Sunday, September 17, 2017

I am a monotheist about Zeus

Growing up in the time I did, I have had plenty of chances to hear atheists -- on talk shows, PBS documentaries, classrooms, debates, YouTube videos, internet forums -- present their arguments, and I've heard almost all of them by now.  There are especially some arguments that get brought up rather frequently, and then keep getting repeated for years later.

There's one in particular I want to address, the "One God Further" argument.  I believe the argument originates with Richard Dawkins, but I have certainly heard Christopher Hitchens and others make similar arguments on stage.  This argument is that we are all atheists about most of the gods anyone has ever claimed to believe in.  I'm an atheist about Zeus, Hercules, Mithras, Minerva or any of these other figures.  Dawkins simply goes one god further than I do.

And so, to clarify this issue once and for all, let me just resolutely state that I am not an atheist about Zeus.

I'm really not.

I am a monotheist about Zeus.

My issue with Zeus isn't that he's clearly ridiculous and there's no evidence for him.  I mean, yeah, Zeus is pretty ridiculous and there's no evidence for him.  But that isn't really my objection to Zeus worship.

My objection to Zeus worship is that Zeus isn't the kind of thing that should be rightly called a god, or the kind of thing that should be worshipped.

I believe in one God.  One, singular.  No more, no fewer.

That number isn't just a coincidence.  The uniqueness of God is part of my belief.  I didn't begin with a big list of deities, then go on down the list checking them off in order, until it turned out I only checked the box for one.

"Hmmm... Athena... no.  Next."

"Okay, Achilles... lemme think.... nah."

"Next on the list, Odin.  I'm going to do with no here."

"Moving on: Jehovah.  Huh.... yeah, yeah, sure.  Why not, right?"

"Okay, next one up is... Ahura-Mazda.   Yeah... yeah, I'm not really feeling it, going with no...."

That didn't happen, and the difference between Dawkins and I is more than just a single checkmark on that list.

Now, if I know internet atheists, they are leaping up, shouting "Aha! So you admit it! You didn't even evaluate all the other gods! You just picked the one you heard of!"  But hold on, guys.  Lemme get to the end first.

Prior to the rise of monotheism, it was pretty easy to merge religious traditions.  Jupiter and Zeus are basically interchangeable names for the same "guy", and half the Greek gods usually get called by their Roman counterpart's name instead.  You go up to Germany, they called their thunder god "Thor"; go over to India and he's called "Indra."  If you met someone with a different pantheon than you, you either merged them by changing names, or you expanded both pantheons to account for the new gods.

Polytheism works like that because of what gods are in polytheism.  A god in polytheism is some powerful entity that has some manner of control over some area of life.  And there are a lot of areas of life.  If the people in Norway have a god of frozen tundra, and the people in Egypt have literally never heard of frozen tundra, then the first time an Egyptian hears about frozen tundra and its god from a Norseman, the Egyptian doesn't have to stretch his beliefs to imagine that such an entity exists up there in the Nordic cold.  Afterall, there's a god in the Nile River, there's one in the Earth, several in the sky, one in the desert -- why not one in the tundra, too?

If you ask a ancient Roman pagan if he believes in Thor, he might reply that in his country they know Thor as Juptier, and yes, he does believe in him.

If you repeated this very thorough list of deities to the ancient Roman pagan, he might reply that he hadn't heard of some of them, or knows some by other names, or thinks some are limited to areas outside of his home, but never that he categorically disbelieves in all of them.

I do.  I categorically disbelieve in all of them.  You don't need to list them, but it's neat that you did.  I categorically disbelieve in every single pagan deity on that list.  There are ancient cultures whose mythology vanished in the mists of time, the names of whose gods have been forgotten for millennia, and I also categorically disbelieve in all of those gods, too, without even having heard of them.  Some day in future people will make up new gods that no one has ever worshipped before, and I already disbelieve in those gods, too.

Why?  Because I'm a monotheist.  I disbelieve in all of these gods because I believe that God is absolutely unique in his nature from every single other thing in existence, and that these properties which make God unique are also what make God worthy of worship and worthy of the title "God."  The so-called "gods" of polytheism don't exist, but even if they did then I still wouldn't worship them because they aren't entities worthy of my worship.

