Tag Archives: divine hiddenness

Loving God without Knowing He Exists?

Here are a couple of examples that suggest that it’s possible to love someone without knowing whether or not they exist. The first is from Alexander Pruss, the second is from Andrew Cullison.

1. Fred is lost in the desert and dies. Without knowing this, Sally, his loving wife who is a presentist and thinks there is no afterlife spends weeks searching for Fred in the desert, in uncertainty whether Fred is still alive, despite great hardship and danger to her own life.

Observe that a presentist who disbelieves in an afterlife thinks that the dead are simply nonexistent. So Sally is not only uncertain whether Fred is alive, but she is uncertain whether Fred exists. Yet she acts out of love. Hence:

  • It is possible to love someone while being unsure whether he exists.

2. Bob is lonely and begins a chat-room relationship with Julie. Bob and Julie are both grieving the loss of a loved one. Julie offers words of encouragement that no one has been able to offer Bob. Bob does the same for Julie. Then Bob’s friend Steve provides Bob with an overwhelming amount of evidence that Chat Rooms have very sophisticated Turing Machine Like programs that can perfectly replicate close, personal conversation with other humans. Bob is nervous. It is highly likely that Julie is a fake. He stops believing that Julie exists. He even tells Julie that he doesn’t believe she exists. However, he holds out strong hope that Julie exists. He says, you may not be real, but there is some very slim possibility that you are – that’s enough for me to think this is worth continuing. Eventually, they meet. They marry. Someone asks them ‘When did your personal relationship begin?’ Bob says, ‘Back when I didn’t even believe Julie existed.’

These examples are suggestive and have obvious implications for the atheistic argument from divine hiddenness. A key assumption in that argument is that knowledge of God’s existence is a prerequisite for loving God. Insofar as these examples make us question that intuition, they weaken the force of the argument from hiddenness.

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New Responses to Hiddenness

Andres Cullison has come up with a couple novel responses to the argument from divine hiddenness. HT: exapologist.

He imagines the following scenario in support of the claim that a loving relationship does not require belief:

“Turing-Chat Rooms

Bob is lonely and begins a chat-room relationship with Julie. Bob and Julie are both grieving the loss of a loved one. Julie offers words of encouragement that no one has been able to offer Bob. Bob does the same for Julie. Then Bob’s friend Steve provides Bob with an overwhelming amount of evidence that Chat Rooms have very sophisticated Turing Machine Like programs that can perfectly replicate close, personal conversation with other humans. Bob is nervous. It is highly likely that Julie is a fake. He stops believing that Julie exists. He even tells Julie that he doesn’t believe she exists. However, he holds out strong hope that Julie exists. He says, you may not be real, but there is some very slim possibility that you are – that’s enough for me to think this is worth continuing. Eventually, they meet. They marry. Someone asks them ‘When did your personal relationship begin?’ Bob says, ‘Back when I didn’t even believe Julie existed.’ ”

This is a suggestive example. Cullison canvases various responses, including the most promising one from my perspective, namely that Bob really believes that Julie exists in a dispositionalist sense of ‘believes.’ I still think this response could be developed. I’m not sure that this scenario solves the problem of non-culpable non-belief though. Couldn’t Bob, despite the fact that he wants to believe in Julie’s existence, rationally, and thus non-culpably, disbelieve in Julie’s existence? Perhaps Cullison only wishes to say that it’s possible for Bob to engage in a loving relationship with her in the absence of belief. But I think it would be more accurate to say that a loving relationship is possible in the presence of undercutting defeaters for a belief (Julie exists) that Bob in some sense actually holds. Nevertheless, this novel strategy is something to think about.

 

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Secularization and Hiddenness

I think J.L. Schellenberg’s atheistic argument from divine hiddenness is profoundly compelling. However, it’s a relatively recent argument; for much of human history, God didn’t seem so hidden. Even today, most people don’t appreciate the force of the argument. After all, billions of people believe in God. To the extent that God is hidden, he’s apparently not that hidden. Thus, in order to appreciate the argument from hiddnness one has to understand it, I think, against the background of secularization.

