I Can’t Believe I Have to Say This, but Zeus (Almost Certainly) Didn’t Exist

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.

Gutting disagrees:

In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”

*Sigh*

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)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    Heh. I left a comment as M. Here it is:

    I assign the likelihood that Zeus exists or ever existed the exact same amount of likelihood I do for any gods: so close to zero that it might as well be. Could it be theoretically possible there are deities of some sort? Yeah, sure, and there could also be fairies and Russell’s teapot and invisible pink unicorns and flying invisible dragons that breathe heatless fire that live in my garage and a Flying Spaghetti Monster and walruses living inside Pluto and anything we can possibly imagine. They could all exist.

    Given the lack of evidence, though, would you say you remain agnostic on the existence of fairies and unicorns? Would you give any credence to a claim that I had an invisible dragon who breathed heatless fire and left no tracks or scat living in my garage? Of course we assume the world has very little likelihood of supernatural stuff; there isn’t any evidence for it. To quote a very wise and funny man:

    Isn’t this enough?

    Just this world?

    Just this beautiful, complex
    Wonderfully unfathomable, NATURAL world?
    How does it so fail to hold our attention
    That we have to diminish it with the invention
    Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?
    -Tim Minchin, from his poem Storm

    • eric

      Arguing from (mere) philosophical possibility seems to be a recent trend. I believe Plantinga has done it, now this guy is doing it, and I’ve seen a couple trolls on other fora do it too.
      There is no need to be agnostic towards possible explanations because it is rational to favor the best explanations over the others. Yes, fairies could be chewing on my garden carrots. That’s possible. But mere possibility provides no good reason to be agnostic in the great fairy vs. rabbit debate.

      • baal

        You could also set up a cam with a motion detector and prove that it’s rodents in your case. With some suspicion, I bet everytime there is a recording of carrots being gnawed, it’s a normal physically existant animal doing the gnawing. Further, I’ll take bets that it’s never the fairies caught on film and that every time the cam is otherwise working, the gnaw marks are attributable to the animals.

    • Deus Otiosus

      And Tim Minchin should send you a thank-you note. I just bought his entire discography from iTunes after reading that comment.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        Always glad to turn someone on to his stuff. He’s one of my favorite artists and comedians.

        • Deus Otiosus

          Well I’ve seen a few of his YouTube videos before (if you’re involved in the atheist “movement” and you haven’t heard of Tim Minchin, then you’re NOT involved in the atheist movement) but after your comment I googled the poem and read the whole thing. The man is a genius.

    • JET

      I never thought anyone could come close to George Carlin until I discovered Tim Minchin. The man is brilliant.

  • koseighty

    I thought Star Trek answered the question of the Greek gods for us long ago.

    In the absence of other evidence I accept their explanation: Ancient Space Aliens

    • Kpax2013

      Now this is a god I’d like to believe in.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        Meh. I’ll bet Thor could kick his ass.

        • 3lemenope

          CA: “Now just put down the hammer…”

          IM: “Oh, poor choice of words. He really likes his hammer.”

          Thor: “You want me to bring down the hammer?!”

    • baal

      Before I start to worship him, I want to see what’s under his skirt – tunic – toga.

    • CottonBlimp

      The funniest part of this episode is when Kirk goes “we have no more use for gods… just the one.”

      I still can’t tell is this is intended to make Christianity look silly, or if it’s actually that lacking in self-awareness.

  • averydashwood

    When I encountered this article in theTimes I assumed the author was circuitously trying to illustrate how weak the case for divinity is.

    • koseighty

      I love divinity — sugar suspended in floofy, fluffy air. mmmmmmmmmm.

    • Bob

      That’s how I read it too

      • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

        Yes, I also thought it was an attempt at satire, but it was subtle enough that a lot of people are going to miss it. Perhaps it needs a winking smiley to pull it out of “Poe’s Law” territory.

  • Ian Holloway

    Can happen with detectives investigating a case. They can think they’ve cracked it and then build the evidence around it unknowingly.

  • http://zachsmind.wordpress.com/ ZachsMind

    If Zeus isn’t real then where do all those lightning bolts come from whenever it rains? You sciencey types expect us to believe in electrostatic discharges that just come out of nowhere? Likely story! You can’t disprove that Zeus isn’t shooting lightning out of his ass when no one’s looking, can you? So there! Nyeah! ZEUS IS RISEN! Look to the yeast!

    • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

      They com from Thor you Hellenistic heretic! Just you wait till you are smitten!

      • Artor

        Sorry, buddy, but here in ‘Merika, we get all that from the Thunderbird. It’s the flash of it’s celestial headlights, and the roar of it’s V8 engine.

        • Tainda

          You all are wrong! It’s Ukko!

        • baal

          Actually, here in America it is the Thunderbird god of the Native Americans that creates the lightning. Mr.ZappyFlappy keeps Thor (and metaphysical cars) off our soils.

        • Monika Jankun-Kelly

          I shake my head at all you silly people and your nonsensical baseless superstitions, confident in my belief that Orisha, the one true lightning god, does the zapping. He sends the loa to ride us! There you go, evidence, bam! Checkmate, empiricists!

        • Stev84

          Thor and Odin defeated the ice giants. There are no ice giants now. Explain that!

    • DougI

      Nonsense, everyone knows Jupiter creates thunder and lightning. And don’t buy into those notions that there’s historical parallels between Jupiter and Zeus, that’s just Norse propaganda.

      • Vision_From_Afar

        Okay, even as a pagan, that was funny.

        • 3lemenope

          The first clue that one’s religion is a shitty one is that it will not endure a joke. I think this is the real root of why the Internet is so threatening to Christianity. Information is information; you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Mockery, on the other hand, scores points whether or not you want it to.

  • Machintelligence

    OT but possibly of interest: Looking at the illustration for the article, what is the man walking his dog seeing in the water to make him upset? There is no way that he could see the reflection of the statue (or lack of it ) from where he is standing. Remember that for a mirror, angle of reflection equals angle of incidence, so he could see someone in our position, but not what is behind him.

    • aaa

      ducks

      • GubbaBumpkin

        Vicious killer ducks.

    • Deus Otiosus

      Sharks with frikkin laser beams.

  • http://be.net/mattcoddington matt

    One of the better arguments for atheism I’ve heard. #praisezeus

  • C Peterson

    The fact that people once believed in Zeus doesn’t argue for the existence of Zeus so much as it argues against the existence of the other 9 billion gods people have worshiped over the millennia… right up to the present crop.

    • Burrabobbit

      Since 8 billion of those 9 billion are Hindu gods, there is an 88.89% chance that the hindu god(s) exist.

      • C Peterson

        No, they are 88.89% more likely to exist. And 88.89% of a very small probability remains a very small probability.

  • advancedatheist

    Well, at least we better reasons for believing in the existence of mermaids, according to Animal Planet. Otherwise the lives of the people who drown at sea wouldn’t have any meaning.

  • advancedatheist

    But what about:

    Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant.

    If the Greek gods and goddesses don’t exist, then physicians who take the Hippocratic Oath do so in vain, and they have no basis for practicing medicine ethically:

    • captain_picard

      Oh snap!

  • http://bearlyatheist.wordpress.com/ Bear Millotts

    Well, Zeus came over to my house the other day and he and Odin got into it. Both turned to me, demanding worship and burnt sacrifices. I gave each of them a burnt piece of toast (I had set the toaster oven too high) and kicked them out. My wife told me she didn’t want either in the house anymore.

    True story! Checkmate, Atheists!

    • allein

      I knew Odin personally. He was a black lab. Sweet dog.

      • Artor

        Uh, the Odin I know is a big white husky. But we know he’s a tricky shapeshifter. There’s proof!

        • allein

          Well, the Odin I knew is gone now, so you might be right…!

  • cipher

    I’m surprised he can get away with this at Notre Dame.

    • baal

      I think he’s ok with the ND peeps on this. Gutting is countering atheism (popularly represented as ‘no god(s)’) with arguments for agnosticism and it looks like an intentional anti-thesis to the “Do you believe in Zeus? Me, Neither! Turns out we are both not believing many gods. The difference is I don’t believe in one more than you” argument.

  • Lt_Uhura

    Oh no, does this mean that Aphrodite does not exist either?

  • Mitch

    Somebody get Dr. Shormann in here to do some testable, repeatable science on this!

    • EvolutionKills

      +1 for callback.

