No-Evidence Arguments: Divine Silence Argument

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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?


I'm not sure I get Hawthorne's point here. It isn't as if exposing us to overwhelming evidence for a claim is 'bribing' or 'threatening' to get belief, right? So what's wrong with pointing to hell and saying 'Um, pretty much only God could make something like that. Capiche?' and me nodding and saying 'Capiche'. Or, what's wrong with pointing to heaven and offering the same guided tour? I really don't get why my belief in God arrived at through clever detective work or the utter lack of careful detective work is somehow better than the belief I'd have if I saw God on the subway, read a letter he wrote, etc. Might you elaborate because clearly I'm missing something in what you are taking from Hawthorne here?

Jeremy will no doubt be able to answer you better than I but here are a few thoughts. First what kind of evidence would be considered overwhelming? If Descarte could doubt everything but his own existence, if skeptism as a whole doubts that we can know anything for certain outside ourselves then what kind of proof would God have to give? You could still doubt that God existed even if you did see him on the subway. And he has written a letter, it's called the Bible, but despite the testimoney of history and millions of living Christians many still do not believe in God. I would say that the only kind of proof He could give would be to directly insert into our mind knowledge of himself.
The Christian God is a god of love. He made us as an outpouring of that love, and he made us to love in return. True love must be free, not forced, so God had to leave us room to reject Him if He wanted us to love Him.
If He inserted knowledge of himself directly into our mind we would have no choice but to believe, no choice but to obey, and therefore we would not be free.

C Grace, I do think that's a problem with the version of the divine silence argument that I'm dealing with here. (Weaker versions are just the standard no-evidence argument, which I'll deal with in the next post.) What would this irrefutable evidence even look like? It seems to be an irrational standard that nothing (or perhaps almost nothing) could meet.

That's not the objection Hawthorne gives, though. His point isn't that no one would be able to believe for the right reasons if we had the kind of evidence that no one could deny. It's that it would be a way to get everyone to believe, but it wouldn't ensure that they would be believing for the right sort of reasons. In fact, it would almost guarantee that some of them, given their character, would believe for the wrong reasons. The argument claims that a good God wouldn't allow things to get to a point where anyone would go to hell for not believing if God could ensure that people believe by giving them enough evidence to know that God exists. In fact, it seems plausible to me that people who don't believe under our actual circumstances might be the sort who would believe for the wrong reasons in that sort of situation.

I think working this through makes it clearer to me what the central issue is. The argument claims that God is unjust for holding people responsible for whether they believe, without providing enough reason for them to believe. The assumption is that what determines final destinations is whether someone believes. In one sense, that is the Christian view, but you have to be careful. It's not that the ground of one's final destiny is one's belief or unbelief, as if it's an action that earns one's place. It's not as if belief earns brownie points with God, and God rewards people for it. The orthodox Christian teaching on this issue is that all deserve hell and that some are mercifully spared it even though they don't deserve it.

People certainly object to that element of Christianity, but given that claim you simply can't portray Christianity as teaching that God is sending people to hell because they don't believe. It's that God sends people to hell because they've done wrong, and I think the idea is that everyone would have done wrong at some point even if they had full knowledge of God ala Adam and Eve. The debate the divine silence argument sparks just seems to be off in the wrong direction given this point.

It seems to me you're conflating two senses of "belief". On the one hand, we have the belief that God exists. Surely this is going to be solely influenced by whether you think it is true that God exists or not. It's a purely epistemic question. Practical issues like "loving God" or "fearing Hell" have no relevance here. They only come up after you already believe (in this purely epistemic, value-neutral sense) that there exists a divine being. (It's incoherent to believe God exists because you love him, since the latter obviously presupposes his existence. Same for fearing Hell. You won't fear Hell unless you've already concluded there's some chance God exists. So the fear cannot be the *reason* for your belief in God.)

Now, I can't imagine any possible reason for God to neglect to provide sufficient evidence for his existence to allow all rational people to believe in this sense. Contrary to C. Grace's suggestion, God need not inject the knowledge directly into our mind. He just needs to offer some plain evidence for all the well-meaning atheists out there to pick up on. Maybe he could come visit Earth every now and then, hold a press conference, whatever. All rational people believe that grass exists, and that doesn't threaten our free will at all. God just needs to make himself as obvious as grass. How hard can that be?

