This essay is about two briliant individuals – one an artist, the other an essayist. The funny thing is that the artist answered a question posed by the essayist, twenty-five years before he asked it. Curious? Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) was a leading 19th century Post-Impressionist artist who created at least 148 paintings in his lifetime. Although his personal religious views in the latter part of his life were highly unconventional, Gauguin never ceased to wrestle with the big questions. One of his most famous paintings (shown above) is entitled, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken (1880-1956) was a notorious atheist, a brilliant satirist, an extremely effective propagandist, a fine essayist and a writer whose prose style has rarely been equaled. He was however no scholar. Although he influenced an entire generation of American writers, Mencken’s education after graduating with honors from high school was limited to a short course in writing which he took in early 1898, at a correspondence school.
One of Mencken’s best-known writings is his 1922 essay, “Memorial service“, which can be found in his anthology, A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings. At the beginning of his essay, Mencken poses the rhetorical question: “Where is the graveyard of dead gods?” His central claim is that all gods are doomed to pass into oblivion, one day. In times past, gods such as Jupiter and Huitzilopochtli were once worshiped as supreme deities, but they are now either forgotten or ridiculed. At the end of his essay, Mencken provides a long list of eminent deities worshiped in former times, and concludes his essay with the words: “All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.” The question that Mencken wanted his readers to ask themselves was: why should we assume that Yahweh, the God of Judaism and Christianity, will not suffer the same fate of oblivion? This is the question that Gauguin’s famous picture helps us to answer, as I’ll show in a moment.
Before I do so, however, I’d like to draw readers’ attention to Professor Jerry Coyne’s recent post, Where are all the dead gods?. Professor Coyne quoted liberally from Mencken’s essay, apparently without realizing that it is riddled with factual inaccuracies. Now, if I were quoting from an essay on gods worshiped in former times, written by someone who had no academic qualifications whatsoever, I would check his assertions very carefully, before placing any credence in them. I’m surprised that Coyne didn’t. Neither did Christopher Hitchens, who included Mencken’s essay in his anthology, The portable atheist: essential readings for the nonbeliever (Da Capo Press, 2007). Incidentally, for those readers who are wondering how Hitchens is faring, I’m happy to report that he is still writing articles.
In a rhetorical flourish near the end of his essay, Mencken asks: “What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley?” and he then goes on to list a host of other gods:
Resheph Ahijah Shalem
Anath Isis Dagon
Ashtoreth Ptah Sharrab
El Anubis Yau
Nergal Baal Amon-Re
Nebo Astarte Osiris
Ninib Hadad Sebek
Melek Addu Molech?
As if that were not enough, follows up with a list of 114 more!
Here is the conclusion of Mencken’s essay, as quoted by Professor Coyne:
All these were gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Yahweh Himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute. . . Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion; you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity — gods of civilized peoples — worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal.
And all are dead.
Game, set and match to the atheists? Not quite. Before I go on to explain why the God of Judaism and Christianity is still worshiped today while Jupiter and Baal are not, I cannot resist exposing Mencken’s shoddy scholarship. Every single sentence in the above quote contains a false assertion.
1. “All these were gods of the highest eminence.” Wrong. One of the individuals on Mencken’s list wasn’t even a god, let alone an eminent one. According to International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Ahijah (whom Mencken lists immediately above Isis) isn’t the name of a god at all, but of nine individuals mentioned in the Bible, including one prophet. There is no deity of that name in any country’s mythology. Rather an embarrassing mistake, one would think. Mencken also lists Ashtoreth and Astarte separately, apparently not realizing that they are names for the same goddess. Additionally, he appears unaware that the names Melek and Molech refer to the same deity, Molech being an intentional mispointing of Melek. I can find no trace of Yau, another deity whose name appears on his list – unless perhaps Mencken is thinking of the Chinese Emperor Yao, or of Yah, a shortened form of Jehovah or Yahweh.
2. “Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament.” Fear and trembling? Who is Mencken trying to kid? Has he forgotten 1 Kings 18, which describes Elijah’s crushing victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, who were slaughtered because they were unable to call down fire from heaven? Has he forgotten Jeremiah 49:3, which foretells that “Molek will go into exile, together with his priests and his officials”? Or how about Isaiah 46, which mockingly describes the heavy statues of the Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo being carried off into captivity, and then goes on to ridicule people who bow down to idols that cannot talk back to them? Or for that matter, what about Habakkuk 3:5, which depicts the gods Dabir and Resheph marching defeated before God’s victory parade from Teman and Mount Paran? (Dabir and Resheph are translated as Pestilence and Plague, in most editions of the Bible.)