The argument between Dawkins, Euthyphro, and me isn't really about the number of deities, as though the solution is to go out and count them.  It's about the nature of deity.  It's an argument about what makes something divine.

So what do I think, and how is it different from what Dawkins and Euthyphro  believe?

I believe that at a certain point, there was no such thing as time or space or matter or energy.  There was no universe.  There was no "before" or "after".  There wasn't even a void, as though there sat a giant blank nothingness waiting for something to come in.  None of it.  There was only God.  God preexisted everything, and then God created every single thing in the universe.  There is nothing in the universe you have ever seen that was not created by God.  The moon?  God.  Angler fish?  God.  Flesh-eating bacteria?  God.  Galactic clusters at the limits of our satellite telescopes?  God.

God eternally preexisted time itself, and created every single thing in the universe.

This entity that I call God is an entity entirely unlike anything else in creation.  He can't be compared to creation, or pictured in terms of his creation.   He's not a "guy in the clouds."  You can't draw God; you can't even really make analogies to God.  He is entirely, completely other.

God doesn't live "in the sky" as internet atheists are so fond of insisting.  God doesn't live "anywhere", because God exists in a way that the question "where" doesn't make sense applied to him.  God exists in a way that the notions of "future" and "past" are irrelevant.  God exists completely differently than we do, and so doesn't exist in any particular place.  He isn't an object in the universe -- not even an object in the sky!  All those atheist critiques of "skyfairies" and "sky daddys" and "invisible sky giants" are really good critiques of Zeus and Jupiter and Thor, but really, really crappy critiques of monotheism, because that isn't what monotheists believe in.

God isn't an object in the universe, because God created the universe and preexists the universe.  It is proper both to say (in one sense) that God is nowhere in the universe, and also correct to say (in a different sense) that God is everywhere in the universe.  Nowhere, in that he isn't an object like a tree or a person that you can find over there on that hill or that river or that planet; everywhere, in that God's nature and attributes permeate his creation and are visible to us here and everywhere in it, and that God has full awareness and power over the entire scope of the universe at every instant.

Let me be clear: I don't mean that God is just a really powerful person.  Like a dude who's really strong -- so strong he can't die, so powerful he can make everything.  The difference between God and man isn't like the difference between a bear and an ant, that the ant is just smaller and punier than the bear; it's more like the difference between the Law of Noncontradiction and an ant.  The difference is about category and nature.  God is in a different category altogether from his creation.   And God alone is in that category.

The most profound difference is that God is a se -- a term from the Latin meaning "of himself," defined well by the Catholic Encycopedia.  This phrase refers to God's complete self-sufficiency.  By that, I don't mean God  can take care of himself alone in a cabin in the woods and make his own candles from beeswax.  The point is more philosophical.

If you see a house in the middle of nowhere, you know that someone built the house.  A house isn't the kind of thing that just appears.  But much more than that, the house is made out of wood.  In order for there to be the house, there must be trees.  In order for their to be trees, there must be soil and water and sunlight.  In order for soil and water and sunlight there have to be stellar nuclear processes that bind protons and neutrons into heavier elements.  In order for their to be stellar nuclear processes there have to be physical interactions like gravity, the strong nuclear force, and electrodynamics.  And on and on, lower and lower, deeper under the hood.

A house requires an explanation, at several layers.  You can't just have a house without first having an entire universe.  Things like houses and neutrons aren't ontologically self-sufficient, and require appeal to other factors to explain how they exist.

God isn't like that.  He's the deepest under the hood it goes.  God is a se.  He's of himself.  God contains within his own being the cause and explanation of his being, and doesn't need anything else.

This is, by the way, why I object to the existence of things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Not because I pick and choose what to believe in, but because the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a big ball of pasta with two meatballs.  Pasta is made of wheat; meatballs are made of animal flesh.  Wheat requires sunlight, water and soil and carbon dioxide; ground beef requires fields of grass and water and oxygen, along with butchers and meat grinders.  The flying Spaghetti Monster is made of things (and those things are made of other things), and so the FSM is itself just some thing in the universe like a rock or a hill or a tree or Zeus; not the a se Creator of time and space itself.

