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Argument from nonbelief

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Title: Argument from nonbelief  
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Subject: Problem of evil, Outline of theology, Criticism of atheism, Atheism, Argument from religious experience
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Argument from nonbelief

An argument from nonbelief is a philosophical argument that asserts an inconsistency between the existence of God and a world in which people fail to recognize him. It is similar to the classic argument from evil in affirming an inconsistency between the world that exists and the world that would exist if God had certain desires combined with the power to see them through.

There are two key varieties of the argument. The argument from reasonable nonbelief (or the argument from divine hiddenness) was first elaborated in J. L. Schellenberg's 1993 book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. This argument says that if God existed (and was perfectly good and loving) every reasonable person would have been brought to belief in God; however, there are reasonable nonbelievers; therefore, God does not exist.

Theodore Drange subsequently developed the argument from nonbelief, based on the mere existence of nonbelief in God. Drange considers the distinction between reasonable (by which Schellenberg means inculpable) and unreasonable (culpable) nonbelief to be irrelevant and confusing. Nevertheless, most academic discussion is concerned with Schellenberg's formulation.

Historical references to hiddenness

The theme of divine hiddenness, silence or darkness has a long history in Judeo-Christian theology.[1] The roots of the Judeo-Christian description of God as hidden are in the Bible, for example in the Psalms, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?....I cry by day, but you do not answer....",[2] and in Isaiah: "Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior."[3]

One of the first philosophers to write on the theme of divine hiddenness was Anselm of Canterbury, who in his Proslogion links it to an existential or spiritual concern:

I have never seen thee, O Lord my God; I do not know thy form. What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from thee? What shall thy servant do, anxious in his love of thee, and cast out afar from thy face? He pants to see thee, and thy face is too far from him. He longs to come to thee, and thy dwelling place is inaccessible. He is eager to find thee, and knows not thy place. He desires to seek thee, and does not know thy face. Lord, thou art my God, and thou art my Lord, yet never have I seen thee. It is thou that hast made me, and hast made me anew, and hast bestowed upon me all the blessings I enjoy; and not yet do I know thee. Finally, I was created to see thee and not yet have I done that for which I was made.[1]

Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser, in the introduction to a volume of papers on the idea of divine hiddenness as evidence against theism, cite Nietzsche's question as anticipating this contemporary theme: "a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intentions — could that be a god of goodness?"[1]

Schellenberg's hiddenness argument

Discussion of Schellenberg's argument has made explicit a non-theological use of the term 'hiddenness', which is now commonly used simply as a way of talking about the subjective condition of nonbelief in God.[4] In his first presentation of the argument Schellenberg emphasized inculpable or reasonable nonbelief, but he has since shifted to speaking more specifically about nonresistant nonbelief.[5] The first presentation is often given by commentators as follows, based on Schellenberg's own summing up:[6]

Schellenberg has stated that this formulation is misleading, when taken on its own, because it does not make explicit the reason why a perfectly loving God would want to prevent nonbelief. His deepest claim, he says, is "about the connection between love and openness to relationship -- a personal and positively meaningful and explicit sort of relationship of the sort that logically presupposes each party's belief in the other's existence."[7] A later presentation of the argument by Schellenberg, which aims at accessibility for students, includes this element:[8]

In an article revisiting the argument ten years after it was originally proposed,[9] Schellenberg observes that criticism has mainly centered around the idea that God would prevent inculpable nonbelief. He asserts that there are relatively few criticisms questioning the existence of inculpable nonbelief, and almost no theistic philosopher objects to the idea that God is perfectly loving.

God is perfectly loving

Schellenberg says he hasn't seen any serious objections to this premise by theistic philosophers, but there certainly are other conceptions of God. Daniel Howard-Snyder writes about the possibility of believing in an unsurpassably great personal god that is nevertheless dispassionate towards its creatures. Drawing on the Stoic concept of Eudaimonia, he says one can think of a god more akin to a wise sage than the loving parent that Schellenberg envisions.[10]

Theodore Drange, in his attempt to improve the argument (see below), states that there are many theists who do not view God as perfectly loving, and "some Christians think of him as an angry deity bent on punishing people for their sins."[11] Drange concludes that the argument should be put forward only in relation to theists who already accept the first premise and believe in a god who is perfectly loving.

Most theists, in fact, do admit that love is a central concept in almost all of the world's religions. God is often directly associated with love, especially with agape. Theologians such as N.T. Wright suggest that our experience of love is itself a proof of God's existence. However, there are a few others (e.g. Brian Davies in the Thomist tradition) who suggest that the modern interpretation of what it means to say God loves human beings is incorrect, and so that God is able to be loving in a sense while actually willing disbelief.

