Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

Euhemerism and similar theories

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Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

#1  Postby lpetrich » Mar 20, 2016 11:56 pm

I've created a separate thread for this issue, starting from this post in "Was Moses a Myth?"
igorfrankensteen wrote:when and why did large groups of people cease being satisfied with purely magical explanations of their spiritual heritage, and instead begin to call for believable physical histories instead?


It likely started when some pre-Socratic philosophers expressed skepticism about their society's theology. Xenophanes was notable for pointing the absurd anthropomorphism of its deities. Protagoras argued that nobody knows for sure what the gods are really like. Such skepticism likely set the stage for people asking what the gods were really like. If they weren't immortal people with superpowers, then what were they?

Theagenes of Rhegium - His Thoughts on Cosmology, Religion, and Myth
Theagenes (~525 BCE) proposed that deities were allegories for forces of nature, and that their fighting was allegories of conflicts and oppositions between them, like fire vs. water.
In this menagerie, fire was represented by Apollo, Helios and Hephaestus, water by Poseidon and Scamander, air by Hera, and so forth. Also abstract qualities had divine representation - wisdom with Athene, desire with Aphrodite, reason with Hermes and folly, no less, with Ares. For gods to actually do battle, in the way Homer has it, would be unbecoming to them.


Euhemerus - His Thoughts on Cosmology, Religion, and Myth
But Euhemerus (~ 330 - 260 BCE) was much more successful. He proposed that while some deities are indeed cosmic and immortal, other deities were originally human heroes. Euhemerism, as it is called, became a very popular theory.

It must be noted that despite their skepticism, philosophers like these also believed that one ought to worship these entities. Sextus Empiricus, in Arguments against Belief in a God, stated "We sceptics follow in practice the way of the world, but without holding any opinion about it. We speak of the Gods as existing and offer worship to the Gods and say that they exercise providence, but in saying this we express no belief, and avoid the rashness of the dogmatisers." (translation quoted by Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy).
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Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

#2  Postby RealityRules » Mar 21, 2016 1:40 am

lpetrich wrote:
Euhemerus - His Thoughts on Cosmology, Religion, and Myth
But Euhemerus (~ 330 - 260 BCE) was much more successful. He proposed that while some deities are indeed cosmic and immortal, other deities were originally human heroes. Euhemerism, as it is called, became a very popular theory.

There is a lot of confusion & argument around the terms 'euhemerism and 'euhemerization'. Euhemerus only proposed that some deities had originally been human - nobody knew if the had been. The terms 'euhemerism and 'euhemerization' have come apply to giving human attributes to deities that had been previously perceived to be celestial or heavenly - essentially anhropomorphising those deities.

Early Christians used the concept to disparage Greek & Roman gods as only having been perceived to be human cf. their Jesus being God 'incarnate'.
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Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

#3  Postby Calilasseia » Mar 21, 2016 6:23 am

Well I've expressed the view that god-type entities were invented originally by our prehistoric ancestors, as big, invisible versions of themselves, supposedly responsible for various observed phenomena. Has this view been presented within scholarly literature?
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Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

#4  Postby igorfrankensteen » Mar 22, 2016 12:11 pm

I believe there is value to simultaneously recognizing and holding several views at once, as to how and why gods came to be, and what people have done with them.

One of my current favorite ways to view this, is to observe common human problem solving in action. In a very basic way, humans of all kinds, react to unpleasantness, or pain, or whatever else bothers them, by applying some sort of creative reassembly of their ideas of how to live. Sometimes that takes the form of what we call religion.

In turn, once a religion is in place and influencing the lives of those around them, it's common in history to see people switch back and forth from recognizing that the religion was created by people, and forgetting the same.

Further in turn, we can find the 'problem solving' urge, lead to modifications of the religions, for everything from refinement of the beliefs from within the mental world of faith, for the sake of making them internally consistent among other things...to crassly altering them from without the faith, in order to use them to manipulate and control the followers.

And in the middle ground between, there are plenty of seeming instances where those who formulated ideas, clearly did so to try to teach without chaining the students to a local power or to themselves.

It can get very interesting to ferret out motivations, at least to me.
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Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

#5  Postby RealityRules » Mar 22, 2016 4:44 pm

What does not meet with these criteria, is not a myth:

  1. A story, possible to narrate with words, containing events leading to some distinguishable change of circumstances.
    • A setting in a distant past*, from which no first-hand report remains in a source from that time, nor is any witness of it still alive, nor is any person alive who has met such a witness in life.
      • An out-of-the-ordinary significance to the story, where the events of it are proclaimed either to have importance in the way life is lived thereafter, or being of such rare, splendid nature that the memory of them should be kept and cherished by some - or all - people.
        • A claim of having taken place, of not being fictional, no matter how unlikely. The claim [does] not [have] to be supported by all, but there cannot be any clear indication of it having been invented, neither by a more or less obvious statement in the story itself, nor in what sense it is traditionally told.
          • A strong sense of unlikeliness in all but those whose culture it stems from, that the events described could actually have taken place. It is not necessary that people of that culture are convinced of its authenticity, but other people should clearly be inclined to the opposite view.
            • There is no known author, regarded as being the very first to present it.