3. “They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Yahweh Himself.” This is an absurd historical anachronism on Mencken’s part. According to the Old Testament, the name “Yahweh” was not even in use 5,000 years ago. The name was revealed to Moses, who lived no more than 3,500 years ago. For that matter, I know of no evidence that Molech was worshiped “five or six thousand years ago,” either.
4. “Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion; you will find them all listed.” No, you won’t. See my remark on Ahijah in note 1 above. See my comments on El in note 7 below. And Qarradu, who appears near the end of the second list included in Mencken’s essay, isn’t the name of a god either. It’s a general term meaning “hero” or “warrior”, and it was applied to two gods – Marduk and Ninurta – according to the late Professor Jonas Greenfield (“From Lh Rhmn to Al-Rahman: The Source of a Divine Epithet”, p. 382, in Judaism and Islam: boundaries, communications, and interaction: essays in honor of William M. Brinner, edited by Benjamin H. Hary, John L. Hayes and Fred Astren. Brill. Leiden, The Netherlands. 2000.)
5. “They were gods of the highest dignity — gods of civilized peoples — worshiped and believed in by millions.” Let’s not exaggerate here. For the Egyptian gods, “millions” of believers would be a true statement – the Nile was able to support a large population for its time. However, according to Wikipedia, Palestine was not able to do so:
Modern estimates place the population of ancient Palestine at a maximum of around one million. According to Israeli archeologist Magen Broshi, “… the population of Palestine in antiquity did not exceed a million persons. It can also be shown, moreover, that this was more or less the size of the population in the peak period – the late Byzantine period, around AD 600″ Similarly, a study by Yigal Shiloh of The Hebrew University suggests that the population of Palestine in the Iron Age could have never exceeded a million. He writes: “… the population of the country in the Roman-Byzantine period greatly exceeded that in the Iron Age…If we accept Broshi’s population estimates, which appear to be confirmed by the results of recent research, it follows that the estimates for the population during the Iron Age must be set at a lower figure.”
1. Magen Broshi, The Population of Western Palestine in the Roman-Byzantine Period, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 236, p.7, 1979.
2. Yigal Shiloh, The Population of Iron Age Palestine in the Light of a Sample Analysis of Urban Plans, Areas, and Population Density, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 239, p.33, 1980.
The assertion that Baal or Molech was ever “believed in by millions” is therefore highly dubious.
6. “All were [theoretically] omnipotent, omniscient and immortal.” This is pure and unmitigated nonsense, on Mencken’s part.
Let’s begin with immortality. Take Osiris. He is portrayed in Egyptian myths as a king, a wise lord, and a bringer of civilization, who was happily married to his sister, Isis, until his envious brother Set (referred to as Setukhet in Mencken’s article) killed and dismembered him. Isis later reassembled Osiris’ corpse and embalmed him. The mummy Osiris then reigned over the world of the dead as a king among the more deserving spirits of the departed.
I could also mention Tammuz, who died every year in Babylonian mythology.
So much for immortality. What about omnipotence? The Greek gods certainly weren’t all-powerful. Take Cronos. He overthrew his father and ruled during the mythological Golden Age, until he was overthrown by his own sons, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon, and imprisoned in Tartarus. Omnipotent? I hardly think so.
What about Zeus, the supreme god and ruler of Olympus? Even his power, although great, was not boundless; Zeus had no control over The Fates and Destiny.
All right. How about omniscience? No luck there, either: Zeus was frequently opposed, deceived and tricked by gods and men alike.
It seems that the gods of old were not as high and mighty as Mencken makes them out to be.
7. “And all are dead.”
Wrong again! One of the gods listed by Mencken is called El. El is a north-west Semitic word meaning “deity”, and it could be applied to any god. The term was applied to the God of the Bible no less than 217 times in the Masoretic text of the Tanakh or Old Testament. The God of the Bible is still very much alive, in Mencken’s sense of having devoted believers. About 54% of the human race currently belongs to one of the three Abrahamic faiths.
