A Brief Primer On Divine Hiddenness

The argument from divine hiddenness[1] starts with a simple observation that a certain kind of reasonable or nonresistant nonbelief exists. This is a sort of nonbelief such that the person holding it is not at epistemic or moral fault for doing so. We can point to several situations where such a situation may occur:

  1. After diligent and careful searching, as well as close examination of all evidence provided, a person comes to believe that he has both strong responses to all known arguments for theism, and no responses to several known arguments for atheism.
  1. A person living in a third world country is jailed from a very young age, surrounded by instances of apparent pointless evil, and has no access to any material arguing in favor of theism.
  1. A person, due to a genetic defect, is mentally retarded and thus cannot examine evidence on his own; and those around him tell him that God does not exist.

We would generally not consider any of these people at fault for not believing. Some people in these situation may very well like to believe; but of course beliefs are not voluntary. It is reasonable to assume that there exists, or has existed, at least one person in some situation similar to this at some point in time. Thus we get premise 1 of the hiddenness argument:

(1) Reasonable nonbelief exists.

What we must consider here for the argument to work is something often overlooked about the nature of God. It is often said by theologians (in one way or another) that God is necessarily the greatest possible being. He either presents with all the virtues and none of the vices, or he has every great-making property to a maximal degree, or something similar to this[2].

What this implies about God is that he is perfectly loving – and this is slightly different from being perfectly good. While it is good to be loving, goodness has to do with morality and actions in general, while to be loving has to do with interpersonal relationships. If I donate to charity anonymously, I’m doing something good, but not something loving. When I pull someone up out of the mud, I’m doing something good and loving. The difference lies in the personal nature of the action. We can say that to be loving is to be good in a personal manner.

To be such is certainly to be virtuous, or great, or however one wants to describe attributes ascribed to God in the ontological argument (and others). And of course God, being God, will have this attribute to the maximal degree. So we get our second premise:

(2) If God exists, then God is perfectly loving.

Our final concern is the conflict between a being who is perfectly loving, and the hiddenness of that being. Consider the case of a mother[3] who gives her newborn son up for adoption. She may have any of a number of reasons for doing so, but all in all, the good mother will always have the best interest of her son in mind.

Here is where the conflict lies: the loving mother will make sure that her son is aware of her existence; and though she may not be able to support him (maybe she has a drug habit, maybe she’s poor), if she is loving, she will make sure that there is always a possibility at every point in her son’s life, that the son is able to enter into a relationship with her. If she is loving, she will contact her son in some way, and say “I cannot support you, or help you financially, but I exist and I am here if you want to talk to me”.

Herein lies the problem with God and hiddenness – it is impossible for the son to do so if the son is not aware that the mother exists. To suggest that it is would be to suggest that a Christian can enter into a relationship with Zeus[4]. There will be nothing available for the son to base a relationship on; the minimum condition for one to enter into a relationship with another is belief in that others’ existence. This gives us our final premise:

  1. If God is perfectly loving, then reasonable nonbelief does not exist.

From these premises, we can extract two conclusions via modus tollens:

  1. God is not perfectly loving (from 1 and 3).
  2. God does not exist (from 2 and 4).

 

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[1] J.L. Schellenberg presents this argument in his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, and defends it from objections in The Hiddenness Argument Revisited (I) and The Hiddenness Argument Revisited (II).

[2] See the works of St. Anselm, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Liebniz, Immanuel Kant, Kurt Godel, Alvin Plantinga, and Robert Maydole (as well as many others) for many varieties of ontological arguments.

[3] Schellenberg talks about God as a mother, and gives an analogy between a loving God and a loving parent, in several places. Here is one: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/john_schellenberg/hidden.html

[4] This is not the claim that many ‘new atheists’ make that the Christian is an atheist about every god except one, and that the atheist merely “believes in one less god than you do”. It’s merely an example of when one can or cannot enter into a relationship with another being.

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