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.
Written By: Gary Gutting | The New York Timescontinue to source article at opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com