Nonresistant nonbelief: lack of evidence

When asked what he would say when facing God on judgment day, Bertrand Russell famously replied that he would say "Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!" Some nonbelievers may have hidden from themselves what seems to them to be possible evidence of the divine, but the view of the hiddenness argument is that others have tried hard to believe in God. Schellenberg addresses this difference with his distinction between culpable and inculpable nonbelief, with the latter defined as "non-belief that exists through no fault of the non-believer."[9]

Historically, the Calvinist tradition has placed the blame on nonbelievers. Calvin's religious epistemology is based on the sensus divinitatis (Sense of Divinity), the view that the presence of God is universally perceived by all humans. Paul Helm explains, "Calvin’s use of the term 'sense' signals that the knowledge of God is a common human endowment; mankind is created not only as capable of knowing God, but as actually knowing him."[12] According to this tradition, there is no inculpable or nonresistant nonbelief. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century American theologian, claimed that while every human being has been granted the capacity to know God, successful use of these capacities requires an attitude of "true benevolence," a willingness to be open to the truth about God. Thus, the failure of non-believers to see "divine things" is in his view due to "a dreadful stupidity of mind, occasioning a sottish insensibility of their truth and importance."[13]

In modern times, there are fewer proponents of these views. One reason is that, as Stephen Maitzen argues,[14] anthropology has long established that while religious belief in general is essentially universal, belief in what Calvin would recognize as God is very unevenly distributed among cultures (consider for example God in Buddhism, Jain cosmology, or non-theistic animism). If God exists, then why, Maitzen asks, does the prevalence of belief in God vary so dramatically with cultural and national boundaries?

Another reason why philosophers no longer make this claim has to do with respect. In fact, modern critics, such as Howard-Snyder, who praised Schellenberg's book for being "religiously sensitive,"[15] are similarly sensitive towards the nonbeliever. Howard-Snyder wrote:

Even though some nonbelievers lack true benevolence, the empirical evidence strongly suggests that others possess it since they really do earnestly seek the truth about God, love the Good, assess evidence judiciously, and, if anything, display a prejudice for God, not against Him.[10]

Would a perfectly loving God prevent nonresistant nonbelief?

The most serious criticisms of the hiddenness argument have been leveled against the idea that a perfectly loving God would prevent nonresistant nonbelief. Schellenberg argues in two steps, by first claiming that a loving god would enable humans to partake in a relationship with it, and then, assuming that belief in that god is a necessary condition for such relationships to occur, inferring that a loving god would not permit nonbelief. He states:

There is, first of all, the claim that if there is a personal God who is perfectly loving, creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God, who have not freely shut themselves off from God, are always in a position to participate in such relationship – able to do so just by trying to.[9]

He justifies this claim by arguing that a conception of divine love can best be formed by extrapolating the best aspects of love in human relations, and draws an analogy with perfect parental love:

The perfectly loving parent, for example, from the time the child can first respond to her at all until death separates them, will, insofar as she can help it, see to it that nothing she does ever puts relationship with herself out of reach for her child.[9]

But, says Schellenberg, belief in God's existence is necessary for engaging in such a meaningful relationship with God. He therefore concludes that if there is a perfectly loving god, such creatures will always believe in it. He further argues that since belief is involuntary, these creatures should always have evidence "causally sufficient" for such belief:

The presence of God will be for them like a light that – however much the degree of its brightness may fluctuate – remains on unless they close their eyes.[9]

Objections and counterarguments

Unreasonable demands on God

This argument is sometimes seen as demanding God to prove his existence, for example by performing miracles. Critics have argued that even in Schellenberg's more refined version, the nonbeliever is imposing her own epistemological expectations on the will of God. A detailed discussion of these kinds of demands, and their moral and spiritual implications, is provided by Paul Moser,[16] who says that such demands amount to cognitive idolatry. He defines idolatry as "our not letting the true God be Lord in our lives" and instead committing to something other than God by pursuing a quest for self-realization in our own terms. If this is idolatry in our actions, then idolatry in our knowing, he says, is as follows:

Cognitive idolatry relies on a standard for knowledge that excludes the primacy of the morally self-transforming knowledge of God central to knowing God as Lord. It rests on an epistemological standard, whether empiricist, rationalist, or some hybrid, that does not let God be Lord. Such idolatry aims to protect one's lifestyle from serious challenge by the God who calls, convicts, and reconciles. It disallows knowledge of God as personal subject and Lord to whom we are morally and cognitively responsible. It allows at most for knowledge of God as an undemanding object of human knowledge.[16]

Schellenberg considers this criticism irrelevant to the argument, which in his opinion, does not impose any demands for demonstrations of God's power, but rather looks for evidence that "need only be such as will be causally sufficient for belief in the absence of resistance... This result might be effected through the much more spiritually appropriate means of religious experience, interpreted in the sensitive manner of a Pascal or a Kierkegaard."[9] Schellenberg then expresses a certain frustration that theistic writers who otherwise extol the value of religious experiences deny non-theists the right to do so.

