A Supernatural Past?
An exceptionally bad piece by Gary Gutting appeared on the New York Times opinion pages a few days ago, regarding the question “Did Zeus Exist?”. I won’t spend too long fisking the post, rather I’ll try to use it as a springboard to raise a more interesting issue, and relate it to the position of strong atheism.
Gutting’s argument is essentially that the Greeks believed in Zeus as a result of their experiences. We have, claims Gutting, no reason to deny these experiences (since they lie in the past, out of our reach), and so we have no reason to deny that Zeus existed.
To the objection that we have no evidence for the supernatural today, Gutting replies:
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.
Gutting is wrong, we do have a reason to think the same was true of the Greek world. Our reason is that by making an inference to the best explanation, we assume that the natural world operates uniformly. Our admiration for Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants depends upon our assumption that it was as difficult to do so then as it is now (without using modern technology), i.e. Hannibal’s world wasn’t such that it would have been trivially easy to cross the Alps with elephants. Or, when we consider the evidence against a defendant in court, we assume that the laws of logic and physics held the same in their local environment as they do for us in ours.
Now, that isn’t to say that we have 100% certainty regarding these inferences. Abduction is probabilistic, after all. The Greeks might have been living in a supernatural world, just as we (as Russell wittily put it) may have come into existence five minutes ago complete with holes in our socks. But these (Occam’s Razor is relevant here) aren’t the best explanations. The best explanation is that the Greeks’ claims of supernatural events are rather like the claims of supernatural events we witness today, and may be dismissed for the same reasons (which I won’t go into here). One is not justified in believing that the Greeks lived in a supernatural world any more than I am justified in believing that I am five minutes old.
Zeus and Strong Atheism
A while ago I stated my intention to consider the problem of justifying what I (and I’d suggest most other atheists) believe, namely that there are no gods, rather than limiting ourselves to the weaker position, that we simply lack a belief in the existence of gods. Now, it follows from this that we believe that Zeus does not exist either. I’ll add another clarification here: I am claiming not only that Zeus does not exist but also that he never existed. The world is such that no gods of any variety played a part in its history or genesis.
This is easily justified. If we do not live in a supernatural world today then, by an inference to the best explanation, we did not live in a supernatural world in the time that Zeus would have been around. If one wanted to show that Zeus had once existed (if Gutting had made a stronger claim) then they would have to provide some reason to think that the world we inhabit now is either a supernatural one, or that it was once supernatural. If the latter case is to be defended, there would need to be some reason for thinking that the world was once supernatural, i.e. it is not enough to take the same tack as Gutting, saying simply that we don’t have a reason to suppose that the world was the same in the past.
How Zeus Helps to Defend Strong Atheism
Why did I bring Zeus into this question? The answer is that I think he helps illustrate just what the issue is. We’re trying to show that anything we’d justly call a ‘god’ does not exist. Zeus is not perfect, ‘all-good’ or ‘all-loving’. The problem of evil is no problem for believers in Zeus, and I’d suggest that neither is the argument from divine hiddennness. I’ll consider the latter at some point in the future. For now, it is enough to note that prima facie, divine hiddenness would have been no issue for the Greeks.
I think that this makes a defence of strong atheism both easier and more difficult, in different ways. More difficult, because we have to rule out all gods – we can’t just find some conceptual inconsistency in the traits of the God of Christianity, say. We have to provide evidence (or philosophical reasons to believe) that Zeus, Poseidon, Allah and Shiva do not (and never did) exist. Easier, because to my mind it simplifies things. What is it about gods that makes us disbelieve in them? We do not have to get into tricky issues raised by highly sophisticated theologians or impractically long holy books, or worry about defining God in a way that her believers will happy agree with. This is the most interesting question, to me, and it is the one I on which I hope to make headway in future posts.