Why doesn’t god do anything that proves that he exists? I’m not sure what proof would look like, exactly; but an omniscient god would know what would convince any individual, and an omnipotent god would have the means to do it. So why hasn’t he? He could settle the matter, once and for all, anytime he chooses. Or he could’ve just been around from the start, simply there for us to see and have a relationship with if we so chose. I mean, that’s how every other relationship works. You know the person exists as a given, and you get to choose whether or not you care to have a relationship with them. But for some reason, the most consequential relationship we could ever have is encumbered by a totally unnecessary setback. God is invisible and silent and undetectable in every way. But why would God hide? At nearly any church in the country, you’ll be told that God desperately wants a relationship with you. But why would God be hidden if he wants us to know he exists?
What Does God Want?
The central question is, does God want me to know he exists? Either he does or he doesn’t, so let’s consider those two options.
Let’s say God does want me to know he exists. In that case, there’s no reason God would be hidden. And there’s really nothing I could do to stop an omniscient and omnipotent God from proving to me that he exists. When you think about it, how is it even possible that I’m an atheist? If God wants me to know he exists, he would know exactly what would convince me and would have the motivation to do it. If I’m open, and I think I am by any reasonable definition, then why wouldn’t God have proven his existence to me if he has the power to do so?
Let’s say God doesn’t want me to know he exists. If God wants to be hidden, I don’t really have any hope of thwarting his intentions of hiding, given his omnipotence. If God doesn’t want me to know he exists, what exactly am I supposed to do about that?
No matter which option you take, God is in the position of power and I basically have no say in what he decides. If God wants me to know he exists, then I’m not stopping him. If he doesn’t want me to know, then I also can’t stop him. And if he’s indifferent, I can’t stop him from that either. It’s almost as if the omnipotent one bears the responsibility here.
God supposedly wants me to know he exists, but he takes none of the rational steps one would take to realize that goal. The only way to excuse this is to assume, with no evidence, that god has good reasons for doing so. Theists conjure up all kinds of rationalizations for why God wouldn’t make his existence known. I’ll try to address some of the more common excuses later, but one thing most of them have in common is there will be no evidence to support it, no way to test what they say, and no way it could be proven wrong. When a believer tries to rationalize God’s behavior, their reasons are almost certainly going to be unfalsifiable. But just because they offer an unlikely, but conceivable reason why God is hiding, that doesn’t put God’s existence and nonexistence on equal footing. God’s existence and nonexistence are not both 50% likely.
But just to be clear, the divine hiddenness argument I’m making is not a logical argument against the existence of god; I’m only claiming that it’s not what you would expect if a god did exist and that’s evidence in my favor. Christians need to account for god’s hiddenness and silence, since it is clearly what you would expect if there were no god, and not at all consistent with the idea that god wants me to know he exists, which is what most christians believe. What I’m claiming is that divine hiddenness is more likely on naturalism than on Christianity and that we’re in the exact situation you’d expect if there were no God. If you imagine a universe where Christianity is true, there would be no reason to predict god’s existence would be in doubt. You may expect to see people reject god or a relationship with him for various reasons, but why would his existence be in doubt? If you imagine a naturalistic universe, on the other hand, you’d predict that if there were superstitious people who believed in a god, god would be totally invisible and silent and his followers may even make faith a virtue and have a rule against testing god.
The Implications of Hiddenness
If a believer acknowledges that god is “hidden”, they’re admitting that god is essentially pretending not to exist. And the argument is now between two people who both recognize that it seems like god doesn’t exist. The atheist is arguing that it seems like god doesn’t exist because he doesn’t, and the believer is arguing that it seems like god doesn’t exist because he’s pretending to not exist because of their unfalsifiable reasons. But the bottom line is that I have no good reason to believe god exists. And any theist who admits that god is hidden has also admitted that I don’t have good reason. If a believer grants that there is a question to be answered regarding God’s hiddenness (and there obviously is), then they’ve tacitly admitted that there isn’t great evidence for God’s existence. You can’t simultaneously argue that there is evidence that god left for us to discover and that god doesn’t want us to know he exists.
We’re in this situation where there is no obvious God. And if any apologists try to level any reason for why God would need to be hidden, they’ve exposed a contradiction between two of their projects. Apologists claim that there is all this evidence for god, and yet they’re admitting that he’s hidden. Well…which is it? Has God given us great evidence that he exists, or is he hiding? If you make arguments for why god wouldn’t want us to know for certain that he exists, you can’t also make arguments for why it’s so obvious that god exists because of fine tuning or something. If you try to give any reasons for the hiddenness of god, you’re admitting that god is hidden and not obvious based on evidence. So you’re left with a problem here: either god is hidden, which means that the evidence does not clearly point to gods existence; or the evidence does point clearly to gods existence, which would mean there’s no reason for God to be hidden.