The soul-making theodicy

John Hick used the term "soul-making" in his theodicy Evil and the God of Love to describe the kind of spiritual development that he believes justifies the existence of evil. This defense is employed by Michael Murray,[17] who explains how, in his view, divine hiddenness is essential to soul-making. It may seem that it is not hard to imagine a world where God is known and yet believers act freely with ample opportunities for spiritual development. But Murray gives a deep and careful analysis of the argument, concluding that if God's existence were revealed in such a way as to remove reasonable non-belief, then "any desire that we might have to believe or act in ways contrary to that which has been revealed would be overwhelmed."

Critics note here that, for example, in Christianity (and even more in Judaism, where God is represented as talking to Job and explaining why he is just), God is already believed to have exposed himself very distinctly: for example to the Apostles who saw his resurrection. One theistic explanation of this might be that God knows some people wouldn't believe anyway but if God knows this before creating, there is a problem about God's liability for what is created. More fundamentally in relation to Murray's argument, there is the problem for orthodox believers of explaining the existence of Satan, a fallen angel who is obviously aware of God and yet, according to theistic scriptures, freely chose to rebel against God.[18]

The unknown purpose defense

Alvin Plantinga writes that the statement "We can see no good reason for God to do X" only implies "There is no good reason for God to do X" on the assumption that "If there were a good reason for God to do X, we would be able to see it," which he suggests is absurd.[19] This point might be applied to versions of the argument from nonbelief that suggest without support that there is no good reason for God to permit nonbelief.

Drange's argument from nonbelief

Theodore Drange proposed a version of the nonbelief argument in 1996. He considers the distinction between culpable and inculpable nonbelief to be unhelpful in the argument, arguing instead that the mere existence of nonbelief is evidence against the existence of God. A semi-formal presentation of the argument is as follows:[20]

  1. If God exists, God:
  2. wants all humans to believe God exists before they die;
  3. can bring about a situation in which all humans believe God exists before they die;
  4. does not want anything that would conflict with and be at least as important as its desire for all humans to believe God exists before they die; and
  5. always acts in accordance with what it most wants.
  6. If God exists, all humans would believe so before they die (from 1).
  7. But not all humans believe God exists before they die.
  8. Therefore, God does not exist (from 2 and 3).
  9. Drange's argument is directed primarily to Christians, and the philosopher Laura Garcia has replied from that perspective. She says that Drange's argument hinges on the idea that belief in God's existence is, according to Christians, necessary for salvation. According to Garcia this idea is mistaken: "many Christians deny this claim and the Catholic Church explicitly rejects it."[21] But as Garcia notes, Drange has answered that for many Christians—in particular, evangelical Christians—his point should remain convincing, and that there are in any case other good things that belief in God can bring for humans, which a good God would desire, such as peace of mind and a sense of meaning in life.[22]


    1. ^ a b c Howard-Snyder, Daniel; Paul K. Moser (2001). "Introduction: Divine Hiddenness". Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press.   The introductory section draws heavily on this source for its exposition of material.
    2. ^ Psalms 22:1–2
    3. ^ Isaiah 45:15
    4. ^ Schellenberg, J. L. (2010). "Chapter 60: Divine Hiddenness". In Taliaferro, Charles; Draper, Paul; Quinn, Philip. A Companion to Philosophy of Religion 2d ed. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 509–510.  
    5. ^ Schellenberg, J. L. (2007). The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism. Cornell University Press. p. 205.  
    6. ^ Schellenberg, J. L. (1993). Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. Cornell University Press. p. 83.  
    7. ^ Schellenberg, J. L. (2006). Preface to the Paperback Edition of Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. Cornell University Press. pp. viii.  
    8. ^ Schellenberg, J. L. (2011). "Would a Loving God Hide from Anyone?". In Solomon, Robert; McDermid, Douglas. Introducing Philosophy for Canadians. Oxford University Press. pp. 165–166.  
    9. ^ a b c d e f Schellenberg, J. L. (2005). "The hiddenness argument revisited (I)".  
    10. ^ a b Howard-Snyder, Daniel (2006). "Hiddenness of God". In Donald M. Borchert. Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2nd ed.).  
    11. ^  
    12. ^  
    13. ^   As quoted and represented in Howard-Snyder (2006).
    14. ^ Maitzen, Stephen (2006). "Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism".  
    15. ^ Howard-Snyder, Daniel (1995). (Cornell 1993)"Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason"Book review: John Schellenberg, . Mind 104 (414): 430–435. Archived from the original on 2006-09-28. Retrieved 2007-01-15. 
    16. ^ a b Moser, Paul (2001). "Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding". Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press.  
    17. ^ Murray, Michael J. (2001). "Deus Absconditus". Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press.  
    18. ^
    19. ^ Alvin Plantinga Warranted Christian Belief ISBN 0-19-513192-4
    20. ^  
    21. ^ Garcia, Laura (2002). "St. John of the Cross and the Necessity of Divine Hiddenness". In Howard-Snyder, Daniel; Moser, Paul. Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. Cambridge University Press. p. 84.  
    22. ^ Garcia, Laura (2002). "St. John of the Cross and the Necessity of Divine Hiddenness". In Howard-Snyder, Daniel; Moser, Paul. Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. Cambridge University Press. p. 85.  

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