            Undoubtedly, some of these conditions are vague, demanding an interpretation of general attitudes and such, but I believe them to be easier to apply to most cases ...


            * ..time is not the only distance making this possible, a geographical distance or a cultural one would serve just as well. A tale can be believable to one ethnic group and completely rejected by another, both of them living in the same city. But if the tale in question has a contemporary setting, it makes much more sense to all but the believers in it to call it superstition.


            This article was originally written in 1999 for a seminar at the Department of History of Ideas, Lund University, as a part of my dissertation in progress on Creation Myths and their patterns of thought.
            Published on the web on September 6, 2001.

            http://www.creationmyths.org/mythlogics-1.htm -- © Stefan Stenudd 1999
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            Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

            #6  Postby igorfrankensteen » Mar 22, 2016 8:37 pm

            Well, I'm not sure this particular list of limits of "myth" are all that useful to us. For one thing, this list seems to reject as myth, actual events which have been retold later in such a way as to have achieved mythic status. It also excludes all myths told about recent times, no matter whether they are mythic or not. And we certainly have plenty of them.
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            Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

            #7  Postby THWOTH » Mar 22, 2016 10:00 pm

            I think I'm mything the point here.
            "No-one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly."
            Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 1580
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            Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

            #8  Postby campermon » Mar 22, 2016 10:01 pm

            :nono:
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            Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

            #9  Postby RealityRules » Mar 23, 2016 12:06 am

            igorfrankensteen wrote:
            Well, I'm not sure this particular list of limits of "myth" are all that useful to us. For one thing, this list seems to reject as myth, actual events which have been retold later in such a way as to have achieved mythic status.

            I'm not sure what you mean by 'mythical status' or how it is 'achieved'.

            I thought the points listed were interesting as a possible explanation of the narratives about some current deities.


            igorfrankensteen wrote:
            It also excludes all myths told about recent times, no matter whether they are mythic or not. And we certainly have plenty of them.

            Each myth would need to be assesses separately and on it's merits.
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            Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

            #10  Postby tuco » Mar 23, 2016 12:18 am

            Hence perhaps the confusion. Explanation for the narrative are technicalities: how to market an idea?, which can be seen as different question to explanation for an idea: why this idea?

            I would not say holding several views at once but rather examining from several views, though it possibly means the same notion.
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            Re: Skeptical theories and rational explanations for deities

            #11  Postby igorfrankensteen » Mar 24, 2016 9:09 pm

            RealityRules wrote:
            igorfrankensteen wrote:
            Well, I'm not sure this particular list of limits of "myth" are all that useful to us. For one thing, this list seems to reject as myth, actual events which have been retold later in such a way as to have achieved mythic status.

            I'm not sure what you mean by 'mythical status' or how it is 'achieved'.

            I thought the points listed were interesting as a possible explanation of the narratives about some current deities.


            igorfrankensteen wrote:
            It also excludes all myths told about recent times, no matter whether they are mythic or not. And we certainly have plenty of them.

            Each myth would need to be assesses separately and on it's merits.



            Our seeming differences may be due to the various ways the term "myth" is commonly applied.

            When I was just beginning to learn about the past, the word "myth" referred almost exclusively to the very old stories that no one in modern America thought of as remotely true. The word was used to refer to religions that no longer held sway, especially the stories that the Ancient Greeks told each other, and the stories that more modern societies who we were supposed to think politely about, while inwardly laughing at them, such as the Vikings. So there can be some politics involved when the word 'myth' gets used.

            More in the historical studies area, there are the versions of our own actual past,which get "mythologized." History gets turned into myth, when we want to attach extra importance to it, or we want to prove some magic force is on our side.

            Sometimes real stories are made mythic by individuals purposely crafting the telling of them, in order to promote other agendas, such as politicians trying to get themselves elected, or trying to rev up patriotism for some war or other international concern. Sometimes real history is made mythic by a mass of disorganized people, like rock star fans, who are so excited to feel positive about someone or something, that they spontaneously generate exaggerated versions of their focus' real activities, so as to make everything more "fun."

            A Myth, after all, is a story which the people so labeling it, believe to be nonidentical to factual history; but generally don't believe to be a purposeful lie. When someone tells us what we think is an intentional LIE about the past, we call it something else, like propaganda.

            Some modern myths, are, just like the myths of the ancient world, believed only by one portion of the general population. Americans, for example, include subsets who believe an entirely Mythic version of the years 1980 to 1988. They believe that heroic Ronald Reagan confidently moved from triumph to triumph, setting right a treacherously distorted America, and putting us all back on a path to wealth and confident leadership of the world. In every way you can think of, their version of the past is mythic.

            The only difference between these modern mythologized stories and the ancient ones, is the relative number of people who recognize that they are myths.
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