Is God an Atheist?



Is God an Atheist?


God (if he exists) is a rational being. He believes in his own existence only if it is rational so to believe. So does God believe in his own existence? It might be thought that he has quick route to his existence—the divine version of the Cogito. God knows that he thinks, therefore he knows that he exists: he knows his own existence in just the way we know ours, by means of self-awareness.  But this would be a non sequitur: for it doesn’t follow that he knows he is God (or even a god). He is God (by hypothesis), and he knows by the Cogito that he exists; but he doesn’t thereby know that the thing that exists is God. For all he knows given just the Cogito, he might be a mortal man. Suppose I am in fact an immortal soul: I know by the Cogito that I exist, but not that I am an immortal soul. I might even see fit to deny the existence of all immortal souls while being one myself. Knowing my existence doesn’t entail knowing my essence. Ditto for God. We can’t infer from the de re proposition “God knows of himself that he exists” the de dicto proposition “God knows that God exists”. God might be quite certain that he exists, in virtue of the Cogito, but full of uncertainty about his divine status, since that doesn’t follow from mere existence. In order to know that he exists and is God he needs to know what attributes he has, then he can deduce his divine existence. This may be thought easy enough: can’t he infer Godhood from omniscience? There are two problems with this route, concerning knowledge of the attribute and the validity of the inference. How can God know he is omniscient? The skeptic will point out that an impression of omniscience doesn’t entail actual omniscience: people can think they know everything and be wrong. How does God know that his beliefs are all true and that they cover every aspect of reality? How can he know there is nothing he doesn’t know about? There might be aspects of reality not covered by his (admittedly extensive) knowledge, and what makes him so sure of his infallibility? Isn’t omniscience a very difficult attribute to know you have? The skeptic will question God’s justification for making such a bold claim. It may be true that he is omniscient, but how can he be certain that he is? It’s like a human claiming to know all about a certain period of history—how can such a claim ever be substantiated? Second, does it follow from omniscience that the being is question is God? Not obviously, since that being might lack other attributes necessary to being God, such as omnipotence and perfect virtue. So it would be necessary for God to know he has these attributes too: but how can he be certain he has them? Can he even be certain that they are coherent? There are well-known problems involving limits to divine power (can God do the impossible?); and on what basis is God so sure that his virtue is flawless? Of course, if he knows he is God, he can deduce this consequence; but that is the question at issue. Whence God’s certainty in his perfect virtue? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to admit the possibility of imperfection while noting that his track record so far is pretty impressive? How can God be so sure that he has attributes of such enormous scope? Is it possible that he is in error on these points? Isn’t it an epistemic possibility that he might act imperfectly someday, or encounter a limit to his power, or slip up in his knowledge? What evidence does he have that such unlimited attributes belong to him? It might be said that he doesn’t need evidence—he is God!—but can simply know these things directly. He just intuits that he is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect. But even if that were possible, it would have to be admitted that he could have beliefs about them by a less direct method, just as we have beliefs about our attributes by inference from something else. But God’s attributes, being so extensive, are not knowable by indirect methods, so he can’t know them in the standard way; he has to intuit them directly if he is to know them at all. But how does he do that, and why is he so constrained? His putative knowledge of his God-constituting attributes is epistemologically mysterious; the skeptic will insist that God simply can’t have such extensive knowledge. If so, he can’t know that he is God.[1]

            So far it looks as if God is doomed to agnosticism about his divine status: he can’t know he is God, but he can’t rule out the hypothesis either. He can’t accept theism (though by hypothesis it is true) but he can’t reject it either. He is like us in this respect: we don’t have good reason to accept that God exists, but that falls short of actively rejecting the God hypothesis. But this is to neglect arguments against God’s existence, particularly the argument from evil. When God is pondering the question of his existence as God it will occur to him that there is a lot of evil in the world that he allows to happen. But then he wonders how this is compatible with his alleged benevolence: how could he let such evil exist given his enormous power and goodness? Since he is trying to determine whether he is indeed God, he comes to the conclusion that he can’t be; he is just too morally indifferent, or perhaps blind. This reasoning is eminently convincing. Maybe there is a flaw in the argument somewhere, but he is damned if he can see it. We are allowing that he is God, so his conclusion is false; but his reasoning is cogent, so he would be justified in forming the belief that there is no God. Or we could take this as a reductio ad absurdum: the supposition of God contains a contradiction, since it implies that God must know that he doesn’t exist if he exists. The problem of evil shows that God (were he to exist) must truly believe that he doesn’t exist. Certainly God would rationally doubt his own existence if he existed, based on the problem of evil. The same is true of other reasons for rejecting God’s existence such as problems about his origin, immaterial nature, profligacy with respect to the extent of the physical universe, etc. God would reflect on these problems and come to doubt his own existence as God. God is supremely rational after all and not susceptible to special pleading and religious bias. He would appreciate the force of the case against him (qua God).

