Divine Hiddenness

Author: David Bayless
Category: Philosophy of Religion
Word Count: 1000

1. The Problem: Where Is God?

If God exists, wants us to know him, and has the power to reveal himself to us, then why do so many people claim to have such a difficult time experiencing or interacting with him? That is, why does God appear to be hidden from so many people? Perhaps the reason is not because God exists and is in some way concealed, but, instead, because God does not exist.

An interesting new family of arguments against God’s existence reasons in this way. Since, these arguments maintain, God’s hiddenness would be incompatible with his divine nature, the fact that God seems hidden from many of us is best explained by the fact that God does not exist.1 These arguments go by a number of names, one of the most popular of which is ‘Hiddenness Arguments.’2 In this essay, we’ll examine these arguments as well as look at three of the most promising responses to them.

Hiddenness Arguments begin with a claim to which many theists would comfortably assent: that God, if he exists, is all-lovingall-knowing, and all-powerful. Besides its contemporary popularity, this premise has the advantage of aligning with the traditional monotheistic idea that God is the greatest conceivable being.3

The arguments then note that if God is all-loving, he would care deeply about whether we, his creatures, believe that he exists. As a result, it would be unacceptable to God if any reasonable individuals failed to believe in him; a truly loving creator would want to form relationships with his creatures—something it’s quite hard to pull off when they are ignorant of his existence!4 Or, to give another example, God wouldn’t want anyone (reasonable or not) to die in a state of nonbelief, lest the departed individual miss their chance to enter Paradise.5 We can imagine additional scenarios regarding belief in his nonexistence that would be repugnant to an all-loving God.6

The final step in Hiddenness Arguments is to point out that there are reasonable people who fail to believe in God, and that there are people who die as nonbelievers. Simply put, God is hidden when it seems he should not be.

What does all of this entail? If God exists and were in fact all-loving, then he would want creatures like us to know that he exists. But if God is hidden, then such knowledge is difficult or impossible for such creatures to attain. And God is in fact hidden from many of us. Therefore, we can conclude that God doesn’t exist. For, if God did exist, he would not be hidden in a way that results in the nonbelief of many. This is the crux of Hiddenness Arguments.

In what remains, we’ll survey three of the most popular responses to these arguments.

2. Three Proposed Solutions

We have seen that Hiddenness Arguments must cite some fact about the absence of human belief in God that is purportedly incompatible with an all-loving God’s existence. That some reasonable people fail to accept his reality is one case in point.

2.1 There Are No Real Nonbelievers

This leads to our first response: There are no real nonbelievers. It’s not true, to work with the example just given, that there are reasonable people who fail to believe in God.7 These individuals must be guilty of self-deception, negligence, or stubbornness, so they aren’t really reasonable.

This response, though easy to understand, is difficult to accept. There certainly seem to be reasonable people who fail to accept God’s existence, as anyone who has spoken with a circumspect nonbeliever can attest. In any case, we’ll need strong reasons to doubt this or any other belief-related observations referenced by Hiddenness Arguments; vague accusations aren’t enough to get the job done.

2.2 Hiddenness Promotes Some Greater Good

Our second response asks, What if God can achieve something good he otherwise couldn’t by concealing himself in a manner described by Hiddenness Arguments? God might, for example, induce someone to seek him all the more fervently by not clearly revealing himself to this individual.8 Or maybe God hides himself to respect our autonomy as moral agents.9 If we were always cognizant of his presence, we may come to choose commendable actions out of fear rather than desire for what is right.

One worry with this response is that we can readily imagine God figuring out ways to secure these and other related ends while nevertheless revealing himself. In other words, it seems possible for God to achieve whatever good he desires while also making himself known; if he couldn’t do this, we might wonder why an all-powerful, all-knowing being lacked this apparently possible ability.10 To respect our moral autonomy, for instance, God might provide a mild, almost subconscious awareness of his presence that wouldn’t significantly interfere with our day-to-day moral reasoning. If we want to find a successful response in this vein, we’ll have to argue that the “greater good” designated must truly be unattainable so long as God is disclosing himself to his creatures.

2.3 God’s Will Is Inscrutable 

A final response submits that we finite creatures are in a poor position to discern the motives of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving creator.11 Can a toddler guess why her parents take her to the doctor or daycare center? Of course not! The parents have good reasons for their actions, but the underdeveloped toddler can’t possibly know them. We’re like toddlers relative to God, this response runs, and consequently shouldn’t hope to understand why he’s hidden.

It might be replied that although we humans are underdeveloped vis-à-vis God, it doesn’t follow that we’re incapable of predicting when he should reveal himself. This is because mature individuals are often clever and creative – more so than any toddler. Our predictions, then, may not be unquestionably accurate, but can they be that wide of the mark?   

3. Conclusion

We have studied how Hiddenness Arguments seek to demonstrate the nonexistence of an all-loving God by alluding to one or more observations pertaining to human belief in him which it’s said he would not allow if he existed. Whether or not these arguments are ultimately persuasive, they are surely nuanced and worthy of consideration.

 

Notes

1 The arguments began with the work of J.L. Schellenberg. Schellenberg (2006) is his earliest presentation of a Hiddenness Argument. Refurbished renditions are found in Schellenberg (2007) and Schellenberg (2015).

2 Two other common names are ‘Arguments from Reasonable Nonbelief’ and ‘Arguments from Divine Hiddenness.’

3 Such a notion of God originates with St. Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109).  See Anselm (2001), p. 7.

4 See Schellenberg (2006), pp. 38-40 and Schellenberg (2015), pp. 41-42 for elaboration of these points.

5 This is similar to how Theodore Drange formulates his Hiddenness Argument in Drange (1996).

6 One is the uneven distribution of theistic belief throughout the globe, a sociological datum on which Stephen Maitzen builds a Hiddenness Argument in Maitzen (2006).

7 This response is pressed in Henry (2001) and Henry (2008).

8 An approach derivable from various suppositions in Pascal (1995), e.g., that humans are “miserable” without God.

9 This sort of response is elucidated in Moser (2008), e.g., on pp. 20-21.

10 Cf. Schellenberg (2015), pp. 109-112.

11 For a representative presentation of this response, see McBrayer and Swenson (2012).

References

Anselm. Proslogion, with the replies of Gaunilo and Anselm. tr. Thomas Williams. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001 [1075-78].

Drange, Theodore. “Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief.” 1996.  Published on The Secular Web – URL: <http://infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/aeanb.html>.

Henry, Doug. “Does Reasonable Nonbelief Exist?” Faith and Philosophy 18 (1), 2001: 75-92.

–– “Reasonable Doubts about Reasonable Nonbelief.” Faith and Philosophy 25 (3), 2008: 276-289.

Maitzen, Stephen. “Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism.” Religious Studies 42 (2), 2006: 171-191. 

McBrayer, Justin and Swenson, Philip. “Skepticism about the Argument from Divine Hiddenness.”  Religious Studies 48 (2), 2012: 129-150.

Moser, Paul. The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensees. tr. A.J. Krailsheimer. New York: Penguin Classics, 1995 [c. 1660].

Schellenberg, J. L. Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. New York: Cornell University Press, 2006 [1993]. 

–– The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism. New York: Cornell University Press, 2007.

–– The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

 

David Bayless is a native of Dallas, Texas who will be starting medical school in his home state this coming fall. He holds BAs in physics and philosophy from the Samford University Fellows Program, and his current non-medical academic interests are primarily in philosophy of religion, social psychology, and the philosophy of dreaming. Believing that the study of philosophy and other humanities can enhance the quality of medical research and patient care, he plans to carry an interdisciplinary perspective into his future medical practice.

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