A Defense of the Ancient Greek Pagan Religion

In a previous post on the topic of mythos and logos, I discussed the evolution of ancient Greek thought from its origins in imaginative legends about gods to the development of reason, philosophy, and logic. Today, every educated human being knows about the contributions of Socrates, Plato, Euclid, and Pythagoras. But the ancient Greek religion appears to us as an embarrassment, something to be passed over in silence or laughed at. Indeed, it is difficult to read about the enormous plethora of Greek gods and goddesses and the ludicrous stories about their various activities without wondering how Greek civilization ever managed to accomplish the great things it accomplished while it was so mired in superstition.

I am not going to defend ancient Greek superstition. But I will say this: Greek religion was much more than mere superstition — it was about devotion to a greater good. According to the German scholar Werner Jaeger,”Areté was the central ideal of all Greek culture.” (Paideia: The Ideal of Greek Culture, Vol. I, p. 15). The word areté means “excellence,” and although in early Greek history it referred primarily to the virtues of the warrior-hero, by the time of Homer areté referred more broadly to all types of excellence. Areté was rooted in the mythos of ancient Greece, in the epic poetry of Hesiod and Homer, with the more philosophical logos emerging later.

This devotion of the Greeks to a greater good was powerful, even fanatical. Religion was so absolutely central to Greek life, that this ancient pre-industrial civilization spent enormous sums of money on temples, statues, and religious festivals, at a time when long hours of hard physical labor were necessary simply to keep from starving. However, at the same time, Greek religion was remarkably loose and liberal in it’s set of beliefs — there was not a single accepted doctrine, a written set of rules, or even a single sacred text, similar to the Torah, Bible, or Quran. The Greeks freely created a plethora of gods and stories about the gods and revised the stories as they wished. But the Greeks did insist upon the fundamental reality of a greater good and complete devotion to it. I will argue that this devotion was responsible for the enormous contributions of ancient Greece, and that a completely secular, rational Greece would not have accomplished nearly as much.

In order to understand my defense of ancient Greek religion, I think it is important to recognize that there are different types of knowledge. There is knowledge of natural causation and knowledge of history; but there is also esthetic knowledge (knowledge of the beautiful); moral knowledge; and knowledge of the proper goals and ends of human life. Greek religion failed in understanding natural causation and history, but often succeeded in these latter forms of knowledge. Greek religion was never merely a set of statements about the origins and history of the universe and the operations of nature. Rather, Greek religion was characterized by a number of other qualities. Greek religion was experiential, symbolic, celebratory, practical, and teleological. Let’s look at each of these features more closely.

Experiential. In order to understand Greek religion — or any religion, actually — one has to do more than simply absorb a set of statements of belief. One has to experience the presence of a greater good.



The first picture above is of a 40-feet tall statue of the Greek goddess Athena in a life-size recreation of the ancient Greek Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. The second picture is a depiction of the probable appearance of the statue of Zeus at the Temple of Zeus in the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, the site of the Olympic games.

Contrary to popular belief, Greek statues were not all white, but often painted in vivid colors, and sometimes adorned with gold, ivory, and precious stones. The size and beauty of the temple statues was meant to convey grandeur, and that is precisely the effect that they had. The statue of Zeus at Olympia has been listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A Roman general who once saw the statue of Zeus declared that he “was moved to his soul, as if he had seen the god in person.” The Greek orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom declared that a single glimpse of the statue of Zeus would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.

Symbolic. When the Greeks created sculptures of their gods, they were not really aiming for an accurate depiction of what their gods “really” looked like. The gods were spirits or powers; the gods were responsible for creating forms, and could appear in any form they wished, but in themselves gods had no human form. Indeed, in one myth, Zeus was asked by a mortal to reveal his true form; but Zeus’s true form was a thunderbolt, so when Zeus appeared as a thunderbolt, he incinerated the unfortunate person. Rather than depict the gods “realistically,” Greek sculptors sought to depict the gods symbolically, as the most beautiful human forms imaginable, male or female. These are metaphorical or analogical depictions, using personification to represent the gods.

