Is Stoicism Compatible With Your Religion?

And if not, why not?

I do a lot of writing, and sometimes it’s difficult to come up with topics that I either (a) haven’t written about over a dozen times or (b) that I can successfully produce 1000+ words on every Monday morning.

So, last week I put out a call for writing prompts.

I received a lot of responses (all excellent), including this one from reader Jordan R:

Having grown up in a Presbyterian church, I’m interested in the ways Stoicism influenced early church leaders like St Augustine and Christian ethics. There are a lot of parallels. Highlights of Greek v Roman Stoicism. Romans making tranquility an end in itself, perhaps? I may have that wrong. 

There are two parts to Jordan’s contribution – the latter being the differences between Greek and Roman flavours of Stoicism – but I’m going to choose to be inspired by only the former today: the parallels between Stoicism and, I’ll say, “Abrahamic Religions” – which include Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Stoicism and Abrahamic Religions (from here on just “religion” or “religions”) are not compatible.

Before diving into what individual aspects of Stoicism might be able to be adopted by a person of one of these faiths while not requiring them to entirely alter their religious beliefs, I will explain why I think this.

Religions (of the traditions I’ve mentioned) do two things Stoicism does not, and cannot do.

  1. Personify God, make him a personal, and attach an entire mythos to him

  2. Determine what is moral by asking “would god approve of this?” and then working through the written words of the [choose your holy book]’s many authors to suss out whether or not he would.

While one can absolutely employ a handful of Stoic practices as a religious devotee of, for example, Islam, that same individual could not identify as a Stoic and a Muslim any more than one could identify as both a Hindu and a Christian.

The foundational beliefs of each of these philosophies for living (be they philosophies, like Stoicism, or religions, like Judaism) conflict with the foundational beliefs of each of the others.

Imagine someone claimed to be a Christian Muslim.

How would that work?

That person would have to simultaneously hold many conflicting beliefs.

One such example: Christianity is built upon the foundational belief that Jesus was the son of God. Islam, on the other hand, believes Jesus was only a prophet in a line of prophets which lead to the most recent prophet Muhammad .

How could one believe both of these things at the same time?

In order to call oneself “a Stoic”, it is the case that one must satisfy the same range of criteria that they would have to satisfy if they were to call themselves a Muslim (or anything else) – but they are significantly different, and frequently mutually exclusive, criteria.

Religions purport that God is a supernatural entity with a mind and a plan. Religious adherents believe that some humans have gained insights into that mind and have faithfully written down, without personal interpretation or motivation, the ideas of God himself — they have brought the very word of God to us to read, hear, and abide by.

Stoicism purports that God is wholly natural, and is, in fact, Nature itself — the entire cosmos — and that everything in the cosmos is part of God’s body and so has a piece of God in them. Adherents of Stoicism believe nothing could be better than knowing how to be a useful part of the body of God, and spend their entire lives attempting to live in accordance with the flow of Nature.

These are very different philosophies!

That doesn’t mean a Stoic cannot take a verse from the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, or even the Mahabharata or the Kojiki and say, “I rather like that bit of text there, and I can shoehorn it into my Stoic practice because it doesn’t require me to abandon anything about my Stoic practice.”

But if a Stoic were to say, “Allah is God, and Muhammad his latest prophet, and the Quran is the word of God,” they would have to abandon almost every single aspect of Stoicism from every single topoi (Cosmology, Logic, Ethics) to make that statement and to live as if they truly believed it.

A Stoic does not live like a Muslim.

A Muslim does not live like a Stoic.

Hopefully all of that is clear and comprehensible.

Both Religion and Philosophy are incredibly intellectual endeavors

It is not appreciated in contemporary times just what religions really are.

Religions are attempts to answer everything about creation, life, living, and death. Many philosophies are the same, and this is especially true of Stoicism.

The founders of these ideas (the Abrahamic religions, Stoicism, and countless other philosophies and religions) were trying to provide an answer to every single big and small question about life and living.