  • captain_picard

    Ooooooh this article made me mad. “Oh, here’s an aspect of an ancient culture that I’ve heard about. Why don’t I make a lot of assumptions based on what I want to be true? I’ll pretend that the ancient world agrees with me in a super vague way so people don’t realize that I am pulling this out of my ass instead of ancient texts. Yay, everybody clap for me!”

    Imbecile.

  • JET

    I think he’s just trying to out FSM the FSMists…

    • baal

      I’m very certain I’ve been touched by a noodly appendage and I sincerely hope it belonged to the FSM because I’m not liking the likely alternative.*

      *I’d also like to have a time travel devise to zip forward 1000 years to see if the FSM religion really gets off the ground and takes over an entire State (like Utah, only different).

  • WingedBeast

    Well, give him this much. They’re the same arguments people are using today. It’s just that most people who use those arguments seem to believe that they only work for their particularly chosen deity. This person’s at least consistent.

  • Amakudari

    You know, what really bugs me about articles like this is the subtext. It’s an important caveat that, to be intellectually honest, we cannot prove a negative and agnosticism is proper. That’s why Matrix-style apologetics love these “arguments.”

    But it’s deliberately misleading to argue for agnosticism without alluding to the weakness of the evidence for gods and the total failure of inquiry to confirm religious hypotheses. Turns out that our telescopes didn’t find Helios, snakes don’t have vocal cords, there’s nowhere for the water to go in a worldwide flood, there are no records of the zombie uprising in Jerusalem or Jewish slavery in Egypt, the Japanese imperial line is descended from Koreans not gods, and the world does not rest on the back of a turtle. We, on the other hand, have been able to reproduce hallucinations, find real issues with subjective experience and hearsay, and find reasons for ancient societies to promote religion irrespective of its truth.

    If you’re spending more time focused on Matrix scenarios that would confirm Christianity (Gutting is Catholic, which I don’t believe he mentions), you’re not just missing the point. You’re cherry-picking.

    “What if, like, we’re all part of some computer program? And, like, Jesus is the programmer?”
    “Deep, man.”

    • Scott McGreal

      I think matrix-style apologetics is a good way of putting it. He counters the objection that “all manner of religious experiences can be produced by electrochemical alterations of the brain” by arguing that anything at all we experience could be a hallucination. This would seem to imply some form of universal agnosticism about what we can know, which is on par with saying everything we experience could actually be a computer simulation. What he does not bother to consider is that apparently hallucinatory experiences of feeling a divine presence lack independent corroborating evidence that they refer to anything real, whereas most day-to-day experiences (like having breakfast, one of the examples he uses) can in principle be verified by independent observers. His argument seems to be saying that because our memories are subject to error then all bets are off, and any and all subjective experiences people have should be treated as equally valid. But this is not true, there are good reasons to think that our day-to-day sensory experiences refer to real things, but there are not equally good reasons to think that religious experiences emanate from some objectively real source.

      • Scott McGreal

        I was just reminded of this quote by Cicero: “There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.”
        As true today as ever!

  • compl3x

    No, really, where is the part where he comes out and says “Ha, just kidding everyone!”?

    • GubbaBumpkin

      That doesn’t come until after he cashes his last paycheck from the pope.

  • EvolutionKills

    So, using his reasoning, he’s an agnostic ateapotist in regards to orbiting celestial teapots? Good to know…

  • jantoresandvik

    Reading the subtext, I’m pretty sure that he’s well aware that all his arguments for Zeus can be used for Yahwe, and he’s trying to get christians to challenge what reasons they use to justify their beliefs.

    Either that, or he’s just trolling.

    • EvolutionKills

      It depends on how self aware he is. It’s my understanding that he is a devout Catholic. His writing could be taken to show how flawed belief in Yahweh is; or that if the Greek’s reasoning was good enough for them it should be good enough for us now. I’m inclined to think he’s leaning more towards the later than the former, but I wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised.

  • LesterBallard

    I would rather that the “Great Spirit” and the “Happy Hunting Grounds” be real.

  • Yoav

    I thought Zeus was the guy who helped John McClain stop Alan Rickman’s brother in Die Hard 3.

    • 3lemenope

      “Yeah, Zeus. As in father of Apollo? Mt. Olympus? Don’t fuck with me or I’ll shove a lightning bolt up your ass? Zeus! You got a problem with that?”