I am not going to argue that all Greek religion was metaphorical — clearly, most Greeks believed in the gods as real, actual personalities. But there was a strong metaphorical aspect to Greek religious thought, and it is often difficult even for scholars to tell what parts of Greek religion were metaphorical and what parts were literal. For example, we know that the Greeks actually worshiped certain virtues and desired goods, such as “Peace,” “Victory,” “Love,” “Democracy,” “Health,” “Order,” and “Wealth.” The Greeks used personal forms to represent these virtues, and created statues, temples, and alters dedicated to them, but they did not see the virtues as literal personalities. Some of this symbolic representation of virtues survives to this day: the blindfolded Lady Justice, the statue of Freedom on the top of the U.S. Capitol building, and the Statue of Liberty are several personifications widely recognized in modern America. Some scholars have suggested that the main Greek gods began as personifications (i.e., “Zeus” was the personification of the sky) but that over time the gods came to be seen as full-fledged personalities. However, the lack of written records from the early periods in Greek history make it impossible to confirm or refute this claim.

Celebratory. Religion is often seen as a strict and solemn affair, and although Greek religion had some of these aspects, there was a strong celebratory aspect to Greek religion. The Greeks not only wanted to thank the gods for life and food and drink and love, they wanted to demonstrate their thanks and celebrate through feasts, festivals, and holidays. Indeed, it is probably the case that the only time most Greeks ate meat was after a ritual sacrifice of cattle or other livestock at the altar of a god. (Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, p. 402) In ancient Athens, about half of the days in the calendar were devoted to religious festivals and each god or goddess often had more than one festival.  The most famous religious festival was the festival devoted to Zeus, held every four years at the sanctuary of Olympia. The Greeks visited the temple of Zeus and prayed to their god — but also held games, celebrated the victors, and enjoyed feasts. The Greeks also held festivals devoted to the god Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Drink, music, theater, and dancing played a central role in Dionysian festivals.

Practical. When I was doing research on Greek religion, I came across a fascinating discussion on how the Greeks performed animal sacrifice. Allegedly, when the animals were slaughtered, the Greeks were obligated to share a portion of the animal with the gods by burning it on the altar. However, when the Greeks butchered the animal, they reserved all the meat for themselves and sacrificed only the bones, covered with a deceptive layer of fat, for the gods. It’s hard not to be somewhat amused by this. Why would the powerful, all-knowing gods be satisfied with the useless, inedible portions of an animal, while the Greeks kept the best parts for themselves? The Greeks even had a myth to justify this practice: allegedly Prometheus fooled Zeus into accepting the bones and fat, and from that original act, all future sacrifices were similarly justified. As devoted to the gods as the Greeks were, they were also practical; in a primitive society, meat was a rare and expensive commodity for most. Sacrifice was a symbolic act of devotion to the gods, but the Greeks were not prepared to go hungry by sacrificing half of their precious meat.

And what of prayer to the gods? Clearly, the Greeks prayed to the gods and asked favors of them. But prayer never stopped or even slowed Greek achievements in art, architecture, athletics, philosophy, and mathematics. No Greek ever entered the Olympic games fat and out-of-shape, hoping that copious prayers and sacrifices to Zeus would help him win the games. No Greek ever believed that one did not have to train hard for war, that prayers to their deity would suffice to save their city from destruction at the hands of an enemy. Nor did the Greeks expect incompetent agriculture or engineering would be saved by prayer. The Greeks sought inspiration, strength, and assistance from the gods, but they did not believe that prayer would substitute for their personal shortcomings and neglect.

Teleological (goal-oriented). In a previous essay, I discussed the role of teleology — explanation in terms of goals or purpose — in accounting for causation. Although modern science has largely dismissed teleological causation in favor of efficient causation, I argued that teleological, or goal-oriented, causation could have a significant role in understanding (1) the long-term development of the universe and (2) the behavior of life forms. In a teleological perspective, human beings are not merely the end result of chemical or atomic mechanisms — humans are able to partially transcend the parts they are made of and work toward certain goals or ends that they choose.