The other sense of belief is to become a Christian, i.e. *accept* God into your life. That obviously involves more than merely forming a neutral belief that the big guy exists. Further, being omniscient, God can surely know whether people accept him for moral or selfish reasons. So I don't see the problem here. (If he wants to discourage the selfishness, maybe he should've left all the Hellfire out of the Bible. Or he could tell the fundamentalists to stop threatening us with it. Whatever. Point is, there are surely much better ways of doing this than *hiding the very fact of his existence*! I mean, honestly, that's a just plain stupid strategy. If God existed, he wouldn't be that dumb.)

So, yeah... your (Hawthorne's) objection to premise one strikes me as pretty implausible.

Richard, the kind of evidence you're talking about is not sufficient for the person offering this version of the divine silence argument. What you're suggesting is more along the lines of the ordinary no-evidence argument. This argument claims that a God like the one described in the Bible would make it so clear that no one could deny it.

As for your more general point, it's the conflation that I think is one problem with the original argument. The divine silence argument claims that God wouldn't require something that some people don't have absolutely compelling evidence to believe, but the question of evidence is about the former kind of belief, not the latter kind of belief, and the question of what God requires is the latter kind of belief, not the former.

Correct me if my thinking is off here, but wouldn't Romans 1 provide the divine response to this kind of argument? Basically, that God made His invisible attributes known to men from the first. Men see the attributes of God, and in their sin don't like that God. Since they don't like the God they see, they exchange the creator for the creature and worship something else. I don't know if it counts as an argument, but doesn't God say that men reject the former belief because their sin makes the latter belief untenable?

No, that might be something to say against the more general requirement of evidence, but it's not going to help here. The uncontroversial thesis that this argument relies on is that God didn't make his existence so absolutely clear that everyone would believe. The controversial thesis it relies on is that a good God who sends people to hell would make it so clear what will result in hell that everyone would believe. No one thinks that kind of evidence is available. The question is whether we should expect that kind of evidence. As I've said a few times now, the question of whether there should be any evidence or whether there should be sufficient evidence is a separate question for forthcoming posts. This post is simply about whether the evidence should be so utterly compelling that no one could deny it.

Correct me if I'm wrong (as if I need to ask) but isn't part of the problem the phenomenon of reasonable doubt?

Granted, there's not much God could do about the sorts of hyperbolic doubts that Descartes tried to create in the Meds and found it nearly psychologically impossible to sustain but the claim that agnostics and atheists are the way they are because they are unreasonable and blinded by their willful nature to my (possibly warped) mind fails to treat this as an interesting intellectual problem. It isn't hyperbolic doubt, self-deception, or some other such vice that underlies every single case of atheism and agnosticism, is it? If it was, would there really be an issue here?

I suspected when I mentioned the letter someone would say that God did send us a letter in the form of the Bible. Doesn't it matter that God allowed a thousand 'letters' bloom? Suppose there is a genuine letter believed to be genuine by millions of people who I frequently encounter dying to tell me to read the letter. I don't see that this by itself makes it reasonable to buy into the belief that the letter is genuine when there is a plurality of letters and believers one knows cannot be genuine with little reason if any to prefer one scripture to another. When one knows in advance that most of these letters are bogus and knows in advance that there are no reasons for preferring, the only reasonable response looks to be the sceptical one. Anyone who gets it right gets it right by luck, grace, or fortune.

That's why I'm distinguishing this argument that requires the Cartesian level of certainty with the next one that simply requires a more reasonable level of doubt. I really expected this to be the uncontroversial argument because it makes such a ridiculously strong claim. Surely a good God wouldn't have to make it such that people could have no choice but to believe. I think all this resistance comes from thinking the argument I have in mind is the weaker one that I haven't gotten to yet. That's a much more reasonable argument. This was the quick one just to show that the other one isn't requiring this really high standard of evidence, just a higher amount than atheists and agnostics tend to think is there.

The problems you're raising for seeing the Bible as the letter you have in mind will also come up with any other sort of letter, so I'm trying to figure out how something like that could count as the sort of evidence that no one could resist.


