This week’s Recently Published Book Spotlight was written by Andrew Moon, an assistant professor of philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University. Because Andrew and his Philosophy of Religion students enjoyed the book The Hiddenness Argument they took the time to talk with author J.L. Schellenberg. Here Andrew writes about his class’s experiences with the text and then carries on a discussion (based on questions his class asked Schellenberg) with the author.
By Andrew Moon
For my undergraduate philosophy of religion course this Spring (2018) at Virginia Commonwealth University, I had the opportunity to teach J. L. Schellenberg’s book The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God (Oxford University Press, 2015). Schellenberg is a prominent philosopher of religion who is responsible for first developing the hiddenness argument, one of the most widely discussed arguments for atheism today. Here is the latest version of the argument from the book:
- If a perfectly loving God exists, then there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person.
- If there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person, then no finite person is ever nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.
- If a perfectly loving God exists, then no finite person is ever nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists (from 1 & 2).
- Some finite persons are or have been nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.
- A perfectly loving God does not exist (from 3 & 4).
- If a perfectly loving God does not exist, then God does not exist.
- God does not exist (from 5 & 6).
A chapter is devoted to each of its premises: (1), (2), (4), and (6). Here is some background. (1) rests on the neglected idea that love involves not just benevolence but openness to relationship. Schellenberg thinks (2) is clearly true: to have a personal relationship with God you have to believe in God’s existence, and even if God’s openness to relationship with us is, despite this, compatible with our nonbelief when the latter is due to our opposition to such relationship (i.e., is resistant nonbelief), it is not compatible with leaving us in nonbelief that is not thus resistant. Regarding (4), Schellenberg gives examples of nonresistant nonbelievers, including both prehistoric humans who had no concept of God and also those who are nonbelievers even though they don’t want to be, due to a careful consideration of the evidence. As to (6): God is understood to be a personal, ultimate being; Schellenberg argues that such a being must be perfectly loving. (A video of Schellenberg summarizing the argument is here.)
Pedagogically, the book has a number of virtues: it is clearly written for someone with little background in philosophy, the argument can immediately engage a lay person, the opening chapter teaches basic logic, and it is short. It is also a nice piece of philosophy, and I got to consider a recent explication and defense of the argument. Lastly, the book is relatively cheap: it’s only $20.
I asked Schellenberg if, after we finished the book, we could ask him questions. He kindly obliged. Together, the students and I compiled questions, and we sent them in an e-mail to Schellenberg. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, the students asked more questions about his personal life than his argument! After we read Schellenberg’s responses, which the students and I appreciated, I thought that others in the philosophy community would like to read the interview. Both Schellenberg and Nathan Eckstrand (APA blog editor) agreed to posting it, and that is how this blog post came to be.
Have you experienced miracles? Have you ever had a religious experience or some sense of the supernatural?
I was never, when a believer, directly in the presence of anything I would have been tempted to call a miracle, though a member of my extended family once claimed to have had a leg lengthened after prayer at a religious service (one of his legs had always been a bit shorter than the other), and I was inclined to believe him. I have often had religious experiences involving a sense as of the presence of God — sometimes more specifically the strong impression that God was communicating with me. This began at the age of 4, when, as I still distinctly remember, I had a sudden strong sense that God was calling me to be a missionary to Japan. (I had been ‘converted’ at an even earlier age, during evening devotions with my evangelical parents.) I excitedly told my Sunday School class about the experience of God speaking to me but for some reason they were not impressed! (This did not discourage me.) Perhaps the most interesting and powerful religious experience I have had occurred sometime after I no longer believed in God. It was powerfully numinous but not theistic. I did not feel as though I was in the presence of a personal being but rather as though I had broken through to another dimension of reality which was flooding my ordinary reality with a strange and wonderful light. (The experience occurred for perhaps half an hour, first while I was driving and then while I was walking back and forth in a grocery store.) Everything felt immeasurably fuller, deeper, richer. I remember thinking “So this is it.” If I had become a believer on the basis of that experience, I suppose I would have become some sort of pantheist. But I did not become a believer; I knew too much about my own psychology and the associated philosophical problems! However, experiences like that one do contribute to my continuing openness to the possibility of religious truths; though I’m an atheist in the narrow sense described in the book you’ve read, I am not a religious disbeliever more generally – that is, I don’t hold that there are no religious truths. Nor do I believe that there are religious truths. I am a religious skeptic. One side effect is that, unlike many contemporary philosophers, I am not a metaphysical naturalist.