Secularization is the process whereby religion, at least in its public influence, declines. It has many components, one of which is disenchantment. The term was coined by Max Weber and describes the process by which science erodes belief in the supernatural. In ancient times, the world was enchanted; gods and spirits inhabited the natural world and could, thus, be clearly seen. This carried over also into monotheism. Although God no longer inhabited the natural world in an animistic sense, as St. Paul says in Romans 1, the invisible things of God can be clearly seen by what has been made. No problem of divine hiddenness here! However, once the natural world is disenchanted, it’s no longer as easy to see God in all things. Under conditions of secularization, then, the problem of hiddenness has real teeth.

Another way of putting the point is to say that hiddenness becomes a problem once belief in God becomes optional. When one no longer lives in an enchanted universe belief in God, formerly a necessity, becomes an optional accessory. Charles Taylor makes this point in his monumental book A Secular Age. He says that in the past five hundred years, at least in the West, we’ve gone from a culture in which virtually everybody believed in God, to one in which belief in God is one option among many. This has much to do with the forces driving secularization. One of these forces, though by no means the only one, is disenchantment. The modern person — religious or otherwise — no longer sees the world as a populated by gods, spirits, and demons. For this reason, belief in God can be abandoned. By contrast, in an earlier age, abandoning belief in God was not simply to go it alone in an indifferent, naturalistic universe, but to go it alone in a universe full of spirits, not all benign. Under these cultural conditions, the hiddenness of God simply isn’t felt. Rather, the world is characterized by the ubiquitous presence of God and lesser spirits as well. With secularization, however, comes the disenchantment of the world. The absence of God can be fully experienced. People living under the legacy of modernity — whether they identify as religious or not — can now feel the force of the argument from hiddenness.

Another point Taylor makes is that these secular conditions make it more difficult to have religious experiences, or perhaps more precisely, make it more difficult to experience phenomena as religious phenomena. Most non-theists are acquainted with feelings of awe, wonder, perhaps even what they might call the transcendent or the sublime. The sublime, an important category in 18th century aesthetic philosophy, is the feeling of smallness one experiences when faced with the grandeur of nature. It’s the familiar experience of feeling that one is in the presence of something greater than oneself. Of course, this could be interpreted in various ways. It’s very possible, especially in an enchanted universe, to interpret this as a religious experience. In the modern period, coinciding with the rise of secularism, the preferred interpretation of the sublime is as an aesthetic experience. The disenchantment of the world doesn’t make it impossible to experience the sublime, but it does make it more difficult to experience it as a purely religious phenomenon. And, of course, without religious experience, moderns feel the absence of God more acutely.

Thus, it’s necessary to understand the processes of secularization and disenchantment in order to fully appreciate the force of the argument from hiddenness. Those who still cling to the enchanted worldview will probably not be convinced by the argument. However, that number appears to be in decline, at least in the West. We are all modernists and secularists to some extent, including those who identify as religious. Indeed, I argued in a previous post that pretty much everybody in the contemporary West is a dispositional atheist. What I mean by that, in part, is that when the chips are down we’re all good little modernists. We place our trust in modernity, science, technology, etc. instead of in an enchanted universe. For those who recognize themselves in this description, I suggest that the argument from divine hiddenness has real force.

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Is the Argument from Hiddenness a Stronger Challenge to Theism than the Argument from Evil?

I’ve been teaching some philosophy of religion to my intro to philosophy students over the past couple of weeks. We’ve had some great discussions, especially about the natural theological arguments and the problem of evil. Also, because the textbook has a focus on Canadian content, it presents an atheistic argument from Canadian philosopher J.L. Schellenberg, the argument from divine hiddenness.

Recently, I’ve come to believe that J.L. Schellenberg’s argument against God’s existence from divine hiddenness is a better atheistic argument than the argument from evil (logical or evidential). I’ll defend my reasons for believing this shortly. First, let’s look at Schellenberg’s argument. It goes like this:

1) If no perfectly loving God exists, then God does not exist
2) If a perfectly loving God exists, then there is a God who is always open to a personal relationship with each human person.
3) If there is a God who is always open to a relationship with each human person, then no human person is ever non-resistantly unaware that God exists.
4) If a perfectly loving God exists, then no human person is ever non-resistantly unaware that God exists (from 2 and 3 by hypothetical syllogism).
5) Some human persons are non-resistantly unaware that God exists.
6) No perfectly loving God exists (from 4 and 5 by modus tollens).
7) God does not exist (from 1 and 6 by modus ponens).