Stoicism is such a well-regarded philosophy, even today, in part, because of just how audacious an undertaking it was. It’s a philosophy that goes as far as to attempt to explain how the universe was created. It asks incredibly difficult questions and answers them within a framework that took more than 200 years to establish.

And the founders and formalizers of Stoicism did this in a world where people still thought Zeus created thunderstorms and Poseidon caused earthquakes!

The shapers of all philosophies, and monotheistic religions deserve a similar amount of credit for their “intellectual rigor” — no one came up with the tenets of Christianity in an evening, after all. The founders of these religions were deep thinkers trying to provide a system for living that made logical sense within the frameworks they were trying to create.

I doubt you or I could manage to do the same if we had the rest of our lives to do it.

With this in mind, it’s a rather silly idea to think we could mix any combination of religions or philosophies without, in the end, being forced to create entirely new religions or philosophies. Yes we might create a Christian-Stoicism synthesis but the wouldn’t be Christianity or Stoicism, it would be something else. It also doesn’t seem like it would work well, just ask Justus Lipsius (founder of the failed Neostoicism movement).

But what are the parallels?

There might only be one, and it comes in the form of a question:

How does a human being go about living a life that approaches the ideal manner of living as a human being?

Once a philosophy or religion asks this question, and its founders set out to work answering it in their own way, it seems unlikely that there will be too many opportunities for other founders of other “answers” to co-opt their ideas when to do so would necessitate an abandonment of their long-worked-toward answer.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice, practice, practice”, says the old saying, but “how do you practice?” is a question with an infinite number of answers.

It’s easy to agree that one must make an effort, but how to go about making that effort is a much harder thing to agree on.

St. Augustine likely thought of the Stoics as “being on the right track”, which is both a little condescending and a little admiring, but thought they couldn’t be completely correct.

To St. Augustine, God was a being interested in the morals of human beings, who ruled over heaven and judged people worth of salvation or eternal damnation — how could the Stoic God be part of the answers he was working to validate?

Here’s what Branden W. Case (Associate Director for Research at Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program) says about Augustine, and I think my point will be more clear (if it isn’t already clear enough):

Augustine and the Stoics agreed that human flourishing is fragile if it depends on any external goods, but the Stoics took this to show that virtue alone suffices for our happiness, whereas, for Augustine, it proved that true flourishing is impossible except in the kingdom of God.

This is the tone of Christian Ethics in general.

Something is “ethical,” in Christianity, if God would do it himself or approve of it in general.

In Stoicism, it is less top-down than it is inside-out.

We Stoics don’t ask what God would “think” about our actions, we reason whether our choices and actions reflect the possession of perfect moral knowledge. We also reason that perfect moral knowledge is highly contextual and depends on roles, skills, and relationships.

This alone makes Stoicism far too “subjective” for any serious adherent of any religion to attempt to fold into their faith.

But, referring again to the shallow bits of Stoicism, yes, a Christian (for example) could look at Stoic texts and say of Meditations 2.1 (below) for example, “I think this is a great way of looking at life! I’m going to fold it into my daily behaviour.”

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not [only] of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in [the same] intelligence and [the same] portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.“

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (2.1)

What about this sentiment from Marcus wouldn’t fit with Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism?

None! As an isolated snippet “of Stoicism” (or, more appropriately of Stoic thinking) it is entirely compatible.

However, the cosmology (and, so, also, the logic) behind it is categorically not compatible. This is why my wife (a Muslim convert) and I (a Stoic) can agree on so much while disagree frequently about the justifications for our shared positions.

A parting note…

If you are a religious person, don’t dig too much into Stoicism unless you want to find yourself confronting difficult questions, such as:

  1. Do I identify with Stoicism more than I identify with my religion? And, if I do…

  2. Should I abandon my faith in favor of the philosophy of Stoicism?

Stoicism might well be the final nail in the coffin of a religion you’ve been drifting from for years! And the same could be said of religion for individual Stoics who feel Stoicism is missing something important to them!

But these sorts of uncomfortable moments are what philosophy is all about! So, I encourage you to go digging. Just be ready to find stuff that make life a little less simple than you might presently believe it is.

Philosophy is funny like that (and so is religion).

Take care.

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