It seems that you do not deprive people of freedom if you create conditions such that all reasonable people would respond in a similar fashion because this still leaves people the option of being unreasonable (whether this takes the form of hyperbolic doubt, stuffing one's fingers in one's ears, etc.). All I was saying in the previous post was that there is an important difference between a situation in which a reasonable person could fail to find any evidence and one in which the failure to find evidence is itself evidence of being unreasonable. The interesting questions I thought were (a) are we were in the former situation and (b) if so, does this cause special trouble for the theist. I'm worried that depending upon how one explains agnosticism and atheism, one might say that these attitudes do not arise from careful, impartial, reflective enquiry in which case the answer to (a) would be 'No'. It may be that I'm just interested in a different issue than you, but I thought this was how the debate was to be framed and as such, there were certain rules in place about how the issue would unfold. You couldn't offer a 'straight' solution if inter alia it entailed that to be an atheist or agnostic one must be less than fully rational. Its for this reason that I'd say that the claim that God doesn't have a duty to make itself easily known to us would be a straight solution; the claim that our brains are badly bruised and wired because of the fall seems instead to undermine (a). Of course, I don't by either but for today, I promise I won't be offended if you take that as evidence for the corruption of my intellect.

As for the letter bit, I don't see that at all. As a rule I do not receive letters containing information from people whose credibility is in question or where there is controversy as to the truth of the letter's claims. If this were not so, we'd seriously have to rethink what has become a standard view in the epistemology of testimony according to which there is a default entitlement to accept what is contained in a letter. Checking over my emails, I simply do not find one pertaining to any issue where there is intractable disagreement between seemingly not unreasonable or insincere people. Of course there COULD be such controversy when it comes to any letter, but it seems that it matters whether such controversy is actual or merely possible and whether the controversy rages on amongst credible people. I think if there is a God, God isn't doing a great job getting his message out because while he may well be sending letters out, he's not stepping on enough hucksters and madmen who are creating so much noise that his message is drowned out.

I'm not trying to stay away from the issues you raise. I just want to put that off for the post(s) about that issue. If at that point these issues are still unclear in what I say, bring them up again. I think these are important issues, just not what I wanted to deal with in this post. Pretty much all the issues you're raising have a bearing on the next post and perhaps the one after. (I haven't had much time to think through how I'm going to organize the next part of the series.)

"All rational people believe that grass exists, and that doesn't threaten our free will at all. God just needs to make himself as obvious as grass. How hard can that be?"

Richard, just out of curiosity what do you think it would take for God to make himself as obvious as grass? It intrigues me.

Perhaps more pertinently; is it beyond the ability of God to make himself as obvious as grass to all people? The theists here will of course answer no.

So then the question becomes "what possible reason could God have for willing his own silence?" As we have seen, the usual theist response is to call upon the notion of free-will, that is, we must believe for the right reasons, out of our pure unrestricted freedom to choose to believe. However, this argument assumes that we have the freedom to believe anything we choose, without doubt or hindrance, at a whim. Is this assumption correct though? For example, could I make myself believe without doubt that there is an invisible pink elephant behind me - right now as I type? I think not.

My point is that the state of belief in any concept (including God) has a cause, an underlying causal reason to believe. In other words all belief is ultimately underpinned by reason. So if I find there is no such humanly comprehendable reason underpinning a belief in God, then I have no choice at all about my disbelief. I cannot force my self to believe wholeheatedly in something without a sensible reason to do so. One's belief or disbelief is determined by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. So what reason do I have to believe in God? I have no reason and therefore I have no belief.

When people say I can choose to believe I just laugh and move on.

That's a misrepresentation of the argument. Hawthorne's point is that if the information is so utterly clear that no one would fail to believe, it wouldn't all be belief for the right motives. No assumption is made here that the right reasons have anything to do with free will. In fact, I would say that that completely misses the point. The right reasons would be something like love for God (rather than mere desire to avoid hell) and love for what is good (rather than mere fear of what is bad). In other words, people would have intellectual knowledge that God exists without having their desires reordered properly. This is not what a good God would desire.

As for assuming that we can just choose to believe whatever we want, I was actually insisting on the opposite. I was assuming that certain evidence could be compelling for someone to arrive at a belief, even if they emotionally had not wanted to believe it and had considered it irrational for their whole life. But the ability to believe in the face of enough evidence is not sufficient for true belief, which is not mere intellectual belief. It is genuine trust in God as a person, aligning oneself with all that is good about God and desiring it as good. That does not come from mere intellectual belief that there is a God.