I have already identified seven mistakes by Mencken in as many stentences, but there are more whoppers, besides. For instance, Mencken tells us that “Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun.” What he should have added is that Huitzilopochtli had no human mother either. His mother was the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue, who became pregnant after she found a ball of hummingbird feathers and stuffed them into her breast. Again, we are told by Mencken that “When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still ” and that “50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him” in a single year. But what I have read (see here, here and here) is that Huitzilopochtli himself was a sun god, and that he needed to be fed with the blood of human sacrifices every day, in order to keep the world in motion and to ensure that the sun would survive its 52-year cycle. Hardly an omnipotent being, was he?
Referring to the awe in which the gods were held in ancient societies, Mencken writes: “To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake.” This is downright silly. If he had any knowledge of history, Mencken should have known that outside Christianity, Old Testament Judaism and ancient Rome, burning at the stake was seldom (if ever) used in other cultures as a tool for enforcing religious orthodoxy. In some ancient societies, burning at the stake was often used to execute people who committed capital crimes, and also prisoners of war, but not for heresy.
Having demolished Mencken’s factual assertions, let’s return to his outstanding question. Why should we assume that Yahweh, the God of Judaism and Christianity, will not eventually fade into oblivion?
Why not all gods are equal: a hint from Gauguin
We can take a hint from the title of Gauguin’s 1897 painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?. The thesis I wish to defend in this essay is that gods which provide an all-encompassing answer to Gauguin’s “Big Three” questions – which were actually based on a catechism which he studied as a schoolboy – are unlikely to fade into oblivion. Gods that are forgotten pass into oblivion precisely because they fail to provide an adequate answer to Gauguin’s “Big Three” questions.
Jews, Christians and Muslims have a readymade, coherent answer to these three questions. “We come from God, our Creator. We are human beings, made in the image of God. And when we die, we will be judged by God, who wants human beings to share eternal life with their Creator.” God gets a Gauguin score of 3.
What about dead gods? I’m afraid they don’t score so well. That’s why they’re dead. Two examples will serve to illustrate my point.
1. Marduk and the religion of ancient Babylon
(a) Who was Marduk?
Wikipedia has this to say about Marduk:
Marduk … was the Babylonian name of a late-generation god from ancient Mesopotamia and patron deity of the city of Babylon, who, when Babylon permanently became the political center of the Euphrates valley in the time of Hammurabi (18th century BC), started to slowly rise to the position of the head of the Babylonian pantheon, a position he fully acquired by the second half of the second millennium BC…
There are particularly two gods — Ea and Enlil — whose powers and attributes pass over to Marduk…
When Babylon became the capital of Mesopotamia, the patron deity of Babylon was elevated to the level of supreme god. In order to explain how Marduk seized power, Enuma Elish was written, which tells the story of Marduk’s birth, heroic deeds and becoming the ruler of the gods. This can be viewed as a form of Mesopotamian apologetics…
In Babylonian mythology, Marduk was the son of the god Ea and his wife Damkina. What is important to note here is that even though Marduk was later elevated to the status of supreme god, his identity remained tied to his ancestry, his birth and the heroic deeds which he performed, enabling him to become the ruler of the gods. What this means is that Marduk cannot possibly be the ultimate explanation of Reality, since he has parents. Additionally, Marduk does not possess power by virtue of his nature; instead, he had to seize it (which implies that he might conceivably lose it one day).
Let us continue by examining the Enuma Elish, which could be fairly described as ancient Babylon’s answer to Gauguin’s “Big Three” questions. (Readers can here to view Leonard William King’s authoritative work on this Babylonian creation myth.) The following brief excerpt from an essay on the Enuma Elish by Ira Spar (Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art) summarizes the main features of the story:
The myth itself … opens with a theogony, the descent of the gods, set in a time frame prior to creation of the heavens and earth. At that time, the ocean waters, called Tiamat, and her husband, the freshwater Apsu, mingled, with the result that several gods emerged in pairs. Like boisterous children, the gods produced so much noise that Apsu decided to do away with them… The gods, stunned by the prospect of death, called on the resourceful god Ea to save them. Ea recited a spell that made Apsu sleep. He then killed Apsu and captured Mummu, his vizier. Ea and his wife Damkina then gave birth to the hero Marduk, the tallest and mightiest of the gods. Tiamat … decides to confront Marduk… The young warrior god Marduk then volunteers his strength in return for a promise that, if victorious, he will become king of the gods. The gods agree, a battle ensues, and Marduk vanquishes Tiamat and Qingu, her host. Marduk then uses Tiamat’s carcass for the purpose of creation. He splits her in half, “like a dried fish,” and places one part on high to become the heavens, the other half to be the earth. As sky is now a watery mass, Marduk stretches her skin to the heavens to prevent the waters from escaping… With the sky now in place, Marduk organizes the constellations of the stars. He lays out the calendar by assigning three stars to each month, creates his own planet, makes the moon appear, and establishes the sun, day, and night. From various parts of Tiamat’s body, he creates the clouds, winds, mists, mountains, and earth.