Was there a specific event that was your first step in questioning/disbelieving in God?
Yes, it was a months-long struggle with new information about the beginnings of Christianity – and with the professor who presented it! — in a first-year university course, which by the end had made the gospel record seem a good deal less reliable than I had assumed it to be. Since I was a Christian theist, my belief in God was naturally bound up with specifically Christian beliefs about God. I do remember looking at the rising sun one day and saying to myself “Well, at least I still believe in God!” But the possibility that everything I had believed, religiously, could be mistaken had become real to me. I think that was the thing. I remember being annoyed, as I moved on into philosophy, about not having been exposed to this information and these new ways of thinking earlier. Before finishing my first university degree, they had led me to lose my belief in God too. I would add though — there’s more about this in the book — that while philosophy takes away, it also gives!
How long did your transition take from theist to atheist?
My relevant ‘doxastic states’ (as highfalutin philosophers will say) fluctuated considerably. I was in doubt about God, and thus without belief, for quite a while before the doubt was replaced by disbelief. And the latter wasn’t steady or stable until sometime after returning from Oxford, when I was already in my 30s. The problem of evil was a factor then, just as much as the hiddenness problem. Now that I think about it, this was also the time when I was getting clearer about the fact that God is not the end of the road, religiously speaking. The theism-ultimism distinction was emerging. [Editor’s note: ultimism is the general religious view that there is a reality that is triply ultimate, i.e., not just metaphysically but also axiologically and soteriologically ultimate; theism is a personal version of ultimism.] Remaining open to religious truth no longer meant remaining open to the truth of theism. Of course, I had long known about nontheistic forms of religion such as Buddhism and Taoism, but the notion that theism’s most general features can be filled out in perhaps innumerable ways captured my imagination more fully than those other forms of religion had ever done.
What sort of reaction did you receive from your community, either the one you grew up with or your adult community?
My parents were of course somewhat worried and also disappointed. My father bemoaned the fact that I — his last hope, given what my older siblings were doing — would not be following him into evangelism, as it had at first appeared I would. A relative wrote me a long letter which said, among many other things, that I should not expect to be able to argue my way into heaven! Being independently minded, and, as I saw it, committed to the truth as much as ever, if not more, these reactions had little influence on me (though I loved my parents and was saddened by their sadness). Others in the wider religious networks I had formed were puzzled or similarly disappointed and worried. I had a number of conversations in which I tried to communicate my strong feeling that to do what people wanted me to do would mean breaking my commitment to the truth, not coming back to it. But I never got the sense that anyone really understood, and in later years they have elected simply not to talk with me about such things. (The one exception was my oldest and much-loved sister Lois. Having taught me to read and write well before I entered school, she also quietly accepted that I might be on to something she couldn’t understand. But, very sadly, Lois died of a brain tumor back in 1997.)
What is your current view on whether ultimism or naturalism is true? (We guess that you do not accept personal ultimism (i.e., theism).)
I deny theism, but, compatibly with this, one can accept the general sort of religious skepticism defended in my book The Wisdom to Doubt, and I do. Thus, usually I find myself in doubt about both generic ultimism and naturalism. Occasionally, though, my sense is that naturalism is true, and so that ultimism is false. Since I don’t think belief in naturalism is rationally supported, I accordingly feel called upon, from time to time, to exercise what I’ve called active skepticism (see my book Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion for more on that concept) to keep myself in line.
About The Hiddenness Argument
Since writing the book, have you thought of or encountered another objection to premise (2), that is, a reason (in addition to the five mentioned in the book on pp. 60-69) worth considering for why a God who is always open to personal relationship might allow for nonresistant nonbelief?
I’m not sure the reasons that have been put forward could be reduced to those five — they are perhaps the main ones, as I suggest in the book. (Taking these together with any distinct reasons that can be culled from my first book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason might yield a complete set.) And, no, I have not encountered anything really new in the way of objections since then.
What do you take to be the strongest objection to the Hiddenness Argument?