The only candidates for premises we might deny are 2 and 5. But these look very defensible. And this is why I think that the problem of hiddenness is a more serious challenge to theism than the problem of evil: the most common strategies employed against the problem of evil are not as plausible with respect to hiddenness.

For example, one might use the ‘greater good’ strategy in denying premise 2. One might say that God isn’t always (at every time) open to a personal relationship with each human person because God can only achieve certain goods if some persons lack explicit awareness of His existence (at least for a time). Again, this ‘greater good’ strategy is a common approach to the problem of evil. But what would a candidate for such a greater good be in the case of divine hiddenness? As with the problem of evil, sometimes freedom is suggested as the greater good that divine hiddenness serves to accomplish. Perhaps if God’s existence were too obvious, that would compromise our moral freedom; we’d do things or refrain from doing things because Big Brother is watching. However, this move doesn’t seem as plausible with respect to hiddenness as it does with respect to evil. God doesn’t have to reveal Himself in earth-shattering Hollywood fashion; He could simply give every non-resistant person a profound religious experience such that they were assured of God’s presence. Certainly some people claim to have such experiences, and it’s not obvious that such experiences would obliterate moral freedom. So why not give everybody such an experience?

Some have suggested other goods that might obtain from divine hiddenness, such as deep awareness of our spiritual deficiencies or cooperation with a spiritual community in seeking knowledge of God. But it seems as though those goods could be acheived in the context of awareness of God’s existence. Sometimes it might be necessary for a person in a relationship to withdraw for a time, and the same might be true of God (what Christians sometimes call a ‘dark night of the soul’). But that is compatible with an awareness of God’s existence, even if His immediate presence is not felt. So it seems that any good God could achieve through hiddenness, could be achieved in some other way. Again, I find the argument from hiddenness to be stronger than the argument from evil on this point.

Some theists would deny premise 5. Although a minority position among philosophers, this is probably the majority response among ordinary believers. Popular theology tells us that we all resist God. Maybe the people who are unaware of God’s existence are resisting a relationship with God. Maybe God is open to relationship, but they are not. I find this line of reasoning implausible. After all, most believers would acknowledge that the evidence for God’s existence falls far short of what it would take to convince a neutral audience. Some would cite the cognitive effects of sin here, but if God can open the eyes of some, why not all? (Calvinists give a very implausible answer to this question in my judgment.) Moreover, it seems that there are many people, Schellenberg included, who have done their homework on this issue and very much wish a loving God  existed. In other words, some unbelievers are emotionally open to such a relationship, but lack the evidence to believe. Are all of these people just culpably dishonest? That strikes me as implausible.

A parallel can be drawn here with respect to the problem of gratuitous evil (evil which seems to produce no greater good), except the epistemic burdens of  believers and non-believers are reversed. In the case of allegedly gratuitous evil, believers can opt for skepticism: we can’t know for sure that evils that appear gratuitous really are gratuitous, but the non-believer has to say, at the very least, that it’s implausible to deny that they are gratuitous. It’s difficult in this case (at least for me) to assign the burden of proof. In the hiddenness case, however, it’s much easier. The believer has to claim that he knows, or at least that it’s implausible to deny, that persons who appear to be non-resistantly unaware are actually resistant. Whereas all the non-believer has to say is that we can’t possibly know that, and judging from appearances, it’s unlikely to be true — an added advantage that the theist doesn’t have in the case of gratuitous evil since appearances in that case favor the atheist. In other words, this looks much less like a stalemate than the gratuitous evil case, which is another reason why I think the hiddenness argument is stronger than the problem of evil.

One more reason why I suspect that the problem of hiddenness is a more serious challenge to theism than the problem of evil: hiddnness is a more fundamental problem than evil. What I mean by this is that the problem of evil gains much of its purchase from the fact of hiddeness. While they are separate problems and, as we have seen, strategies for dealing with one don’t necessarily work for the other, evil would not be an epistemic problem for belief in God’s existence if God’s existence were more obvious. If that were the case, we might still have the question of why God allows certain evils, but evil would not be a barrier to belief in God per se. The more basic problem, then, is the hiddenness problem. While both evil and hiddenness are formidable challenges for theistic belief, I’m beginning to think hiddenness is the stronger of the two.

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