Friday, June 19, 2015

Yahweh and Zeus

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours. 
– Stephen Roberts 
There is simply no more evidence for Jehovah than there is for Zeus. Christians find no reason to believe that Zeus exists, so they do not believe in him. For the same reason, I do not believe in Jehova.

This is a popular atheist trope. And it illustrates the anti-intellectual quality of "freethinkers."

In Greek mythology, Zeus has almost no explanatory power. Almost nothing depends on his existence for its own existence–or flourishing. The cosmos preexisted Zeus. Zeus was not the planner or creator of the universe. Life on earth does not depend on Zeus. He didn't create life on earth. He doesn't sustain life on earth. Indeed, Zeus is, himself, a product of the world process. 

If Zeus existed, then ceased to exist, his nonexistence would change very little. Life would go on as normal. For the most part, it would be as if he never existed in the first place. He's not a load-bearing wall. 

Zeus fathered many offspring by women and goddesses. In that respect, his existence has a ripple effect. But hardly more so than any human life, or any human king. Nearly every human life has a ripple effect. For the most part, Zeus doesn't make bigger waves than humans do. 

In Biblical theism and/or classical theism (e.g. Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Leibniz), by contrast, just about everything that isn't God is dependent on God. There are some variations. In freewill theism, human choices are independent of God. But that's not the case in Reformed theism.

In Augustinian theism, even abstract universals are dependent on God, as divine ideas. 

In natural law theory and divine command theory, morality is dependent on God. 

By creation ex nihilo and ordinary providence, all creatures depend on God for their existence and continuance. 

In Biblical theism and classical theism, God is a unifying principle in a way that's not remotely the case for Zeus. Now, an atheist may attempt to deny that God has any real explanatory power, but the comparison with Zeus is inapt, for these are not analogous propositions. Even in principle, Zeus doesn't have the explanatory role that Yahweh has. Zeus is just one of many finite, contingent beings. More powerful than most. But expendable. 


  1. Good post. Perhaps the most apt response to Roberts is: "When you understand why the existence of Yahweh is nothing like the existence of Zeus, you will understand why I dismiss your facile argument."

  2. Over on, I read a post on the same topic. I thought I would share it on here for you to read, since it is pretty insightful:

    "I’ve heard this quote, or similar quotes to it, many times before. I think there may have even been a version of it in Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. It sounds profound at first. But once you do some substitutions, it quickly becomes obvious why this is wrong.

    For instance, you may say that 2 + 2 = 4. You agree that 2 + 2 does not equal 5, or 3, or 1098. We agree on that. I just believe in one fewer right answer than you do in maintaining that 2 + 2 does not equal 4. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible answers, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

    At the end of the post he says, "Atheism: the true threat to reason." And rightfully so.

    1. That's because Peter is the best of us! :-)

  3. You seem to be saying that unlike YHWH, Zeus may be dismissed because he wouldn't really explain anything if he did exist. But, if people have had religious experiences of the deity myth has named 'Zeus' -- as Hellenic polytheists will no doubt attest -- then he would explain that much at least. For what it's worth, I've generally found polytheists to base their convictions on religious experience, not on inference to the best explanation.

    1. What are you alluding to? Fictional stories like the Homeric epics?

      What polytheists have you found to base their convictions on religious experience? Fictional characters in Homeric epics? Ovid's Metamorphosis? Were you referring to something else?

      How do you define a "religious" experience. In principle, a folk Hindu or folk Buddhist could have a "numinous" experience. So could an animist. Experiencing evil spirits (to take one example) isn't in competition with the truth of Christianity, if you're insinuating, a la Hume, that these cancel each other out.

  4. Oh no, I'm referring to contemporary Pagans who claim to have had perceptual experiences of the gods. The Hellenic polytheists I alluded to are those who belong to contemporary Pagan movements, such as Hellenismos.

    I've found such individuals through several outlets: books -- like An Inquiry Into Polytheism, and Devotional Polytheism: An Introduction, etc. -- blogs -- like John Beckett's Under the Ancient Oaks, etc. -- and personal conversations.

    By "religious" experience, I mean a perceptual experience which represents there to be a god. (I unpack that more in The Case for Polytheism). Many Pagans -- Druids, Wiccans, Ausatruar, Kemeticists etc. -- claim to have had such experiences. I don't think religious experiences conflict with each other, though beliefs based on them tend to. My point was just that if a Christian wishes to dismiss the existence of a Pagan deity, more would be needed than the judgement that the deity is explanatorily inert for observable phenomena: there are other arguments, such as those from religious experience, that need addressing.

    1. There's the putative experience, then there's what stands behind the experience.