Parting the Parthenon

[Author’s Note: I sometimes encounter Christian proselytizers who assert that I spend all my time writing about Christianity because, they insinuate, it occupies some special place in my worldview. In fact, I am an atheist because I reject all religions alike and disbelieve their claims all equally. To prove this, I offer this essay explaining the reasons why I do not believe in the ancient Greek gods. I suggest that people take it in the semi-serious spirit in which it was written.]

As readers are undoubtedly well aware, one of the most prominent faiths in the world today is Hellenism, the polytheistic religion worshipping the pantheon of gods first postulated by the ancient Greeks. In recent years, fundamentalist Hellenists have been growing increasingly aggressive, renewing their push to have Hellenistic creation myths taught in public school science classes under the banner of “teaching the controversy”, as well as claiming that America is a “Hellenistic nation” due to our founding fathers’ heritage of Greek rationalism and accordingly demanding that altars to Zeus and Poseidon be erected in courthouses and government buildings. With recent archaeological discoveries such as the excavation of the city of Troy, Hellenist apologists often assert that their belief system is now more plausible than ever, and have been known to make claims such as “no archaeological find has ever contradicted the Iliad“.

However, as these apologists should be well aware, the fact that a religious story is situated in a real historical time and place does not mean that the supernatural claims it makes are likewise true. An equally plausible option is that the author sought to give his supernatural story a veneer of plausibility by placing it in a historical setting. This latter explanation is reinforced if the evidence fails to support those supernatural claims in other respects, and this, I will argue, is precisely the case. Although no open-ended supernatural claim can ever be conclusively disproven, the fact that the evidence fails to lend any support whatsoever to the claims of Hellenism, as well as several key logical gaps in Hellenist theology, make a strong case that on the balance of probability we should consider Hellenism to be provisionally false.

I. Physical Evidence

a. Mt. Olympus

The first piece of physical evidence contradicting the claims of Hellenism is also the most devastating. Almost all Hellenistic sects identify Greece’s Mt. Olympus as the home of the gods, built with ornate palaces and temples. But we know for a fact that these claims are false: many human beings have climbed to the peak of Mt. Olympus, and it is an unremarkable summit of bare rock. No palaces or temples are there, and certainly no gods are there.

Although a Hellenist might claim that the gods’ palaces are “spiritual” or otherwise concealed from human beings in some fashion, all recorded Hellenist myths depict the gods and their constructions as material beings, perhaps a different kind of matter than human flesh and blood, but material nonetheless. A Hellenist cannot escape the fact that their own beliefs have always depicted the gods as truly physical beings who exist in this world just like humans, not in some other ethereal plane. In any case, since the Hellenist gods are recorded as being jealous, protective and strongly disapproving of hubris, we would expect lightning bolts to strike people who attempted to scale the mountain, or some other disaster or barrier to bar their way; but again, this does not happen.

We next move on to other types of physical evidence against Hellenism’s claims. Namely, many natural phenomena once attributed to the various Greek gods are now known to have perfectly understandable explanations rooted in natural law. Proclaiming that these phenomena were caused by the Greek gods and then offering those phenomena as evidence of the Greek gods’ existence, as Hellenist apologists are prone to do, is God-of-the-Gaps thinking of the shallowest kind.

b. Apollo and the Sun

According to Hellenist myths, the Sun is a bright chariot drawn across the sky by four celestial horses and steered by the sun god, Helios (or Apollo, depending on which story you accept). However, in reality we know that the sun is no such thing. It is a G-type star, a vast orb of incandescent gas and ionized plasma one million kilometers in diameter and powered by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. It does not go around the planet and is in fact vastly larger than the planet, with a volume that could enclose a million Earths. (As evidence of Hellenism’s intolerant and violent attitude toward those who point out truths incompatible with its beliefs, recall that the philosopher Anaxagoras, in the fifth century BCE, was arrested and condemned to death for teaching something very similar, only barely escaping execution.)

c. Hera and the Milky Way

In a similar bit of mythology, the plane of the galaxy we live in, which is visible from the Earth as a ghostly band across the night sky, is assumed by Hellenists to be milk squirted from the breast of the goddess Hera (which is where the name “Milky Way” comes from).

