The Argument from Nonbelef (or, the Argument from Divine Hiddenness) is commonly considered by non-theists to be a persuasive argument against the existence of God. More particularly, the Argument from Nonbelief targets the Christian God, who possesses the characteristics of omnibenevolence and omnipotence. As such, it is critical for Christians to respond to this argument in order to remain justified in belief in God.
How is the Argument Formulated?
It is important to distinguish between two fundamentally different forms of the Argument from Nonbelief. The first type argues from the existence of reasonable nonbelief to the nonexistence of God. This form I will refer to as the Argument from Reasonable Nonbelief (or ARNB). There is a second form of the Argument from Nonbelief which is quite different, as it does not depend on the existence of “reasonable nonbelief.” Please see the second part of this article for Theodore M. Drange’s formulation of the argument (along with my response). However, the ARNB will be considered first, and I will therefore present a version of this argument here.1. If God exists, He is all-loving, all-powerful, perfectly just, and He wishes for all to know Him personally.
2. If a person has reasonable nonbelief, then they are not given a fair opportunity to know God.
3. If God exists, He has both the power and motive to abolish reasonable nonbelief.
4. Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
5. Therefore, God does not exist.
As preliminary commentary, it should be mentioned that the Argument from Nonbelief only applies to a God that is all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, perfectly just, and has a wish that others know Him. These qualities happen to be attributes that I believe the Christian God possesses, but any God that does not possess all of the aforementioned qualities is not affected by the Argument from Nonbelief.
In any case, I think two separate refutations of this argument can be formulated.
The simplest way to avoid the force of this argument is to question premise (4) and claim that reasonable nonbelief does not occur. This is quite offensive towards the atheist (as it basically claims that he/she is unreasonable with regards to the evidence for God’s existence), but it is nevertheless possible that it is true.
Now, it is apparent to me that God’s existence is obvious. I do not feel that God has provided me with too little evidence. If I were to deny that God existed, I would be irrational with regards to what I know.
What should I do when another individual claims that the evidence isn’t obvious to them? Is there any way I can know whether or not the individual is truly reasonable in his nonbelief? Of course not, because I would need to be them in order to understand their thought processes.
Actually, this argument closely parallels another common argument used by Christians- Personal Experiences. As I showed HERE, Personal Experiences are something that can be known only to the individual who has the experience. It may be evidence for the person, but it cannot be evidence for another individual. Likewise, then, though the Argument from Nonbelief may be evidence for the individual who feels that they have not been provided with an opportunity to know God, it can never be considered evidence to another person. Therefore, the Argument from Nonbelief is totally useless as a means to disprove the existence of God to another person. It is impossible, in principle, for me to know whether or not a person’s claimed reasonable nonbelief is actual.
My critique could stop here, but for the sake of completeness I will offer a few reasons why nonbelief may not actually be reasonable.
Human beings tend to be biased towards a certain viewpoint. Sometimes, this bias can get in the way of an objective analysis of the evidence. Bias can occur for a number of reasons, but whatever the case it is quite possible that those who claim that they have been provided with insufficient evidence are merely biased with regards to the evidence they have.
Another malady that affects a great number of humans is pride. Pride can occur because someone thinks they are superior to others. In the case of atheism, pride could occur because the nonbelievers do not like the idea of being considered sinners that have fallen short of God. Or, pride could occur because an individual does not feel like being “under” a higher power. Whatever the case, pride is a very real factor and could possibly affect an objective look at the evidence for God’s existence.
Perhaps the most common factor, I think, which leads to a lack of belief in God, is anger. This anger could take many forms. Perhaps a person is unsatisfied with the way things are going in their life and they feel that, if God existed, He should do something about it. Perhaps they are upset that somebody they care for died. Anger can often consume an individual and get in the way of rational thought. This could lead to an unjustified rejection of the evidence for God’s existence.
4. Ridiculous Expectations
Many times atheists suppose God should write “Jesus Christ lives. Repent and be saved!” on the moon. They may expect God to come down and have a chat. In both situations, the expectation of evidence is much too high. The individual may unreasonably expect more evidence for God’s existence then they would require for other propositions. This is obviously unfair and is thus not reasonable nonbelief.
