This is the the thirteenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.
So far I've discussed more expansive skepticisms, including skepticism about knowledge from the senses, and I've looked at particular problem raised against knowing about scientific laws. The one other particular problem I'll work through is skepticism about knowledge of religious matters, in particular knowledge of God. As I see it, there are two main types of arguments against the existence of God. The first kind is the no-evidence variety, and the second is the attempt to find a contradiction in what people say about God. The only serious one of the latter type that I know of is the problem of evil, and I'll come to that in due time, after considering three arguments for the existence of God. Before I do any of that, I'll look at the other type of argument against the existence of God, the no-evidence kind of argument. I know of two general kinds of no-evidence arguments. The one with a much stronger conclusion is sometimes called the divine silence argument, and it seeks to show that there cannot be any being like the one Christians and many other theists believe in and call God. One with a weaker conclusion simply relates to there not being enough evidence to justify believing in such a being, but that argument doesn't attempt to show that there can't be such a being. I'll spend the two posts after this one looking at the more general kinds of no-evidence arguments. In this one I'll look at divine silence.
Here is one version of the divine silence argument offered by the atheist [note: my presentation of this follows very closely the chapter by John Hawthorne called "Arguments for Atheism" in Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within]:
1. If a being with roughly the features of what people mean when they talk about the Judeo-Christian God exists, then such a being would make this absolutely clear to us.
2. We don't have such palpable evidence.
3. Therefore, there must not be such a God.
Notice that the argument doesn't argue just for agnosticism. If we accept the conclusion, we shouldn't be silent about God's existence (or any being with the traditional features of God). We should deny it, since such a God would ensure something that's false -- that we would know for sure that there is such a being. Why would someone hold the first premise? Its most common and strongest defense has to do with reward and punishment for belief or unbelief. If God is going to reward those who act a certain way in this life, and acting that way generally comes only if one believes in God, and God will also punish those who do not act that way, then it seems a little odd that God wouldn't make his own existence so ridiculously clear that everyone would believe. After all, isn't it a bit unjust to pretend you don't exist and then expect people to believe in you, punishing those who don't? The argument calls for indisputable evidence, such that no one would deny it. An omnipotent God can do this, and a good God who has expectations for us should do this, the argument goes. So an atheist has reasons to believe both premises, just from what theists believe about God's nature.
What can a theist say to this argument? The easiest thing to say is that God might have a reason for this sort of silence (which, to be clear, isn't absolute silence but merely the allowance of enough uncertainty that not everyone believes). There are a few ways the theist can go in trying to explain why this silence might exist if there's a being like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam teaches there is. I'll mention just one, since that's all that's needed to show that the argument fails.
John Hawthorne argues that the first premise isn't so clear, however. If a loving, good God exists and created us to interact in genuine relationship with him, then would his existence be so clear that we can't deny it? If we knew the consequences of rejecting God, we'd believe for wrong reasons -- perhaps to avoid Hell. A loving God who wants to be in relationship with us would want us to believe out of love and respect for him. Would that be likely if we had the kind of evidence required by this argument? As Hawthorne puts it, the kind of belief someone might have after having a fully guided tour of hell isn't exactly the kind of belief God would want if God is really the way theists tend to believe God is. So God might have a clear motivation not to make his existence so well known that no one can deny it. If that's right, then the argument has completely failed. It requires one of two possibilities. God exists, and God's existence is known to all, or God doesn't exist in anything like the way traditional theism conceives of him. Hawthorne has offered a third option, and if that's perfectly plausible then the argument for atheism is ineffective.
Philosophers sometimes see divine silence issues as more expansive than this. If that's how you want to think of it, then look to the next post on more general no-evidence arguments. This argument starts from the mere fact that some people don't believe, and that isn't in the end an argument for atheism. The fact that many people think there isn't enough evidence is still a serious argument, but it's arguing for a much weaker conclusion and thus doesn't have as difficult time as this argument. When you try to argue for a stronger conclusion, you generally have a lot more work to do in arguing for it, and in this case it didn't work. It remains to be seen what the theist can say about the general no-evidence argument, and there's a lot to say about it, but I'll save that for the next two or three posts.
Next post: Evidence for God?