: Don’t Fear God. And truly we shouldn’t, we should enjoy our lives as gods among men and not worry about supernatural superstitions or the complex imaginings of philosophers.