The Presocratic philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. The same, he holds, goes for lions and oxen. What is the intended critical edge of such observations? Suppose it’s true that horses would draw their gods as horses. So what?
The famous Xenophanes fragment runs as follows:
If horses or oxen or lions had hands
or if they could draw with their hands and
produce works like men,
horses would draw the figures of the gods as
similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen,
and they would make the bodies
of the sort which each of them had.
The Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria is our source. He portrays Xenophanes as a religious reformer, one committed to criticizing anthropomorphism in religion. To construct a god in your own image, he holds, is a form of idolatry. Clement also provides another Xenophanes fragment, one that he takes to provide parallel support for this interpretation:
Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black;
Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.
The same lesson is said to follow: Humans make their gods look like themselves. But the question remains. What is the critical edge? They serve a critical religious program, but there is no overt argument in either. We hold it that the observations function as a reductio ad ridiculum.
To see this, we must make explicit what’s funny about horses drawing horse gods. In doing so, we’ll ruin the joke, for sure, but that’s philosophy. So what’s funny about horses and horse gods?
Imagine a horse crafting a god in his own image, an ox attributing to the divine the best of what he can conceive. What’s funny is that these are self-indulgent depictions, limited by the depictor’s imagination, which is bounded by the kind of animal it is. An image may capture the comic intuition: In the process of drawing the gods, each animal’s body casts a shadow. The animal draws an outline of the god’s body using that shadow. That’s how each animal gets started conceiving of the divine.
The correlation observed is between properties of the one doing the depicting of a god with the depiction of the god. Crucially, the humor, then, indicates that these depictions are, as one would expect, erroneous. God just doesn’t look like a horse, or an ox, or a lion, or….
But why would such images be in error? Imagine a committed polytheist, one who thinks that there are many, many gods. Polytheists of course disagree about the number of gods there are. So consider a Herculean polytheist. The Herculean polytheist believes in the maximal number of gods. He may say that the Xenophanes’ joke relies on an underestimation of the number of gods there are. The Herclulean polytheist may say in response to Xenophanes:
Exactly! The Thracians have red-haired gods, Ethiopians have dark-skinned gods. Greeks have Greek-looking gods. Same with oxen, horses, lions, and so on, all the way down to squid, moles, and worms. They’ve all got gods that fit with them. The variety of the representation of the gods is not a challenge, but rather evidence of the vast number of gods.
When there are philosophical bullets to bite, the Herculean polytheist makes a meal of them. The Herculean polytheist surely has devised a clever strategy of embracing the presumptively ridiculous consequences of the view. Herculean polytheism, however, invites two uncomfortable consequences. First, it excessively populates divine entities. Greeks have the Olympians and their ancestors and progeny, which already seems bloated; now multiply those numbers by the number of species and races. That’s a whole lot of gods, many of whom are simply redundant. Does the horse’s sun god or the Greek’s sun god or the sparrow’s sun god move the sun across the sky? Was it a team effort when the Thracian, mole, and squid gods created the world?
Second, on the Herculean polytheist view, the duty to worship the gods now has more to do with the worshippers than the gods. One might think that the reason why one should worship a god is that the god is special; the Herculean polytheist holds that one worships a particular god because of who one is. It may seem correct to do so as a gesture of identity, but then worship is no longer about god, but about the worshipper’s identity. Hence we are back to Xenophanes’ critical concern (and Clement’s extension of it), namely, that it looks like religion is more about the humans the gods.
Consider an analogy. In freethinker and atheist circles, a version of the Xenophanes correlation is often invoked to capture the contingency of religious belief. The following is exemplary.
Freethinker: If you were born in the United States of America, you are most likely to become a Christian. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you are likely to become a Muslim. If you had been born in Norway in the viking ages, you would have believed in Thor and Odin. If you were born in Athens around 500 BC, you’d worship Zeus and Athena.
The correlation here is, roughly, that the surrounding cultural milieu determines how one conceives of the divine. We may call this the sociological theory of religion. As the dominant religion of the culture varies with time and geography, the conceptions of the divine held by individuals will also vary. So far, this is only a descriptive point, but it is often deployed as a criticism of religion. The presumption seems to be that one’s conception of the divine should not be determined by simple contingencies. And so the more one’s theology is the product of time and chance, the less confident one should be that it is correct. The determining factors are sociological and historical, not rational.
However, once we make this observation about our images of the divine, we can subject the whole of our theology to the same criticism. It’s not just conceiving god with a long beard that’s in trouble; conceiving of god as rational, loving, and good may be projections as well.
Interestingly, the question of existence never arises for Xenophanes. In fact, in other fragments, Xenophanes offers positive conceptions of the greatest of the gods. But once we see the critical trajectory of Xenophanes’ challenges, we are compelled to ask the question: Isn’t god’s existence, too, a projection, the product of mere contingency?