“But is there any good reason for believing in the Ancient Gods, Professor?” asked Amy, shifting her chewing gum from one side to the other. “Surely you are not going to suggest that we believe in them on the basis of Faith?”
“Indeed not”, I said. “After all, by faith you can believe in anything that takes your fancy, provided your powers of self-persuasion are strong enough. It is better to use reason to decide what to believe.”
“Doesn’t that mean that you have faith in reason?” asked Mark.
“It is a common suggestion that depending upon reason is equivalent to having faith in, say, the God of the Christians, but in fact there is a big difference. Faith in God is faith that something exists, that God is part of reality. Such trust as we have in reason is trust in a method for working out solutions to problems, such as the problem of what things are part of reality. Belief that an entity exists is quite different from believing that a particular method will lead to knowledge of reality. Trust in reason is trust in a method of thinking, a method of acquiring knowledge. Belief in God is believing in the existence of something we think about, a thing to be known. Do you see the difference?”
They claimed that they did, and then Jeff asked “But still, isn’t that just faith that reason works?”
“No, our belief in reason isn’t faith. It is justified belief. It is based on the fact that it has proved itself better than other methods in the past. If we were to discover some other method that clearly was more successful than reason in so far as it gave us all the knowledge that we can gain from reason and more besides, then we would be inclined to prefer that method to reason. Again, if reason were to be clearly shown to be a bad method, we would give it up. This attitude to reason is not faith. Religious Faith seems to be belief that is held without evidence, and perhaps even against reason, and in spite of all countervailing evidence. Or so it seems to me. Religious people say you should never give up Faith, no matter what.”
They nodded in agreement. I wondered briefly if Socrates’ yes-men also were thinking about who it was who decided their final grade. Then Amy asked, “Okay. So if you don’t believe in the ancient gods by Faith, what reason do you have? Do you mean like Epicurus and religious experience ? Visions of the gods?”
“Not that, no. Do you remember what William James said about non-evidential reasons for religious belief? We discussed it last week (Williams, 1997) . Well, I can provide a non- evidential reason for believing in the Gods . Roger Scruton has claimed that one of the foundations for morality is pietas, by which he means something like respect for the natural order ( Scruton, 1996) . Mary Midgley has agreed with him, (Midgley, 1997) and I tend to agree too, on that point at least. Now the word pietas is the origin of our word piety, because the respect for the natural order involved respect for the Ancient Gods, who are gods of the natural world.”
Melody then asked thoughtfully, “I thought you said they were something to do with various aspect of human life, Professor. Like, Apollo is the God of Philosophy and Science and stuff.”
(I do like the way my American students call me “Professor”.)
“Indeed, but Apollo is also connected with the Sun”, I said (vaguely, because I could not remember exactly the connection between Apollo and Helios), “just as Artemis is a goddess of wild places but also the goddess of midwifery and childbirth. They form a link between human life and the natural order.” I was making this bit up as I went along, but it sounded okay. Good enough for undergraduates, anyway.
“So you mean, Professor, that we should worship the old Gods to link ourselves with the natural order?”
“Exactly! And this not only makes you feel part of the natural world, and less alienated, it also increases your pietas, which makes you more moral. But there is more to it than that. If you honour the Gods, they may well choose to help you, and provide you with the good things of life in this life. Forget about the after life. If there is one, they might help you there as well, but this life is the one you know about. Get their help now. And remember, the Gods are famous for taking a dim view of those who do not honour them. They will at best ignore you, and may make things go badly for you. So it is best to be on the safe side and honour them.”
Mark chewed his gum skeptically (with a ‘k’) for a moment, and then asked “What if they don’t exist, Professor?”
“If they don’t exist, then you have lost nothing (unless you are going to overdo it and sacrifice hecatombs of oxen) but you have still raised the level of your pietas by reverencing the natural order. We can formalize it as Harwood’s wager.
If the Gods exist, and you honour them, you get the spiritual benefits of feeling part of the natural world, and increased pietas, and you also have the chance of their help in this world, and perhaps the next as well. If the Gods exist, and you do not honour them, you get nothing, and may even be punished in this world or the next. If the Gods do not exist, and you honour them, you get the spiritual benefits, though not the help in this world. If the Gods do not exist, and you fail to honour them you get nothing.
Clearly the best option, as a matter of sound practical reason is to honour the Ancient Gods. If we combine James’ argument for the legitimacy of non-evidential belief with Pascal’s wager (suitably modified), we find they have provided us with a fine piece of pagan apologetic.”
I have to report that next morning I found my students all worshipping the Sun with prayers and offerings of chewing gum.