As for not being culpable in nonbelief, I don't think that follows. I don't have voluntary control over my first-order beliefs about the world, but if I really wanted to I could do whatever is in my power to convince myself that those beliefs are all false and that the world I perceive is all illusion. People do manage to bring themselves to such beliefs by joining unusual religious groups like Scientology or Christian Science or by spending lots of time with conspiracy nuts. Our second-order beliefs can influence what we do, which can in turn open ourselves up to changing our first-order beliefs. So even if you have no direct control over a first-order belief, that doesn't mean you are responsible in insisting on remaining that way. There are clear counterexamples to that.

In this case in particular, you should read what I say in this post about value judgments and about direct experience. Those issues undermine your final argument quite a bit. You should also think about the fact that we are very willing to blame people for things they have no control over, e.g. irritable dispositions caused by their genetic makeup. So it just doesn't follow that not having voluntary control over your beliefs makes those beliefs blameless.

OK, but if we define right reason as "a love for God" then the argument still fails. It fails because to have love for God presupposes the knowledge of the existence of God, ie, you cannot love something which you do not know about. As I have demonstrated, one cannot just arbitrarily choose to have such knowledge; there has to be an underlying solid rational reason based on experience. So if God fails to provide reason to believe in his existence then God can hardly require that he is loved by us. The God you describe, a god who demands that we love him yet deliberately obscures his existence is an illogical concept and an illogical concept cannot point to anything which exists in reality.

On another issue, I still can't grasp how you can suggest that "it just doesn't follow that not having voluntary control over your beliefs makes those beliefs blameless." How can one be blamed for something over which one has no control? Regards your example, "irritable dispositions," it is true that humans often blame people for their actions out of ignorance. Surely you are not suggesting that your God suffers from the same human failings?

Incidentally, just so that you know, I can accept that there maybe a creator god who obscures his existence for some valid reason. Perhaps to see what we do of our own initiative, or maybe he just doesn't care about human affairs too much. However, such a God would not require that we love him or worship him or even believe in his existence.

Have you read the rest of the series of posts? You seem to be completely unfamiliar with the arguments I present in subsequent posts against the claim that God cannot be known.

On the second issue, I suggest you read up on the concept of moral luck. You seem not to have thought about how pervasive that phenomenon is. That's going to come up when I get to free will in this series of posts, and I haven't gotten to moral luck yet, but there are several online sources with good discussions of the issues. The Wikipedia article is a good introduction. I have discussed the issues myself here, but the discussion assumes some familiarity with the new Battlestar Galactica series. I'm not talking about ignorance, either. I'm talking about acting based on the way that someone is, when you didn't cause your being that way (at least completely).

I'm afraid I don't have a lot of time so my reading is quite selective. That said...

The only way god can be known is if god provides a reliable means for god to be known. He hasn't therefore god cannot be known and, by extension, cannot be loved. A creator god may still exist but such a god cannot expect us to love him.

Regards moral luck; are you then suggesting that your God dishes out reward and punishment based on luck?

That's not what moral luck is. Moral luck is not related to God, and the choice of the term 'luck' is probably misleading. It's just the phenomenon that there are things that affect what we're responsible for that we have no control over. Someone who is driving while drunk might careen off the road and hit a fire hydrant, but there might have been a person there instead. Whether the person has caused property damage or killed someone is entirely not under the person's control, but we are right to hold the one who killed someone responsible for a greater crime. Two identical twin brothers raised in different places end up being very different, one a Nazi and the other an upstanding person. The one who became a Nazi became one because that environment was present, whereas it wasn't for the twin. But we don't blame the other twin for being a Nazi, because he isn't one. We do blame the Nazi for being evil. All of this is true despite neither having any control of where their parents lived after their separation.

There are lots of cases like this, and it's so pervasive that you'd have to revise our whole system of moral evaluation if you wanted to claim that we're responsible only for what we have direct control over. What's important is that God bases reward and punishment on what we're morally responsible for. The moral luck argument says that things out of our control affect what we're responsible for, but it insists that we are responsible for it. And of course it's not based on luck in the most natural sense of that word, because if God is sovereign over creation then there is no such thing as luck. That's not the issue.

As far as I'm concerned, God has provided a reliable means for knowing him, but if you're going to insist on not reading my presentation of that issue then I'm not going to bother repeating it here. It took me several posts to explain the issues involved and then to get to why I think there's no decent argument against this possibility.

I don't have a lot of time either, but I took the time to write out these posts. I don't think it's unfair to expect anyone interacting with them while making extremely strong claims against what I have argued to be willing to read my arguments or not make such strong claims that what I've argued is impossible.

