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In David Metcalfe’s last post, Why Isn’t God More Obvious?, David did a great job defending theism against the claim that God is hidden. In this post, however, I will be arguing the inverse. I will be showing how atheists argue against God’s existence by defending the claim that God is hidden. In this way David and I have teamed up to bring readers a more holistic picture on this topic known as “Divine Hiddenness.”
Recap of David’s Article
Despite David being a Mormon and I a Protestant, I have very little disagreement with what David wrote in his last post. Much of what he said regarding God’s apparent hiddenness is applicable to other religious traditions as well. To quickly recap, David expressed three major points in response to the question, “why isn’t God’s existence more obvious?”:
1. God’s existence is obvious in the world (in the order, complexity, and beauty it displays, for example).
2. God’s existence is revealed through and evidenced by Holy Scripture.
3. God’s existence can be known through personal experience (visions, dreams, feelings of peace, and so on).
Moreover, David seemed to hint at a reason explaining why some (or even all) unbelievers lack belief in God and therefore view God as hidden: Unbelievers are blinded by ego, excessive criticism, sinful desires, and so on.
Lastly, as a Mormon, David believes every person will have an opportunity to believe in God in the afterlife, so that no one is unfairly punished if they happen to honestly miss the truth about God in this life. Parallel views exist in Catholicism and Protestantism as well, albeit with obvious and crucial differences (Catholicism believes in a purgatorial state, while Protestantism holds the idea that we will be judged according to the knowledge we hold).
An Argument for Atheism Lurking in the Shadows
Nonetheless, there is an argument for atheism lurking closely here. David seems to have the view that there is “enough” evidence to believe in God. What he means by this I’m not exactly sure, so perhaps he can make this explicit in his next article. If by “enough” he means there is “compelling” evidence for God (compelling in the sense that anyone who sees it will no doubt come to believe), then he will have blocked almost any type of argument for atheism a person could construct from God’s apparent hiddenness. But if his definition of “enough” is looser, as I think it is, then an argument for atheism can start to be formed.
Is it Reasonable to be an Unbeliever?
The argument for atheism here hinges upon the answer to one simple question: Is it reasonable to be an unbeliever? Or in other words, can a person look at the evidence for God’s existence honestly and openly and fail to believe in God?
No doubt a lot of believers will be inclined to say no here. After all, God will certainly reveal Himself to those who truthfully seek Him. Thus, anyone who looks at the evidence with an honest and open heart will come to believe in God. If a person doesn’t come to believe in God after such a search, it must be because they were somehow dishonest (blinded by sin, pride, ego, excessive criticalness, and so on).
However, the problem with this line of thought is that it assumes God exists. So it can’t really be used to answer the question of whether it is reasonable to be an unbeliever.
Instead, what we need to examine is the claim that unbelief is a result of unbelievers dishonestly evaluating the evidence. This is the idea that David seems to hint at and endorse (although to what degree he endorses it, I’m not sure). But is it really plausible to think that everyone who fails to believe in God is being dishonest about the evidence? Here’s why atheists say no.
First, throughout history there have been some communities and individuals who never even had a concept of God, much less a theistic one. Therefore, such persons lacked belief in God through no fault of their own. They were not being dishonest about the evidence, but merely lacked the concepts necessary for belief.
Second, there are some people who would like to believe in God, but when they survey the evidence, they just can’t bring themselves to believe. Should we trust that these people are being honest? It’s hard to see why not. After all, these people tend to have upstanding characters and typically know more about the subject than most people. Why should we doubt that these people are sincerely seeking truth, especially if they want to believe in God, but merely find themselves lacking the belief after evaluating the evidence?
Third, it becomes more obvious that it is reasonable not to believe in God when we look at academia, where opinion is split on the subject. Both sides, theists and atheists alike, seem to be making reasonable cases for their own views. This lack of consensus among scholars suggests there is no clear winner on the subject. And if one side really does happen to have more evidence in favor of it, this evidence is certainly not compelling, at least in the sense that anyone who reviews it will find themselves convinced by it.
In summary then, it is quite plausible to think that reasonable unbelief exists, that is, some people fail to believe in God through no fault of their own. Some people have done their level best to evaluate the evidence, but just find themselves unconvinced by it. Others have just lacked the idea of a theistic God altogether.
What Love Demands
If you disagree with the last section, go no further. You’ve successfully blocked the argument that atheists want to make. However, if you’ve found yourself agreeing with what’s been said so far, continue on.
So far we’ve established that reasonable unbelief occurs: some people fail to believe in God, and this happens through no fault of their own. In this section it needs to be shown that if God exists, He wouldn’t allow this to happen.
The idea here is quite simple. Loving relationships demand openness. For example, if Fred loves Fiona, Fred will always be open to relationship with Fiona (by being available as much as possible, letting Fiona draw on Fred’s resources, and so on). Imagine that Fred went thirty years without contacting Fiona. Moreover, imagine that Fred had no good reason to do so. In this case, Fred would not be considered loving, because love requires always being open to and available for relationship.
Analogously, apply this reasoning to God. If God exists and is perfectly loving, He would always be open to relationship with every human being. If He wasn’t, He wouldn’t rightly be considered loving.
Now insert the fact that reasonable unbelief occurs and atheists allege there is an apparent inconsistency with the nature of a perfectly loving God. For if there exists some people who fail to believe in God through no fault of their own, they cannot enter into a relationship with God (because how can you enter into a relationship with someone you don’t believe exists?). But if these people can’t enter into a relationship with God because they lack belief in Him through no fault of their own, these people are also barred from a relationship with Him through no fault of their own. Seeing that God could provide these people with belief in Him through personal experience, but doesn’t, He is therefore closed to relationship with them. After all, if someone had the ability to disclose their existence to you, but didn’t, they wouldn’t be allowing for a relationship with you.
But since we’ve already established that God would never be closed to a relationship with anyone, the fact that reasonable unbelief occurs is evidence that God does not exist. For a perfectly loving God would not allow reasonable unbelief to occur (because love requires openness to relationship, and openness to relationship requires belief).
Thus, atheists have an argument that can be summarized as follows:
1. If a perfectly loving God exists, no one would fail to believe in God unless it’s their fault.
2. Some people fail to believe in God and it isn’t their fault.
3. Therefore, a perfectly loving God doesn’t exist.
Objections and How a Theist Should Respond
Are there any good objections to this argument? Of course! In fact, there are many ways to go about dismantling it. Additionally, many theists are still hard at work formulating responses, and I am quite optimistic about the production of some powerful solutions to this puzzle in the near future. In any case, I will leave this up to David Metcalfe to address in his next article, in which he will conclude this miniseries on the topic of divine hiddenness (so be sure to stay tuned to his blog).
Before I end this article, two things are worth mentioning. First, even if the atheistic argument presented in this article were ultimately successful, it would be premature to jump ship to atheism. For even if it did constitute some type of evidence against theism, not much should follow. There are many beliefs that we hold that are true and rational and are also such that they have evidence against them.
Secondly, even if all the evidence did point against theism, this doesn’t necessarily mean that theism is irrational or false. For there are many true and rational beliefs we hold that are also unlikely given the rest of what we believe. These ideas, however, go well beyond the scope of this article. Thankfully, I will be discussing them in my next two articles on the rationality and justification of theistic belief…
Thanks once again to David Metcalfe for his collaboration on this series.