In this article I pick up the thread of a conversation with philosopher Jason Thibodeau in response to my podcast “The 59-Second Apologist: The Argument from Divine Hiddenness.
First, the background. Jason began by outlining what he called a “reciprocal affection tendency” (henceforth RAT):
“Suppose, then, that a significant percentage of humans have reciprocal affection tendency = X has reciprocal affection tendency just in case ?Y (If Y loves X. and X believes that Y cares about X’s interests, X is inclined to love Y). Suppose further that the tendency is made stronger the stronger X’s reasons to believe that Y has X’s best interests at heart. It is highly likely that anyone with this tendency will freely choose to love God.”
In addition, Jason specified that the RAT does not extend to romantic / erotic love. This is important because it is quite clear that the fact that James romantically loves Suzie does not make it more likely that Suzie will love James. But if James has a platonic love for Suzie (i.e. one in which James cares for Suzie and wishes the best for her but is not romantically interested in her) then this makes it more likely that Suzie will, in turn, reciprocate that love. And the RAT only entails the latter, not the former.
With that in mind, Jason concludes: “Many, probably the vast majority, would love God if they knew that he exists.”
So here’s where Jason leaves us. According to the RAT, at present there are many, many people who would love God if only God would make his presence and his benevolent concern known. And surely God would want to have these people love him in response to his love of them. Consequently, the fact that God does not act on the RAT to actualize relationships with these individuals provides evidence for the conclusion that no God exists.
Jason then drives the point home with a lengthy quote describing his own state of non-belief:
“I strongly believe that my non-belief in God is reasonable. I am not perfectly reasonable, but, in most cases, especially academic instances, I am a damn sight more reasonable than the average human that I have encountered. It is certainly not the case that I, like Tom Nagel, hope that there is no God. I think it would be great if there was some kind of almighty being who created the universe and who wanted nothing but the best for sentient beings. But I am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that there is not. Further, I do not cease investigating these issues; indeed I have made doing so into my livelihood because I cannot imagine any other way of going on in life. So, nobody can claim that I am uninformed or uninterested in the issue. I don’t know if you share the entirety of this assessment of my own case, but I am sure that reasonable people would agree that if there are cases of reasonable non-belief, my own is one of them.
“I am also guilty of a fairly large dose of reciprocal affection tendency. Indeed, I regularly discover strong feelings for people who are complete strangers to me. When I hear about people who are suffering or people who have lost loved ones, I often get quite emotional. I cannot think about some recent horrible events without shedding tears. This affection even extends to people who have wronged me in some way. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly get angry at the oblivious jerk who impedes my progress in traffic, but that is always tempered by a little voice in my head that reminds me how limited, fallible and vulnerable we all are. I recently told my wife that I am not sure that I know how to hate. If anyone shows genuine affection for me (or for my wife and kids), I cannot help but feel fairly strong affection for them. I think all of these things are true, but I could be wrong; I am, after all, an interested party.
“To make a long story short, I’m great. But seriously, I am only mentioning these facts because I think that I make a strong case for the existence of reasonable non-belief that God would, if he existed, eliminate.
“It is also relevant to my case that my circumstances are not so different from those of countless others. I don’t see why God would need me to develop in some way but not need you or other believers to develop in the same manner. I would have faith if I could reasonably believe that he exists. And I would love God and seek him as a guide to continue my much needed development, if I could reasonably believe that he exists. I am the kind of person God should want to help.
“And I am not the only one. I have many friends who share most of the relevant characteristics that I have mentioned. There are wonderful, brilliant, thoughtful and loving people out there who disbelieve in God, but who would believe if they could be convinced that it is reasonable to do so. I know many such people. Surely it cannot be the case that all of us need to be developed in some way that you and other believers do not.”
I thank Jason for sharing his own personal experience. I will provide three main points by way of reply.
Loving vs. loving rightly
To begin with, as I already noted in the discussion thread, RAT is insufficient for the skeptic’s purposes given that the goal of Christianity is not merely that individuals become favorably disposed toward God based on God’s prior favorable disposition toward them. Rather, it is that individuals come to love God above all created beings. So we still do not know that every individual would develop the right kind of love of God were God to reveal himself to them.
But, you might counter, surely at least some people who presently do not believe would develop this right kind of love were God to reveal himself. So why doesn’t he reveal himself to them? And that is all you need for the argument from divine hiddenness to go through.
Is that score one for the skeptic?
Love, like wine, gets better with time
Not quite. The objector is assuming that every person who does not presently believe in God is not in a meaningful relationship with God. But this isn’t necessarily the case. I develop a thought experiment in chapter 20 of God or Godless where I challenge that assumption. In that thought experiment I explain how God can develop meaningful relationships with people even while they do not believe the proposition “God exists”.
Without going into the argument from God or Godless let me present another simple illustration. You come over to your friend’s for dinner and wonder why he doesn’t open that fine bottle of Merlot aging in the cellar. The reason is not because he doesn’t want to share but rather because he knows that delaying the opening of the bottle by a few more months will result in a far better bottle of wine.
For the argument from divine hiddenness to go through it would need to establish not simply that a person would develop the right kind of love for God at the moment he would reveal himself, but further that not delaying his revelation would not result in a better result (e.g. a stronger, deeper, more profound relationship). Without knowing that, the objector is simply not in a position to sustain a skeptical result.
And this means that the current period of skepticism or doubt could be in fact a rich preparatory period for a person growing into a future faith.
Reasons to defer revelation
This brings me to the final point. The objection, as Jason presents it, is focused on the individual. As he says, “I don’t see why God would need me to develop in some way but not need you or other believers to develop in the same manner.” This assumes that if God refrains from revealing himself fully to an individual, it is because of some lack in that individual over-against the individual to whom God does reveal himself.
There are two problems with this assumption.
The first problem is that having belief in God does not entail that one is in relationship with God. Jesus repeatedly challenged the religious leaders of his day with the sobering teaching like this passage from Matthew 7:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Consequently, being a self-identifying theist (or a Christian) does not entail that one has divine favor or spiritual superiority or moral character over the person who does not self-identify as a theist (or a Christian).
The second problem relates to the assumption that God is to be expected to reveal himself to a person as soon as he would receive a favorable response from the person. The problem here is that God may have good reasons for deferring the revelation of himself to a later date. Let’s say, for example, that God could reveal himself to Jones on January 1st or July 1st, and in each case he would receive the same favorable reply. Is God obliged to reveal himself to Jones on January 1st? The simple answer is: no. Certainly not if God has overriding reasons to defer revealing himself.
What kind of reasons might God have? Here’s one. Let’s say that if Jones is still an atheist on May 1st he will write a letter to the editor that would have very important and positive social benefits. But if he were already a theist by May 1st then he would not write that letter. If God wants to achieve the positive social benefits that come with Jones writing the letter, God could have a good reason to allow Jones to be an atheist for six additional months.
For these reasons (as well as the additional reason adumbrated in the initial podcast) I don’t find the argument from divine hiddenness persuasive.