I came across this thread by typing "divine silence" into google. That is the subject I am interested in discussing and I don't intend to be distracted from it. I think we should try and keep on topic re the subject of the thread, so, if I might be so bold, I'd like to summarise the thread (specifically our discussion) as I see it...

1) The OP suggests that the atheist argument against the existence of god known as "Divine Silence" fails because God might have a very good reason to remain silent.

2) The suggested reason for this silence, offered by you, is that God only wants those who come to him because of a genuine love for God. (judeo/christian thinking)

3) I gave an air tight reason why your counter-argument fails; that humans cannot love a god they do not know, ie, for humans to love god, god must first break his silence. Therefore the original athesist position holds firm so far.

That's all there is to it. Now if you have something else actually relevant to the discussion why not present it here in pertinent summary? I don't particularly wish to wade through tons of waffle extracting the salient points when you, apparently, already know them.

Wow; now that's what's called a tacky comment: refuse to listen to read up on any arguments and demand to be indulged however one pleases when a guest in another person's forum.

However, the general question does raise a salient issue. Butler in his famous sermon on the Ignorance of Man notes that not all our knowledge (of anything) is of the same type: we can know, for instance, that something exists without knowing its precise manner of existence. So we can't conflate various kinds of knowledge as pswfps is doing, at least without careful analysis to show that we aren't overlooking some relevant distinction. And there do seem to be relevant distinctions. For instance, Butler argues very plausibly that it is impossible for us to know God and His ways, when 'know' is taken in certain ways, because there is a complete mismatch of scope: we are finite creatures, and no matter how good our intellectual capacities were, they could not know enough to get to the heart of providence. On the other hand, he is quite aware that this does not deal with all divine silence issues, because not all senses of 'know' are this demanding. In this regard, while not considering this explicit argument he (in that sermon and various other places) in effect argues against both premises 1 and 2: we do have adequate evidence (hence 2 is false) and we can think of good reason for 'intellectual probations' even in very ordinary cases -- e.g., teaching often involves challenging students to work through things themselves, with a bit of help here and there, rather than just giving them the answers from the get-go, because they necessarily learn more from the intellectual trial than from just having the answers handed to them. ('Adequate evidence' of course being a very different thing from 'absolutely clear', since the former requires serious thought.) Of course, advocates of the divine silence argument will have responses to this; but that just shows why you can't cordon off the argument and treat it in isolation from issues of moral luck, availability of evidence, and different senses of knowledge in the way pswfps wants to.

OP? I have no idea what that's supposed to mean.

What you have done here is (1) pick out an introductory post in a five-post discussion without reading the rest of the posts in that discussion, even though I'd clearly linked to the post that lists all the posts in the overall series with sub-categorizations so you know which posts are related, (2) give a question-begging argument that relies on flatly denying my conclusion at the end of those five posts without addressing my arguments for that conclusion, and then (3) claim that since it's not in this post I have a moral obligation to repeat everything I've carefully laid out in the subsequent posts right here in the comments of the post that's really just a prelude to the main arguments.

Now if you want it boiled down into a few points, I'll indicate what direction they go in, but I'm not going to try to give all the arguments that I've already given and thus absolve you from your responsibility to read what I've already said before assuming it to be false.

The main argument I've offered is that reliabilism in epistemology allows for the possibility that normal religious practices constitute a means for knowing God, not just reasonable belief but full knowledge. All that's required is that God reliably responds to such practices with genuine interaction with those who engage in them. That's how reliabilism works. Your argument relies on the denial of the main thesis I end up with at the end of those five posts. Since I've argued against it, and you haven't dealt with my argument, you therefore can't assert to me that my conclusion is false.

Also, please don't insult me. If you think my posts are waffle, there's no reason to try to engage with me in discussion. It's indirectly insulting to claim that you don't need to read what I wrote in order to argue against it, but when you start directly and forthrightly using insulting language that's crossing a line. This is a place for reasoned discussion, not name-calling.

Brandon, one thing to keep in mind is that the Divine Silence Argument in this post is really just a straw man to set up the No-Evidence Argument of the next post. I didn't expect anyone to come along and actually agree with the thing. The No-Evidence Argument claims that we need enough evidence for belief in God to be ok. The Divine Silence Argument claims that God would need to make his existence so absolutely clear that no one would believe. If that doesn't happen, the DSA says there's no God. Virtually no academically respectable philosopher would say such a thing. Many atheist and agnostic philosophers think there isn't enough evidence for God, but they don't think enough evidence must be so absolutely compelling that no one would ever deny God's existence. In other words, hardly anyone thinks the existence of just one atheist would disprove the existence of God, but that's what the DSA I'm talking about in this post is asserting.

