Canadian philosopher John L. Schellenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University. He is widely lauded as one of the leading atheist philosophers working in the philosophy of religion. In the early 1990s, Schellenberg developed the widely discussed problem of hiddenness which has elicited extensive discussion among philosophers. He is the author of several books including Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason and Progressive Atheism: How moral evolution changes the God debate. You can visit him online at jlschellenberg.com.
RR: John, thanks for agreeing to have this conversation. Over the years, I have really appreciated your philosophical thinking so I’m very much looking forward to our discussion. But before we dive into your arguments, I was wondering if we could begin with some autobiography. In particular, I was wondering if you could share a bit as to how you got into philosophy and how you became an atheist. Were you always an atheist or did you argue your way into the position?
JS: I was not always an atheist. Indeed, I was a committed evangelical Christian until the age of 22. However university courses in philosophy and religious studies changed my mind. I started university somewhat late, having spent three years at a Bible institute in Alberta (Peace River Bible Institute) and then a year as associate pastor at Foothills Mennonite Church in Calgary. Music was a big part of my life back then, too, and I expected to be involved in Christian ministry, in a variety of different ways. What I was exposed to at university – for the first time – came as a shock, and though I resisted strongly for a year or so, doubts and then later disbelief replaced my Christian belief.
RR: Would you say that you reasoned your way out of Christianity? And if so, could you detail that process a bit?
JS: It wasn’t a careful methodical process at all, if that’s what you mean, though of course reasoning will have been involved. And at first my reasoning was, if anything, directed to the goal of staying in Christianity. There was a lot of reading and thinking and questioning of professors, among other things. I remember arguing about the authorship of the gospels with the professor who taught us the beginnings of Christianity. I seemed to know a lot more of what was actually in the gospels than he did. But he knew a lot more about their formation and the debates that had gone on about that (and about all the other topics of the course). About then I also started my study of philosophy, which opened up so many new vistas. I was meanwhile learning to think in a more disciplined way, which allowed me to take in and integrate all the new information. I didn’t like the religious doubts that came, but above all I wanted to believe what was true, and at a certain point this didn’t any longer seem to me to include traditional Christian claims. They didn’t ‘fit’ very well within the enlarging body of my other beliefs (including beliefs about possibility — about what might be true for all I knew). Or at least that’s how it seems now, in retrospect. I remember looking toward the rising sun one morning and saying to myself “Well, at least I still believe in God!” But that belief too was gone before long.
RR: You are probably best known in the philosophy world for the argument from hiddenness. Could you say a bit about what that argument is and what role it has played in the development of your own atheistic views?
JS: At the end of my last answer I referred to losing belief in God. But one can be in that condition without disbelieving that there is a God – without being an atheist. And indeed for a time I would have called myself an agnostic instead. Even when I had reached disbelief about traditional theism, I still went back and forth for a while between atheism and agnosticism. (Belief – and also nonbelief – is that sort of thing; it can fluctuate a good deal.) One of the things I was thinking about while this was going on was what my teacher and mentor at the University of Calgary, Terry Penelhum, and John Hick before him, had called the ‘religious ambiguity’ of the world. The world often seemed religiously ambiguous to me too: open both to theistic and nontheistic ‘interpretations,’ as they would put it. But then it occurred to me that religious ambiguity might itself be evidence, and evidence that tips the balance more decisively in the direction of atheism. That was the beginning of the hiddenness argument and all the associated discussion of my book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (1993), which evolved out of this thinking about religious ambiguity over the next few years. (But I should note that there was a lot else, too, packed into the next half decade, including a year spent at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana, to look at my doubt/disbelief from the perspective of my tradition.) The hiddenness argument, to put it very briefly and informally, has it that many more of us would believe in God if there were a God, since God would be supremely loving and thus open to personal relationship with beings like us. And you can’t very well be open to such a relationship with someone while preventing them from believing in your existence. The hiddenness argument was instrumental in the production of a firmer atheism in me. But so was the problem of evil. Even after 1993, I recall a period of greater uncertainty about theism which was eventually quashed by a powerful dose of thinking about horrors.
RR: As you reflect on the various grounds for unbelief that you’ve summarized — hiddenness, evil, moral horrors — do you believe those arguments are sufficient to disambiguate the world, religiously speaking? More specifically, do you believe they are sufficient to make atheism rational or do you take a stronger view that they succeed to make theism irrational for any person who considers them carefully as you have?