I like Andrew Cullison’s point – he’s drawing on good work by Erik Wielenberg – that self-sacrifice is more courageous and so more admirable or noble when done by someone who thinks death is the end of conscious existence, which is something you’ll be less inclined to think if you believe in God. Suppose we accept this link to afterlife belief. A few points to consider along with Cullison’s: (1) More courage is called for when someone feels more anxious, afraid, and so on. And our ordinary concern for self-preservation and attachment to this-worldly things and people suggests that we won’t have less in the way of such feelings, when facing death, just because of a belief in the afterlife. Feelings don’t work that way. Analogy: the difficulty of leaving home, when I’m feeling my attachment to everything here, will be little affected by your reminding me that the new job in a distant city will pay way more than my present job and promises a truckload of good things. (2) The courageous one-off self-sacrifice of a nonbeliever may have a distinctive sort of goodness, but so would a repeated exercise of courage in the context of a growing relationship with God: imagine, say, God repeatedly challenging me with something hard that I don’t want to do. (3) It’s important here not to conflate believing in God with a sense of God’s presence. The hiddenness that believers feel who are bereft of this sense is compatible with the absence of the hiddenness to which the hiddenness argument refers. And self-sacrifice in such circumstances may call for great courage. In fact, Cullison admits this, for he appeals to the sense of forsakenness of Jesus on the cross and the nobility of his willing self-sacrifice in such circumstances. But if Jesus is praying to God – “Father, why have you forsaken me?” – then he believes in God (and presumably in the afterlife) but is still able to make a noble self-sacrifice. We’re brought full circle, back to (1): what matters here appears to be more how one feels than what one believes.
Do you still affirm the Hiddenness Argument strongly? Do you ever waver in your confidence in it, either in response to criticisms or your own reflections?
In earlier times there was more wavering, though even now it happens from time to time. My disposition is such that whenever I first encounter an interesting argument — including interesting arguments against my arguments — I am inclined to accept it! Maybe one needs some such disposition to give all arguments their due. But subsequent reflection often reveals a difficulty, and so it has been with objections to the hiddenness argument. It may be worth mentioning that the issue of just where I stand, doxastically, on the force of my arguments does not seem to me as important, philosophically speaking, as it once did. Because of more general epistemological reflection on the impact of human evolutionary immaturity, I would now say that it’s not my personal belief that the argument is correct that I carry into inquiry with other philosophers but rather the position that this is so. I might feel it my job to keep developing and defending some position for the sake of inquiry at an early stage of human development even if I lost the belief that it was true if — say — it still wasn’t properly understood and receiving the attention it deserved.
III. Other Philosophical Thoughts
What are your personal thoughts on the problem of evil? Do you think it’s a strong challenge to theistic belief? Do you think it’s stronger or weaker than the Hiddenness Argument?
I think the problem of evil in more than one way generates a good reason to believe there is no God. It is a very strong challenge to theistic belief. Sometimes it seems to me stronger than the hiddenness problem, and indeed it may be. But here one needs to remember that one can’t form a judgment on this issue by determining that some things are worse than hiddenness. Even if hiddenness were in no way bad, it might make for a stronger challenge to theistic belief if one could more easily get an argument out of it that had clearly true premises from which the truth of atheism followed. (It’s also good to notice that evil and hiddenness together might make a stronger argument than either can alone. I’ll leave it to your ingenuity to figure out how that might go!)
What do you think is the strongest pro-theistic argument?
The theist’s best bet is probably to take Richard Swinburne’s cumulative form of reasoning further, drawing many considerations together that are mutually supporting. Indeed, we might need something like this for the defense of theism even if not for the defense of atheism, since theism is really a large conjunction (‘There is a personal being who is all powerful, and there is a personal being who is all-knowing, and….’) whereas you arrive at atheism even if you deny but one conjunct from that conjunction.
Are you currently working on another philosophy text? What is your current philosophical research on?
I’m working on several things at the same time: essays on what, by analogy with Big History, I’m calling Big Epistemology; new work in the philosophy of religion – which seems pretty important just now but who knows! — on what I’m calling truth-triggered religious commitments; and a couple of texts about the size of The Hiddenness Argument on (i) the broader context for reasoning like hiddenness reasoning that is provided by recent moral evolution and (ii) the transformed perspective on science and religion debates made available by reflection on religious immaturity (the latter is a follow-up to my earlier Evolutionary Religion).
So…philosophy remains exciting and motivating. I hope it will prove rewarding for you too, and I wish all of you the very best in your studies.
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The purpose of the Recently Published Book Spotlight is to disseminate information about new scholarship to the field, explore the motivations for authors’ projects, and discuss the potential implications of the books. Our goal is to cover research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members. If you have a suggestion for the series, please contact us here.