However, nothing could be further from the truth. We now know the Milky Way to be not a breast-milk stain on a solid firmament, but a barred spiral galaxy containing something like a hundred billion suns, of which our own sun is just one. The ghostly band of light we can see on clear, dark nights is the light of the galaxy’s center, comprised of billions of distant stars whose lights merge from our vantage point into a hazy glow. Again, the vastness of the true explanations for these phenomena utterly dwarf the tiny stories of Hellenism, which myopically imagine that the Earth is the central stage for everything of importance that occurs in the universe. The discoveries we have since made about the unimaginable scale of the cosmos show these stories to be the self-flattering, anthropomorphic conceits they are.

d. Zeus and Lightning

Another bit of anthropomorphism in Hellenic beliefs states that thunderbolts are the weapon of the god Zeus, who hurls them down to punish evildoers. However, we now know better: lightning is not the spear of an aggrieved deity, but an electrical discharge formed by the build-up of electric potential between the clouds and the ground during a storm. Lightning does not preferentially seek out evildoers or those who defy the gods. While it is a spectacular natural phenomenon that must have impressed the ignorant ancients sufficiently for them to conjure up ideas of a powerful warrior-deity, it is a natural phenomenon nonetheless, and is easily controlled with the use of basic precautions such as lightning rods.

e. Persephone and Spring

A common story in Hellenism recounts that Hades, god of the underworld, once abducted Persephone, daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, with the intent of taking her to wife. When Demeter threatened to put a permanent end to all growing things on Earth unless her daughter was returned to her, Zeus ruled that Hades must release Persephone save for three months each year, to correspond with three pomegranate seeds she ate while in the underworld. Demeter kept her promise, however, and for the months her daughter is away from her, the earth is barren and cold and nothing grows.

However, in reality, winter is not caused by the sadness of the goddess Demeter, but by the Earth’s axial tilt which affects the incident angle of solar radiation at various times during the year. In fact, this tilt causes the seasons to be opposites on different sides of the equator: when it is winter in the northern hemisphere, it is spring in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa. If it were true that winter is caused by Demeter’s sadness over Persephone’s annual absence, we would expect it to be winter across the entire planet simultaneously, but this is not the case. Clearly, this story was simply invented by primitive people who were ignorant of the planet’s full extent.

f. Atlas and the Sky

One of the frankly silliest stories of Hellenism concerns the Titan Atlas, who is condemned by the Hellenic gods to literally support the heavens on his shoulders and prevent them from falling to earth. Needless to say, the atmosphere is not a solid object that requires some sort of support to stay up; it is a gaseous shell surrounding the planet.

Furthermore, even if we overlook this difficulty, even the troposphere, the lowest level of the atmosphere, is several miles above the surface of the Earth. Any living being large enough to reach to this level would be gigantic and easily detected both from the ground and by aerial surveys. But despite the fact that the surface of the planet is now well mapped, we have found no such being. It is not a fallacy to claim that absence of evidence is evidence of absence in a situation where we would expect evidence to exist if the debated claim is true.

g. The Underworld

Both the Hellenistic fable of Orpheus and the epic of the Odyssey depict the underworld, ruled by the god Hades and populated by the shades of the dead, as a real, physical place which living people can reach. But there is no evidence to support these claims. Although the surface of the planet has been extensively explored and is heavily populated, we have not found any region which living people can traverse to reach the lands of the dead and communicate with them. It needs no emphasizing that this is a stunning and extraordinary claim, one which if true would completely revolutionize human society. Definitive proof of life after death, and the ability to visit and speak to the departed, would be the greatest discovery in the history of the universe. It is outrageous that Hellenist apologists continue to insist that this claim is true when they can offer no evidence for it.

h. Mythological Creatures

A common feature of Hellenistic mythology is the existence of intelligent species other than human beings: centaurs, minotaurs, cyclopes, dryads and naiads, the Hecatonchires, the Sirens, Medusa, and so on. Other Hellenistic stories tell of non-intelligent, but still striking beasts such as Pegasus, the Hydra, the Chimera, and the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Needless to say, we have no evidence for either the current or past existence of any such creatures. We have never found either living representatives or archaeological remains of any of these species, and their depictions in Greek art are easily explained as the artists’ relying on cultural tradition and not first-hand experience.

In summary, the myths and stories of Hellenism make empirical claims about the world that are plainly and demonstrably false. Although liberal Hellenists assert that these stories are only myths intended to teach primitive people truths about the Greek gods’ control over the world in a way that they could understand, there is no evidence that they were intended as such by their original authors.

II. Logical Evidence

In addition to the lack of physical evidence supporting the claims of Hellenism, there are several key logical gaps in its theology: places where the beliefs of Hellenism make implicit predictions about the origins, causes and patterns of natural phenomena that are not what we observe.

For example, Hellenism frequently asserts that the god Poseidon controls the sea, and depicts him as sending contrary winds, storms, tsunamis and other maritime catastrophes against sailors who fail to pay him proper reverence. However, since humanity has not been worshipping Poseidon or making sacrifices to him for hundreds of years, we would expect the oceans to be impassibly dangerous and every non-Hellenist-crewed ship that braved the seas to be destroyed and sunk. On the contrary, today ocean passage occurs in great numbers and in relative safety. Similarly, although Poseidon is also styled the lord of earthquakes, seismic activity occurs with no greater than expected frequency around the world, and hardly at all in many places where Hellenism is all but non-existent.

