Last summer Silver Bullet asked me to respond to the arguments of atheist Stephen Maitzen in a couple journal articles concerning the demographic spread of religious belief. Here I begin an engagement with the following article:
I like to take things in little bites so before getting to Maitzen’s argument I’m going to deal with the underlying argument from divine hiddenness on which it draws. While Maitzen presents two forms of this argument (the latter a specifically Christian one), I’m going to focus on the first argument which will be sufficient for my purposes. I’ve taken Maitzen’s summary of the argument in quotable chunks and broken it up into an argument with numbered propositions for ease of reference:
Argument 1 version of ADH:
(1) “God … is unsurpassably loving.”
(2) “God would seek a loving persfonal relationship with each of God’s human creatures whenever such a relationship was cognitively and affectively possible.”
(3) “the formation of a genuine loving relationship between two persons requires that each person believe in the other’s existence.”
(4) “God would bring it about that each such human being believed in the existence of God….”
(5) “some human beings who fail to believe in God are nevertheless otherwise cognitively and affectively capable of enjoying a loving relationship with God.”
(6) “no God of the kind described by traditional monotheism exists.” (178)
Maitzen’s argument is not simply a rehash of this one. Rather, he argues that natural processes best explain the distribution of religious belief. But an argument like this is in the foundation of his discussion so it is important to take a look at it. I’m going to do so by poking and prodding a couple of the propositions.
Let’s start with a closer look at (2) “God would seek a loving personal relationship with each of God’s human creatures whenever such a relationship was cognitively and affectively possible.” Should we believe this is true? I’m not so sure. I love chocolate cake. Does it therefore follow that for any chocolate cake, I will eat it as it is possible to do so (i.e. when it emerges from the oven)? Nuh uh. Sometimes I must wait for it to cool to x temperature or it will be too crumbly. Othertimes I must wait for it to cool to y temperature or I cannot add cream cheese frosting. So though my love for chocolate cake is enduring, I will not enter into an eating-that-cake relationship with each one at the first available moment. Rather, I will wait for the most opportune moment to secure a maximally rewarding relationship for the cake and me and those times can vary. By the same token, it is possible that God will wait for a period to enter into a relationship with certain of his human subjects until doing so will ensure the most rewarding, rich, stable long-term relationship. So to sum up, “cognitively and affectively possible” is too low a threshold for entering into a relationship just like “edible” is too low a threshold for eating cake.
Now let’s look at (3) “the formation of a genuine loving relationship between two persons requires that each person believe in the other’s existence.” Hmmm, I’m not so sure about that.
Is an infant related to its mother in a genuine loving relationship? As we now know, even in utero a fetus will respond differently to the voice of its mother than other voices. Certainly many people have strong intuitions that post-parturition the infant has a genuine loving relationship with its mother, despite the fact that it presently lacks any belief, including belief in her existence. One could always say that this is incorrect, that you need belief to have relationship, but by saying so one might also be in danger of reductionism, of attempting to reduce all loving relationships to being of a particular sort, i.e. as including a cognitive dimension.
Now let’s revisit (3) from another angle by looking at the word “formation”. Depending on the context, this word can refer to rather long, drawn out processes as in “the formation of the Rockies”. So “the formation of a loving relationship” could also be a long, drawn out process. Now here’s the punchline: Even if we conclude that a person must believe in the other’s existence for the loving relationship to be fully realized, the formative process toward the consummation of that loving relationship could be unfolding and progressing for a very long time with the one person only coming to believe in the other’s existence right at the end thereof. One need not believe in the existence of the other for that formation to begin.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at this power ballad, a song that tells the story of an individual who realizes at the end of a long formative process that his friend is now his lover (blush). Admittedly, the focus of the song is the move from viewing another as a thou that is not the object of romantic affection to a thou that is an object of romantic affection and so you could argue it is not strictly speaking relevant. I demur, for the punchline is sufficient for present purposes: “The search is over, you were with me all the while…” Although he never knew all his interrelations were building toward a great romance, in fact they were. (If you think that is a lame payoff for an example, content yourself knowing that I look for any chance to squeeze a Survivor song in when I can.)
Okay now for a more strictly relevant example, let’s say that Tom visits a computer every day for advice. It is the kind of computer that Dilton Doiley used to have in the old Archie comics, one with vacuum tubes and light bulbs. Tom plugs in a question and out comes an answer. Tom finds the answers interesting and insightful. He laughs. Sometimes he even mists up. That computer always knows what to say. Then one day Tom comes to the computer and a lovely young lady steps out of it. It is a secret admirer that Tom had never known he had. Let’s call her “Jenny”. Tom realizes that every day it was Jenny who was feeding him the answers when he never thought there was another mind there at all. At this point sparks fly and Tom and Jenny start going steady. Only at the end of this process did Tom realize there was a person, a mind, behind the computer. But through the long formative process Tom was nonetheless developing a relationship with Jenny.
And could it be that there are many people who even now have no cognitive relationship with God but who are, through a long formative process, moving into such a relationship? Sure. And they too may look back and say “The search is over, you were with me all the while.”
This doesn’t address Maitzen’s demographic issues, but they are important for thinking about the argument from divine hiddenness.