  • Mick

    He’s a devout Catholic. He’s not trying to convince others that there are good reasons to assume the existence Zeus. He’s trying to convince himself that he has good reason to assume the existence of Yahweh.

  • Anna

    I’m confused. I thought Catholics generally believed that Yahweh was masquerading as those other gods, in order to connect with those cultures on their own level. Something like that. Isn’t their view that supernatural stories from other cultures are evidence of “the one true myth” (C.S. Lewis?) and that Zeus was, in effect, Yahweh in disguise?

  • Ralph1Waldo

    This was indeed a bizarre piece, no less so for those of us who are frequent NYT readers. I must say I kept reading, waiting for a punchline, or at least a sign that the author was engaging in some kind of tongue-in-cheek exercise. I’m still not *completely* convinced it isn’t thickly disguised satire.

  • Michael

    I could accept Zeus existing.

    Not given the evidence we have now, of course. Not enough to go out and anger the half a billion other potential gods by singling out Zeus specifically as real, but the Inverse Pascal’s Wager states that we should leave all potential gods alone until such a time as we have evidence as to which ones exist, because if we get it wrong the results are potentially catastrophic.

    Or in short: There’s probably no Zeus, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

  • Stev84

    There were several Greek philosophers and scientists (or what would have been considered one later) who didn’t believe in the gods and thought they were just stories. I’m pretty sure there were doubters in the general population as well.

    • Gus Snarp

      I’m pretty strongly inclined to think that well educated Greeks were, like well educated people today, far less likely to believe in gods than the general public. In other words, the claims of the ancient Greeks are exactly like claims of modern Christians: unsubstantiated, and not agreed on by knowledgeable people who understand the mechanisms behind them.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      There were several Greek philosophers and scientists (or what would have
      been considered one later) who didn’t believe in the gods and thought
      they were just stories.

      That was a dangerous position to take publicly back then. There were several people who declared that the stories about the gods were just stories, and that the stories blasphemed the real gods.

  • Taz
  • Gus Snarp

    Surely this whole thing is a joke, right?

    There’s no reason for us to accept this claim, but we have no reason for thinking they were wrong.

    Well, no reason except for everything we’ve learned from modern neuroscience. the fact that they were mostly ignorant goat herders, and the ones who weren’t goat herders were still ignorant.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Here’s a reason: Occam’s razor. Slash away.

      • Gus Snarp

        Also, the argument from popularity fallacy, i.e. eat shit! ten billion flies can’t be wrong!

        • GubbaBumpkin

          You’d think that a professor of philosophy would have heard of these things.

          • Gus Snarp

            This is why I feel like it’s got to be satire. He’s demonstrating faulty reasoning, right? Please?

  • Richard Baynham

    maybe it is the way i’m reading this but it seems more like a religious trolling, or rather trolling of the religeous. I use the same excuses to defend Zeus as you do for what ever skybeard you believe in, so why is your skybeard any more real then my mountaintop beard?

  • Physeter

    Some Christians believe Zeus and a lot of other pagan deities did exist, and they were demons.

  • axelbeingcivil

    This is pure trolling. Every argument in that post is an argument I’ve heard posited by believers in various religions. I’m fairly certain he’s subtly mocking people by using those same arguments for another deity. After all, you can’t disprove Zeus’s existence, right? Millions of people claimed to feel his presence and believed strongly that he existed! People died for that belief!

    This is pure trolling of the highest caliber: Where you have trouble even telling it is.

  • Jason Hinchliffe

    After reading the article, I severely doubt he is being overly serious. Its a funny epistemological argument. Technically, he’s absolutely correct. His argument about how “now you need to accept all gods and experience” in my opinion gives away the true motive of the piece.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    I’ve asked this same question of Christians, who argue that their belief is rooted in a long tradition.. Who’s to say their Johnny-Come-Lately God is any more real than Zeus..or Isis..or whatever?

  • A Reader

    I haven’t read the full article yet, but from the excerpts it seems like he’s just satarizing certain Christian arguments, particularly those for Jesus’ divinity his “presence” in their lives.

  • mrwilson41

    I enjoyed reading your point of view, Hemant. Thanks for writing this post. I like the point you made about current religious people dismissing the Greek gods.


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