JS: Horrors (by which I mean horrifically bad things of the sort to which Marilyn McCord Adams gave special attention) are evils, so we’re talking about a single problem there – though one that generates a family of somewhat different atheistic arguments. To answer your question: I do think we get disambiguation, objectively speaking, but there are perfectly plausible analyses of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ which allow careful theists to be rational in their belief even if the evidence objectively tilts toward atheism. A similar consideration allows many cases of nonbelief to count as nonresistant even if some theistic argument is objectively sound. That is why it’s no answer to the hiddenness argument for the theist to put forward some theistic argument he views as successful – and this even if it is indeed objectively sound!
But in recent years I’ve come to see this rather common discussion in the philosophy of religion of the rationality or irrationality of belief tokens – your individual beliefs or mine or those of Al in South Bend – as a bit superficial. Already in my 2005 book Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion I suggested that we shift to talking about belief types, and see philosophers of religion as tasked with debating the relevant evidence and seeking to reach consensus as to which (if any) belief type is worthy of being instantiated. More recently still, I’ve been exploring the possibility that, for the sake of inquiry at an early and immature stage of human development, we ought to leave the beliefs we’re so used to seeing as the results of inquiry quite outside inquiry’s door, at least where complex and controversial issues such as religious issues are concerned, emphasizing positions instead. Positions I understand as instances of acceptance of the sort that L. J. Cohen distinguished from belief, which the accepter undertakes to develop and defend, usually on the basis of the apparent verdict of available evidence (here a subsidiary role for belief remains), and to bring into conversation with other positions. This conversation of positions, one hopes, will lead in time to an informed consensus, which can be seen as helping to provide, for everyone involved, real justification from inquiry for belief of the proposition on which such agreement has been reached. (Individual belief, too, is a sort of consensus, agreement within a mind, but our immaturity gives extra importance to the notion of agreement between minds.) Of course it may take a long time for such a consensus to be reached, but if what science is telling us about deep time and also the youthfulness of our species is true, then we’ve got a lot of time! If the picture I’ve been describing here is correct – and we’ll have to see where the position goes – then our preoccupation with belief tokens is not just superficial but a symptom of species-level immaturity distorting our understanding of epistemology.
And where would the hiddenness argument or my personal atheism end up, on a picture like the latter? The hiddenness argument is an argument I personally believe to be sound, and its apparent force contributes to the maintenance of my atheistic belief; the latter happens quite involuntarily, given the psychology of belief. But in the context of present inquiry, none of this is what really matters. What really matters is whether, given how the relevant evidence looks to me, I am willing to take as my position the view that the hiddenness argument is sound or that atheism is true, and also how I conduct myself in inquiry with this (or any other) position. Intellectual virtue is of course what one hopes to display. Now, other people – theist or non-theist – may well have different epistemological stances, and for them the rationality and irrationality of belief tokens may still loom large. That’s fine. They will view the function of my arguments differently. Meanwhile the happy bedlam of much inquiry – it can hardly be other than bedlam where our immaturity is deepest – continues.
RR: I’d like to follow-up with a question about your proposal of leaving beliefs aside in favour of positions. And in particular, I’d like to get further clarity on how this might relate to beliefs that one takes to be properly basic or foundational. Let’s take an issue like the existence of objective moral good and evil. One could view objectivism about moral value to be complex and controversial in the way you describe. So if a person has deeply-seated moral intuitions that there are such things as objective moral good and evil, does your proposal require that one set aside those beliefs and thus not include those powerful intuitions in their ethical theorizing? Does it mean that one can only appeal to those intuitions after one has an independent argument for them?
JS: Here it will be good to distinguish between the fact that one believes moral objectivism, if it is a fact, and the intuition which helps to generate that belief. The latter may come into a discussion of moral objectivism as evidence, and it may be evidence that one’s interlocutor also possesses, but whose weight she disputes. For one who accepts the epistemological picture I’m exploring, the conversation about this matter is properly devoted to reaching consensus on what view the available relevant evidence best supports. Whether one is now rational or irrational if one believes or disbelieves moral objectivism is not the issue, as one has shifted to a new plane of discussion which requires leaving that preoccupation behind (though whether there are views we all involuntarily believe that provide a kind of ‘foundation’ for all systematic human inquiry may become an independent topic of conversation).
RR: Many philosophers today believe that the best hope of a future consensus is tied to a project often called ‘naturalism’. Of course, how naturalism is defined varies, but it appears to be tied — epistemologically and/or ontologically — to that which is the object of scientific study. Perhaps we might put it provisionally like this: naturalism is the view that all that exists is that which is described by a hypothetically completed future science. Naturalism is also often associated closely with atheism to the extent where many people seem to think that to be an atheist just is to be a naturalist. So as an atheist, what do you think about naturalism and its prospects at building a future consensus?
