On the Logical Impossibility of God and Why It Is a Problem

fantasy surreal god
Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

I was rereading a portion of George Smith's excellent Atheism: The Case Against God recently and found a part I'd like to share. It deals with a core aspect of what many gnostic atheists believe: the god of the major monotheistic religions is logically impossible. If that's accurate, believing in such an entity cannot be rational. This is important because it poses a significant barrier for religious believers and agnostic atheists (like me).

Smith argues that the entire concept of a supernatural being is incomprehensible. Why? Because claiming that something exists outside of nature is meaningless. When we say that something exists, we are saying that it exists in nature. That's a key part of what it means to exist.

To be is to be something as opposed to nothing, and to be something is to be something specific. If a god is to have any characteristics (which it must to exist), these characteristics must be specific - but to assign definite attributes, to say that a being is this as opposed to that, is to limit the capacities of that being and to subject it to the uniformity imposed by those capacities. A supernatural being, if it is to differ in kind from natural existence, must exist without a limited nature - which amounts to existing without any nature at all (p. 41).

The religious believer who is not ready to concede defeat has one obvious place of retreat. They will claim that their god is unknowable. Of course! Religious believers make this claim all the time. Their god is not merely unknown in the present time but unknowable in principle. The human mind cannot comprehend their god.

As Smith suggests, this shifts the discussion away from metaphysics and back to epistemology. Before making this shift, it is important to understand that the theist is now admitting that their god is beyond comprehension. Is this really what they believe? Perhaps it gets them around the many metaphysical problems with their god, but it may well come back to haunt them.

How might the concession that their god is unknowable haunt the theist? Consider the following dialogue which Smith provides:

Theist: "I believe in god."
Atheist: "What is 'god'?"
Theist: "I don't know."
Atheist: "But what is it that you believe in?"
Theist: "I don't know that either."

The hole in which the theist is standing should now be apparent. How is it meaningful to believe in something unknowable? How is doing so any different from believing in nothing? The claim that a god (or gods) exists has been neutered. It is now void of meaning.

Claiming to believe in something one doesn't understand well is one thing. Most of us believe in some things we don't understand well. But claiming to believe in something unknowable is different. It is not clear how such a belief could be meaningful.

The logical incoherence of gods impresses me as the strongest argument for gnostic atheism. If an atheist wants to claim that gods do not exist, noting that they cannot exist seems like the way to go. I'm not sure it is the only option, but it seems like a compelling one.

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The original version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was revised and expanded in 2022.