Human Love and Divine Hiddenness

Back in June, I felt compelled to respond to a blog post by one of my Patheos colleagues, Bad Catholic, offering an apologetic for the argument from divine hiddenness:

God is love. What merit is it to know of God’s existence as a man knows the existence of his right foot? God doesn’t want our observation, nor our pitiful attempts to “prove” his existence — he wants our love.

This is one of the most obviously question-begging arguments out there. As I wrote in “One More Burning Bush“, it’s like saying there’s no point in filling my car with gas because that won’t get me to my destination. It’s not a sufficient condition, but clearly it’s a necessary one. If God exists and wants to be loved by humans, belief in his existence is a prerequisite, and making that existence known in some clear and objective way would remove one major obstacle.

Observation brings certainty. We see the tree and are certain of it. Our relationship is simple, call it I-thing. But with God, what’s needed is precisely uncertainty.

…For instance, my father calls, and before he hangs up, he says “I love you.” I do not know this to be an objective fact. I do not observe it with the certainty I observe the tree, because the words “I love you,” are an outward expression of my father’s subjective, interior life — a life I cannot know. From my perspective, his kindness to me may have been born out of no more than duty, the pressures of his surrounding moral society, or the desire to raise a child in such a manner that he does not become an embarrassment. In short, the words “I love you” may not be true, and no objective knowledge can eradicate their uncertainty.

I wrote in a comment on Bad Catholic that this is where the author contradicts himself. By his own argument, for his father to make himself known, provide definitive proof of his existence, and vouchsafe his love in clear and tangible terms still doesn’t remove the necessity of faith. So why doesn’t God do the same thing?

As I’ve said many times, there’s nothing faith-based about love. We build up confidence in its existence the same way we become confident about the existence of anything else: with evidence, namely, the acts of kindness and understanding that our loved ones show toward us. But even if love requires some degree of trust that the other person’s actions reflect their true feelings, those actions are still the essential first step. It would be bizarre at best, evidence of an unstable mind at worst, to insist that someone loves me if they’ve never shown any outward sign of it.

Let’s say I’m a test-tube baby, conceived by donated sperm, and I have no idea as to the identity of the donor. I don’t know who my biological father is, what he’s like, where he lives, whether he’s even alive, or if he is, whether he knows or cares about my existence. But in spite of having no evidence, I choose to believe that he loves me, that he’s been secretly watching me my entire life and is proud of my accomplishments, but that he’ll never show himself or speak to me because that would spoil the loving relationship we have. Would this be a reasonable belief, or merely the sign of a sad self-deception?

What a pitiful, boring world which elevates objective knowledge over belief! By belief I attain a greater certainty of what cannot be known than the certainty I have of those things that can.

Remember words like these when you hear anyone deny that religion is anti-intellectual. Religion absolutely is anti-intellectual, and this is why: because regardless of their level of education, regardless of the efforts they expend on sophisticated philosophy or theology, religious believers still have to spend their lives coming up with reasons to believe things that aren’t supported by evidence. And in nearly every case, they’ve elevated this to a positive virtue, claiming that it’s good to believe in things that aren’t supported by the evidence – even claiming, as this post does, that it’s better. I deny that, as the sheerly dangerous absurdity it is.

The world isn’t boring, but far vaster and more luminous, when we commit to seeing it as it is and not imposing our delusions upon it. I elevate the “pitiful” objective knowledge of vaccination over belief in exorcism and anointing with holy oil. I elevate knowledge of embryology and evolution over all the pagan harvest myths of dying-and-rising gods. I elevate the knowledge of the true age of the cosmos over 6,000-year creationist fantasies. I elevate our understanding of climate and ecosystems over belief in fairies and nature spirits. In all these things and more, objective knowledge is far superior to mere belief, not just because it allows us to lead happier, safer, more prosperous lives, but because the greater wonder is always found in knowing reality as it truly is rather than grubbing in the dust of ignorance and bowing down before man-made fables, which are always pitifully small and unimaginative by comparison.

Image credit: Shutterstock

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jaime Wise

    Thanks for addressing this particular mode of thinking about faith, it’s one that’s always bothered me. I just have one question for the sake clarity: In your comment about religion being anti-intellectual, do you mean religion as a whole, or specifically Christianity?

  • smrnda

    Thanks for this post. I find the whole ‘god is love’ or, even worse, the ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ thing to be totally absurd. At least for me, love is something that’s entirely evidence based, and in matters of love, being ‘mysterious’ is being an inconsiderate ass. Love means that if my partner asks me to pick up eggs at the store, I go, pick up the eggs, and put them in the fridge. Love is that if I call her, she calls me back. Love was an emotion that emerged after actions like these reached a critical mass.