5. Wish to disregard theistic morality
Another possibility is that nonbelievers do not wish to change their lifestyles to accommodate belief in God. They may feel that Biblical morality is too strict. For example, many nonbelievers express distress with the expectation that Christians avoid lust, even if it is hands-off. Christianities rejection of pre-marital sex is also an issue that brings up quite a bit of indignation. The wish to live one’s life in a particular manner may lead to an unfair analysis of the evidence for God’s existence.
6. Insufficient Effort
The question of whether or not God exists is possibly the most important issue humans face. However, many people (theist and non-theist alike) don’t give the issue the attention it deserves. Therefore, those atheists who give only a cursory examination of the evidence cannot be considered to have reasonable nonbelief.
I am not claiming that any one person necessarily is affected by all or even one of the aforementioned factors. I am simply claiming that the existence of so many potential factors makes it quite possible that reasonable nonbelief does not actually occur in the world. However, as I pointed out earlier, these factors need not be accurate or likely in order for the argument to be ineffective. The Argument from Nonbelief is already thoroughly discredited because it can never be considered evidence for anybody but the individual who has the complaint. However, my analysis of the Argument from Nonbelief is not yet complete. There is another important issue to discuss.
Is Reasonable Nonbelief Always Unfair?
Premise (3), which claims that God has both the power and the motive to abolish reasonable nonbelief, is not at all obvious either. It is my contention that God may have benevolent motives for nonbelief as long as it does not last for the whole lifetime of a person.
In other words, God may allow a person to have truly reasonable nonbelief for a certain time period in his/her life, as long as He makes sure that the person does not die without ever having reasonable evidence for His existence presented to them.
The ironic thing about the Argument from Nonbelief is that the only way somebody can ever truly claim that they have unfair reasonable nonbelief is if they have lived out their entire existence and are now dead! Of course, dead men aren’t able to argue against the existence of God, so no man alive is able to fairly claim that the existence of God should be doubted because He would not allow reasonable nonbelief.
Once again, the Argument from Nonbelief is completely discredited, but for the sake of completeness I would like to offer a few possible reasons why temporary reasonable nonbelief may occur.
1. Increased love and respect for God.
God knows that a state of complete love and respect between man and Himself is a very desirable thing. A person who has not been presented with enough evidence for a period of time may learn to love and respect God more than they ever would once they have such evidence. Ultimately, God’s decision to withhold evidence could actually be for the benefit of the individual.
God’s ultimate goal is to get as many people as possible to know Him. The testimonies of former atheists are often very powerful in helping persons through periods of doubt or sowing the seeds of belief in an unbeliever. God may withhold the evidence from an atheist so that the person can later help hundreds of others to come closer to Him.
3. Inability to offer evidence.
Some individuals find themselves in positions where the offering of evidence is either impossible or dangerous. For example, a native living in the jungle could misinterpret any evidence God could provide and misconstrue it as a false religion (which could eventually mislead others as well). In this case, God may wait for a missionary to come until He provides the necessary evidence for the individual.
These three reasons are both possible and plausible, so we have every reason to believe that God may allow temporary periods of reasonable nonbelief.
Theodore M. Drange and the Argument from Nonbelief
In the article The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief, Theodore M. Drange attempts to support the case for atheism. 1 The Argument from Evil is beyond the scope of this article and will be dealt with at another place. The following is the formulation of Drange’s Argument:
o ANB: To formulate ANB, I put first forward these two definitions:
o Set P = the following three propositions:
- + (a) There exists a being who rules the entire universe.
- + (b) That being loves humanity.
- + (c) Humanity has been provided with an afterlife.
o Situation S = the situation of all, or almost all, humans coming to believe all three propositions of set P by the time of their physical death.
o Using the above definitions, ANB may be expressed as follows:
- + (A) If God were to exist, then he would possess all of the following four properties (among others):
- + (1) being able to bring about situation S, all things considered;
- + (2) wanting to bring about situation S, i.e., having it among his desires;
- + (3) not wanting anything else that conflicts with his desire to bring about situation S as strongly as it;
- + (4) being rational (which implies always acting in accord with his own highest purposes).
o (B) If a being who has all four properties listed above were to exist, then situation S would have to obtain.
o© But situation S does not obtain. It is not the case that all, or almost all, humans have come to believe all the propositions of set P by the time of their physical death.
o (D) Therefore [from (B) & (C)], there does not exist a being who has all four properties listed in premise (A).
o (E) Hence [from (A) & (D)], God does not exist.
