I’ve mentioned before that, in my opinion, the argument from divine hiddenness is the best contemporary atheistic argument. In thinking about the argument more deeply, however, I’m beginning to hedge my bets. In a nutshell, the argument from hiddenness states that if there were a perfectly loving God, such a God would not allow people of goodwill to remain ignorant of his existence. The fact that there are non-believers who are open to God’s existence, but don’t find evidence to support belief, is good reason to think that God doesn’t exist. The argument, formally stated, is as follows:
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).
It’s a valid argument, but the theist could, of course, deny one or more of the premises and thus resist the argument’s conclusion. For example, theists will probably find premises 2 and 5 less plausible than would atheists. Like every other philosophical argument, there is a psychological dimension involved in whether or not one finds it persuasive. Some are going to be moved by the argument and others are not (or at least not to the same extent). Some theists concede that the argument constitutes a serious objection to their view; others don’t find it worrisome at all. I’ll try to represent both in what follows.
Some theological traditions would deny premises 2 and 5. According to Calvinism, for example, God is not open to a relationship with each person. God is more selective in whom he elects for salvation. One might object that this move concedes the point that a loving God does not exist, but Calvinists don’t seem too perturbed by this consequence. Perhaps human love is an imperfect analogy for divine love. While I find this move too costly myself, there might be a plausible way to deny premise 2. Perhaps God might not be open to a loving relationship with S if he had good reason to believe that S would spurn his love. Perhaps God has counter-factual knowledge of such things (we’re moving now from Calvinism to Molinism). Furthermore, perhaps S’s spurning of God’s love would be worse for S (say, by contributing to the damnation of S’s soul) than would God’s not being open to a relationship with S (at least until such a time as God deemed S ready for such a relationship).
Thus, one might modify the premise and suggest that God isn’t at all times open to a relationship with each human person because there are some goods that God can only achieve if a person lacks explicit awareness of his existence, at least for a time. What kinds of goods might those be? Well, if the goal of a relationship with God is to love God, rather than simply believe in his existence, God might delay evidence of his existence until such a time as S develops the emotional maturity and spiritual discipline necessary to enter into a loving relationship with him. Most religious traditions consider such qualities quite rare, achieved fully in this lifetime only by saints and mystics, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that divine mysteries remain opaque to the rest of us. Also, one might suggest that too much awareness of God’s existence would motivate S to believe out of fear rather than love. God remains hidden, in part, to inculcate the proper sort of motivations for belief. Naturally, there are objections to such greater good strategies (I talk about some of them here) but the theist can, I think, plausibly deny premise 2.
What about premise 5? This one is more difficult to deny, but far from obviously true. Again, some theological traditions deny that anyone is non-resistantly unaware of God’s existence. God has revealed himself in creation and, in Christian theology, in the Incarnation. Those of us who are unbelievers ignore the evidence and suppress the knowledge of God. Moreover, the vast majority of people on this planet believe in God. To the extent that God is hidden, it seems to have only a marginal impact on how many people believe. In addition, if one thinks that the philosophical arguments for God’s existence render God’s existence more probable than not, then one might think it’s unreasonable to demand more evidence than we in fact have. Although I don’t want to underestimate the force of theistic arguments, I think it’s fair to say that most philosophers, including most theists, would admit that these arguments fall short of compelling belief for all rational persons.
That being said, there’s a sense in which identifying non-resistant unbelief is tricky. Human motivations are notoriously complex. In particular, self-knowledge is difficult to fully attain, as any psychologist will tell you. Although we may profess to believe or disbelieve on the basis of evidence, we may be unaware of the real motivations for doing so. As such, identifying oneself as a ‘non-resistant’ unbeliever is based almost entirely on one’s subjective self-awareness which may or may not reflect reality. I think that a believer could be sympathetic to the hiddenness argument, and sympathetic to the unbeliever’s sincerity, and yet still counsel the unbeliever to examine his motivations. Perhaps our profound selfishness (this is true of human beings generally, not just unbelievers) acts as a barrier to a relationship with God. For example, think of the autonomy one would have to surrender if theism were true.
I’ll conclude with an analogy that speaks to me on a personal level and helped me see the problem of hiddenness in a new light (I owe this insight to Michael Rea). I’m an introverted person and sometimes that trait impedes my ability to form relationships with other people. Our culture is one of ‘extroverted normativity’ — to coin a phrase — and sometimes introverted behavior is interpreted by others as emotional distance or a lack of openness to a relationship. This isn’t necessarily true, of course, and sometimes such an interpretation can be deeply hurtful to introverted people. I’ve experienced this first hand. Yet, I can’t fundamentally change my personality. In the words of one of the professionals I sought out to help me with my social anxiety: “You’ll never be an extrovert, and that’s okay.” In other words, there’s a sense in which it’s deeply good for me to be myself, to relate to others in the way that I do. At the risk of drawing immodest comparisons, perhaps something similar is true of God. Perhaps God’s preferred mode of interaction with human beings is subtle and perhaps that’s due to God’s personality, apart from whatever goods might accrue to us from his hiddenness. In other words, maybe it’s deeply good for God to act out his personhood in the way that he does. Perhaps God is not simply a utility maximizing machine, but a person with a rich mental life and robust personality that is expressed in his dealings with human beings. And perhaps some of his human creatures misinterpret his personality as unloving or distant. Nevertheless, they are mistaken. If something like this story is even possible, I think the theist has gone a long way toward ameliorating the problem of divine hiddenness.