    Perhaps I’d add that I’m not usually the type of person to just call every close personal tie ‘love.’ I don’t really feel like I ever really loved or had a real relationship with my grandparents because there was a huge cultural gap between us, but we did the best we could.

    The whole “I cannot really know the guy’s inner life” with his father is just nitpicking to me. Love is a mix of passion, duty, routine, inertia, attraction, and a whole lot of other things, so I’m not sitting around going ‘wow, does my father love me or is he just doing this out of duty?’ I’m thinking he’s exaggerating the uncertainty to avoid saying ‘hey, in human relationships love is clear and unambiguous. God’s love is not.’

  • Figs

    Even if we accept “God is love” as a definition, it doesn’t say anything about God. Are we talking about the God of the Bible? If so, then how does your father saying “I love you” on the phone elucidate the doctrine of the Trinity or the fact of Jesus’s resurrection? It doesn’t, of course, in any way more than it would if I says “love is unicorns” and started making similar logical leaps.

  • L.Long

    And added to the other comments, where is there anyone you LOVE that you don’t know? Also you do you LOVE that shows its displeasure by killing tons of people? Many stories are told in movies about how kids can’t escape from abusive controlling fathers that will never allow them be themselves and state that you could never love anyone like that. Gawd is love?? BS!! the dirt bag in the buyBull is an asshole control freak! And when was the last time you told your kids that if they don’t love you they will be tormented FOREVER!!! And IF there is a trans-dimensional being that popped a pimple on his face which then expanded into this space/time, it aint love either, or at least it loves us as much as you love the puss that eject from your pimples.

    And to paraphrase his last point, ‘What a pitiful, boring world which elevates some invisible imagined thing over the people around you struggling to make the best of things.’

  • David Simon

    I don’t know about Adam, but I would say “religion as a whole”. I’ve yet to see any kind of theism that doesn’t consistently make the same mistakes that Adam talks about here.

  • MNb

    “my father calls, and before he hangs up, he says “I love you.” ”
    BC walks a dangerous path here – dangerous for his belief system.
    1. If I say that I hear BC’s voice in my head telling me he loves me he probably will doubt my mental sanity. So he can’t claim that his god answers his prayers. Ie praying is futile.
    2. If I say that I, a total stranger, loves BC he will have doubts too. That’s because he doesn’t know me. So his entire argument is based on the assumption that he knows his god. That’s rather dubious, especially give god’s mysterious ways.
    3. The sentence “the chair loves BC” doesn’t make sense. That’s because a chair doesn’t have any means available to express that love. BC’s father does: his father can tell him so (language), his father can use facial expressions (smiling when they meet), body language and behavior. BC’s god being bodiless doesn’t have those means available either. Hence divine love doesn’t make any sense either.
    With my thanks to Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science.

  • Jaime Wise

    Well, that’s actually related to what I mean. Not every religion in theistic. The article below a addresses why this is an important distinction much better than I could:

  • MrRoivas

    Bad Catholic is a perfect example of what happens when you let a numbskull with a large vocabulary get access to some philosophy textbooks.

    Is there a more meaningless sentence in the English language than “God is love?”

    If anyone in real life ever says that to me now, I plan to respond, “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me, no more.”

  • L.Long

    Religion is sort of an open word. As in I’m in the Jedi religion. In this case who cares? they do their thing and leave others alone and out of politics. I like using the word Dogmatist. Because this covers non-religious totalitarians which are just as bad. And they ALWAYS try forcing their BS up our asses.

  • David Simon

    Good point about slipperiness of the definition of religion in your article. I generally have problems with systems of belief or philosophy that attempt to establish special categories for certain beliefs, the practical purpose of which is to exempt them from critical analysis.

    I see this a lot in theism, but also in non-theistic spiritualities, which I was (and am) hesitant to call “religion” because many people who identify with these beliefs disavow that label.

    Regardless of the word, though, the problem is the same: bad epistomology.

  • VorJack

    I will now have that song stuck in my head all afternoon. Damn you.

  • GCBill

    Your comment was on point, but I’d take your argument a step further. The trouble for Marc is that Catholicism has always argued that the existence of God *can* be objectively known through reason. If the Church is right about this, and BC’s borderline-heretical musings are also correct, then that’s a serious problem. Because God has effectively made it *much harder* for us to love Him by giving us the ability to reason. What a great guy God is, requesting our love while giving us faculties that make that love impossible.

  • smrnda

    Good point. I also tend to think of love as a verb. “God is love” is empty nonsense about as much as “God is Being” (I detest “Being” with a capital b.)