Meanwhile, Marduk fulfills an earlier promise to provide provisions for the junior gods if he gains victory as their supreme leader. He then creates humans from the blood of Qingu, the slain and rebellious consort of Tiamat. He does this for two reasons: first, in order to release the gods from their burdensome menial labors, and second, to provide a continuous source of food and drink to temples.
Source: Epic of Creation (Mesopotamia), in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
(b) The Marduk myth and Gauguin’s three questions
Let’s see if we can give the Enuma Elish myth a “Gauguin rating”, in terms of how well it answers Gauguin’s big three questions. We have already seen that Marduk is not a First Cause: he had parents. Additionally, Marduk does not possess his power by nature but as a gift: in the Fourth Tablet of the Enuma Elish, the gods declare: “We give thee sovereignty over the whole world.” Finally, Marduk was not regarded as the Creator of the cosmos, but only as its Demiurge. He is said to have formed heaven and earth from pre-existing matter: water, whose origin the Enuma Elish makes no attempt to explain. This is hardly a satisfying account of origins, from a philosophical standpoint, even if it does go on to describe how Marduk, after vanquishing Tiamat, subsequently fashioned everything in the world, in accordance with his grand plan for the cosmos. The scientific inadequacies of the Enuma Elish account are of course obvious to the modern eye; however, I am deliberately putting these to one side, since my aim is simply to ascertain which, if any, of the ancient gods were capable of providing a unifying account of our origin, nature and destiny, which appeals to people on both a spiritual and a philosophical level – the two levels that a religion needs to satisfy, in order to flourish in the long-term. On question 1 (“Where do we come from?”), I would give the Enuma Elish myth a “Gauguin rating” of 0.4 (1 being a perfect score), as it includes a cosmic grand plan, but leaves too many unexplained “hanging threads.”
What about Gauguin’s second question (“What are we?”)? The Enuma Elish account portrays human beings as the culmination of Marduk’s grand cosmic plan; they are the very last thing that he decides to produce. They are not, however, the raison d’etre for the cosmos, which is made for the pleasure and convenience of the gods. The account also provides an answer to the question of what we are here for: we are here to serve the gods, and to honor their names by building temples.
There are two central defects in the Enuma Elish‘s answer to Gauguin’s second question. The first major flaw is that it is a purely functional answer: we are sinply told that our role in the scheme of things is to be servants of the gods. This invites the obvious question: why does it have to be us? Why not some other animals, for instance? Presumably this is because we’re the only animals who are capable of recognizing and worshiping the gods, but we’re not told this. Nor are we told what makes human beings capable of knowing the gods in the first place: there are no references to a golden faculty of understanding, or of Divine intuition for that matter. One feels that we need a more fleshed-out account of human nature at this point.
But the more serious defect in the Enuma Elish‘s answer to Gauguin’s second question is that it is degrading to human dignity. What the account declares is that human beings don’t matter in their own right: we were put here simply to serve the gods, who are entitled to dispose of us at their whim. The Babylonians must have realized the threat posed by a malevolent or even a whimsical Deity, since the Enuma Elish repeatedly affirms that Marduk, the supreme god, is both benevolent and steadfast. In the Seventh Tablet, he is praidsed as “the Lord of Hearing and Mercy,” “The Creator of Fulness and Abundance” and “the Founder of Plenteousness,” and the Epilogue adds that “His word standeth fast, his command is unaltered.” But even a benevolent, steadfast Deity cannot undo the spiritual degradation that arises from believing that your sole purpose in life is to serve somebody alse.
However, since the Enuma Elish does at least tell us what we’re here for, I’ll give it a rating of 0.5 for its answer to Gauguin’s second question.
Where Babylonian religion really falls down is in its answer to Gauguin’s third question: “Where are we going?” Gwendolyn Leick, author of The Babylonians: an introduction (Routledge, London, 2003) summarizes Babylonian beliefs about the afterlife:
Babylonian views on death van be gleaned from some of their literary works and from their mortuary practices. The gods reserved eternal life for themselves and decreed death to be man’s fate. Man has to enjoy life on earth while it lasts, since conditions in the underworld are nothing to look forward to…
The Babylonians did not believe in either retributions or rewards for one’s behavior after death. Instead, they were more inclined to interpret misfortune, illness and of course death itself as a form of punishment for sin.
