In the discussion thread to “Why they don’t believe: Jeffery Jay Lowder“, Bryan asked me to provide my critique of Schellenberg’s argument from God or Godless. I replied first by presenting Schellenberg’s argument as it was quoted by John Loftus:
(1) If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
(2) If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
(3) Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
(4) No perfectly loving God exists (from 2,3)
(5) Hence, there is no God (from 1,4)
Next, I noted that a theist could challenge (3) by arguing that all nonbelief is unreasonable. James Spiegel’s book The Making of an Atheist: How immorality leads to unbelief (Moody, 2010) would provide one avenue to argue this case.
I don’t take Spiegel’s line for empirical reasons. I am reminded here of an exchange between theologian Karl Barth and missiologist Hendrik Kraemer. Barth had declared that all Hindus are in rebellion against God. Kraemer was incredulous and asked Barth how many Hindus he’d met. Barth replied “None.” “Then how do you know they’re all in rebellion?” Kraemer asked. “A priori,” Barth replied.
If you are satisfied with Barths’ reply you just might be satisfied with Spiegel’s analysis. But I don’t think these matters are settled a priori (with a proof-text from Romans 1 and perhaps Psalm 14:1 thrown in for good measure). Instead, if you want to know whether nonbelief can ever be reasonable in light of one’s background beliefs and life circumstances, you need to get out and talk to people. (See chapter 10 of my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think which is titled “Not all atheists are fools.”) It is likely that some of those exchanges with atheists will confirm Spiegel’s assumptions. (“I don’t believe in God. And I hate him too!”) But other folk will come across as nuanced, thoughtful and genuinely desirous to know if God exists and if so, how they relate to him. These folk (of which I’ve met a number) don’t seem to fit into the category of irrational non-belief.
Nor is it only about the non-belief of self-described atheists. If we’re going to cast doubt as morally culpable and unreasonable, then it will follow that those within the church who find themselves in doubt are morally culpable and unreasonable. Are we really committed to saying that every doubt expressed in Mother Teresa’s journals was borne out of morally culpable willful irrationality? I unpack these ecclesial implications here and here.
For these reasons, I choose not to reject (3). Instead, I reject (2) by demonstrating how God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing reasonable nonbelief in his existence.
Jeff Lowder replied that my comment:
“seems to confuse the distinction between possibility and probability. Sure, God could have had such reasons, just as Ted Haggard’s wife could have been correct to maintain a belief in his innocence despite all of the evidence to the contrary. (I’m making a hypothetical example; for the record, I’m not claiming she actually denies his wrongdoing.)”
Jeff then asks:
“Do you claim to have reasons for believing that, on the assumption God exists, God would allow reasonable nonbelief in his existence?
“Or are you simply claiming to have critiqued Schellenberg’s arguments for the opposite conclusion?”
Good question. However, I’m not saying it is merely possible. I am indeed saying that it is likely, based on what we know, that (2) is false. At this point I can expand the illustration I provide in God or Godless. Cletus is raised to hate Mexicans and tells all his neighbors that he is glad no Mexicans are in the neighborhood. Unbeknownst to Cletus (who received his racist attitudes as hand-me-downs and has never met a Mexican) there is a Mexican in the neighborhood: Juan the owner of the corner store. Every day Cletus comes into the store and interacts cordially with Juan. But he never realizes that Juan is a Mexican.
So what reason could Juan have for withholding this information? Simple. Juan may perceive that the best way to break down Cletus’ racist attitudes is by developing a relationship with him such that at some future time, after deep bonds have been established, Cletus can discover that Juan is Mexican. At that point it will be much more difficult to retrench into racist attitudes than it would have been had Juan revealed his national identity and culture early in their relationship.
Racist attitudes provide one reason why Cletus would be better off remaining ignorant of Juan’s identity for a time. But there are many more possibilities. (Let’s say, for example, that Cletus’ father was Mexican and he abandoned the family when Cletus was a baby. It could be that discovering Juan’s identity at the wrong time would leave Cletus despondent and inhibit his healing as a result of this abandonment.) Consequently, a benevolent shop owner could have morally sufficient reasons for withholding his ethnic identity from members of the community.
It seems very likely that at least some people may be in a position toward belief in God which parallels Cletus’ attitude toward Juan. The claim is not that they are necessarily “prejudiced” toward God (that would be to say too much). Rather, the claim is simply that they are in a place where they would not be best served at that time by believing that God does exist. And this is wholly consistent with their current non-belief being a stepping stone to later belief. As a result, it seems to me that the theist ought to reject (2). God wants us to be in proper relationship with him, not simply have propositional knowledge of his existence. And the development of that proper relationship may best be served by believing in God’s non-existence for a period of time.
Let’s deal with one final issue. Does it matter that the analogy concerns belief about Juan’s ethnic identity rather than his existence? No, it doesn’t. The fact is that Juan benevolently ensures that Cletus remains ignorant of the truth of the proposition “A Mexican lives in the neighborhood”. Thus, Cletus believes falsely that no Mexican lives in the neighborhood just like atheists believe falsely that no God exists above and beyond the universe.
For a related discussion see my article “Should you mention hell when you evangelize? Maybe not“.