In a piece recently published in The Stone, a part of the Web site of the New York Times, Gary Gutting poses the question whether we are in a position to deny the existence of the gods of ancient Greece. If, he says, we cannot “eliminate the very real possibility” that for the ancient Greeks “divinity was . . . a widely and deeply experienced fact of life”—and he goes on to assert that we cannot—then “shouldn’t we hold a merely agnostic position on Zeus and the other Greek gods, taking seriously the possibility that they existed but holding that we have good reason neither to assert nor deny their existence?” After considering and rebutting several arguments for a negative answer to this question, he opts for an affirmative one: a denial of the existence of Zeus, he says, is “ungrounded,” and, although “there is no current evidence of his present existence,” we have no reason “to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks.”
Gutting recommends agnosticism, and even what one might call adoxism (absence of belief one way or the other), on two distinct questions: (1) whether Zeus and the other gods of ancient Greece existed and (2) whether the ancient Greeks had good evidence of their existence. He holds that we lack sufficient evidence for either an affirmative or a negative answer to the second question, and that for that reason we lack sufficient evidence for either an affirmative or a negative answer to the first. In other words, we are, according to Gutting, in no position to answer the question of whether the ancient Greeks had good evidence of the existence of their gods, and in consequence we are in no position to affirm or deny that the Greek gods existed. (Gutting has further considerations on the question whether we are in a position to affirm or deny that Zeus and company do (now, still) exist, but they seem to me secondary and I prefer to leave them aside for the sake of simplicity.)
Clearly, then, the weight of Gutting’s position falls on his claim that, for all we know, the ancient Greeks may have had good evidence of the existence of their gods. His argument for this claim is contained in a paragraph that begins thus:
Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges? What evidence seemed decisive to the ancient Greeks? Robert Parker, in his recent authoritative survey, “On Greek Religion,” emphasizes the role of what the Greeks saw as experiences of divine actions in their lives. “The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster,” with by far the most emphasis given to the perils of ignoring the gods.One might wonder whether Parker, in the quotation within this quotation, is making an assertion of his own about evidence or is merely reporting on what the ancient Greeks took for evidence. Is he saying that, in ancient Greece, piety toward the gods produced good effects and impiety or disregard of the gods bad effects? Or is he saying merely that the Greeks experienced the world as if it worked in this way? The first, stronger claim surely goes beyond anything that can be justified by historical evidence. Presumably Parker is making only the second, weaker claim—and so, presumably, is Gutting. No doubt, ancient Greeks, like other theistic believers, took note of instances in which pious conduct was followed by good fortune or the lack or the opposite of it by ill fortune, and tended to disregard counterinstances. No doubt, like other theistic believers, they were very resourceful in finding correlations where none was obvious, and in positing unobserved acts of piety or impiety to make sense of occurrences of good or ill fortune that seemed to lack the required antecedent. But these are simply the common tricks of confirmation bias, not instances of following evidence in any serious sense.
So far, if this is the kind of “evidence” of the existence of the gods that “seemed decisive to the ancient Greeks,” it does not support Gutting’s recommended agnosticism at all. The cited observations of Parker concern how the theistic beliefs of the ancient Greeks influenced their perception of the workings of the world. They do not provide the least reason to believe that the Greeks actually had anything that merits the description “evidence of the existence of gods,” much less “good evidence” thereof. If what the Greeks thought of as evidence was just their perception of correlations between one’s comportment toward the gods and one’s fortunes, then agnosticism about whether they had such evidence is not warranted at all: rather, we have good reason to conclude that they had no such evidence.
However, Gutting offers further observations, still drawing on Parker’s work:
There were also rituals, associated with the many cults of specific gods, that for some worshippers “created a sense of contact with the divine. One knows that the gods exist because one feels their presence during the drama of the mysteries or the elation of the choral dance.” More broadly, there were “epiphanies” that could “indicate not merely a visible or audible epiphany (whether in the light of day or through a dream . . .) but also any clear expression of a god’s favor such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure; it may also be used of the continuing disposition of a god or goddess to offer manifest assistance.”I take it that in the passages quoted within the quotation Parker is, once again, adopting a kind of disguised indirect speech. That “one knows” that the gods exist because “one feels” their presence in the course of ritual observances is what “one” would say if “one” were an ancient Greek. Of course, we moderns, speaking of and for ourselves, will say no such things, and not only because we do not participate in ancient Greek religious rituals or have seeming epiphanies of their gods. Setting aside all ironic, disguised, or “inverted comma” modes of expression, surely what we will say of the ancient Greeks’ experience of their rituals and their epiphanies is not that they (really, literally) felt the presence of their gods but only that they experienced these activities as if the gods were present in them, or that they took them to be experiences of divine presences.