The afterlife is not mentioned in the Enuma Elish; however, the fate of the dead in the underworld is vivdly described in the seventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian epic that the Babylonians were thoroughly familiar with:
Upon the house of gloom, the seat of Irkalla (Nergal), Upon the house whose entrance hath no exit, (or, whose enterer goeth not forth.) Upon the path whose way hath no return, Upon the house whose enterers are deprived of light, Where dust is their nourishment, their food mud, Light they see not, in darkness they dwell, Clothed also, like a bird, in a dress of feathers. Upon the door and bolt the dust hath blown.
From the above quote, we can see that the Babylonians envisaged the dead as sitting forlorn in darkness. The world of the dead was regarded as a land of no return, an infernal dwelling place for the shadows, with no hope for any rewards for the righteous.
I have to say that I regard this as a highly unsatisfying answer to Gauguin’s third question, because it makes life and existence meaningless in the end. I’d give it a zero.
Summing up, we have a total score of (0.4 + 0.5 + 0), or 0.9 out of 3. That’s less than 1 out of 3. I hardly think Marduk cuts it as a satisfying deity to worship.
Let’s try another god, then. How about Zeus?
2. Zeus and his role in Greek religion
Zeus, king of the gods by Eric Rymer.
Hesiod as Precursor to the Presocratic Philosophers: A Voeglinian View by Richard F. Moorton, Jr. 2001.
Plato’s Timaeus by Donal Zeyl. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
(a) Who was Zeus? A brief outline.
For the Greeks, Zeus was the King of the Gods, who oversaw the universe. In the Homeric Hymns he is referred to as the chieftain of the gods. However, Zeus was not a creator deity; he himself had a beginning. Zeus was the sixth and youngest child of Cronos and his sister Rhea. His elder siblings were Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. Cronos (the master of time) and Rhea were actually twins; they were the 11th and 12th children of Uranus (the sky god) and Gaia (Mother Earth), both of whom arose from the primordial Chaos, a gaping void or abyss from which appeared everything that exists. In Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 700 B.C.), we are told that Chaos was the first thing that came to be. Most scholars hold that the Greeks, like the Babylonians, had no concept of creation ex nihilo.
Zeus became the King of the gods by virtue of his bravery, his connections and his ability to form alliances. He tricked his father Cronos into swallowing a potion which caused him to disgorge Zeus’s five older siblings, each of whom Cronos had swallowed immediately after their birth. His immensely grateful elder siblings then chose him to be the leader of the Olympians. For ten years, the Olympians fought against the Titans without obtaining an advantage, but Zeus finally got the upper hand after Gaia advised him to free the Cyclopes and the hundred headed Giants from Tartarus (a place in the underworld). After being liberated, the Cyclopes and the Giants became Zeus’s allies. The Cyclopes gave Zeus and his brothers some special powers, which they used against their father Cronos. The special power they gave to Zeus was the power over thunder and lightning, which Zeus used at a propitious moment to finally strike down Cronos. Zeus and his brothers then divided the universe between them by casting lots, Zeus obtaining the heavens, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld.
Zeus had six wives, including Hera, his sister. He was also known for his erotic escapades, which resulted in many offspring who were gods and heroes.
From a moral perspective, what is most remarkable about Zeus is that unlike his father Cronos and his grandfather Uranus, who attempted to monopolize power, Zeus was willing to share power, allotting to his siblings and his allies their fair share of honor and power. Among Zeus’s many children were Eunomia (Order), Dike (Justice) and Eirene (Peace). The significance of the Battle of the Titans was that it marked the victory of the forces of true order over the forces of chaos.
The biggest threat to cosmic order that Zeus ever had to contend with his battle with Typhoeus, a chaos monster, for supremacy in the universe. Zeus managed to defeat the beast of disorder, but the poet Hesiod’s account of the battle shows that for the ancient Greeks, it could have gone the other way.
According to one account in Greek mythology, Zeus entrusted the task of creating man and the animals to the Titan Prometheus (whose name means forethought) and his brother Epimetheus (whose name means afterthought). Epimetheus gave all the animals special gifts for their protection, but after doing so, he had nothing left to give man. Prometheus then created a man in the likeness of the gods. He gave the man the gift of fire by stealing it from the gods – an act for which Prometheus was harshly punished. Zeus then ordered his son Hephaestus to create woman, in order to keep man’s power in check, so Hephaestus made a woman in the likeness of the goddesses.The gods all gave her the gifts of beauty, grace, and charm, as well as the art of lies, seduction and guile. The first woman was named Pandora. It was Pandora who, yielding to curiosity, opened a box which Zeus had given her and told her not to open. From this box came all the plagues of mankind, including disease, pain, envy, sorrow and death.