            In the case of humans we find resort to the concept of faith when it comes to God’s existence. Could a similar move be made to explain God’s belief in himself—does he believe he is God on faith? He has tried the ontological argument and the cosmological argument and the argument from design, finding them all wanting, so he resorts to the idea that his existence is a matter of faith. That seems like a logically available move, but it is theologically disastrous. If we can believe things on faith, then surely God has that ability too; but no theologian will be happy with the suggestion that God has no better reason to believe in his existence than we do! Does God have crises of faith about himself? Is he that epistemologically limited about his own identity? Does he pray to himself to keep his faith strong? It has always been assumed, tacitly no doubt, that God has perfect knowledge of his Godhood: but once we examine the matter more closely and remove the veil of piety, we see that God also has problems of belief—he too is at sea about his existence. The reason is plain: it is very difficult to know that one is God, even if one is. The belief is alarmingly speculative. Is it possible to know one is a ghost if one is, or an angel, or a demon? You would have to know you are not a natural thing but a supernatural thing, but such alleged knowledge is very vulnerable to skeptical doubt, because it is so strong. Couldn’t you be under the impression that you are a ghost or an angel or a demon and just be a deluded human? That seems like an epistemic possibility. You might really be one of these supernatural beings, but how can you tell you are?[2] You might just be a mere mortal dreaming you are! You think you are a ghost but how can you be certain you are? Ghosts don’t have their ghostly identity written on their sleeve. That’s not how knowledge works. It isn’t the same with human superheroes: you can know you are one of those by ordinary empirical observation—you possess obvious superhuman powers. But how does ordinary observation establish supernatural status? God could observe his exceptional powers and conclude he is some kind of superhero, but that is a far cry from establishing that he is God. Not only is it difficult to establish that you have the necessary attributes; it is also difficult to move from those attributes to an ascription of Godhood. How does God know he is infinite (Spinoza’s defining attribute of God), and how does he move from this knowledge to the knowledge that he is God (aren’t other things also infinite)? Self-knowledge of divinity is remarkably difficult to obtain. A rational God would find it impossible to achieve. Consider the nature of Jesus Christ’s self-knowledge on the traditional Christian understanding of it: does he know he is God? How could he know this? Does he infer it from his miracles? Did his virgin birth convince him? Did he hear a voice from God in his childhood? Does he just feel it palpitating in his heart? All these possible reasons are hopelessly unconvincing to any rational person in his position, so why is Jesus so sure he is the Son of God? The answer is that he can’t be sure, and probably wasn’t. You would have to be mad to believe such a thing based on that type of evidence. Even if the feeling in your heart were very strong, that would be a thin basis on which to form such an extravagant belief. Jesus was rational, so he had no such certainty—even if he was the Son of God. Ditto John the Baptist and the putative prophets. Religious knowledge of these types is just really hard to obtain given the nature of the facts allegedly known. Not even God has it! So yes, God, being rational, is an atheist—he does not accept the proposition that he exists (as God).[3]


[1] It might be said that God’s knowledge of his omniscience and Godhood follows trivially from his omniscience: if he knows everything, then he knows this fact and that he is God. But that has all the advantages of theft over honest toil, stipulation over explanation. God surely has reasons for believing that he is both omniscient and God, based on known facts about himself, and we should be able to specify what those reasons are. Things like an impression of general omniscience or a stellar track record in the knowledge department would constitute such reasons. The trouble is that such reasons are too weak to add up to genuine knowledge, let alone certainty (I leave open the question of the relation between knowledge and certainty), as the skeptic would be quick to point out. It is a feeble response to this to appeal to God’s stipulated omniscience to guarantee that he has such knowledge. There must be a way in which God has knowledge of his divine attributes and identity as God. He must be epistemologically intelligible.  

[2] Suppose reincarnation is true: this is generally assumed to be compatible with accepting that you don’t knowyou are reincarnated, or what form your previous incarnations took. It is exceptionally hard to know your reincarnation history. You are in fact the type of being whose quasi-divine nature is not given to you. How did the Greek gods know they were gods, not just very flashy people? They must have had their doubts. How did the God of the Old Testament know he was the only God? It was at least an epistemic possibility for him that polytheism was true. If you were God wouldn’t you be open to the possibility that there might be other gods? How can you be certain of your uniqueness?   

[3] It is hard to see how we can be to blame for not believing in God if even God does not believe in God. Presumably God does not reproach himself for his atheism or agnosticism, it being a reflection of the virtue of rationality, so he can hardly blame us for our conscientious atheism or agnosticism. This puts the whole history of Christian theology in a less than flattering light (people being executed and so on for having an attribute that God himself has). Would the Inquisition declare God a heretic for not being confident that he is God? I myself would admire God for his epistemic humility.

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