Zeus for Atheists

If you’ve studied cosmology, you know that, the weakness and overconfidence of many popular “fine-tuning” arguments notwithstanding, there are amazing, unanswered questions about the origin of order in physics, the “Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics,” etc.

The ancient Stoics believed there was a rational order (logos) to the universe. They called this order or purpose “God.” The Stoics were naturalists and materialists who claimed no divine revelation—but they were also pantheists who believed that physics has a lot to say about ethics.

Most modern Stoics are atheists—they discard or reinterpret the Stoic idea of an ordered, semi-conscious universe.  The modern Stoic philosopher Lawrence Becker, for instance (whom Massimo Pigliucci has just finished posting a number of interviews with), is very frank about his atheistic cosmology:


On the basis of contemporary cosmic science, we reject anthropocentric views of the cosmos. We take it as settled that the universe is unimaginably large and old, and in constant, tumultuous, evolutionary change; that human history occupies a tiny temporal slice of universal history, and is confined to a small planet of an unremarkable star on the inner edge of one arm of what is in all probability an unremarkable spiral galaxy. There is no evidence that our galaxy, planet, or species is central to any cosmic process; no evidence that there is anything extraordinary about our origins; no evidence that the natural history of life on this planet is of any cosmic significance whatsoever

—Becker, A New Stoicism, p. 11.

There are a number of reasons that atheistic Stoics feel that rejecting Providence does not make them “un-Stoic”:

  • The Stoic world view is at heart a well-developed system of virtue ethics that is compelling by itself, making your theology somewhat fungible.
  • To the Stoics, theology is a subfield of physics.  Unlike the deities we know from other traditions, the stoic “God” is the ultimate immanent deity.  He has more in common with the God of theistic evolution or with the “something like a mind” underlying Philip Clayton’s Christian minimalism than the God of the virgin birth or the burning bush. The “Zeus” of Epictetus is in many ways synonymous with the impersonal, natural order of the physical world—and atheists have never denied that there is a logical order to the cosmos.
  • The Stoics themselves heartily encouraged us not to be dogmatic or enslaved by our texts. “Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides,” writes Seneca, “the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come” (Letters to Lucilius, 33.11).
  • It is reasonable to imagine that, had Stoicism survived as a living tradition into the scientific revolution, it would have adapted itself to follow the best science of the time.

For these reasons atheistic Stoicism is a valid project, and it still has every right to call itself Stoicism.

There are non-atheistic Stoics today, however, who still find a great deal of power and meaning in the old Greek idea of a Providential, if impersonal, consciousness in the universe—a logos that is not as person-like as the Word of St. John, but also not as arbitrary and chance-driven as the atheistic/Epicurean view of origins.

For a traditional Stoic, the task of contemporary Stoicism is not so much to show that the old philosophy can be updated to fit a meaningless universe (though they do agree that many aspects of Stoicism need updated)—but rather to show that the cosmology described by modern science still fits the Stoic idea that our highest purpose is to “follow Nature” and to submit to the plan that Zeus has built into the universe.

Toward that end, Chris Fisher—a leading traditional Stoic—has just written a post collecting a number of quotes by well-known physicists that draw our attention to the profound and mysterious ordering that we observe in our universe.  He rightly observes that atheists, who are accustomed to dealing with theistic arguments, tend to under-appreciate how much modern physics leaves the door open to the possibility that “random chance” is not the best way to describe the origins of nature.

His point is not to claim that he can prove that a pantheistic “God” exists. He would just like modern Stoics to understand that the idea of a purposive universe is not as insane as many atheists tend to assume—and that the Stoic tent is big enough for all of us:

Does any of this ‘prove’ the cosmos is conscious as the Stoics asserted? Certainly not… My argument is this: the cosmic worldview of the ancient Stoics is still a viable option for twenty-first-century practitioners of Stoicism.

Personally, I get a chill down my spine when I try and fathom why there is something rather than nothing at all, and why the Big Bang provided a set of conditions/laws that led to a universe that we can understand—a universe with some degree of logos to it.  I am an atheist—I see no compelling evidence of Providence—but I’ve read enough Polkinghorne,  D’EspangatGiberson, BioLogos blogs,  etc. to know that A) the fundamental reality of the universe is really darn weird, when you consider the possible implications of quantum mechanics, and B) there are deep, unanswered questions about why our universe takes the particular form that it does.  And the answer seems to be found in some kind of bias in Reality, or in whatever metaphysical process is ultimately responsible for the configuration of our world.

I don’t call that bias “Providence,” because I see no evidence that it had any intentions or plan for planet Earth or for me in particular.  But I certainly don’t think it’s crazy to make the inductive leap to supposing that some kind of immanent design is at work.

Aristotle had a point 2,300 years ago when he wrote that the early (Milesian) chance-based theories of the universe seemed implausible, and that

When one man said, then, that reason was present—as in animals, so throughout nature—as the cause of order and of all arrangements, he seemed like a sober man in contrast with the random talk of his predecessors.

—Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.3.

Modern cosmology—and especially Darwin—has made arguments like this perhaps less potent than they once were.  But I can still respect my “traditional” brothers and sisters in the Stoa who, while respectful of modern science, are not quite ready to let go of the philosopher’s God.

The tent is big enough for all of us, most certainly.  And more than that, traditional Stoics challenge me to stay attentive to physics: to the wonderful and beautiful aspects of the universe, which are things that I otherwise tend to ignore and forget about, defaulting toward a sense that all my atheist answers are complete and in no need of revision.

3 thoughts on “Zeus for Atheists”

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