Zeus was universally acknowledged as “Father Zeus”. Even the gods who were not his natural children addressed him as Father, and all the gods rose in his presence. In the Iliad, prayers to Zeus begin, “O Father Zeus” (Zeu pater), a form of address which has a parallel in the Sanskrit deity who was addressed as Dyaus pitar (Sky Father). From his home on top of Mount Olympus, he dispensed justice, and his favorite weapon was the thunderbolt. Although he was addressed as “Father Zeus”, the Greeks did not view him as someone with whom they could have a personal relationship. Aristotle stated bluntly, “It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus – or that Zeus loved a human being, for that matter.”
The ancient Greek picture of the afterlife was more cheerful than the Babylonian one. The virtuous were believed to be rewarded by going on to the Elysian Fields, a place of green fields where the sun always shone and where people could engage in whatever activities they had enjoyed while on earth. However, the underworld was not controlled by Zeus but by his brother, Hades.
(b) Zeus and Gauguin’s three questions
The Greek mythological account of the origins of human beings and of the cosmos suffers from the same defects as its Babylonian counterpart. Zeus is not a First Cause; he has parents. Additionally, he does not possess his power by nature, but by virtue of his accomplishments. Although Zeus was successful in defeating the chaos monster Typhoeus, the battle could have gone the other way, and there is nothing to guarantee that Zeus will not be overthrown in the future. What’s more, in Greek mythology, the gods themselves were said to be governed by the decrees of Fate; in other words, they were not all-powerful.
In one particular respect, the answer given by the religion of the ancient Greeks to Gauguin’s first question (“Where do we come from?”) is even less satisfactory than the answer given by the ancient Babylonians. The Babylonians regarded water as the primordial element, but for the Greeks, everything (gods included) arose out of a gaping abyss called Chaos. Chaos is said to have been the first thing that came into existence; however, its origin is left entirely unexplained. Clearly this will not do.
In the Timaeus Plato presents an elaborately wrought account of the formation of the universe. Plato is deeply impressed with the order and beauty he observes in the universe, and his project in the dialogue is to explain that order and beauty. The universe, he proposes, is the product of rational, purposive, and beneficent agency. It is the handiwork of a divine Craftsman (“Demiurge,” demiourgos, 28a6), who, imitating an unchanging and eternal model, imposes mathematical order on a preexistent chaos to generate the ordered universe (kosmos). The governing explanatory principle of the account is teleological: the universe as a whole as well as its various parts are so arranged as to produce a vast array of good effects. It strikes Plato strongly that this arrangement is not fortuitous, but the outcome of the deliberate intent of Intellect (nous), anthropomorphically represented by the figure of the Craftsman who plans and constructs a world that is as excellent as its nature permits it to be.
Plato did not present his account as the definitive truth, but as a “likely story”: the universe is in a state of perpetual flux, so any account given of its origin will inevitably be lacking in complete accuracy and consistency (29c4–7). Nevertheless, rationality and order pervade the Timaeus in its entirety; nothing in the Enuma Elish comes near to matching it, either in scope or in its ability to unify every aspect of the cosmos, which is envisaged as a living thing in Plato’s account. The story’s high degree of detail and mathematical beauty must have made it very appealing to its ancient Greek audience. However, the Timaeus is marred by three flaws. First, the universe in Plato’s Timaeus is not said to have been created ex nihilo, but formed from pre-existing matter, whose origin is left unexplained. Second, teleology in the Timaeus is envisaged in wholly extrinsic terms: it is regarded as having been imposed on the cosmos from outside, as a form on pre-existing matter. The notion of intrinsic finality is missing from Plato’s cosmology. Finally, we are not told the identity of the craftsman, although Plato evidently regards him as supremely good and emphasizes that he wanted to make as good a world as possible. The reason why the world remains imperfect is that the Demiurge had to work with pre-existing chaotic matter.