What, then, if anything, in these facts can constitute, or even be a candidate for constituting, evidence of the existence of the Greek gods? Some, perhaps most or even all Greeks, it seems, had certain experiences, which they attributed to the influence of their gods. Is the mere fact that they attributed these experiences to divine influence supposed to be evidence that this attribution was correct? Surely such a suggestion would rob the term “evidence” of all meaning: it would amount to making a belief count as “evidence” for itself.
Perhaps what Gutting has in mind is this: The ancient Greeks had certain experiences which they described in terms of the presence and the influence of their gods. If their gods really existed, then those experiences were evidence of the existence of their gods; if their gods did not exist, then those experiences were not evidence of the existence of their gods. Although we moderns do not believe that their gods existed, we do not know that they did not exist. Therefore, we do not know that the Greeks had no evidence of the existence of their gods. For all we know, they may have had such evidence.
But that won’t do: it reverses the order of argumentation that Gutting sets out. Gutting argues first that we don’t know that the Greeks had no evidence of the existence of their gods, and then in consequence that we don’t know that their gods did not exist.
Rather than try out further interpretations I will simply confess at this point that, if Gutting has a coherent position in this matter, I have been unable to find it. In fact I believe that he has made a coherent position impossible for himself by introducing the term “evidence” where it does not belong. The point in whose service Gutting quotes Parker, namely that for the Greeks “divinity was . . . a widely and deeply experienced fact of life,” has nothing to do with evidence at all. I can gather from Parker’s statements that if I were an ancient Greek, I would experience religious observances as involving the presence or the influence of Zeus and company. That does not mean that I would regard my experiences as having a sort of divine-presence quality to them and then, from the fact that I had experiences of this character, draw the conclusion that I had genuine experiences of divine presence. Such a manner of thinking would be a bizarre case of self-dissociation. In any case, it is certainly not what Parker is describing in the passages that Gutting quotes. If the Greeks commonly had what they interpreted as experiences of the presence and the actions of their gods then it would have been idle and pointless for them in addition to cite those experiences as evidence that their gods existed.
“Very well,” one might reply in defense of Gutting: “the Greeks themselves did not regard their religious experiences as evidence of the existence of their gods, but they could have done so. They could have cited the fact that they had certain experiences as evidence that their gods existed.” Could they indeed? How could they have identified and described the pertinent experiences? If they had done so in terms of the presence of their gods, then they would be building into their statements of the so-called “evidence” the very claim for which those statements are supposed to constitute evidence, namely that their gods exist. To avoid doing that, they would have had to describe their experiences in terms that were completely neutral with regard to the existence of their gods. But how could they have gone about doing that? Would they even have been capable of doing that? As I understand what Parker is telling us, it is in the very nature of the experiences that the Greeks had of their religious observances that, to those who had them, they seemed to be experiences of the presence of gods. So it is doubtful that those who had such experiences could ever describe them in non-theistic terms. It is therefore doubtful that the ancient Greeks could ever have cited such experiences as evidence of the existence of their gods. Their belief in their gods was not derived from evidence, and Gutting provides no reason to believe that it ever was or even could have been supported by any evidence.
So what comes of Gutting’s argument for agnosticism about the existence of the gods of the ancient Greeks? Its main premise, that we are in no position to say whether the Greeks had good evidence of the existence of their gods, is false: we have in fact good reason to conclude that they had no such evidence. There may be grounds for agnosticism about the existence of the Greek gods, but agnosticism about the existence, in ancient times, of evidence for the existence of those gods is not a support for it.
Gary Gutting, “Did Zeus Exist?”, The New York Times on line, July 31, 2013.
Robert Parker, On Ancient Greek Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011)