Pictured: A thing made out of things located in time and space
Not pictured: Aseity

Unless the spaghetti is all just a symbolic way of representing the Deity I described... in which case: sure, I believe in the FSM; I just think it's a very irreverent and disrespectful way of depicting the Deity.  But if that's all the FSM is -- just a blasphemous way of portraying God -- then it loses a lot of its zing, really.  It isn't even a clever blasphemy.

God being a se is the fundamental distinction between God and creation.  Nothing in the Universe is a se -- everything you've ever seen "rests" (ontologically speaking) on top of something else -- and many things you can't see likewise rest on top of something else.

The Bible expresses this truth about God in several places, but the most profound is in the revelation of God's name to Moses in the burning bush.  You've probably heard the basics of the story in Exodus (maybe in this scene from Prince of Egypt): Moses is out by himself, he sees a bush burning with fire but not consumed by it, and he goes to it to see what's going on.  A voice speaks to him from the burning bush, and tells Moses to go tell Pharoah to let the Hebrews go free.  Moses says he'll go, but he wants to know which god this is he's talking to, so that when he tells Pharoah that a god sent him, h'll be able to clarify which.  So he asks for God's name.  The name God tells Moses is "I AM THAT I AM" (traditionally written in small caps).  God tells Moses to say that "I AM" has sent him.  God identifies himself not as the sun god, or the moon god, or the wind god, or the sea god, or the earth god, or the star god, or the fire god.  Instead he uses the verb "to be".  God isn't any particular god; God just is.

That's what I believe about God.  Because I believe that God is that way, that means I also believe that anything that isn't that way, isn't God.

Zeus was born, and had three brothers.  He became king of the sky, not because he created the sky, nor because Zeus is the principle of the sky, but because his brothers let him pick his kingdom first -- the sky was already there waiting for him.  Athena sprang out of Zeus' head.  Aphrodite grew out of Cronus' severed penis thrown into the ocean.  They all began to exist, and many of them ceased to exist.  Pagan gods are things that can be born, and things that can die.  They are just creatures, just things, that exist in places in the universe.  None of them created the world -- they were all born inside the universe and just stumbled onto their respective domains.  They are therefore, by definition, not truly gods.

Notice, this categorical denial is entirely indifferent to whether they exist or not.  If you could find Thor and lock him in a scientific laboratory and have him shoot magic lightning from his mighty hammer Mjolnir, and verify for a fact that he's there and his hammer is shooting magic lightning, then that would be really interesting.  I would believe that Thor existed -- or something like Thor.  I still wouldn't think Thor was a god.  I still wouldn't worship Thor.

I wouldn't worship Thor because, you see, I'm a monotheist.

In a similar situation, it's entirely possible Dawkins would worship Thor, because there he has finally got the evidence he's been asking for.

The difference between Dawkins and me here is more than just a single check mark on a list of names.  It's a difference of fundamental philosophy.

Dawkins disbelieves in Zeus because Dawkins is committed to naturalism and empiricism, and so far has not uncovered compelling evidence for Zeus' existence -- or more likely, because Dawkins believes the supernatural is scientifically untenable and cannot exist.  I disbelieve in Zeus because I'm committed to monotheism, and creatures like Zeus are just that -- creatures, and not gods.

So I'm not an atheist about Zeus.  Dawkins doesn't just go one god further on the check list than I do.  I can't use my reasons for disbelieving in all the other alleged deities out there to also understand why atheists disbelieve in mine.  Because the reasons Dawkins and I have for disbelieving in all those pagan deities are categorically different.

So, I hope I've cleared things up.

I'm not an atheist about all these other gods and don't reject them all for anything close to the reasons Dawkins rejects them.  I'm not an atheist about them.

I'm actually a monotheist about them, and reject them because I believe in monotheism.

1 comment:

James Clary said...

I enjoyed this post, particularly your discussion of "I am"