Argument from nonbelief

Argument from nonbelief

The argument from nonbelief (or the argument from divine hiddenness) is a philosophical argument against the existence of God, specifically, the God of theism. The premise of the argument is that if God existed (and wanted humanity to know it), he would have brought about a situation in which every reasonable person believed in him; however there are reasonable unbelievers, and therefore this weighs against God's existence. This argument is similar to the classic argument from evil in that it affirms inconsistency between the world that exists and the world that should exist if God had certain desires combined with the power to see them through. In fact, since ignorance of God would seem to be a natural evil, many would categorize the problem of divine hiddenness as an instance of the problem of evil.

The argument was the subject of J.L. Schellenberg's 1993 book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason and has been addressed by other philosophers, including Theodore Drange.


Introduction to the problem of divine hiddenness

The theme of divine hiddenness, silence or darkness has a long history in Judeo-Christian theology.[1] The roots of Judeo-Christian contemplation of the ways in which God chooses to remain hidden reach back into the biblical depiction of God, for example the lament of the Psalms, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?....I cry by day, but you do not answer...."[2] and Isaiah's declaration, "Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior."[3]

One of the first philosophers to contemplate the problem of hiddenness was Anselm of Canterbury, who in his Proslogion complains:

I have never seen thee, O Lord my God; I do not know thy form. What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from thee? What shall thy servant do, anxious in his love of thee, and cast out afar from thy face? He pants to see thee, and thy face is too far from him. He longs to come to thee, and thy dwelling place is inaccessible. He is eager to find thee, and knows not thy place. He desires to seek thee, and does not know thy face. Lord, thou art my God, and thou art my Lord, yet never have I seen thee. It is thou that hast made me, and hast made me anew, and hast bestowed upon me all the blessings I enjoy; and not yet do I know thee. Finally, I was created to see thee and not yet have I done that for which I was made.[1]

When it comes to the use of divine hiddenness as an objection or evidence against God, Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser in the introduction to a volume of papers dedicated to refutations of Schellenberg's argument, cite Nietzsche's question: "a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intentions — could that be a god of goodness?"[1]

Schellenberg's argument from reasonable nonbelief

A formal presentation of the argument is as follows:[4]

  1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
  2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
  3. Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
  4. No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
  5. Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).

In an article revisiting the argument ten years after it was originally proposed,[5] Schellenberg writes that criticism has mainly centered around the second premise. He asserts there are relatively few criticisms questioning the existence of reasonable nonbelief, and almost no theist philosopher objects to the idea that God is perfectly loving.

God is perfectly loving

While Schellenberg claims he hasn't seen any serious objections to this premise by theist philosophers, there certainly are other conceptions of God. Daniel Howard-Snyder writes about the possibility of believing in an unsurpassably great personal god that is nevertheless dispassionate towards its creatures. Drawing on to the Stoic concept of Eudaimonia, one can think of a god more akin to a wise sage than the loving parent that Schellenberg envisions.[6]

Theodore Drange, in his attempt to improve the argument (see below), claims there are many theists who do not view God as perfectly loving, and "some Christians think of him as an angry deity bent on punishing people for their sins."[7] Drange concludes that the argument should be put forward only in relation to theists who already accept the first premise and believe in a god who is perfectly loving.

Most theists, in fact, do admit that love is a central concept in almost all of the world's religions. God is often directly associated with love, cf agape. Theologians, such as N.T. Wright, suggest that our experience of love is itself a proof of God's existence. However, there are a few others (e.g. Brian Davies in the Thomist tradition) who suggest that the modern interpretation of what it means to say God loves man is incorrect, and so that God is able to be loving in a sense while actually willing disbelief.

Reasonable nonbelief: lack of evidence

Since the second premise is the most controversial, we will first discuss the third: that there are instances of reasonable non-belief. When asked what he would say when facing God on judgment day, Bertrand Russell famously replied he would say "Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!" A person may be stubbornly blind to evidence of the divine, but the claim is that some non-believers have tried hard to believe in God. Schellenberg introduced the distinction between culpable and inculpable nonbelief, where the latter is defined as "non-belief that exists through no fault of the non-believer."[5]

