Discussion: The Argument from Hiddenness

I’ve been interacting with atheists online for years (either on the Reasonable Faith forums or theist/atheist groups on Facebook). Online discussion has proven quite impersonal; it’s easy to forget there’s another human with thoughts and emotions on the other end typing their responses. Growing tired of the divisive nature of online debating, I wanted to try a new format, namely, face-to-face video conferencing. I’ve hosted a few of these discussions already but this is the first one I actually recorded. I’m hoping to do these with relative frequency, maybe once or twice a month.

The video in today’s post records a discussion on the topic of The Argument from Hiddenness, which is an argument for atheism based on the fact that God is significantly hidden. But we shouldn’t expect a perfectly loving God to remain hidden, indeed, He would make His existence clear and visible to everyone. That is the gist of it.

In the video we discuss a specific version of the argument given by philosopher J. L. Schellenberg (probably the strongest proponent of the argument alive today). His argument goes like this:

(1) If there is a God, He is perfectly loving.
(2) If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.
(3) Reasonable non-belief does occur.Thus,(4) No perfectly loving God exists.So,(5) There is no God.

Premiss (1) is taken as true by definition; God is perfectly loving (1 John 4:8). Since (4) and (5) follow deductively, the two premises we can take issue with are (2) and (3). So what reason is there to think that (2) and (3) are true?

Many take (3) to be obvious. A good portion of professional philosophers do not believe in God and if anyone is “reasonable” in what they believe, surely they qualify. Some won’t find this convincing [1], but I do not seek to take issue with this premiss. Instead, and in the video, I provided some reasons to be skeptical of premiss (2), that if a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.

In a response paper to Schellenberg’s argument by Dougherty and Poston [2], they draw out some distinctions necessary to better evaluate the truth of (2). The first distinction they make is the “synchronic/diachronic” distinction. Essentially, they are argue that premiss (2) can be understood two different ways. Either:

(2a) If a perfectly loving God exists, then at no time does reasonable non-belief occur.


(2b) If a perfectly loving God exists, then at/by a certain time reasonable non-belief will not occur.

It’s clear that (2a) is a very strong premiss, much stronger than (2b). (2a) is saying that there’s no time in the history of mankind that reasonable non-belief occurs. If God exists, there is not even one instance where someone is reasonable in doubting God’s existence. But how could anyone possibly defend that? Many self-reflective Christians report the value of going through periods of doubt or coming to believe that God exists over time. There’s simply too much evidence to think that there can be not one time in human history where God would allow someone to have reasonable non-belief.

There’s simply too much evidence to think that there can be not one time in human history where God would allow someone to have reasonable non-belief.

Moreover, given Christianity, there will be a time in the future when all come face to face with God and will therefore be incapable of reasonable non-belief. That would be like doubting the existence of a long-time pen pal after meeting them in person. No one would be reasonable in maintaining non-belief after coming face-to-face with them. So if there is a point in the future when all will believe with certainty that God exists, as is the case given Christianity, then why couldn’t a perfectly loving God permit cases (during this life) of reasonable non-belief?

Someone might object at this point and say that the goods of persistent certainty of God’s existence outweigh the goods produced in periods of doubt or non-belief. The problem with this response is that weighing the value of goods is incredibly tricky. How can we have any confidence at all that one is more valuable than the other? Are we really suited to weigh the value of goods? It doesn’t seem so.

(2a) buckles under it’s own philosophical weight. But what about (2b)? Perhaps there are specific times that non-belief should not persist in this life, for instance, when one deeply considers the evidence. But what kind of period of doubt would it be if it didn’t persist during times of reflection? The same goods would apply. So (2b) is not any better than (2a). For these reasons I do not think the argument from hiddenness is a good argument.

Dougherty and Poston cite additional distinctions that lower even further our confidence in the truth of (2), but I will not lay them out here [3]. If this interests you, give the video a listen and share your thoughts in a comment below!

[1] For instance, some theists believe there are no rational atheists and that everyone deep down actually believes in the existence of God.

[2] Title of the paper is “Divine Hiddenness and the Nature of Belief”.

[3] The other two distinctions are “categorical vs degree of belief” and “belief de dicto vs belief de re”. Both are interesting, but I find the distinction mentioned above to be the most helpful of the 3.



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