As Drange himself realizes, the premise most susceptible to attack is A(3). As it turns out, I think there are several desires God may have that override His desire to actualize Situation S. (Note: Throughout this critique I will refer to the potential situation where God interferes either miraculously or subtly in a way so as to ensure that all or almost all believe set P as “full revelation.”)
I. Free Will
As with the Argument from Evil, the so-called Free Will Defense is an important foundation for a theistic response. God may desire, not merely that all or most humans come to believe in the propositions of set P, but that they do so in accordance with their own free will. Since God does not wish to make people believe these propositions, it is possible that some people will fail to believe these propositions, even if it is one of God’s desires that all persons believe it.
The thesis that God values free will seems quite reasonable, but I would like to push the issue one step forward. As I have maintained elsewhere,2 free will in its barest sense is not what is valuable. After all, a man stuck in a box for all eternity has the free will to kick at the wall or make hand puppets. However, his actions cannot be very significant because he cannot interact with other people or change/improve his own situation. What is really valuable then, is “significant free will,” or the ability to make free will choices that have significant consequences. Thus, God’s desire to maintain significant free will may be an overriding desire that precludes God from actualizing S.
I will delay a thorough defense of the Free Will Defense for later on in this critique when I respond to Drange’s attack on it.
II. Quantity of Quality Relationships
Although I will concede that, minimally, God desires for people to develop beliefs in set P, I believe Drange makes a grave mistake in assuming that this desire is great enough to carry the argument. In fact, it is feasible to believe, both philosophically 3 and biblically 4 that God desires not knowledge of Him, but love of Him. Moreover, this quality relationship is also necessary for humankinds’ consequent satisfaction, as well. 5 Therefore, even if God has Situation S among His desires, his desire for S pales in comparison to his desire for a different state of affairs. In fact, Drange’s S may be modified to produce:
S’: The situation of all, or almost all, humans coming to love God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength by the time of their physical death.
As the old adage goes: ‘quality, not quantity.’ Since S’ is a greater desire of God’s, He will not do anything to establish S unless it does not interfere with S’. However, it simply may be the case that God’s efforts to actualize S will in fact interfere with maximization of Situation S.
If God made people know (either through interference of free will or through full revelation) that He exists and He offers Salvation, they may accept that belief. However, they would not necessarily love God. They could hate him with a passion, despite knowledge that He exists. Possibly, they could remain relatively indifferent. Perhaps they would like God, but not necessarily have a high quality relationship with Him. Some of these situations are as bad or worse than nonbelief, and, additionally, all situations are inferior to the situation described in S’.
Now, the defender of ANB may simply ask, “why hasn’t God actualized the situation in which all or almost all persons accept S’?” Here, however, the waters get much muddier. For although God could possibly use miracles to actualize S, even a full revelation could not guarantee that all or most people would come to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. 6 Therefore, the plausibility of the ANB is reduced significantly when we realize that God’s primary goal is not mere belief, but a quality relationship.
III. Quality of Quality Relationships
Although a bit more speculative, it is also possible that God is more interested in producing the best possible believers than in producing a large quantity of believers. Thus, God’s overriding goal may be to produce situation S’’
S’’: The situation where believers of God are the most loving, dedicated, pure people possible for them to be. 7
If this is the case, then once again Drange’s supposition that God has no overriding desire than S is disproved. Even under this model, of course, God wants the maximum number possible of maximally good believers, but of course it is not necessarily logically possible to ensure that all persons come to be maximally good believers, even if God were to give a full revelation. Once again, Drange is going to have to stipulate that God interferes with free will in order to carry his argument, which contradicts the Free Will Defense. (In fact, it is plausible to argue that a ‘maximally good believer’, by definition, is one whom has a free will. We would rather our spouse love us by free will then by necessity. If our spouses only loved us because they had no other choice, then it is reasonable to say that they would not be ‘maximally good spouses.’)