We misunderstand Greek religion when we think of it as being merely a collection of primitive beliefs about natural causation that has been superseded by science. The gods were not merely causal agents of thunderstorms, earthquakes, and plagues. They were representations of areté , idealized forms of human perfection that inspired and guided the Greeks. In the pantheon of major Greek gods, only one (Poseidon) is associated solely with natural causation, being responsible for the seas and for earthquakes. Eight of the gods were associated primarily with human qualities, activities, and institutions — love, beauty, music, healing, music, war, hunting, wisdom, marriage, childbirth, travel, language, and the home. Three gods were associated with both natural causation and human qualities, Zeus being responsible for thunder and lightning, as well as law and justice. The Greeks also honored and worshiped mortal heroes, extraordinary persons who founded a city, overthrew a tyrant, or won a war. Inventors, poets, and athletes were worshiped as well, not because they had the powers of the gods, but because they were worthy of emulation and were sources of inspiration. (“Heroes and Hero Cults,” Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, pp. 100-14)

At this point, you may well ask, can’t we devote ourselves to the goal of excellence by using reason? There is no need to read about myths and appeal to invisible superbeings that do not exist in order to pursue excellence. This argument is partly true, but it must be pointed out that reason in itself is an insufficient guide to what goods we should be devoted to. Esthetics, imagination, and faith provide us with goals that reason by itself can’t provide. Reason is a superb tool for thinking, but it is not an all-purpose tool.

You can see the limitations of pure reason in modern, secular societies. People don’t really spend much time thinking about the greater goods they should pursue, so they fall into the trap of materialism. Religion is considered a private affair, so it is not taught in public schools, and philosophy is considered a waste of time. So people tend to borrow their life goals from their surrounding culture and peer groups; from advertisers on television and the Internet; and from movie stars and famous musicians. People end up worshiping money, technology, and celebrities; they know those things are “real” because they are material, tangible, and because their culture tells them these things are important. But this worship without religion is only a different form of irrationality and superstition. As “real” as material goods are, they only provide temporary satisfaction, and there is never an amount of money or a house big enough or a car fancy enough or a celebrity admirable enough to bring us lasting happiness.

What the early Greeks understood is that reason in itself is a weak tool for directing the passions — only passions, rightly-ordered, can rule other passions. The Greeks also knew that excellence and beauty were real, even if the symbolic forms used to represent these realities were imprecise and imperfect. Finally, the Greeks understood that faith had causal potency — not in the sense that prayers could prevent an earthquake or a plague, but in the sense that attaining the heights of human achievement was possible only by total and unwavering commitment to a greater good, reinforced by ritual and habit. For the Greeks, reality was a work-in-progress: it didn’t consist merely of static “things” but of human possibilities and potential, the ability to be more than ourselves, to be greater than ourselves. However we want to symbolize it, devotion to a greater good is the first step to realizing that good. When we skip the first step, devotion, we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to attain it.

What Does Science Explain? Part 4 – The Ends of the Universe

Continuing my series of posts on “What Does Science Explain?” (parts 1, 2 , and 3 here), I wish today to discuss the role of teleological causation. Aristotle referred to teleology in his discussion of four causes as “final causation,” because it referred to the goals or ends of all things (the Greek word “telos” meaning “goal,” “purpose,” or “end.”) From a teleological viewpoint, an acorn grows into an oak tree, a bird takes flight, and a sculptor creates statues because these are the inherent and intended ends of the acorn, bird, and sculptor. Medieval metaphysics granted a large role for teleological causation in its view of the universe.

According to E.A. Burtt in The Metaphysics of Modern Science, the growth of modern science changed the idea of causation, focusing almost exclusively on efficient causation (objects impacting or affecting other objects). The idea of final (goal-oriented) causation was dismissed. And even though the early modern scientists such as Galileo and Newton believed in God, their notion of God was significantly different from the traditional medieval conception of God. Rather than seeing God as the Supreme Good, which continually draws all things to higher levels of being, early modern scientists reduced God to the First Efficient Cause, who merely started the mechanism of the universe and then let it run.

It was not unreasonable for early scientists to focus on efficient causation rather than final causation. It was often difficult to come up with testable hypotheses and workable predictive models by assuming long-term goals in nature. There was always a strong element of mystery about what the true ends of nature were and it was very difficult to pin down these alleged goals. Descartes believed in God, but also wrote that it was impossible to know what God’s goals were. For that reason, it is quite likely that science in its early stages needed to overcome medieval metaphysics in order to make its first great discoveries about nature. Focusing on efficient causation was simpler and apt to bring quicker results.