OP = original post.

Of course you realise that the partkaing in such "normal religious" practices is actually predicated by a belief in the existence of god. Now, how can one have such a belief if god is silent? Is anyone else getting dizzy from these circular arguments?

For the record, since it is not already clear enough, I'm quite happy to consider notions such as "moral luck" and any other so long as they are RELEVANT to the discussion.

In all honesty I think you are at a loss to solve this self inflicted paradox.

Oh and as for Butler, in order that one might have even a partial knowledge of god, god must first break silence...

I've addressed your first criticism in the following posts. The same worry comes up with Pascal's Wager, and I've discussed it both there and I think later on in the series. You don't need to believe in God to engage in religious practices, and there may be good reasons to engage in them before you end up believing.

This is not a circular argument. A circular argument is when you assume the conclusion before trying to prove it. My conclusion is that something is possible, not that it is true, and my argument for it is not here. I have already explained where it is. Something is not a circular argument if it is not an argument to begin with. It is simply a statement of the conclusion I've already argued for elsewhere. Now read the arguments and respond to them, or stop calling them circular without displaying any indication that you even know what they are. You don't have to read them, but you should refrain from commenting on them if you refuse to read them.

Moral luck is relevant. Brandon has shown you that I'm not the only one who thinks so. I've explained above why I think it's relevant.

As for partial knowledge of God and silence, I fail to see how what you're saying touches the issue. It is the knowledge of God that does break the silence. But then you haven't bothered to read my stuff on a priori knowledge of God or reliabilism about God, which would explain how that would work.

I think we're drifting off track again. As I said before:

1) The OP suggests that the atheist argument against the existence of god known as "Divine Silence" fails because God might have a very good reason to remain silent.

2) The suggested reason for this silence, offered by you, is that God only wants those who come to him because of a genuine love for God. (judeo/christian thinking)

3) I gave an air tight reason why your counter-argument fails; that humans cannot love a god they do not know, ie, for humans to love god, god must first break his silence. Therefore the original athesist position holds firm so far.

How can we have any knowledge whatsoever of a god who is absolutely silent? Why can't you just answer that for me? Then I'll be happy and go away...

[quote]You don't need to believe in God to engage in religious practices,[/quote]
Yes you do, if it is to have any spiritual meaning to both the church goer and god.

Yes you do, if it is to have any spiritual meaning to both the church goer and god.

No, you have to open to God being real and the religious practices possibly connecting you with God, but you don't need to believe that God exists. Have you ever heard of the agnostic's prayer? I know someone who took the agnostic's prayer to the point of attending church with his Christian wife, and he eventually concluded that God does exist. You can see that as brain-washing. I have no argument against that. But all I'm trying to say here is that someone can do this, and if God is real then it might put the person in real interaction with God. It doesn't require belief that God does exist.

I gave a response to 3, and you refused to acknowledge it. You simply repeated the argument without explaining how what I called knowledge isn't knowledge. I have argued based on reliabilism (or a priori knowledge) that God could give people knowledge of his existence by interacting with them. You have not explained why that would not be knowledge, but you also haven't as far as I can tell even read my arguments for those claims, which are the real meat of this series of posts.

As for being absolutely silent, who ever admitted that? I don't think that's the case at all. I believe that God has revealed himself through the Bible. I believe that God has revealed himself through initiating genuine relationships with human beings. I even believe that there's some evidence for God, even if it's not absolutely compelling evidence for many people. What I have allowed for is that there are some people who aren't aware of all that, but that doesn't amount to absolute silence.

I see. I think there has been some semantic confusion. When you referred to a "love for God" I thought you meant a deeply involved, passionate affection for God, similar to how a person might love another person. Clearly such a love requires beforehand a deep familiarity with the object of one's love. You can now see why I've been going on about such a love for a silent and scantly understood God being impossible. However, upon consideration of your last post, I now think you really meant a yearning for there to be a greater overall purpose and a reason for existence. That is not love, not in my dictionary anyway.

So a plausible reason for the apparent silence of God might be that he wishes to reveal himself only to those who have a deep seated desire to have a purpose in their own existence. Not much to do with love - you can see the confusion here?

