The most recent episode of “Unbelievable” features a very fruitful exchange between Justin Schieber and Christian apologist Blake Giunta on the hiddenness of God. Schieber defends the hiddenness argument from J.L. Schellenberg. (See my review of Schellenberg’s recent book here and his reply here. And just for the heck of it see his endorsement of my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? here. It remains my favorite endorsement that I’ve ever received.) And Giunta seeks to undermine the strength of the Schellenberg-Schieber objection. It’s a very good episode with two articulate defenders of their respective positions.
Before I offer my thoughts, I’ll take a very brief moment to define the argument. The gist of Schellenberg’s argument is that if God exists there should be no non-resistant non-believers in God. But there are non-resistant non-believers in God. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. Needless to say Schieber fleshes the argument out so you should also obviously listen to the whole show. But that’s the basic idea.
Initial Thoughts on the Debate
In his opening response to Schieber, Giunta takes on the herculean task of briefly summarizing a dozen or more responses to the hiddenness argument. Giunta is clearly very familiar with the literature and provides an able tour of some of the main responses. As I listened to him, I mused on the two different strategies that a defense attorney might take in seeking to justify reasonable doubt in the guilt of their client. On the one hand, they might focus on building a case for the plausible guilt of one or two other alternative suspects. On the other hand, they might introduce the jury briefly to more than a dozen possible suspects. Giunta clearly chose the latter approach here. While his survey is very helpful, I prefer the former approach for a relative brief exchange like this. After all, the only thing Giunta needs to defeat the hiddenness argument is one plausible reason why God might allow non-resistant non-belief to exist.
As I said, Giunta does well and he is definitely an apologist to watch. However, there is one approach that, so far as I can see, is quite different from anything Giunta says in his survey. And so I’m going to take a moment to relay this alternative approach in the remainder of this article.
Drake or Dustin: Who is better off?
Let’s begin by meeting two more individuals: Drake the Christian theist and Dustin the atheist. Dustin seems to be a non-resistant non-believer. And that gives rise to the hiddenness question: why would God allow Dustin to persist in his non-belief?
My problem is that there is something reductionistic about this way of posing the question. And I intend to illumine that point by filling out in more detail the nature of Drake’s belief and Dustin’s “non-belief” and comparing and contrasting the respective strengths and weaknesses of each position.
Let’s begin with Drake. He believes that God exists. Moreover, he believes that God is pure will, that God arbitrarily decrees which values will constitute the moral good and evil. If you ask Drake, “Is it your view that there is no objective moral Good? And thus is it your view that God could have made rape morally good?” he will bite the bullet. Indeed, Drake doesn’t even view it as a bullet to be bitten so much as a necessary consequence of the radical divine aseity and divine freedom. Drake denies that the Good exists as such. Instead he insists that God alone is the cause of all else that exists. “The Good” just is an expression of God’s arbitrary willing in spacetime. God lays down the laws of the moral sphere with the same voluntaristic will that he lays down the laws of nature.
Next, we have Dustin. While Dustin is an atheist, he does believe in an absolute, atemporal, Platonic Good. All moral value exists in spacetime as states of affairs exemplify various aspects of that Platonic Good. And consequently, Dustin seeks to live his life in accord with the Platonic Good by undertaking actions that model states of affairs which exemplify the Good: practically speaking, this means he feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, and ministers to the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
Finally, let’s consider for the sake of argument that those theists are correct who say something like this: the Platonic Good exists in a sense, but this “Platonic Good” which we apprehend through our moral perception is, in fact, the divine nature. To put it bluntly, God = the Good. And thus when you live in accord with the Good you are, in essence relating to and gaining knowledge of God under the title “the Good”.
To sum up, we have Drake the believer in God and disbeliever in the Good. And we have Dustin the believer in the Good and disbeliever in God. Here’s the question: should we think that they are referring to, believing in, and relating to the same entity under different descriptions?
There is a good reason to think so. To illustrate, imagine our two gentlemen in another situation. In that situation Drake says he loves the Morning Star and seeks to live his life by it. Meanwhile Dustin says he loves the Evening Star and he seeks to live his life by it. As we all know (but alas, Drake and Dustin do not) the Morning Star is the Evening Star. Thus, it follows that Drake and Dustin are relating to the same celestial body, albeit under different descriptions.
And that would likewise seem to describe our current case. Drake and Dustin are both referring to the same transcendent entity, but they do so under different descriptions: one refers to it as God, the other refers to it as the Good. And thus it follows that each of them gets certain important beliefs about that entity correct and they get other important beliefs incorrect. For example, Drake is correct to believe that transcendent entity is a person and Dustin is right to believe it is the Good. And Drake is incorrect to believe that transcendent entity is pure will and Dustin is incorrect to believe it is an abstract universal.
But it isn’t just linguistic reference and belief that is at play here. We can also speak of some kind of relationship. It would seem plausible to say that both Drake and Dustin have an existentially meaningful relationship with the same entity, a relationship which is strengthened by their correct beliefs and weakened by their incorrect beliefs. Thus, Drake prays to that entity as God (that’s good!) but he also lives in fear and uncertainty of the arbitrariness of what he believes to be the pure will of God (that’s bad!). And Dustin seeks to conform his life to the Good (that’s good!) but he also fails to pray to the Good because he believes it is abstract and impersonal (that’s bad!).
Each of our two gentlemen is better off in some ways and worse off in others. The fact is that it isn’t obvious that one of those individuals (namely Drake) is in a superior epistemic and/or relational position to that entity (God/the Good) to the other individual (namely Dustin). Granted, within some versions of Christian theology Drake may be better off than Dustin (i.e. those versions that require the belief in a specific set of propositions about God). But Schellenberg’s argument isn’t targeting some versions of Christian theology. It’s targeting theism simpliciter. And by theism simpliciter it isn’t obvious that Drake is better off than Dustin or that Dustin is worse off than Drake.