Several centuries later, the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (c. 205-270 A.D.) identified the Demiurge with Nous (the divine mind), or the first emanation of “the One”, and Plotinus’ followers even personified the Demiurge as the supreme god, Zeus (Titi Tudorancea Bulletin, September 14, 2010, art. “Demiurge”). Remarkably, Plotinus even believed in a triune God of successive ’emanations’: the One, inexpressible; Mind, or thought-thinking-itself; and World-Soul. I should point out, however, that Plotinus’ teacher, Ammonius Saccas, is reported to have frown up in a Christian family, and that his right-hand-man, Porphyry, personally knew the Christian philosopher Origen. Since the Neoplatonists’ views on the Demiurge appear to reflect Christian influence on pagan thought, I shall pass over them and confine myself to Plato’s account in the Timaeus.
How well, then, do the popular Greek myths of the origin of the gods and of human beings answer Gaiguin’s first question: “Where do we come from?” I would give them a “Gauguin rating” of 0.2 (1 being a perfect score): they depict the gods under Zeus as acting according to a plan in producing animals and human beings, but they leave even more “hanging threads” than the Babylonian creation account. However, I would be far more generous in assessing Plato’s Timaeus myth: because it explains the order in the cosmos in terms of an Intelligence rather than pure chance (Chaos), and also asserts that not everything is entirely governed by blind necessity alone, it marks a genuine intellectual advance on the old Greek myth. I would therefore give Plato’s Timaeus a “Gauguin rating” of 0.8.
What about Gauguin’s second question (“What are we?”)? On this issue, Greek religion fares considerably better than its Babylonian counterpart. According to the Greek myths, man was made in the image of the gods, and woman in the image of the goddesses. This suggests that humans are more than mere servants of the gods, as they are in Babylonian mythology.
Additionally, the ancient Greeks, with their highly refined philosophy, had a much clearer notion of the distinction in nature between man and the other animals. On a practical level, the Greeks believed that the most important difference between themselves and other animals was that humans were capable of speech and animals were not. The Greeks came to associate speech with rationality and logos came to mean not just the articulation of a thought, but the actual thought itself. On an abstract philosophical level, Aristotle explained the essential difference between man and the other animals by defining man as a rational animal.
Finally, because Zeus, Father of the gods, was universally regarded as a moral Deity, who ruled the world with justice, the Greeks had every reason to believe that Zeus would punish wrongdoers. Thus the Odyssey declares that “the blessed gods do not love outrageous deeds, but honor justice and the right actions of men” (XIV.83-84), and of Zeus it is said that he “most of all is angered by evil deeds” (XIV.284). In Hesiod’s Works and Days, Zeus is said to bestow peace and bounty on those who “give stright judgements”, while punishing those who “cultivate hubris and cruel deeds” (225-247). Zeus’ daughter Dike (Justice) is supported in her endeavors by “thrice ten thousand guardian spirits, watchers over mortal men”, who carefully record people’s bad deeds, and mark down those who “grind down their fellow-men with crooked judgements” (248-255).
On the negative side, individual Greeks did not consider themselves as having a personal relationship with Zeus, even if they addressed him as “Father”. Zeus was not someone they could love, or get to know.
Still, there is much that is ennobling about the ancient Greek view of man, so I’ll give Greek religion a rating of 0.9 for its answer to Gauguin’s second question (“What are we?”).
What of Gauguin’s third question, “Where are we going?” Here, Greek religion displays a marked advance over its Babylonian counterpart, which envisaged the dead as all sitting forlorn in darkness. Hades, ruler of the the underworld, was envisaged by the Greeks as stern but just, in pronouncing his judgements on individuals after death. In Greek mythology, the virtuous were rewarded by admission to Elysium, a blessed abode which was initially reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes, but was later expanded to include those chosen by the gods, as well as heroes and other righteous people. Wrongdoers were punished forever in Tartarus, while ordinary folk whose lives contained a near-equal mix of good and evil were assigned to live in the silent, gloomy Asphodel Meadows.
What are the flaws in this picture? First, the underworld does not belong to the domain of Zeus, the Father of the gods; instead, it is controlled by his brother Hades.
Second and more tellingly, the nature of human beatitude in the afterlife is not spelled out clearly in Greek mythology. The dead in Elysium are simply said to continue doing what they had enjoyed on Earth. In other words, their joy is finite. Contrast this with the Christian notion of Heaven, in which the chief happiness is said to consist in the eternal vision of God, our Creator. The Bible also looks forward to a physical resurrection, in which the dead are raised in incorruptible bodies, and a future world – the new heavens and the new earth – in which there will be no sickness, no death and no tears, and the righteous will live in happiness and harmony with one another. The source of their joy, however, will be the perpetual vision of God, and their joy will be infinite.
