The Argument from Divine Hiddenness

If god has delivered a message to humanity, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe, then god wants something of us. The purpose of sending a message is to communicate something that you at least want to be known. Revelation is the alleged method by which god delivers a message, and according to most theists, the message god imparts to us is one of love, with the intent that we repent and believe. Thus, fundamentally, god wants us to believe in him, and we find this also in scripture, where it says that god does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), but for all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). It should stand to reason, then, if god desires for us all to have faith in him, that he would do his absolute best to persuade us to believe, in a way that only the most brilliant mind could achieve.

I. Inefficient Revelation

What amazing method has this being chosen for revealing itself to us? Written records of the experiences of other people. This is a puzzling and inefficient way for a supposedly brilliant and all-powerful deity to communicate. If you wish to give a message to someone, what better way is there than to do it yourself? Couriers and other middle-men are the result of restrictions on our abilities. We send a message through another person when we are unable to personally make the journey, but there is little doubt that, if we’re capable and it’s more efficient, we would speak face-to-face rather than by such a delivery. What possible reason could god have for revealing his message to you through someone else? In an age where most of us can instantly connect with any other person by internet or phone, surely an omnipotent and omnipresent being would have the option of directly communicating with every person on the planet.

The experiences of other people are also not transferable, and, as such, are not as reliable as firsthand experience. You cannot experience the same thing I experience just from hearing my description of the event – at best you may form an adequate model of it in your mind, but it will not be the same. We often have a very difficult time grasping experiences we have not had, or cannot have, as a man will not fully understand what it means to be a woman, nor will a member of one ethnicity fully understand what it means to be a member of another. It makes no sense that a god able to give us each a firsthand revelation would instead go for revealing itself through a select few individuals. All it means to me when you say that God gave you a message for me is that your god is either incapable of speaking directly to me or he is lazy and inefficient.

Worse than secondhand experiences, we have only written accounts of those experiences, left by men and women who have been dead for centuries. No originals survive, so what we are getting is the report of other people’s experiences preserved in copies of copies of copies. Transmitting something by writing may be more reliable than word of mouth, but texts are prone to errors and mistakes in many of their own ways, and require constant updating as language changes. As the all-powerful creator of the universe, god could choose to simply show up before each of us and speak in our native language, with no need for subjective secondhand experience or a fallible method like writing, and yet he opted for the less reliable, less personal, and less convincing way.

More could easily be said about the problems with this sort of revelation, but the central point here is that god has not put his money where his mouth is. If one has an extremely important message to deliver, they will stop at nothing to see it through. But rather than personally visit each of his ‘beloved’ creations, god shows up to a special few at distant points in time and tells them to write their stories, knowing that countless other men and women would put forward exactly the same testimony for their false religions. This is not a being that cares about making its message as persuasive as possible.

II. Divine Hiddenness

Theists have proposed a couple of explanations for why god’s ‘best efforts’ fail to convince some people, and one of these, divine hiddenness, becomes the crux of this argument against god. Noteworthy theologians from Anselm of Canterbury to Martin Luther have suggested that the Judeo-Christian god is a hidden god, or one that does not reveal itself to all persons. Although this seems to contradict the notion of a deity that wants everyone to be saved, there is scriptural support for this view as well. “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself,” Isaiah 45:15 states. “My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,” Psalm 22:2 reads.

The 17th century French Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal comments on the significance of this doctrine:

If there were only one religion, God would be clearly manifest. If there were martyrs only in our religion, the same. God being therefore hidden, any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true. And any religion which does not give us the reason why does not enlighten. Ours does all this… If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing God.1

God is not doing all he could be doing to reveal his message to us – in fact, he actively prevents some from seeing the truth. “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts,” John 12:10 says, “so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts”. 2 Corinthians 4:4 informs us that, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel”. Would a god who wants us all to believe in him (1 Tim. 2:4) intentionally prevent some of us from finding the truth?

Divine hiddenness is used as an ‘explanation’ for what believers do not understand about their faith. When cognitive dissonance arises, one can chalk it up to god not wanting us to know. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” it’s often said. Nonetheless, divine hiddenness only serves to cause trouble for the Abrahamic god, for what does it imply that a god who claims to desire our belief in it would also hide itself from many of us? Some might try to say that faith is not god’s top priority (contrary to the claims of religions like Christianity and Islam), which is why he has not persuaded us all to his side. Yet this is irrelevant, because if god is omnipotent, any priority, no matter how low on the list, is easily accomplished. Indeed, for a god that allegedly spoke the physical universe into existence, bringing us all around to believe in it should be no problem. A being that cannot do something as simple as fulfill its certain desires is not omnipotent.

III. The Argument

In his 1993 book, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, J.L. Schellenberg introduced the problem of divine hiddenness under the argument from reasonable non-belief. The reality of non-belief, he proposed, is evidence that a perfectly loving god does not exist. Schellenberg’s suggestion that a perfectly loving god would prevent reasonable non-belief has been no small subject of criticism, and so philosopher Theodore Drange proposed an alternate version of the argument in 1996. Drange argued that a god who wants all humans to believe in it, and has the ability to make it happen, cannot exist due to the simple fact that all humans do not believe in said god.2 Although both formulations deal more with non-belief than divine hiddenness, the existence of non-believers under an all-powerful god that desires our belief would imply that the ‘truth’ of god is hidden from some.