The God in My Garage
In his book, The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan drew an analogy that’s relevant to the divine hiddenness conversation. He invites us to imagine that he seriously asserts that a fire-breathing dragon lives in his garage. You ask to see it, he leads you to the garage, but nothing is there. He neglected to mention that the dragon is invisible. You propose laying down flour to see the dragon’s footprints, but he also neglected to mention that it floats midair. You suggest using infrared to see the dragon and it’s fire, but it turns out the dragon spits heatless fire. You suggest spray painting the dragon to make it appear, but alas, it’s an immaterial dragon. You go on like this, proposing physical tests before he shoots them down with an explanation for why they won’t work. In terms of evidence, what’s the difference between an immaterial, heatless, invisible dragon and no dragon at all? How are we to distinguish between the two? He goes on to say that our inability to invalidate his dragon hypothesis is not the same thing as proving his dragon hypothesis correct.
In terms of evidence, what’s the difference between a god that’s hidden and a god that doesn’t exist? Maybe a god does exist. But I have no evidence for his existence. And if someone wants to claim that god has really great, secret reasons for why he’s hiding from me, that’s fine, and they may even be correct — what they’re claiming is completely unfalsifiable so I have no way of knowing for sure. But I still have no evidence. So what makes more sense: that a god exists but is pretending not to exist, or that god just doesn’t exist?
Most Christians will assert that belief is the criteria for entering into heaven. It’s not strictly belief, since the Bible says that Satan also believes in God — but it is a prerequisite for salvation. You can’t gain salvation without believing God exists. So according to most believers, belief in God is a necessary but not sufficient condition for getting into heaven. You can probably see where I”m going with this. That means that people are going to hell — forever — because God has chosen to make sure they didn’t get any good evidence that he existed. There are nonbelievers who would believe in God if God provided evidence, and many of those people would probably become devoted Christians. This is what’s called a nonresistant nonbeliever — someone who is open to God’s existence, but just doesn’t see any convincing evidence for it.
It’s been argued that someone like Christopher Hitchens was a resistant nonbeliever, as opposed to nonresistant, because he hated the idea of religion and compared God to Big Brother and said the desire for Christianity to be true was the desire to be a slave. So he’s glad it’s not true, but is he saying he wouldn’t believe in God if God were real? He’s being honest that he finds the implications of the Abrahamic monotheisms to be abhorrent, but he also mocks the idea that we would pretend that something was true because it had desirable consequences.
I don’t think that a sensible definition of a resistant nonbeliever should include someone who finds distasteful some of the implications of religion. I can think of upsides to theism and upsides to atheism. There are pros and cons either way, so I don’t see how it’s sensible to say that someone who acknowledges unfavorable implications of a belief should immediately called resistant to that conclusion. There are negative consequences in both models. Rather than lying, and saying that you are indifferent to whether theism or naturalism is true, we should be allowed to find a positive narrative in our worldview, as long as our conclusions are reached with reason and evidence and the acknowledgment of the beneficial consequences come after the fact. To be properly skeptical, you have to acknowledge your biases and factor that in. At no point does good skepticism entail dishonesty. You should be especially skeptical of a belief you want to be true. A religion might be true, and I would believe it whether or not I wanted it to be right. Who cares what you want to be true? It’s either true or it isn’t, what I want plays no role.
There are definite downsides to Christianity, like always being watched, and there are definite downsides to naturalism, like mortality. But I would obviously accept God’s existence if evidence were provided. There are parts of Christianity that I think are repugnant, but I can’t really ignore the fact that I used to be a really involved Christian. When I became an atheist, it was a tragedy at first. I really wanted Christianity to be true, but I just couldn’t make it make sense. Many atheists mourn the loss of their faith, at least at first. I really did have a personal relationship with God, and when I lost my belief, it really felt like a friend died. I’m not necessarily proud of it, but at the time, I desperately wanted Christianity to be true. My initial experience of becoming an atheist was overwhelmingly negative. But as time went on, I began to see the bright side to naturalism and began to notice the downsides to Christianity. And even though now I see what Hitchens was talking about, that doesn’t change the difficulty of my initial loss of faith and make me a resistant nonbeliever.
A common defense offered by believers is that if we are sincerely and honestly open to God, then he’ll show himself. This is essentially a No True Scotsman argument, since it ignores all the disconfirming cases.
“If you are honestly open to God, he’ll prove himself.”
“Well what about that atheist over there, he was honestly open.”
“Well I guess he wasn’t truly open, was he? If he was, he would be a Christian.”
You’re just ignoring every case that falsifies your initial claim, that God will show himself to anyone who’s open to his existence. And as I already mentioned, deconverting wasn’t easy for me and it wasn’t for a lot of atheists — there was a time when a lot of us really wanted it to be true.