Now, the most reasonable supposition, in my view, is that God wishes to balance between quantity and quality of believers. It seems unlikely that He would want a high quantity of mediocre believers, and it also seems unlikely that he would want an extreme minority of really good believers. Thus, God plausibly constructs the world so as to strike a good balance between quality believers and number of believers.
If the preceding analysis is correct, then Drange will now have to argue that God has not brought out the best possible balance of quantity and quality of believers. But how is he going to make this argument? Viewed from this perspective, the ANB is much more speculative and presumptous than it first appears.
IV. Salvation and Justice
In Drange’s ANB, it appears that one of the main reasons he supposes that God has a desire to produce S is that our Salvation is dependent upon it. However, even if it is true that God’s primary objective is to save the maximum number of people, it is not clear that Drange’s ANB will work. If believing all the truth propositions in set P are not sufficient to secure Salvation, then the argument that God has no overriding desires against situation S is rendered much less likely.
Most of Drange’s arguments (biblical and philosophical) for A(3) assume that God would actualize S because it is an important component of overall individual Salvation. Thus, in order to love God you must know that He exists, in order to receive Salvation you must know that the afterlife exists, etc. Already, this has some problems. The inference from “Believing set P is necessary for Salvation” to “God has overriding reasons to ensure that most people come to belive set P” relies on the somewhat speculative claim that causing belief in set P will improve anything in the first place. If there are currently 2 billion saved Christians, is it necessarily true that there would be more than 2 billion saved Christians in the world in an alternate universe where God gives a full revelation and Situation S is actualized? No it is not, and thus it may be the case that God simply doesn’t have an overriding desire to actualize S.
This objection becomes even more acute when one reflects upon the situation and the nature of Salvation. Not only is there no reason to think that the actualization of Situation S would increase the number of saved Christians, there are actually good reasons to suppose that, on the contrary, it is likely that the actualization of S would have either no effect or a detrimental effect. If person’s were forced to believe set P (or were compelled to belief due to a full revelation), then it is highly possible that they might accept Christ, not out of love and respect for God, but for the pragmatic reason of securing eternal reward. This brings up a two-edged sword. For on the one hand, it is not clear that God saves those who believe in Him for selfish reasons. On the other hand, if God did save those who believed for selfish reasons, it may not be justice. It may be the case that it is unjust for persons to receive the benefits of Salvation when their motives are entirely unpure. If this is true, then God may have the overriding motive of preserving perfect justice that He values more than Situation S.
Drange’s Defense of Proposition A(3)
Drange considers several potential critiques of A(3), and the first one to be analyzed is the Free Will Defense. Drange claims that showing people miracles does not interfere with their free will. This much is true. By merely showing a miracle God leaves it up to the human as to whether or not such will be accepted as evidence. However, as I contended in my brief explanation of the Free Will Defense, significant free will is the thing that is valued. Thus, even though God may not eliminate free will, in its barest form, by providing a full revelation, He may eliminate or reduce significant free will by making belief in Him trivial and easy. If God bombarded our lives with overwhelming evidence that He existed, would our belief in Him really be significantly free?
In any case, Drange goes even further and claims that inserting belief in God into every human being would not be in violation of free will. He states,
“Even direct implantation of belief into a person’s mind need not interfere with his/her free will. If that person were to want true beliefs and not care how the beliefs are obtained, then for God to directly implant true beliefs into his/her mind would not interfere with, but would rather comply with, the person’s free will.”
I believe Drange has gone a bit too far here, for I cannot imagine a more flagrant violation of free will at all. If you force someone to love you by inserting a gene in their brain, you are, by definition, interfering with their free will to choose whether or not they have love for you. So I simply think that Drange is incorrect here.
However, even assuming Drange is right about this, there is certainly no way to know whether any humans who don’t already accept Salvation really do wish to know the truth. The unassuming claim that “People want to know the truth.” is simply speculation. Worse, the claim could probably garner very little support from the Bible,8 and, additionally, does not necessarily garner good support from general experience. In my own experience, the vast majority of people I encounter have spent little or no time investigating the existence or nature of God or the afterlife. It is certainly possible that my experience is not representative, but it seems that Drange should at least offer some evidence that his generalization holds up. I will definitely admit that some individuals are very concerned with issues of religion, but to claim that “people want to know the truth” seems unsupported for the general population.