Third, the ancient Greeks believed that you could earn your way to heaven. This is in marked contrast with the Christian view that the vision of God, being a supernatural gift, cannot be simply earned. The idea of earning your way to heaven might be considered a source of optimism about the hereafter; however, the reality was that few of the Greeks believed that they would enter Elysium. Not being outstandingly righteous, their final destiny was much more likely to be the Asphodel Meadows, a world filled with silence and gloom. Hardly something to look forward to.
On the whole, then, I’d give the ancient Greek vision of hereafter a Gauguin rating of 0.4. It’s a moral picture, but its vision of our ultimate destiny is a profoundly unsatisfying one.
Summing up, we get a total of (0.2 + 0.9 + 0.4) = 1.5 for popular Greek religion, and (0.8 + 0.9 + 0.4) = 2.1 for Platonism.
This essay is an enquiry into why some gods eventually die out while others do not. The thesis I put forward is that gods die out because they deserve to: if they fail to provide an all-encompassing answer to Gauguin’s “big three” questions, then they will eventually go the way of the dodo.
However, I would like to be more specific, and suggest that probably the third of Gauguin’s big questions (“Where are we going?”) is the most critical to whether a god (or a religion) will contiunue to gain adherents or die out.
The next most significant factor, however, is a religion’s ability to provide convincing answers to the first of Gauguin’s big questions: “Where did we come from?” An inability to provide intellectually plausible answers to this question can certainly bring a religion into discredit. The main reason why Platonism was a formidable intellectual rival to Christianity for such a long time is precisely that it, like Christianity, envisaged the world as being the product of Intelligent Design – even if it did not take the additional step of viewing the world as a creation ex nihilo.
(Incidentally, someone might wish to object that the author of Genesis 1 did not envision a creation ex nihilo either. Not being a Hebrew scholar, I do not consider myself qualified to address this question. All I will say is that by 2,000 years ago, Jews and Christians alike believed in the concept of creation ex nihilo. For instance, in the deuterocanonical book of 2 Maccabees 7:28, written around 124 B.C., a Jewish mother addresses her son: “So I urge you, my child, to look at the sky and the earth. Consider everything you see there, and realize that God made it all from nothing, just as he made the human race.”)
Turning to modern atheism, we find that the main focus of its attack on monotheistic religion has been the first of Gauguin’s big questions. Atheists argue that the world does not need a Creator. Religious believers should, in my opinion, respond vigorously by pointing out the glaring weaknesses of the atheist cosmology which would supplant the traditional view of a cosmos created by God and operating according to laws that express His will. Tegmark’s multiverse, in which all possible states of affairs are realized, makes a mockery of free will and of science itself. Restricted multiverses, which generate baby universes according to fixed laws, fail to circumvent the fine-tuning problem, because they need to be very finely tuned in order to generate baby universes. The striking fact that the universe obeys any laws at all – let alone these ones – is a brute fact that atheism cannot explain, except by invoking the stale platitude that we wouldn’t be here now if the universe didn’t behave in this way. Finally, the sheer contingency of the cosmos, at every level, attests to the fact that it is not self-explanatory. Accepting an atheist cosmology would be a real science-stopper: it would rule out whole classes of questions that a scientist who viewed the universe as fine-tuned to support life would feel free to ask.
Regarding Gauguin’s second and third questions, theists have a psychological advantage over atheists in terms of gaining converts. Most people want to believe they are genuinely free, and that their actions are not determined. Most people also want to believe that their lives have a deeper significance and smehow matter in the grands scheme of things. Belief in a hereafter is a very natural human desire. To date, atheists have attacked these beliefs with the combined weapons of ridicule (“If you need to believe in a hereafter, that’s because you’re weak”) and materialism (“We’re all animals, and your brain is just a machine.”) The next major battle on the Intelligent Design front is the battle for the human mind. We are in the midst of an intellectual onslaught, designed to convince young people that their every thought, word and deed is physically determined, that the difference between humans and other animals is one of degree and not kind, and that the concept of an immaterial soul is meaningless and has no place in modern science. It is here that the battle will intensify in the years to come.
Thousands of gods have come and gone. Only a few remain standing today, claims to the contrary notwithstanding), and monotheism holds sway over more than half the planet. But those which do remain standing are a doughty lot, and will not fade into oblivion, as atheists like H. L. Mencken assumed.