If the evidence was there, I wouldn’t deny religion just because I don’t want it to be true. But religious people are notorious for making an argument from consequences. They say if evolution is true, then we’re just a bunch of animals; or if there is no God, then life is meaningless; or if there is no God, there’s no objective morality, or no afterlife, or no free will, and so on. And these things are often presented as benefits to belief, but they’re just as often used as reasons why religion is true.
It would be ridiculous to seriously assert that all atheists are resistant nonbelievers for one reason or another, but even if you try to say that all atheists aren’t truly open and honest in their pursuit, you still have to deal with all the other believers out there who you think have the wrong god. There are people who are very willing to believe in a god, and be religious, and enter into a proper relationship with god on his terms, but they were born in India or Pakistan, so according to you, they have the wrong god. They’re obviously open to god, they just got bad information, according to you.
The reason for all this discussion of whether or not we’re open to belief in principle is to try to show that we’re approaching this question with a commitment to the evidence, no matter where it leads us. But any self-respecting skeptic already consciously tries to do this with everything. Resisting the argument from consequences is Level One Skeptic stuff. It’s actually not that hard to detach yourself from the consequences if you really care about what’s true.
A common defense of God’s hiddenness is that we need to have faith, because that’s valuable to God for some reason. I have a whole episode about faith, and everything I said there applies here. Faith can be used in service of any religion to believe in any god. Faith can be used to defend of anything, so it can’t be used as a justification for anything. Faith is not a reliable way of knowing things, since it reliably leads to false beliefs and even mutually incompatible beliefs.
Another typical response is that you can’t test god. And again, I happen to have a whole episode about testing God — episode thirteen, which is about prayer studies. That aside, the Bible has stories where God is tested. Gideon puts the fleece in the grass to test God to get evidence and verification of what God is asking of him. The ‘you can’t test God’ defense is really an appeal to faith. They’re saying you shouldn’t ask for evidence and verification of God’s existence, so it would be helpful to skip to what they’re really saying, which is that faith is a reliable way of knowing something and asking for evidence is bad. There is a natural selection for religions with this rule that you can’t test the claims they make. If a religion actually encouraged testing god, that religion would die out pretty quickly. If your religion has a rule against empirically testing the stuff it claims, it’ll fare a lot better than others.
Some believers who are more fundamentalist, like Ken Ham or Ray Comfort, will say that they know why atheists reject God. It has nothing to do with evidence, it’s because we’re sinful beings and are resistant to being held accountable, the existence of objective morality, etc. Basically, because we want to sin or don’t want to be held accountable to our sins, we reject God. They know this to be true not just because of their mind reading ability, but also because the Bible says it’s true. In Romans, it says “All have sinned,” and in Proverbs that “Evil people are eager for rebellion.” You can’t use your own theology to prove your theology, that’s totally circular. You’re saying that I have to assume the Bible is true to understand why it’s true.
Some apologists try to argue that knowledge of God’s existence would deprive us of free will. If we knew God existed, we would lose the ability to reject him in freedom. But showing us the truth doesn’t strip us of free will or coerce us. Even within Christianity, there are beings who know God is real and reject him anyway. Satan still rejected God after knowing he was real, so if we grant the Christian framework that includes Satan rebelling against God, then you can’t use free will as an argument for why God remains hidden. So even in their own framework, knowing God exists doesn’t deprive us of the freedom to reject him. Since when does God have a problem with coercion, anyway? Threatening us with hell if we don’t love him isn’t coercion? This is not voluntary. God has a gun to all of our heads and is also claiming he doesn’t want to coerce us?
If Christianity is true, there are billions of people burning alive right now — not because they had a deep desire to rebel, or because they didn’t want to worship god, but just because they didn’t know that Christianity was any different from Islam or Hinduism. If the Christian God is real, that means that God created the entire universe, wants everyone to know the truth and be saved, provided a means to be saved, and then didn’t make it clear that any of this was even true.
If there is a god who wants a personal relationship with you, as most Christians believe, there shouldn’t be any atheists. Maybe there would be people who rejected a relationship with God or worship of God on principle, but there shouldn’t be atheists. God would make himself clearly known to everyone so that we would have a real chance to enter into a relationship with him unimpeded by the totally unnecessary obstacle of wondering whether or not he exists in the first place.
If you’ve listened to other discussions of the problem of divine hiddenness, you may have noticed that many of them get wrapped around the axle on minutia and questions that are only tangentially related to the actual objection. When I speak with people who are struggling with their belief, or I think back to when I struggled to remain a Christian, the issue being dealt with is why a God who wants you to know he’s real would hide when no one is making him do that. There will always be a fundamental tension between the idea of a god who wants you to know he exists but is also silent and invisible.
Christopher Hitchens on Wishful Thinking [YouTube]
Christopher Hitchens vs. Alister McGrath [YouTube]
The Demon Haunted World [Amazon]
Theoretical BS on Divine Hiddenness [YouTube]