Drange then claims that there is nothing wrong with God interfering with free will in this case because, “Such “interference with free will” seems to be just what such people need to get “straightened out.” This just begs the question of the importance of free will to God. In my mind, it is very doubtful that very much at all could be more important than free will because the lack of free will takes away the very thing that makes us humans.
Drange claims that a central problem of this argument is that it “seems to claim that God wants people to believe the propositions of set P in an irrational way, without good evidence.”
However, the Free Will Defense implies no such thing. In fact, FWD requires rationality. That is the whole point. To believe something because that belief is part of your very anatomy would not be a belief that is arrived at rationally, at least, it would not be a belief that was arrived at after careful consideration of one’s world and one’s nature. Since God demands that we accept His existence without forcing us, He is requiring us to be rational in order to come to that true belief. Yet, the lack of a full revelation allows us to ignore God if we so choose.
However, it still might be the case that belief in Christianity is rational based on the evidence we have. It is my contention that this is, in fact, the case. Therefore, since the Christian religion is rational to believe anyways, support of the FWD does not require the theist to believe that God wishes for us to believe irrationally.
From what I’m aware, the other two factors that I claimed could interfere with God’s wish for all to achieve Salvation (lack of love and respect and lack of justice) are not addressed in Drange’s article. I have, however, found a response to it in another article. 10 This response, however, is not very substantive:
“One objection to this defense, among others, is that a person’s immediate response to theistic belief may not remain fixed. People could come to believe in God and at first respond inappropriately, but after some time has elapsed, they may come to modify their response.”
This response is useless, because certainly God knows when or if a person will respond appropriately. Those who would never respond appropriately, therefore, are still the problem. It is certainly better (or equally bad) for a person to be ignorant of God’s existence than it is for them to hate God. (It must be mentioned that it is my contention that God does provide everyone with enough opportunity to come to know Him, as I explained previously. The rejection of that evidence could be due to the various factors I listed earlier in this article). Therefore my proposed overriding desires of actualizing S (II), (III), and (IV), along with my defense of the Free Will Defense (I) are all still valid and thus the Argument from Nonbelief is invalid.
The Argument from Reasonable Nonbelief fails on two fronts. It is completely discredited as a rational objection against the existence of God. Although the Argument from Nonbelief as formulated by Theodore M. Drange is a much better argument, in the end it also fails to convince. The Christian remains fully justified in his or her belief in God despite the Argument from Nonbelief.
1. Theodore M. Drange, The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/aeanb.html
2. See my defense of the FWD in The Problem of Evil HERE.
3. If God is omni-benevolent, then it is feasible to assume that he loves His creation and desires for His creation to love Him as well. Mere knowledge of existence does not entail love, thus, would not necessarily be an important goal of God.
4. See Matthew 22:37 and Deuteronomy 6:5. These verses do not command us to believe with our intellect that God exists, but to love him with everything we have.
5. See, for example, Psalm 63.
6. For an analysis of some reasons why persons may hate or ignore God despite a full revelation, see my article HERE.
7. This possibility can be illustrated by means of an analogy. When the United States trains Navy Seals, they subject them to rigorous and oftentimes brutal training. The goal of the U.S. is not to maximize the number of people that pass their program and become Navy Seals. Rather, their goal is to ensure that there are at least some men that are of extremely high quality for the task of being a Navy Seal.
8. See, for example, John 12:37; Matthew 11:20; and John 15:24 for a few examples of persons that saw miracles and yet refused to believe.
10. Theodore M. Drange, Nonbelief as Support for Atheism, http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Reli/ReliDran.htm
For more on the Argument from Nonbelief:
1. Rebuttal of Horia Plugaru’s Article critiquing the Argument from Nonbelief’s counters HERE.
2. Questions for Christians by Brian Holtz HERE.
Also see the Forum Discussion:
The Argument from Nonbelief (Hosted at TheologyWeb)