On a similar note, although the Hellenist god Zeus is dubbed the Thunderer and described as using lightning bolts as weapons to punish those who displease him, there is no evidence that the pattern of thunderstorms around the world matches what we would expect from this interpretation. Even the most blasphemous imprecations uttered toward Zeus and Hellenistic gods in general are not answered with bolts of lightning, and the use of lightning rods has reduced the death and destruction caused by lightning to nearly zero – an innovation that the Hellenist gods, if they really existed, would seem likely to have prevented.

Zeus and the other Hellenist gods are also depicted, in their corpus of myths and scripture, as lustful beings not unlike human males, frequently using their godly powers to seduce beautiful women by assuming the shapes of animals, humanoid creatures, the woman’s own husband, or in one case a shower of gold. If this were true, given the current abundance of beautiful women in the fields of acting, modeling, athletics and the like, we would expect these deities to have continued their lecherous activities. Yet no reliable accounts exist of famously beautiful women being seduced by gods, nor do we observe any of the semi-divine children that would logically be expected from such an activity.

Finally, one of the traits that most reliably enrages the Hellenist gods is hubris – the assertion of a mortal to possess godlike abilities. Hellenist myths are replete with stories of prideful mortals being punished in some horrible way by the deities: for example, the satyr Marsyas, who claimed to be a better musician than the god Apollo, was flayed alive for his pride; the queen Niobe had to watch her sons killed one by one for her boasting; and Arachnae the weaver was transformed into a spider for claiming superiority to the goddess Athena. Yet, people who exhibit similar hubris today are no longer punished in such obvious or dramatic ways. People seem to be free to boast of their unparalleled talent (to judge by the actions of certain musicians or athletes) without being struck down by heavenly arrows or transformed into animals. Have the Hellenist gods mysteriously lost interest in punishing hubris, or is it more likely that they never existed in the first place and these stories are simply made-up legends?

III. Internal Inconsistencies

In addition to conflicts with the evidence and logic, some Hellenist myths even contradict each other. I will list only one of the best-known examples: the crippling of the blacksmith god Hephaestos. Most depictions of Hephaestos show him as lame and misshapen; this state is usually said to be the result of a long fall from Mt. Olympus, either as the result of an argument with Zeus or because the king god was appalled by the infant deity’s ugliness. (This is itself another logical inconsistency, since it is well-established that gods can assume any physical form they choose.) Either way, this fall seems to have left the god permanently handicapped.

However, this conflicts with other events attested to by the same body of mythology in which other gods suffered comparably grievous bodily harm and yet were not permanently injured. For example, most Hellenist sects assert that the goddess Athena was conceived within Zeus’ skull, upon which Hephaestus split Zeus’ head open with an ax to free her. This event does not seem to have caused Zeus any lasting harm; so how was a similar injury able to permanently cripple Hephaestus?

IV. Moral Arguments

The final and perhaps most compelling argument against Hellenism is that, even if we disregard all the logical contradictions and total lack of physical evidence for its claims, those claims when taken at face value paint a very unappealing picture of the deities they supposedly describe.

The Greek gods’ behavior as described in their own religious texts shows that they are neither more moral nor wiser, on the average, than most human beings. On the contrary, these very texts depict them as frequently bloodthirsty, ignorant and belligerent. They seem to be arrogant and insecure, demanding constant sacrifice and flattery and reacting with disproportionate fury toward those who do not provide it. On several occasions they urge their followers to wage holy war against unbelievers, or kill those unbelievers themselves. They seem to be sadistic and delight in causing pain, easily provoked into acts of cruel retribution against the innocent. And they have no moral qualms about sentencing people who displease them to afterlives of eternal torment, an infinite injustice that no finite human being could ever merit. Given all these immoral acts, it is the crowning insult that Hellenists claim these beings are wise divinities worthy of our worship. Even if the Hellenist gods existed, morality would impel us to resist, rather than obey, them.

However, given the utter lack of evidence supporting any aspect of Hellenist theology, this immorality finds another explanation: these stories are not, thank goodness, descriptions of actual beings, but rather the imaginative inventions of ancient people, and their immorality reflects the general lack of moral progress of those people. The savageries they contain are but another piece of evidence pointing to their origin in a particular region at a particular time and indicating that they do not contain universal truth for all humanity. Although we cannot prove beyond all possibility of refutation that the Greek gods do not exist, we are under no burden of proof to do so. Until and unless the advocates of Hellenism can produce new evidence suggesting that we should take them seriously, we are fully justified in concluding provisionally that their deities probably do not exist.

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