When my children were little, they liked to play “Mother, May I?” At one point, I combined the game with an early introduction to classical culture, changing the key question to “Zeus, May I?” with an imaginary thunderbolt throwing back anyone forgetting to ask permission.
Reminiscing about this recently, I asked the kids if they had thought that Zeus was real. “Well,” one said, “I knew he didn’t exist anymore, but figured that he did back in ancient Greece.” This set me thinking about why we are so certain that Zeus never existed. Of course, we are in no position to say that he did. But are we really in a position to say that he didn’t?
The standard line of thought seems to be that we have no evidence at all for his existence and so have every right to deny it. Perhaps there is no current evidence of his existence — certainly no reports of avenging thunderbolts or of attempted seductions, no sightings around Mount Olympus. But back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence, enough in any case to make his reality unquestioned among most members of a rapidly advancing Greek civilization. Further, as this civilization developed the critical tools of historiography and philosophy, Zeus’s reality remained widely unquestioned. Socrates and Plato criticized certain poetic treatments, which showed Zeus and the gods in an unworthy light. But they never questioned the very existence of the gods, and Socrates regularly followed the dictates of his daimon, a personal divine guide. There were many questions about the true nature of the divine, but few about its existence.
Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges? What evidence seemed decisive to the ancient Greeks? Robert Parker, in his recent authoritative survey, “On Greek Religion,” emphasizes the role of what the Greeks saw as experiences of divine actions in their lives. ”The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster,” with by far the most emphasis given to the perils of ignoring the gods. There were also rituals, associated with the many cults of specific gods, that for some worshippers “created a sense of contact with the divine. One knows that the gods exist because one feels their presence during the drama of the mysteries or the elation of the choral dance.” More broadly, there were “epiphanies” that could “indicate not merely a visible or audible epiphany (whether in the light of day or through a dream . . .) but also any clear expression of a god’s favor such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure; it may also be used of the continuing disposition of a god or goddess to offer manifest assistance.”
Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations. But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do? What decisive reason do we have for thinking that for them divinity was not a widely and deeply experienced fact of life? If we cannot eliminate this as a real possibility, shouldn’t we hold a merely agnostic position on Zeus and the other Greek gods, taking seriously the possibility that they existed but holding that we have good reason neither to assert nor deny their existence?
Let’s consider some objections.
1. Once you take seriously the possibility of Zeus, you have to do the same for all the other gods that some people somewhere have worshiped. Reply: This is a problem only if you have a predisposition to monotheism, and even the great monotheistic religions allow for a variety of lesser supernatural beings (angels, demons) variously allied or opposed to the hegemonic deity. Or the plethora of local gods can be regarded as various manifestations of the One God.
2. The fact that many people have believed in Zeus does not show that they had any evidence for his existence, and there’s every reason to deny the existence of something for which there is no evidence. Reply: Yes, but the people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies. There’s no reason for us to accept this claim, but we have no reason for thinking they were wrong.
3. But we do have reason for thinking they were wrong. Their society inculcated them from infancy with belief in Zeus and the other gods. There was constant affirmation and no tolerance for doubts because divine authority was the basis of social and political authority. Given this brainwashing, it’s no surprise that people thought they experienced Zeus, even though they didn’t. Reply: Yes, but why did the society so insist on belief in the gods? We may assume it’s simply for the sake of social control. But the reason could just as well be that everyone was rightly convinced — from their own and others’ experiences — that the gods existed. Then the control would derive from the belief, not vice versa.
4. We know that all manner of religious experiences can be produced by electrochemical alterations of the brain. There’s no reason to assume that anything else was going on in the Greeks’ alleged experiences of Zeus. Reply: In principle, any experience of our daily lives can be produced by electrochemical alternations of the brain, but this does not show that, for example, I did not actually eat breakfast or talk to my wife this morning.
5. The modern development of science leaves no rational room for appeals to supernatural forces. Unlike the Greeks, we have good reason to believe that everything in their world could have been explained by natural laws, with no divine intervention. Reply: This response has force only if we assume that there is very little likelihood of a world that contains supernatural forces. But we have no a priori basis for such an assumption. We may well think that our world contains little or no evidence of the supernatural. But that is no reason to think the same was true of the Greek world.
On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded. There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption. Further, supposing that Zeus did exist in ancient times, do we really have evidence that he has ceased to exist? He may, for all we know, just be in hiding (as Heine’s delightful “Gods in Exile” suggests), now that other gods have won humankind’s allegiance. Or it may be that we have lost the ability to perceive the divine. In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”