n Greek mythology, twelve gods lived atop Mount Olympus and the mightiest of them all was named Zeus.
Mount Olympus is a real place. It’s in Thessaly, in the northeast of Greece. You can go touch it. You can hike to the top and sign your name in a guest book. If you wish to reach the Mytikas summit, the highest peak, be prepared to scramble on hands and feet over loose scree for the last portion of the ascent, and keep an open eye for winged horses, multi-headed dogs, and man-eating birds with beaks of bronze.
It is not clear that the Mount Olympus in Thessaly is the same Mount Olympus described in Greek mythology, but it could have been. The point is that once, long ago, gods were believed to live in actual material places, and were thought to be actual material beings. They were immortal and had various super powers, like the ability to throw lightning bolts or to control the seas. And they could interact with the world physically when they wished, as when they mated with humans.
When I say that the gods were material, it should be stipulated that ancient people thought of matter differently than we do. They had no scientific theory of gravity. They couldn’t have dreamed of quantum mechanics. Newton’s three laws of motions, the four laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell’s equations, and E=mc2 were all centuries away. Moreover, the practice of studying nature methodically in order to maximize objectivity was exceptionally uncommon in those days. Theories about the world did not need to be testable and falsifiable, and superstitious thinking was the norm. There was no fine line between the natural and the supernatural.
But Greece was also home to philosophers who began to see some of the logical problems with anthropomorphic gods. The philosopher Xenophanes (c.570 – c.475 BC) complained, “Homer and Hesiod attribute all things to the gods, as many causes for reproach and faults as there are among men: theft and adultery and deceiving one another.” He realized that gods in various cultures, including the Greek gods, tended to behave like the people who worshiped them. And to look like them.
[M]ortals think that the gods are born, and that they have a crown and clothes and a voice and body…
But if cows or horses or lions had hands
or could write with their appendages and create the sort of works that men do,
horses would also draw images of the gods similar to horses,
and cows similar to cows, and they would make the bodies of the gods the same as the form which they each possess.
The Ethiopians say that their gods are flat nosed and black
and the Thracians that they have blue-eyes and flame red hair.
Around this time, a strain arose in Greek philosophy called atomism. The philosopher Leucippus and his pupil Democritus, and later the great philosopher Epicurus, were atomists. The atomists intuited that the world must be comprised of tiny, indivisible bits of matter called atoms. Not surprisingly, they got most of the details about atoms wrong. For example, we now know that atoms are quite divisible. (And the Greeks never could have guessed the interesting effects that can occur when atoms are split.) Never-the-less, it is remarkable how much the atomists got right, considering they had no electron microscopes or particle accelerators and lived a few hundred years before the birth of Christ.
The atomists were empiricists, and they had a problem with the gods. There simply wasn’t good evidence for the existence of immortal, human-like beings that intervened in human affairs. And since the gods were supposedly material, the absence of evidence seemed to provide evidence of absence. Epicurus thought the gods existed but never intervened in human affairs (a stance akin to deism). As for Leucippus and Democritus, it is usually assumed that they were atheists.
Two positive things may be said about ancient polytheists: their gods were easy to conceptualize because they were physical beings, and the existence of evil in the world was completely consistent with their religious beliefs because their gods were just as petty as people. It was these attributes, though, that made polytheism vulnerable to rational thought. Difficult questions naturally arose:
If the gods are physical, why can’t we see them? Why can’t we walk up Mount Olympus and spy on them? Perhaps the material effects we’ve attributed to the gods, like lightning in the sky and storms at sea, have natural causes. Just because we don’t understand those natural causes doesn’t mean the gods must exist. If gods are material beings we ought to see more than their effects; we ought to see them. And if the gods are just as petty as we are, why should we worship them? Do we worship the gods merely because we are weak and fearful?
In ancient times, weakness and fear were totally legitimate reasons to be religious. The world was a cruel place. When people looked out their windows (or the holes in their mud huts that passed for windows) they saw floods, famines, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, plagues, wars, and lightning storms, and they didn’t fully understand any of them. The gods were the personification of the forces the ancients saw in their world, and in this way the gods were quite real. Lightning is loud, powerful, and dangerous. It might even be described as angry, capricious, and merciless, adjectives we normally reserve for people. In a sense, lightning has a personality. In the absence of a scientific understanding of atmospheric electrostatic discharges, it must seem quite plausible that a temperamental fellow like Zeus must be behind it all.
In all probability, you, dear reader, do not believe that Zeus exists, and might even find the notion laughable. But why don’t you believe in Zeus?
The main reason is that you were not inculcated with a belief in Zeus while young. The existence of Zeus was not accepted by your family or your society.
Imagine, though, that you were transported through time and space to ancient Greece. Imagine that the religionists you meet there tell you that Zeus is real and you should worship him. Surely the burden of proof lies with the Zeus worshippers, not with you. They must use logical arguments to prove to you that Zeus exists. Would any of the following arguments convince you to agree with them that their anthropomorphic sky god exists?
- Although people in other regions have different beliefs, a majority of people in the region where we reside happen to believe in Zeus, therefore Zeus must exist.
- You cannot prove Zeus does not exist, therefore Zeus must exist.
- Believing in Zeus provides benefits, like making it easier to fit within our Zeus-worshipping society, therefore Zeus must exist.
- Studies show that people who don’t believe in Zeus are less happy than people who do, therefore Zeus must exist. (The fact that people who don’t believe in Zeus are unhappy has nothing to do with the fact that we ostracize, vilify, and persecute them.)
- We don’t understand what causes lightning storms, therefore Zeus must exist.
- We fear death and want reassurance that death isn’t final, therefore Zeus must exist.
- If you don’t believe what we want you to believe we will kill you, therefore Zeus must exist.
Xenophanes rejected the materiality and pettiness of the gods, but he was no atheist. He decided that there must be one god greater than all others – “Not at all like mortals in either form or mind.”
Around the same time Xenophanes made this proclamation, monotheism was catching on in Judah. The Jews had long favored one god above all others, but now they decided this fellow was not just the greatest, but the only god. They called him Yahweh.
-  Adapted from a translation (trans. Mayo) of Diels-Kranz Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, see http://www.vorsokratiker.com/xenophanes/fragmenta.htm ↩