Maitzen’s argument stated with almost criminal brevity
We now turn to Steve Maitzen’s argument. To begin with, he observes that theists typically offer three types of responses to the argument from divine hiddenness:
“(1) claiming that non-believers are always blameworthy for their non-belief; (2) acknowledging blameless non-belief but insisting that God has specific good reasons for permitting it ; or (3) failing to address the challenge or even to take it seriously.” (180)
Maitzen argues that “none of these replies [to divine hiddenness] has overcome – or, I suggest, could overcome – the challenge posed by the uneven distribution of theistic belief around the world, a phenomenon for which naturalistic explanations seem more promising. The ‘demographics of theism’ not only confound theistic explanations of non-belief in God; they also cast doubt on the existence of a sensus divinitatis….” (177)
Elsewhere Maitzen states the problem like this: “Theistic explanations must account for this geographic patchiness in terms of reasons God might have for allowing it, and such reasons seem hard to find.” (183)
If knowledge of God’s existence is essential for relationship with God then why would it be that large percentages of certain populations (e.g. Thailand) have no belief in God at all? Isn’t it more likely that this “patchiness” in the distribution of theistic belief is due to a collection of contingent social and psychological facts rather than to some grand design? Maitzen thinks so, and so he contends that the uneven distribution of theistic belief suggests that there are wholly natural factors at work here.
Forming a Response
Let’s go back to proposition (3) from the last post:
(3) “the formation of a genuine loving relationship between two persons requires that each person believe in the other’s existence.”
I argued that there are reasons to think this is false. Let’s say some more about this in terms of the distribution of belief across the surface of the globe. I take it as obvious (as does Maitzen) that people gain their metaphysical and religious beliefs through a complex process of enculturation that involves a nexus of “natural” (read: psychological and sociological) factors. But I say, what’s the problem with God allowing people to develop their religious beliefs in this way?
The problem, to recap, is that an omnibenevolent God would want to ensure that he has a genuine loving relationship with all people, but many in certain regions (e.g. Thailand) are excluded out of the gate because they are raised in a cultural milieu that makes it all but inevitable that they will lack belief in God and thus be excluded from relationship with God.
I’ll respond by making a couple quick points.
One can form a loving relationship with another without believing in the existence of the other
I already offered a challenge of (3) in my last post. Now I’ll add that it is reasonable to think that a Christian should reject it based on none other than Jesus himself. The evidence is that in a number of places Jesus seems to teach that “a genuine loving relationship” (or at least “a genuine saving relationship”, which is really what we’re talking about here) is fundamentally linked not to the propositions believed but to the life lived. (I argue the point in the chapter on liberal Christianity in my forthcoming book.)
After all, Jesus is the one who taught the parable of the sheep and the goats in which the line demarcating the two is the life lived rather than the set of propositions assented to. (Matt. 25) And remember the expert in the law who summarized what he must do to “inherit eternal life” as loving God and neighbour. Jesus agreed, saying “Do this and you will live.” And then as an example of what it meant to inherit eternal life he pointed to the Good Samaritan, a theological heretic for a pious first century Jew who nonetheless loved his neighbour (Lk.10). Thus, to be saved is, according to Jesus, to love one’s neighbour like a Samaritan, not simply to believe like a Pharisee (or a Calvinist).
Growing up as a bitchy Richie Rich
This gets us a certain distance, for it would mean that those who are enculturated in non-theistic traditions (e.g. Buddhist, enlightened secular humanist) and who through those traditions learn the lesson of helping the beaten stranger on the proverbial road to Jericho are candidates for salvation. In this regard where salvation is concerned a person born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand is at no necessary disadvantage for entering into a genuine saving relationship with God over-against the person born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama.
But a problem remains: what about the kid born and raised in Vancouver’s narcissistic and affluent British Properties who learns only to roll up the windows and lock the doors of his BMW as he speeds past the man beaten on the road to Jericho Beach? Aren’t people from those communities at a disadvantage for salvation and doesn’t the patchiness thereby return?
Not necessarily. All we need to say is that every person ultimately receives the fullest opportunity for being formed into the kind of person who is ultimately in a saving relationship with the Lord of the Universe. For some this will come through being raised in an enlightened Christian or humanistic household, but for others this may come through being raised in a narcissistic, materialistic household.
God is thus free to allow people to develop their religious beliefs through natural psychological and sociological processes which result in a demonstrable patchiness in terms of belief and practice, but which ultimately offers the fullest opportunity for each person to complete the formative process which sees them in a saving relationship with the Living Lord of the Universe.