The Gods Are Atheist

When I was a child I liked to browse the bookshelves in the family home. I knew that many of the books were “for adults”, meaning that they were likely to be prolix, pointlessly obscure, and perversely devoid of any discussion of dinosaurs, spaceships, minotaurs, swordfights and other interesting things, but I still enjoyed reading their titles and speculating about what they might contain.

One day I came across a book, obviously for adults, called The Gods Are Atheist. By then I knew what the word “atheist” meant, but I was immediately puzzled – how could the gods not believe in their own existence? Eventually, however, I came up with what seemed like a reasonable interpretation. I decided, although I wouldn’t have put it like this at the time, that there was a sense in which gods would have to be atheist. Being gods, they would have no higher power to look up to, no Even Supremer Being hovering over them to hand down commandments, answer prayers, and punish sins.

I don’t think my younger self considered the possibility that non-omniscient gods, such as those of the Greek or Norse pantheon, might actually be unsure whether beings greater than themselves existed. Perhaps Asgard or Olympus would have a theist faction that believed in a mysterious and unknown Greater God, opposed to an atheist faction that doubted the existence of any such super-deity and considered the regular old gods to be on their own in an indifferent universe or multiverse. Atheist gods would accuse theist gods of being delusional wishful thinkers, and theist gods would accuse atheist gods of immorality and of secretly hating the Greater God rather than sincerely refusing to accept its existence. Think of the arguments that would rage in the divine blogosphere! On the other hand, a lone omniscient god would have to be an atheist, because its boundless knowledge would include the fact that its own game was the only divine one in town.

My childhood speculations about atheist gods might have gone a lot further, I suppose, if I hadn’t at some point gone back to look again at the book that prompted them in the first place. It was actually called The Gods Are Athirst, and I learned later that it was a novel by Anatole France about the French Revolution. However, I still have yet to read it.

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