However, now that science has advanced over the centuries, it is worth revisiting the notion of teleological causation as a means of filling in gaps in our current understanding of nature. It is true that the concept of long-term goals for physical objects and forces often does not help very much in terms of developing useful, short-term predictive models. But final causation can help make sense of long-term patterns which may not be apparent when making observations over short periods of time. Processes that look purposeless and random in the short-term may actually be purposive in the long-term. We know that an acorn under the right conditions will eventually become an oak tree, because the process and the outcome of development can be observed within a reasonable period of time and that knowledge has been passed on to us. If our knowledge base began at zero and we came across an acorn for the first time, we would find it extremely difficult to predict the long-term future of that acorn merely by cutting it up and examining it under a microscope.

So, does the universe have long-term, goal-oriented patterns that may be hidden among the short-term realities of contingency and randomness? A number of physicists began to speculate that this was the case in the late twentieth century, when their research indicated that the physical forces and constants of the universe can exist in only a very narrow range of possibilities in order for life to be possible, or even for the universe to exist. Change in even one of the forces or constants could make life impossible or cause the universe to self-destruct in a short period of time. In this view, the evolution of the universe and of life on earth has been subject to a great deal of randomness, but the cosmic structure and conditions that made evolution possible are not at all random. As the physicist Freeman Dyson has noted:

It is true that we emerged in the universe by chance, but the idea of chance is itself only a cover for our ignorance. . . . The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming. (Disturbing the Universe, p. 250)

In what way did the universe “know we were coming?” Consider the fact that in the early universe after the Big Bang, the only elements that existed were the “light” elements hydrogen and helium, along with trace amounts of lithium and beryllium. A universe with only four elements would certainly be simple, but there would not be much to build upon. Life, at least as we know it, requires not just hydrogen but at a minimum carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. How did these and other heavier elements come into being? Stars produced them, through the process of fusion. In fact, stars have been referred to as the “factories” of heavy elements. Human beings today consist primarily of oxygen, followed by carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorous. Additional elements compose less than one percent of the human body, but even most of these elements are essential to human life. Without the elements produced earlier by stars we would not be here. It has been aptly said that human beings are made of “stardust.”

So why did stars create the heavier elements? After all, the universe could have gotten along quite well without additional elements. Was it random chance that created the heavy elements? Not really. Random chance plays a role in many natural events, but the creation of heavy elements in stars requires some precise conditions — it is not just a churning jumble of subatomic particles. The astronomer Fred Hoyle was the first scientist to study how stars made heavy elements, and he noted that the creation of heavy elements required very specific values in order for the process to work. When he concluded his research Hoyle remarked, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

The creation of heavier elements by the stars does not necessarily mean that the universe intended specifically to create human beings, but it does seem to indicate that the universe somehow “knew” that heavy elements would be required to create higher forms of being, above and beyond the simple and primitive elements created by the Big Bang. In that sense, creating life is plausibly a long-term goal of the universe.

And what about life itself? Does it make sense to use teleology to study the behavior of life forms? Biologist Peter Corning has argued that while science has long pursued reductionist explanations of phenomena, it is impossible to really know biological systems without pursuing holistic explanations centered on the purposive behavior of organisms.

According to reductionism, all things can be explained by the parts that they are made of — human beings are made of tissues and organs, which are made of cells, which are made of chemical compounds, which are made of atoms, which are made of subatomic particles. In the view of many scientists, everything about human beings can in principle be explained by actions at the subatomic level. Peter Corning, however, argues that this conception is mistaken. Reductionism is necessary for partially explaining biological systems, but it is not sufficient. The reason for this is that the wholes are greater than the parts, and the behavior of wholes often has characteristics that are radically different from the parts that they are made of. For example, it would be dangerous to add pure hydrogen or oxygen to a fire, but when hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms are combined in the right way — as H2O — one obtains a chemical compound that is quite useful for extinguishing fires. The characteristics of the molecule are different from the characteristics of the atoms in it. Likewise, at the subatomic level, particles may have no definite position in space and can even be said to exist in multiple places at once; but human beings only exist in one place at a time, despite the fact that human beings are made of subatomic particles. The behavior of the whole is different from the behavior of the parts. The transformation of properties that occurs when parts form new wholes is known as “emergence.”