As Drange explains, the argument from divine hiddenness rests on two primary questions which can apply to nearly any theistic religion. Firstly, can god do something that would cause everyone to believe that he exists? If this god is omniscient, then he knows what it will take to convince any given person on Earth. If this god is omnipotent, then he has the power to convince any given person on Earth. The second question is, does god desire that we all believe in him? If this god wants everyone to believe in him, then he has the motivation to use his power and knowledge to convince every person on Earth. Though because there are non-believers – because god has decided to hide itself from many of us – a being with these attributes cannot exist.

This is not merely to say that atheists testify against theism, but that non-Christians testify against the Christian god, non-Muslims against Allah, and so forth. Any deity given these attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, and a desire for our conversion) is rendered non-existent by the fact that it has not succeeded at its own goal of having us all believe. Either god is missing one of these attributes, has lied to us, or simply does not exist. With the contentions laid out in section I, as well as the numerous other arguments against god and the refutations of theistic ‘evidence’, I see no grounds for believing in a weaker god or a deceitful one.

However, there is one common objection to the argument from divine hiddenness that must be dealt with before wrapping up this article.

IV. Free to Believe

If God caused everyone to believe, wouldn’t that violate our free will? In short, no. This argument does not expect god to force us all to convert by magic or any other means. I already outlined some of the natural ways in which god could’ve made his message more reliable and more amazing, and not only do these coincide fine with free will, but they are present in every religion that this argument addresses. God supposedly revealed himself to Moses, Paul, and Muhammad, yet his interaction with them is not generally viewed as any infringement on their free will. Even if it were, it would only be indication that belief is god’s top priority, not free will.

This objection is additionally amusing because it seems to surmise that were we to be shown all the relevant facts, we would lose our free will, because the truth would become so clear as to force us to believe. The Bible speaks of many people who chose to rebel, even after seeing miracle upon miracle. The fallen angels still had their free will to disobey, though they had seen god face-to-face and been in his presence. Knowledge never has, and never will, negate choice, and this can even be supported from scripture.

Giving someone evidence to base their decision on is no violation of free will, but preventing them from seeing the truth is, and god seems just fine with that, as previously noted. Of course, some might attempt to say that god only blinds unbelievers from the truth when he knows they will just continue in unbelief. However, most of us probably recognize that good, kind people do not stubbornly refuse to help those who resist them, as anyone who has struggled with a suicidal friend or family member knows. Why should god let the will of a fallible, imperfect being stop him from exercising his own good and perfect will?

Philosopher Stephen Maitzen also provides a strong rebuttal to the contention that it’s our own fault god hides himself from us.

Nearly all Afghans are theists and nearly all Cambodians are not. Now there’s no reason I can think of to suppose that Cambodians are inherently less capable of relating to god than Afghans are. So to my mind the lopsided distribution of theistic belief around the world is much easier to explain in social scientific or historical and political terms than it is to explain by reference to a loving god who wants to relate to all of his human creatures. I think the clustered distribution of theism makes the argument from hiddenness much harder to rebut than it would be if theistic belief were uniformly distributed around the world.3

V. What God Could Do

The argument from divine hiddenness does not ask anything unreasonable of god, but there are certain things we should expect from a supreme being that claims to want us to believe in it. We can tell how much something means to a person by how much effort they put into it, and we can also tell what concern they have for the truth by what methods they use. God could tell each of us about his message, in person, so we would all know what it is and there would be no confusion. God could answer our questions patiently, to make sure we understand, and we would still be free to reject it all. But if we were each given the same message and the same answers by god, how much more credible it would be than our current situations!

A god that would want us to make an informed choice to believe in it would provide us with all the necessary information itself, not trust its imperfect, fallible, and ‘sinful’ creations to carry out a task of such tremendous importance. Because god is more powerful than we mortals, he must at least be able to do what we can do, and when another human is capable of speaking to me, answering my questions, and helping me understand things more – all without infringing on my free will – god ought to be able to do this too. Yet he does none of it. His revelations come through flawed methods, in ambiguous language, with no difference from the revelations of other purportedly false religions. It is almost as if god is trying to hide from us, but it is this hiddenness that spells doom for the Abrahamic god and others like it, who desire that we all believe, yet fail to accomplish it.

 

Sources:
1. Blaise Pascal, “Nature is Corrupt: On the Falseness of Other Religions,” Pensées.
2. Theodore Drange, The Arguments From Evil and Nonbelief, Infidels.org (1996). Retrieved Mar. 8, 2011.
3. Stephen Maitzen, CPBD 025: Stephen Maitzen – Can Theism Ground Morality? Common Sense Atheism (Mar. 7, 2010). Retrieved Mar. 8, 2011.