He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
Those lyrics have disturbed generations of children, and for good reason, too. There is something unsettling about the idea of a person, even a right jolly old elf, who knows everything — and I do mean everything — about you.
But does that basic intuitive reaction provide a reason to hope that atheism is true? In this excerpt from my 2016 book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar, my coauthor Justin Schieber argues that the desire for privacy provides a prima facie reason to hope that atheism is true. Not surprisingly, I disagree.
Randal: Christopher Hitchens (may he rest in peace) used to love comparing God to a despot like Kim Jong-il of North Korea. For Hitchens, living under God would be living under cosmic tyranny. So, not only did he believe God didn’t exist, he also hoped he was right, and he was prepared to rebel against any God that should appear on the scene.
Justin: Very true. For Hitchens, the wish for God to exist was the wish to be a slave. In a 2008 debate with his brother, Peter Hitchens, Christopher proclaimed the following:
“It [a desire for God to exist] is the desire for an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep . . . who must indeed subject you to total surveillance around the clock, every waking and sleeping minute of your life, before you are born and even worse, and where the real fun begins, after you’re dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wishes this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate?”
Beyond the master/slave rhetoric, which I think is without merit, there exists, I think, a legitimate concern about theism. If theism is true, it does rob us of any sense of privacy. Our thoughts are not our own. So, while I agree that, all things considered, we have more to gain if theism is true and so should prefer that be the case, this is one issue that seems to bring at least some support for the opposite conclusion. Would you agree, Randal?
Randal: That reminds me of the story of average guy Alex Moss. When he was remodeling his bedroom, Mr. Moss found the following note hidden in the fireplace: “Hello, welcome to my room. It’s 2001 and I am decorating this room. Hope you enjoy your life. Remember that I will always be watching you.”
Always watching?! Brrr. Moss thought that was sufficiently weird to share the story online. And it quickly went viral, as people reflected on how creepy it would be to have somebody always watching you. So I get where you’re coming from.
Having said that, let me answer your question. No, I don’t agree with the objection as applied to God, because it seems to be based on a crude anthropomorphism. That is, it arises from the error of uncritically thinking of God in human terms, as someone like the mysterious voyeur who formerly lived in Alex’s bedroom. An invasion of privacy occurs when another agent surveils your actions, as in a peeping Tom peering through your blinds or a secretive government agency listening to your phone calls or reading your emails. But God’s knowledge of us is nothing like that. God doesn’t surveil your actions. That is, God doesn’t gain new information about his creatures by surreptitiously observing them. Rather, as a necessarily omniscient being, God simply knows all true statements from eternity.
Since God’s knowledge of us has no relation to the peeping Tom or secretive government agency, the suggestion that God invades our privacy just strikes me as confused.
Justin: Hmm. I can agree with you that you’ve identified a difference between God’s knowledge of all events and typical cases of human knowledge. But why should we think that distinction is of any relevance? For it seems to me that, however the knowledge is gained, the fact that our thoughts are not ours alone still remains and that fact should at least count for something.
Randal: What do you mean “our thoughts are not ours alone”?
Justin: Simply that we cannot be alone with our thoughts. With theism, we lack all privacy of mind.
Randal: It seems that your language gains in poetic panache what it loses in analytic precision. To be frank, I’m still unclear why you believe that a necessarily existent being’s knowledge of all true propositions constitutes an invasion of your privacy.
Let me try a different angle: A few years ago, I learned that there are tiny creatures, creatures that are too small to be seen by the human eye, that live on the human forehead.
Randal: That’s what I said!
Justin: What are they?
Randal: Unfortunately, finding out the answer didn’t make me feel any better. Demodex have eight legs and long chubby bodies, and they live their entire lives crawling around near our eyebrows. At first, this revelation was so repulsive to me that I had to fight the urge to dip a hunk of steel wool in bleach and go to work on my forehead.
But lo, over time I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of those critters living on my forehead. If I can get used to the prospect of something as unsettling as bugs living on my face, I think you can get used to the prospect of a morally perfect, necessary being knowing all true propositions from eternity, including whether you will have pastrami on rye for lunch next Tuesday.
Justin: I’m not claiming that it would be perpetually terrible if God were to exist. Remember, I still think it would be a good thing, all things considered, for God to exist. I am simply claiming that this is at least one reason, however small you think it is, to wish that God didn’t exist. The fact that I could get used to it after a while doesn’t negate the fact that it is one relevant factor. I might get used to the fact that a neighbor can hear me making love, but I may still think of this as a reason for preferring they didn’t live on the other side of the wall!
Randal: Once again, you’re falling into the anthropomorphic trap of envisioning God taking in knowledge about his creatures through some kind of external perception. But it’s not like that. God doesn’t observe us by hearing or seeing what we’re doing through a wall. God does not surveil us to gain knowledge of us. That’s not how omniscience works.
Anyway, the reason I brought up the point of getting used to Demodex living on my forehead is to illustrate that in retrospect my initial revulsion at these creatures was misplaced. In fact, they don’t impinge on my enjoyment of life, and it just took some time to realize that fact.
Similarly, I think that once you recognize that God isn’t the North Korean despot of Christopher Hitchens’s imagination, you can likewise see that a divine being’s knowing all true propositions from eternity is not, in itself, ground to worry about an invasion of one’s privacy.