Corning notes that when one incorporates analysis of wholes into theoretical explanation, there is goal-oriented “downward causation” as well as “upward causation.” For example, a bird seeks the goal of food and a favorable environment, so when it begins to get cold, that bird flies thousands of miles to a warmer location for the winter. The atoms that make up that bird obviously go along for the ride, but a scientist can’t use the properties of the atoms to predict the flight of these atoms; only by looking at the properties of the bird as a whole can a scientist predict what the atoms making up the bird are going to do. The bird as a whole doesn’t have complete control over the atoms composing its body, but it clearly has some control. Causation goes down as well as up. Likewise, neuropsychologist Roger Sperry has argued that human consciousness is a whole that influences the parts of the brain and body just as the parts of the brain and body influence the consciousness: “[W]e contend that conscious or mental phenomena are dynamic, emergent, pattern (or configurational) properties of the living brain in action . . . these emergent pattern properties in the brain have causal control potency. . . ” (“Mind, Brain, and Humanist Values,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept 1966) In Sperry’s view, the values created by the human mind influence human behavior as much as the atoms and chemicals in the human body and brain.

Science has traditionally viewed the evolution of the universe as upward causation only, with smaller parts joining into larger wholes as a result of the laws of nature and random chance. This view of causation is illustrated in the following diagram:


But if we take seriously the notion of emergence and purposive action, we have a more complex picture, in which the laws of nature and random chance constrain purposive action and life forms, but do not entirely determine the actions of life forms — i.e., there is both upward and downward causation:


It is important to note that this new view of causation does not eliminate the laws of nature — it just sets limits on what the laws of nature can explain. Specifically, the laws of nature have their greatest predictive power when we are dealing with the simplest physical phenomena; the complex wholes that are formed by the evolutionary process are less predictable because they can to some extent work around the laws of nature by employing the new properties that emerge from the joining of parts. For example, it is relatively easy to predict the motion of objects in the solar system by using the laws of nature; it is not so easy to predict the motion of life forms because life forms have properties that go beyond the simple properties possessed by objects in the solar system. As Robert Pirsig notes in Lila, life can practically be defined by its ability to transcend or work around the static patterns of the laws of nature:

The law of gravity . . . is perhaps the most ruthlessly static pattern of order in the universe. So, correspondingly, there is no single living thing that does not thumb its nose at that law day in and day out. One could almost define life as the organized disobedience of the law of gravity. One could show that the degree to which an organism disobeys this law is a measure of its degree of evolution. Thus, while the single protozoa just barely get around on their cilia, earthworms manage to control their distance and direction, birds fly into the sky, and man goes all the way to the moon. (Lila (1991), p. 143.

Many scientists still resist the notion of teleological causation. But it could be argued that even scientists who vigorously deny that there is any purpose in the universe actually have an implicit teleology. Their teleology is simply the “laws of nature” themselves, and either the inner goal of all things is to follow those laws, or it is the goal of the laws to compel all things to follow their commands. Other implicit teleologies can be found in scientists’ assumptions that nature is inherently simple; that mathematics is the language of nature; or that all the particles and forces in the nature play some necessary role. According to physicist Paul Davies,

There is . . . an unstated but more or less universal feeling among physicists that everything that exists in nature must have a ‘place’ or a role as part of some wider scheme, that nature should not indulge in profligacy by manifesting gratuitous entities, that nature should not be arbitrary. Each facet of physical reality should link in with the others in a ‘natural’ and logical way. Thus, when the particle known as the muon was discovered in 1937, the physicist Isidor Rabi was astonished. ‘Who ordered that?’ he exclaimed. (Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, pp. 209-10.

Ultimately, however, one cannot fully discuss the goals or ends of the universe without exploring the notion of Ideal Forms — that is, a blueprint for all things to follow or aspire to. The subject of Ideal Forms will be discussed in my next post.