On the New York Times website, University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting asks the question we’re all dying to hear the answer to: Did Zeus Exist?
I thought it was a joke… turns out Gutting is totally sincere about the question:
The standard line of thought seems to be that we have no evidence at all for [Zeus’] 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.
The “evidence” that he refers to is the experience of Greek people who really believed in the Ancient Gods… and if they all believed in the Gods, there must have been a good reason, right?
Wrong. Hell, there are smart people now who believe in a higher power and they have access to so much more knowledge than the Greeks did thousands of years ago.
Gutting attempted to respond to that objection:
… [People may object:] 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.
As a commenter on the site notes, this is precisely what the whole Flying Spaghetti Monster idea is all about. Just because some people can claim to have experienced “noodly goodness,” it has no bearing on whether or not FSM exists. Without any real evidence to verify FSM’s existence, then the only logical conclusion is that we shouldn’t believe in the silly idea.
Don’t act like this is an “unanswerable” question. We don’t have to be Zeus-agnostics. We can be Zeus-atheists and say we don’t believe in Him.
In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”
I think we just found an example of how thinking too much about something can make you oblivious to the obvious. This argument could easily be applied to Elvis sightings, Bigfoot, and angels — and there’s no reason to be agnostic about any of those things. This is the Flying Teapot argument all over again. You may think you saw something, but until you offer up more evidence, I’m going to assume you just had a hallucination.
By the way, we mock the people who believe in the Greek Gods now because we expect them to know better. When we think of the Ancient Greeks, we accept that they believed in the Gods because they didn’t have natural explanations for the phenomena they experienced. The fictional answers were all they had, so they clung to them and passed them down. Who could blame them?
Here’s a better question: If certain readers believe in God but dismiss Zeus, why are their reasons for belief any different from those of the Ancient Greeks?
Paul Fidalgo summarizes how he and I and I’m sure many others felt after reading that:
… I’m a little gobsmacked that this idea is being taken seriously in this form. Of course, it’s no sillier, really, than making the same kinds of arguments for Yahweh or Jesus, but I had thought that at the very least we as a species had left Zeus and company behind.
(Thanks to Matt for the link)