Divine Hiding?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Dividing_Light_from_DarknessThe case for God's existence is unsuccessful. Theistic arguments either beg the question, or involve deductive fallacies, or don't really prove what they promised to. Furthermore, the atheistic arguments all seem decisive – there's no morally acceptable solution to the problem of evil, and there is no need for God in a naturalistic universe. Current theistic replies are mostly rear-guard actions in reaction to the atheist – more apology than apologetics. The evidence overwhelmingly supports the thesis that God doesn't exist. And this is good news, too. God is just a cosmic bully. Such a being might provide the universe with meaning, but in so doing, makes it all pointless, especially human autonomy — which, by hypothesis, would have to resolve itself into God's will. God's existence would be a moral tragedy, so good riddance to bad rubbish.

Call the view expressed above Positive Evidential Atheism (PEA). It is the two-part thesis composed of an evidential claim and a positive assessment: (1) our overall available evidence supports belief that there is no God and (2) God's non-existence is a good thing. We endorse PEA. Paul Moser challenges PEA in his book The Severity of God (2013). Moser argues that if God exists, He would be silent; moreover, He would be particularly silent to those who accept PEA. This “divine hiddenness” explains why PEA's advocates think they have no evidence for God's existence. Given that God hides, the evidence is misleading. In response to Moser, we defend PEA along two lines: (1) PEA needn't be undercut in the fashion Moser takes it to be, and (2) divine hiding can be rendered as supporting PEA.

Let's begin by considering the divine hiddenness view in a little more detail. It runs like this: Even though the problem of evil may seem unanswerable, we humans are not in a position to know that God would not allow severe evils in the world. Moreover, we do not know if God intervenes in this universe with individuals engaged in proper relationships with Him. Access to evidence of God is not a matter of looking and seeing, but a matter of searching, yearning, and then being transformed. God, in fact, wants relationships with us, not just our assent to claims of His existence. And so He hides from us until we are ready for His presence.

Notice that the divine hiddenness view reconciles the fact of widespread disbelief with God's capacity and goodness. God is silent until we are ready to hear. Were He to reveal himself when we are not ready, the relationship He desires and we need would be perverted. God's ways, in short, are not our ways; to expect otherwise is nothing short of idolatry. Divine hiding, so the reasoning goes, is something we should positively expect of a God truly worthy of worship.

God's motivation to hide is especially pronounced in the case of the positive atheist. As Moser has it, “God typically would hide God's existence from people ill-disposed toward it”; as they are ill-disposed toward God, “their lacking evidence for God's existence is not by itself the basis of a case for atheism”(2013:200). Thus positive atheists should expect that their evidence regarding God's existence is misleading, since they are precisely those for whom God's presence will be elusive. Hence PEA's positive assessment undercuts its evidential claim. Moser calls this the “undermining case” against PEA. Yet, as we will argue, the undermining case is not decisive.

First note that PEA's positive assessment and evidential claim are not logically separable in the way that Moser assumes. PEA concedes that if God exists, He is the only object worthy of worship. But worship is itself morally suspect. Worshipping God is an all-in, complete commitment – one gives one's life completely over to Him. All one's meaning and value, then, comes from Him. To give oneself completely over to anyone, to have that entity determine all the values and meanings for you, is to completely give up one's autonomy. To demand of others that they completely give up their autonomy is immoral, and to require that they do so with the very last act of their own singular volition is positively sadistic. Consider, then, that God demands that we worship Him, and punishes those who fail to do so. The worship of anything is immoral; thus God's existence would be a morally bad thing. Yet, God by definition must be morally perfect, and His existence must be a good thing; therefore, God is a morally impossible entity. So the reasons for PEA's positive assessment of God's nonexistence are also part of the evidence for His nonexistence. Rather than undercutting the evidence against God, the positive assessment contributes to the evidence for atheism.

Here's a second defense against Moser's undermining case. The divine hiddenness view holds that PEAs can see no evidence for God's existence because God deliberately hides from them. The view seeks to explain why PEAs can't see any reason to accept God; however, the view seems unable to explain how one becomes a positive evidential atheist. After all, one does not arrive in this life, fresh from the womb, despising the very idea of God. Rather, one typically thinks one's way into an atheist position from a theistic one. How, then, can divine hiddenness account for the fact that very often individuals become atheists after considering their evidence while espousing a theist view? If God hides from those who are disposed to reject Him, why does He also seem to hide from those who yet believe but begin to doubt, or merely wonder? Now, on Moser's view, it may be in character for Him to withdraw even from the doubter – He is severe, after all – but this kind of severity is morally unacceptable. Thus, we rare brought back to PEA's positive assessment: Moser appeals to God's severity in order to explain the fact that the atheist's evidence against God looks so compelling; but the existence of a severe God would be morally atrocious. And that's further evidence for positive evidential atheism.