Incidentally, the basic premise of the atheists' argument in the OP is that God is silent. If you believe this is not the case then it would have been more appropriate to show how God is not silent and destroy the argument thuswise.

I'm not sure where you're getting your first paragraph from. I wouldn't describe the agnostic seeker as loving God. I also wouldn't describe such a person as having the kind of attitude that God especially wants someone to end up with. It's just a starting point to explain how someone who doesn't believe might do something that puts the person in a position where they do believe.

So a plausible reason for the apparent silence of God might be that he wishes to reveal himself only to those who have a deep seated desire to have a purpose in their own existence.

Again, I think you're connecting things I haven't connected. God might reveal himself to some people for reasons completely apart from their willingness to seek God. I don't see how anything I said leads to the result that God would only reveal himself to those with such a seeking desire. What I said is that such a desire or openness might place someone in a position to know God.

It's consistent with that that there are people who are just given knowledge of God without seeking it, e.g. the kind of overnight conversion that some people describe themselves having. All of a sudden they just find themselves believing in God, and the ability to know God has come from God and is thus very reliable (and on reliabilism it counts as knowledge). My point about the seeking agnostic is that there are things you can do to put yourself in a position where, if God exists, you may well be interacting with God. That doesn't mean that's the only way anyone might interact with God.

None of this is a way to flesh out the point about the Divine Silence Argument. That's a separate issue. This is just a response to your claim that knowing God is impossible. My point about the Divine Silence Argument is that God might not want to make his existence so clear that absolutely everyone believes the mere intellectual claim that God exists, because even that isn't going to bring someone to the right heart response that God (according to the traditional view of God, which is what's being questioned here) would want.

The premise of the argument above is not that God is absolutely silent. It's that God's existence is not so compelling clear and absolutely obvious that everyone would believe. The fact that not everyone believes demonstrates that such a premise is indeed true. Why would I want to destroy the argument by arguing against something that's obviously true and recognized as true by pretty much everyone?

Now maybe you have a different argument in mind. There is the No-Evidence Argument, which I discuss in the next post and beyond. That argument claims something stronger, that there isn't enough evidence to justify belief in God. This argument assumes nothing so bold (at least on this score, though I think it assumes something very bold about what God is like). As far as this argument is concerned, there may be lots of evidence to believe in a higher power. It's just that such a power couldn't be the traditional God, because the traditional God would make himself known in such a way that everyone would believe. It's the latter inference that I'm resisting in this post, not the first premise. If you intended to be defending the No-Evidence Argument rather than this one, then I think you're just commenting on the wrong post.

I wouldn't say the agnostic is a lover of god either. Really, I don't think you understand the points I'm making here.

Moving on, let me ask a simple question: Who initiates the relationship between man and god? Who has the responsibility to make the first move?

The standard Christian view is as follows. The relationship of rejecting God is initiated by human beings. The relationship of salvation is entirely at God's initiative, whereby an offer is given to all, and some respond. Human response does require a divine initiative, but we are responsible for how respond to that initiative. One thing that is very much required is that there is eventually human response.


I've been following the thread with some interest and you have some good points. I am a little confused though. At first you seem to be arguing strongly in favour of an atheistic point of view, that divine silence cannot be accounted for by a divine requirement that non-believers love God. Later, you seem to change course and adopt a more theistic attitude, offering an alternative reason to account for divine silence, that the non-believer must approach God out of "a yearning for there to be a greater overall purpose and a reason for existence."

What are you trying to achieve in this thread?

I'm not trying to achieve anything. I'm just interested in examining the atheist divine silence argument to see if it holds water.

In the OP, Hawthorn suggests that divine silence could be accounted for with the notion that people must come to God for the right reasons. The right reason offered is out of "love and respect" for God. A wrong reason would be to avoid hell. I've shown to my own satisfaction how this argument fails, that a non-believer cannot have such "love and respect" for God since a non-believer does not even know God.
Subsequently, it occured to me that a non-believer might still search for a higher authority (call it god if you like) to give them hope and meaning in life. I'm still considering this. However, it does strike me as odd that this yearning for meaning and purpose can it seems be satisfied by any number of world religions. Therefore if there is a right religion, it still requires God to break silence on the matter of who he is and how he should be worshipped in such a way that all peoples of the world can be left in no doubt. Since this has not happened the only sensible position is to doubt all religions.

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