JS: I think science is tremendously important, intellectually speaking, in part because here we humans have shown ourselves capable of reaching consensus. Consensus views in science contribute a good deal to my own thinking, particularly in connection with species-level immaturity, since views about evolution and geological time help to clarify where we are now as a species and where in time we might be. But it seems a clear mistake to infer, from the fact that here we humans have found some light, that everything else we ever learn we will owe to its illumination. Perhaps the latter claim is true, perhaps not. Indeed, in part because of what science itself helps us to see about our limitations and immaturities (take the cognitive biases we’ve only been learning about recently), the impulse to accept a science-based naturalism can be strong even in the absence of rational support, and so we owe it to inquiry to subject naturalistic claims to careful testing. Notice here that naturalism is a comprehensive view, saying how things stand in respect of all reality (or all concrete reality). Views that ‘big’ deserve special scrutiny; at our stage they could well be premature. Now, perhaps over time science will progress much further, successfully dealing with issues which today are still rightly perplexing, such as problems of consciousness, and so provide naturalism with more support. This might eventually lead to a consensus on naturalism. But things could also go in a variety of non-naturalistic directions, say, on the basis of inquiry in philosophy of religion that has freed itself from the present ‘theism versus naturalism’ fixation. As we go forward, we might still expect that, given how the available evidence strikes them, some inquirers will accept naturalism and thus defend it in various contexts of inquiry. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But for the discussion to be intellectually valuable, we should also want to see people developing non-naturalistic positions, in particular ones that have so far received little or no discussion. Notice that in such cases one may take up a position not because of how the available evidence strikes one but so as to get more evidence – to enrich the body of evidence available to the community of inquiry.
RR: As we conclude this interview, I’d like to get your thoughts on the role of philosophy in the wider culture. When I received my PhD close to twenty years ago, the job market in philosophy was certainly competitive, but sharp young philosophers nonetheless had a good chance of securing a teaching position somewhere. However, the shrinking of humanities departments which has been ongoing for several decades now has continued apace. In that time, many philosophy departments have seen a decline in funding, enrollment, and as a result, new faculty positions. In short, we are a society in which the study of philosophy — and the humanities generally — seems to be in decline.
At the same time, it seems like democratic institutions are increasingly being challenged in recent years throughout the West and that is a real matter of concern to me. As we wind down, I was hoping you could leave us with some thoughts on the enduring value of studying philosophy and the relationship it might have to inculcating the kind of intellectual virtues that help secure the open society and classical liberalism.
JS: It would be no surprise if a challenge to democratic institutions went hand in hand with a challenge of the sort you describe to philosophy, given the latter’s insistence on probing every corner of a topic and its willingness – at least when things are going well – to listen to anyone who might have a good idea. What I said earlier about seeking out neglected or overlooked positions and aiming for an informed, matured consensus instead of personal vindication on religious matters will, I hope, be seen to reflect this orientation.
A link can be made here to what I’ve called ‘passionate indifference,’ a strong desire to make cognitive contact with the truth, no matter what that might turn out to be. Philosophy at its best reflects passionate indifference. Here also the value of philosophy in relation to other cultural goods may come into focus. For if students of philosophy sharpen not just their technical skills but their intellectual desire in this way, as in a good philosophy course they may, then given that philosophy by its very nature gets you thinking about everything, they will likely take this orientation with them into social and political contexts, and be more likely to be broadminded, openminded, fairminded, and intellectually humble citizens too, helping to move us beyond the deep macro- and micro-level immaturities (intellectual, emotional, social, moral, and so on) still rather clearly discernible in the public square today.
Going back to what I said a few moments ago about philosophy’s orientation leading to the seeking out of neglected religious positions, let me add that, in the religious domain, theism and Christianity are far from neglected! There is a challenge here for you and other theists in philosophy. A broadly democratic impulse might be expected to lead to the serious discussion of – or serious support for the discussion of – many new religious possibilities, formerly overlooked or presently receiving short shrift, and thus to take us beyond the current tendency to travel back and forth along religious and non-religious paths already well worn.
This is the emphasis that I would like to be identified with. And so I was thinking today, reflecting on your introduction of me, at the beginning of this interview, as an “atheist philosopher,” that it would be better to be identified in some other way. It struck me that perhaps the first word in my recent title Progressive Atheism does a better job of indicating what I am about than the second, which really reflects the preoccupations of others more than what I myself have been mainly concerned with in the years since 1993. ‘Progressive philosopher.’ Hmmm. Not bad — though only if, in this case, we give at least as much attention to the second word as to the first!