Tuesday, October 23, 2007
A Modest Proposal
Mary Lefkowitz, professor emerita at Wellesley College and the author of Greek Gods, Human Lives, has a small suggestion: bring back the Greek gods.
Well, not quite, but she thinks some lessons could be learned from them at least:
Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion "poisons" human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn't religion; it's monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn't advocate killing those who worshipped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.Part of it sounds good:
There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.
The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor.But there is always an "opps," it seems:
What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it.That didn't turn out well, did it? But there were some advantages:
[A]s the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn't seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. ...Now, how did I ever learn about skepticism without a healthy belief in Zeus?
The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy -- that characteristically Greek invention -- had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science. ...
Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.