Historically, there is a Calvinist tradition, that places the blame on the non-believers. Calvin's religious epistemology is based on the sensus divinitatis (Sense of Divinity), an assumption that the presence of God is universally perceived by all humans. Paul Helm explains, "Calvin’s use of the term 'sense' signals that the knowledge of God is a common human endowment; mankind is created not only as capable of knowing God, but as actually knowing him."[8] In this tradition, there is no inculpable or reasonable non-belief. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century American theologian, claimed that while every human being has been granted the capacity to know God, successful use of these capacities requires an attitude of "true benevolence," a willingness to be open to the truth about God. Thus, the failure of non-believers to see "divine things" is due to "a dreadful stupidity of mind, occasioning a sottish insensibility of their truth and importance."[9]

In modern times, there are fewer proponents of these views. One reason is that, according to Stephen Maitzen,[10] anthropology has long established that while religious belief in general is essentially universal, belief in what Calvin would recognize as God is very unevenly distributed among cultures, cf. God in Buddhism. If God exists then why, Maitzen asks, does the prevalence of belief in God vary so dramatically with cultural and national boundaries?

Another reason why philosophers no longer make this claim has to do with respect. In fact, modern critics, such as Howard-Snyder, who praised Schellenberg's book for being "religiously sensitive,"[11] are similarly sensitive towards the nonbeliever. Howard-Snyder wrote:

Even though some nonbelievers lack true benevolence, the empirical evidence strongly suggests that others possess it since they really do earnestly seek the truth about God, love the Good, assess evidence judiciously, and, if anything, display a prejudice for God, not against Him.[6]

A perfectly loving god would prevent reasonable nonbelief

The most serious criticism of the argument has been leveled against the claim that if a perfectly loving god exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur. Schellenberg argues in two steps, by first claiming that a loving god would enable humans to partake in a relationship with it, and then, assuming that belief in that god is a necessary condition for such relationships to occur, he infers that a loving god would not permit nonbelief. He states:

There is, first of all, the claim that if there is a personal God who is perfectly loving, creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God, who have not freely shut themselves off from God, are always in a position to participate in such relationship – able to do so just by trying to.[5]

He justifies this claim by arguing that a conception of divine love can best be formed by extrapolating the best aspects of love in human relations, and draws an analogy with perfect parental love:

The perfectly loving parent, for example, from the time the child can first respond to her at all until death separates them, will, insofar as she can help it, see to it that nothing she does ever puts relationship with herself out of reach for her child.[5]

He then infers, from the proposition that God is inclined to enable creatures to participate in a relationship with him/her/it (God), the further claim that if there is a perfectly loving god, such creatures will always believe in it. This inference, Schellenberg justifies on the grounds that belief in God's existence is necessary for engaging in a meaningful relationship with God. He further argues that since belief is involuntary, these creatures should always have evidence "causally sufficient" for such belief:

The presence of God will be for them like a light that – however much the degree of its brightness may fluctuate – remains on unless they close their eyes.[5]

Objections and counterarguments

Unreasonable demands on God

This argument is sometimes seen as demanding God to prove his existence, e.g. by performing miracles, such as shaping the clouds to read "I exist" in the sky. Even in Schellenberg's more refined version, one can argue that the nonbeliever is imposing her own epistemological expectations on the will of God. A detailed treatment of these kinds of demands, and their moral implication, is provided by Paul Moser,[12] who calls this cognitive idolatry. He defines idolatry as "our not letting the true God be Lord in our lives" and instead commit to something other than God by pursuing a quest for self-realization in our own terms. If this is idolatry in our actions, then idolatry in our knowing, he explains as follows:

Cognitive idolatry relies on a standard for knowledge that excludes the primacy of the morally self-transforming knowledge of God central to knowing God as Lord. It rests on an epistemological standard, whether empiricist, rationalist, or some hybrid, that does not let God be Lord. Such idolatry aims to protect one's lifestyle from serious challenge by the God who calls, convicts, and reconciles. It disallows knowledge of God as personal subject and Lord to whom we are morally and cognitively responsible. It allows at most for knowledge of God as an undemanding object of human knowledge.[12]

Schellenberg considers this criticism irrelevant to the argument, which in his opinion, does not impose any demands for demonstrations of God's power, but evidence that "need only be such as will be causally sufficient for belief in the absence of resistance... This result might be effected through the much more spiritually appropriate means of religious experience, interpreted in the sensitive manner of a Pascal or a Kierkegaard."[5] Schellenberg then expresses a certain frustration that theist writers who otherwise extol the value of religious experiences deny non-theists the right to do so.

