Property Rights for Deities?

Co-blogger Eugene Volokh links to an Indian newspaper article about a ruling concerning the property rights of Hindu gods. According to the article, Hindu deities are allowed to acquire at least some types of property rights under Indian law, though perhaps “only deities of registered public trusts were allowed to acquire property in their names.”

It actually makes more sense for deities of polytheistic religions to acquire property than for a monotheistic God to do so. Most adherents of the major monotheistic religions believe in the type of God posited by “classical theism,” who is omnipotent and omniscient. An omnipotent God has no need for physical property. Even if he did, he could effortlessly create any property he needed himself, if necessary in unlimited quantity. And of course he would not need human courts to enforce his property rights, being fully capable of doing so himself at no cost in time or effort. Moreover, anyone who wanted to sue him for using his property to commit a tort would be unable to do so because there is no way a court could force an omnipotent being to pay restitution.

By contrast, most of the deities of a polytheistic religion are necessarily not omnipotent. No more than one omnipotent being can exist in the same universe. If God A cannot coerce God B, then A is not omnipotent. If, on the other hand, A can force B to do his bidding, then B isn’t omnipotent.

Unlike the God of classical theism, non-omnipotent deities have many potential uses for property rights. They might want some items they can’t create for themselves. Even with respect to some objects they could make, they might prefer to pay humans to manufacture them in order to exploit the benefits of comparative advantage. Comparative advantage might also lead them to rely on humans to protect their property against the depredations of other humans (perhaps also other deities). Finally, non-omnipotent deities are at least potentially subject to the power of human courts.

There is, however, one major problem with property rights for non-omnipotent deities. As Eugene points out, it’s hard to prove that the “owners” actually exist and ascertain how they want to use the property in question. The Indian law described in the article appears to handle this problem by limiting deities’ property rights to those that have registered public trusts. In practice, therefore, the gods’ property rights will be exercised by human trustees. This, however, raises the issue of how deities could sue to remove the trustees for breach of their fiduciary duties.