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Swing and a Miss: Another Failed Refutation of Schellenberg’s Hiddenness Argument

Swing and a Miss: Another Failed Refutation of Schellenberg’s Hiddenness Argument November 13, 2014

Philosopher of religion J.L. Schellenberg is the foremost defender of an argument for atheism known as the argument from nonculpable nonbelief (aka the argument from divine hiddenness). As I’ve explained before, Schellenberg’s most recent formulation of that argument is as follows.

(1) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God is also (iii) in a position to participate in such relationship (able to do so just by trying).

(2) Necessarily, one is at a time in a position to participate in meaningful conscious relationship with God only if at that time one believes that God exists.

(3) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God also (iii) believes that God exists.

(4) There are (and often have been) people who are (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God without also (iii) believing that God exists.

(5) God does not exist.

Tom Gilson, the National Field Director of Ratio Christi and the man behind the Thinking Christian website and blog, wrote a 2011 blog post on divine hiddenness. I’m going to comment on part of this article.

There is an argument against Christianity based on God’s “hiddenness:” …

This is accurate, but misleading insofar as the argument is an argument not just against Christian theism but (general) theism.

… that if God existed and wanted people to believe in him, he would make himself known more plainly; he would not be hidden as he is now. J.L. Schellenberg presented the question in Divine Hiddenness and Human Freedom.

When I first read this sentence, I got excited. I thought to myself, “Hey, he’s going to actually address Schellenberg’s argument!” Schellenberg has slightly revised his formulation of the argument in a more recent book, The Wisdom to Doubt, but I was excited that he was going to address Schellenberg at all. Or was he?

An atheist blogger who goes by “Ebon Musings” wrote the best web-accessible article I know of on the topic.

It turns out my excitement was premature. Instead of Schellenberg’s argument, Gilson is going to interact with the argument presented by Ebon Musings.

In paraphrased form, he says,

  • There is no visible work of God, in the form of miracles, in the world today.
  • Events formerly considered miraculous are now thought to be myth, fable, or misinterpreted acts of nature.
  • Believers claim that God can nonetheless be known and perceived through some faith sense. It is most likely the case, however, that this faith sense does not actually exist, due to the unanswerability of questions like, What is it? Where is it? How is it validated or verified, especially in view of contrary reports by different people?
  • Even if God exists, if there is no verifiable way of detecting his presence and activity, he may as well not exist.
  • God, if he exists, can and should want to reveal himself in some unambiguous way.

With all due respect to Ebon Musings, there are a number of significant differences between his argument (at least, as summarized by Gilson) and the argument formulated by Schellenberg.

  1. Schellenberg’s argument makes a distinction between culpable and nonculpable nonbelief, i.e., nonbelief that is not due to resistance to God and nonbelief that is not due to resistance to God, respectively. Ebon Musing’s argument, as summarized by Gilson, does not.
  2. Premise (2) of Schellenberg’s argument states the important fact that the belief that God exists is a necessary condition for belief in God. Ebon Musing’s argument, as summarized by Gilson, does not.
  3. Ebon Musing’s argument, as paraphrased by Gilson, makes a number of highly specific (and so intrinsically less probable) claims, claims not made by Schellenberg’s argument. First, Ebon Musing’s argument (as summarized by Gilson) makes a claim about the specific mechanism by which someone could come to have a belief that God exists. Second, Ebon Musing’s argument (as summarized by Gilson) claims that God’s existence is not verifiable. In contrast, Schellenberg’s argument depends on neither of these claims. Third, Ebon Musing’s argument (as summarized by Gilson) makes a claim about the alleged non-occurrence of miracles todays, whereas Schellenberg’s argument does not.

In short, there are several philosophically significant differences between the two arguments. Even if Gilson succeeds in refuting Ebon Muse’s argument, it’s far from obvious that that refutation succeeds against Schellenberg’s argument also. Does it?

As I read him, Gilson’s critique consists of the following points: (a) “the billions of people who believe God’s existence is well evidenced”; and (b) “The only evidence some atheists/skeptics would accept would be of the sort that absolutely compels belief.” According to Gilson, the latter point is especially important because “knowledge of God is a matter of heart attitude as much as (or more than) evidences.”

It seems to me, however, that Gilson has failed to defeat Schellenberg’s argument. Indeed, both of his objections are not of obvious relevance to Schellenberg’s argument, which states that “There are (and often have been) people who are (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God without also (iii) believing that God exists.” The fact that “billions of people” believe in God does not imply that there are no nonculpable nonbelievers. And Gilson gives no reason to think that the quantity of believers somehow makes it improbable that there are any nonculpable nonbelievers. Furthermore, even if some atheists or skeptics would resist evidence of God’s existence, it hardly follows that all atheists or skeptics would do so. And Schellenberg’s argument is about people who are not resisting God. The upshot is that, however successful Gilson’s refutation of Ebon Musings may be, it fails against Schellenberg’s argument.


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