The free will defense

Since the argument raised is of a similar concern to the problem of evil, and in some sense nonbelief can be seen as a particular form of evil, the same objections to the problem of evil are used against this argument. However, Schellenberg's argument requires the theist to show that it is possible that the greater goods proposed in such theodicies could not be accommodated into his view of a world where inculpable nonbelief does not occur.[citation needed]

The soul-making theodicy

John Hick used the term "soul-making" in his theodicy Evil and the God of Love to describe the kind of spiritual development that he believes justifies the existence of evil. This defense is employed by Michael Murray,[13] who explains why divine hiddeness is an essential to soul-making. While based on the accounts of religious individuals, it isn't hard to imagine a world where God is known, and yet believers act freely with ample opportunities for spiritual development, Murray gives a deep and careful analysis of the argument, concluding that if God's existence were revealed in such a way as to remove reasonable non-belief, then "any desire that we might have to believe or act in ways contrary to that which has been revealed would be overwhelmed."

One must note here that e.g. in Christianity (and even more in Judaism, where he talks to Job and explains why he is just), God has already exposed himself very distinctly: e.g. to the Apostles who saw his resurrection. One explanation might be that he knows some people wouldn't believe anyway but if he knows everything a priori, there is a problem about God's liability for what he created. This however contradicts the existence of Satan, a fallen angel who is obviously aware of God and yet freely chose to rebel against him [14]because it implies that he acted in ways contrary even with knowledge.

The unknown purpose defense

Alvin Plantinga writes that the statement "We can see no good reason for God to do X" only implies "There is no good reason for God to do X" on the assumption that "If there were a good reason for God to do X, we would be able to see it," which he suggests is absurd.[15]

Drange's argument from nonbelief

Theodore Drange proposed a version of the nonbelief argument in 1996. He considers the distinction between culpable and inculpable nonbelief to be completely irrelevant, and tries to argue that the mere existence of nonbelief is evidence against the existence of God. A semi-formal presentation of the argument is as follows:[16]

  1. If God exists, God:
    1. wants all humans to believe God exists before they die;
    2. can bring about a situation in which all humans believe God exists before they die;
    3. does not want anything that would conflict with and be at least as important as its desire for all humans to believe God exists before they die; and
    4. always acts in accordance with what it most wants.
  2. If God exists, all humans would believe so before they die (from 1).
  3. But not all humans believe God exists before they die.
  4. Therefore, God does not exist (from 2 and 3).


  1. ^ a b c Howard-Snyder, Daniel; Paul K. Moser (2001). "Introduction: Divine Hiddenness". Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521006104.  The introductory section draws heavily on this source for its exposition of material.
  2. ^ Psalms 22:1–2
  3. ^ Isaiah 45:15
  4. ^ Schellenberg, John L. (1993). Divine Hiddeness and Human Reason. Cornell University Press. pp. 83. ISBN 0801427924. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Schellenberg, John L. (2005). "The hiddenness argument revisited (I)". Religious studies (Cambridge University Press) 41 (2): 201–215. doi:10.1017/S0034412505007614. 
  6. ^ a b Howard-Snyder, Daniel (2006). "Hiddenness of God". In Donald M. Borchert. Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2nd ed.). ISBN 0028657802. Retrieved 2007-01-15. 
  7. ^ Drange, Theodore (1998). "Nonbelief as Support for Atheism". Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy. Retrieved 2007-01-13. 
  8. ^ Helm, Paul (1998). "John Calvin, the Sensus Divinitatis, and the noetic effects of sin". International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 43 (2): 87–107. doi:10.1023/A:1003174629151. 
  9. ^ Edwards, Jonathan (1970). Clyde A. Holbrook (ed.). ed. Original Sin. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300011989.  As quoted and represented in Howard-Snyder (2006).
  10. ^ Maitzen, Stephen (2006). "Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism". Religious studies 42 (2): 177–191. doi:10.1017/S0034412506008274. 
  11. ^ Howard-Snyder, Daniel (1995). "Book review: John Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell 1993)". Mind 104 (414): 430–435. Archived from the original on 2006-09-28. Retrieved 2007-01-15. 
  12. ^ a b Moser, Paul (2001). "Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding". Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521006104. 
  13. ^ Murray, Michael J. (2001). "Deus Absconditus". Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521006104. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ Alvin Plantinga Warranted Christian Belief ISBN 0195131924
  16. ^ Drange, Theodore (1996). "The Arguments From Evil and Nonbelief". Retrieved 2007-01-13. 

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