Imagine, in some medieval monarchy or modern-day oligarchy, that the government passed a law which made it a crime to deny that the sun exists.
No country either ancient or modern has ever done this, and it’s easy to see why. Who would ever be tempted to deny the existence of the sun? The evidence to the contrary is undeniable. It’s large, it’s obvious, it’s blindingly brilliant – it’s just there. There are no rational grounds for claiming the sun does not exist; only a fool or a madman would choose to do so. Even if some sower of discord or false prophet made it part of his mission, the sun’s existence is so obvious that he’d stand little chance of persuading others to join him in such a mad quest. No state intervention would be needed to dissuade the populace from following along.
Clearly, there’s no need for anti-sun-denying legislation. Why, then, have kings, priests and mullahs through history so often passed similar legislation which makes it a crime to publicly doubt the existence of God?
There are billions of theists around the world who hold a very unusual set of beliefs. On the one hand, they believe that God is the all-powerful Creator of the cosmos and all that is in it, the Sustainer whose moment-to-moment providence is the only thing that keeps the machinery of nature running. Some go so far as to believe that God is the underlying ground of being without whom the very notion of existence is meaningless and void. And yet, on the other hand, many of these same people believe God is hidden, and cannot be found through evidence but only believed in by faith.
What an utterly bizarre conjunction of beliefs this is! Does it make any sense at all to believe that God would hide himself? On the contrary, the only conclusion that I can comprehend is that, if such a being as God existed, his existence would be even more undeniable than the sun that lights the sky. It would be a truth so obvious that the idea of outlawing atheism would never even occur to anyone.
One possible rejoinder is that the sun clearly does not care whether its existence is denied – it continues to shine down regardless – whereas God’s favor is fickle, and it may be inviting disaster to doubt him. Thus, the state must enforce uniformity for people’s own good. But even if the premise of this argument is true, the conclusion does not follow. The state can regulate people’s outward actions, but it cannot control their inmost thoughts. Even if people are required to mouth the correct words of allegiance, privately they may be giving voice to whatever thoughts they please. Since every religious tradition agrees that God can see into our hearts, and presumably would be enraged by private blasphemy as well as public, any attempt to secure his blessing by passing mortal laws would be an exercise in futility.