  • smrnda

    True. I think this trend went back to Aquinas with the whole ‘Natural Law’ thing. Certain Protestant sects are more into the notion of explicit, divine revelation, but Catholicism tends to pretend that anybody just looking at the world will reach Catholic conclusions. The whole approach is a massive amount of hand-waving and argument by verbose obfuscation, but I think that’s because 1. it doesn’t work because religious ideas aren’t built on true observations and 2. it’s less about convincing others and more about keeping people like BC convinced that he believes something rational.

  • Pofarmer

    “argument by verbose obfuscation”

    ding, ding, ding. That’s one thing that the RCC is great at. Say a whole lot of fancy words that ultimately mean nothing.

  • RayRobertson

    Would this be a reasonable belief, or merely the sign of a sad self-deception?

    The child has an unknown parent. I’m wondering why you’ve described the self-deception as sad. Are you saying all self-deceptions are sad, or do you mean this self-deception makes the child sad?

  • Adam Lee

    I would apply that term to any religion which teaches that belief in supernatural beings or anything else that’s unsupported by evidence is a virtue.

  • pRinzler

    “. . . he’ll never show himself or speak to me because that would spoil the loving relationship we have.”

    To drive the analogy home even further, we have to stipulate that the father is capable of *easily and readily* showing himself.

    It makes no sense when it’s a loving father, and it makes no sense when it’s a god, either.

  • RayRobertson

    So there is ample reason to be angry at the absent father. Yet the child remains hopeful, beyond all reason. Not an uncommon scenario. But is the child sad?

  • RayRobertson

    OK. This particular self-deception involving the hopeful child is sad. If I’m understanding @nankay’s view correctly, the child is pathetic, but not sad.

    I’m wondering when the New Atheist intervenes to dissuade the child from wishful thinking. Immediately? When the child reaches a certain age? When the the New Atheist deems that the child’s faith results in harm to others?

    I imagine this is a topic of some debate in the community. I just don’t recall it being discussed at length here.

  • Pattrsn

    “When the the New Atheist deems that the child’s faith results in harm to others?”

    You mean if the child tries to control the lives of others in order to satisfy the imagind needs of the silent parent?

  • DavidMHart

    Really? You’re capitalising ‘new’ atheists, and lumping them all together as a homogenous singular ‘the’? You do realise that we non-religious people are united only by our non-religion, and that one person’s solution to a problem is not necessarily going to be someone else’s?

    You realise also, I hope, that there is no ‘new’ atheism – atheism has been around for as long as there have been people inventing gods and failing to produce good evidence for those gods; the only difference is that now some have started to try to organise collectively to push back against the tide of religiosity that prevails in certain countries.

    Anyway; to your point:
    The question of when to disillusion a child of a false belief will depend in every case on several factors: the harmfulness of the false belief; the current psychological frailty of the child; the greater marginal harmfulness of disillusioning the child at a later stage etc. The question of when to let on to a child that gods probably don’t exist is in the same category as the question of when to break it to a child that Santa Claus probably doesn’t exist: it will vary from child to child, but there must be an optimum time except in the case of the most mentally unstable and fragile children who genuinely need to believe in a god or Santa Claus well into adulthood.

    But given that there is no good reason to think that not believing in a god or gods is any more psychologically harmful than not believing in Santa Claus, I would suggest that as a default, whenever you decide to tell a child that Santa Claus is a myth should also be when you tell that child that gods are myths too (or, when a child figures out that santa claus is a myth would be a good time to say “Congratulations; now what do you think about gods?”). Sound fair enough to you?

  • RayRobertson

    Really? You’re capitalising ‘new’ atheists, and lumping them all together as a homogenous singular ‘the’?

    Yes, really. I wouldn’t be the first theist or atheist to use the capital letters. But I do realize the label is debatable and some discard it as a characterization of a people who believe “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”

    If such a group does not exist, is it a fair statement to say it is representative of the thinking of a number of individuals? If so, I’m open for other ways in which I might address such a group of like-minded individuals.

  • BillYeager

    “God doesn’t want our observation, nor our pitiful attempts to “prove” his existence — he wants . . .” – Ah yes, the ol’ “What God Wants’ argument. A curiously circular ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy. Epically narcissistic as, of course, ‘WGW’ always coincides with the personal values of the person stating it. You never hear a theist complaining that his God wants him to love teh gays as equals but that he didn’t agree with it. No, *his* God hates fags as much as he hates fags. His God hates our human ‘arrogance’ at wanting evidence of divine existence, just the same as he hates the cognitive dissonance he feels when his logical fallacies are challenged.