This is the the seventeenth 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.
Value differences, our standards for beliefs in general about other matters, and how someone might go about getting as much evidence as possible will play a role in my final evaluation of this sort of argument.
As with some of the other no-evidence argument posts in this series, some of my presentation is influenced by Peter van Inwagen's "It Is Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence" and "Quam Dilecta" (part 1; part 2), which are two different presentations of the same core paper, expanded upon differently for different audiences (I assume). Also, William Alston's "Religious Beliefs and Values" in Faith and Philosophy 18 (2001), 36-49 strongly influenced some of my thoughts on how value differences affect the status of religious beliefs and the denial of religious beliefs.
Value differences and resistance to evidence or arguments
Naturalists and theists each insist that the other ignores the obvious. Is one side just blind to the evidence? Each side might think so, and one (or both!) may be right about that, but there's another factor. Theists and naturalists tend to differ over what they value, and this explains some resistance to evidence or arguments from the other side. Theists may find spiritual things involving a relationship with God more fulfilling and valuable than anything else, but a naturalist doesn't believe in such things. Our culture values autonomy. It's good to be self-sufficient and make good choices about one's life. Many theists value dependence on and obedience to God, which sometimes requires forsaking one's own preferences. After all, God is usually seen as requiring things of us. Many naturalists emphasize human good and look with hope to the future, while many theists see deep imperfection to be overcome, which isn't possible by our own efforts. Values theists often hold are opposed to many attitudes of non-theists, and people can be less willing to consider theistic belief if it brings with it these value differences. Similarly, theists with these attitudes are probably less likely to be swayed by naturalistic arguments. What's at stake here isn't just evidence. It's about someone finding a whole picture of reality far more believable given a certain set of values. Is this irrational? It makes the evidence harder to evaluate.
Standards to Apply Across the Board?
There's a second element that I think needs to be explored. Are the standards required by the no-evidence argument plausible? Do we require this sort of thing with other views? Peter van Inwagen argues that it's inconsistently applied by those who insist on it with theistic beliefs. We don't hold people to such standards when it comes to political beliefs, and he argues that we don't do it for other philosophical beliefs either. By most accounts, there's little evidence to decide between the view that capital punishment deters further crime and the view that it doesn't. Some studies suggest one thing, and some suggest the opposite. Some commonsensical arguments suggest one thing, and some suggest another. Those who base their policy decisions on arguments like that are going a bit beyond the evidence. Some people confidently hold that having a strong nuclear is more likely to deter nuclear war, and others disagree strongly. Some people think the general strategy the U.S. and allies are taking against the kind of militant Islamicist terrorism we are facing is in the ballpark of what can best be done. Others disagree very strongly. Some people (e.g. Brian Leiter) think of those who disagree with them on such issues as being irrational on the level of believing that our souls will go to live on a comet if we all kill ourselves, but most people think these are legitimate areas of disagreement that the evidence hasn't absolutely decided, even if they favor a view very strongly. There are interesting debates about these matters, and both sides can learn something by listening to the other. Van Inwagen asks how he can justify his political beliefs if the arguments for the opposing position are strong enough to come up with a rebuttal for anything he might say. Sound familiar? This is the skeptical argument now applied to politics. Yet we hardly ever think it's a good argument with politics, even with matters that are clearly empirical.
Then consider philosophical issues. Hardly ever do philosophers agree on some issue as to reach a consensus. It happens. Most people endorse roughly the diagnosis of the problems with the ontological argument for the existence of God the same general way, one going back to the immediate critics of the argument. That's rare, however. How can I be convinced that freedom and determinism are compatible or that reliabilism is the proper solution to skepticism when there are smarter and more informed defenders of some other view, who can offer responses to any argument I can muster? How can I believe in abstract objects when so many philosophers think there are no such things and can offer a philosophical account that includes none, while purporting to explain everything I might offer in favor of abstract objects? Is it simply irrational to keep believing in them? That's what the no-evidence argument would claim if applied to philosophical views besides theism. Yet philosophers don't do that. Why? Peter van Inwagen suggests that it's an inconsistency in philosophical methodology, one stemming from a desire to marginalize religion but not politics and philosophy. (He deals with some objections to this view in the above-linked essays. I'll not detour into that for the sake of brevity. I simply wanted to raise the issue, because I think he's correct about the inconsistency, even if I'm not quite willing to endorse a psychological motivation for being inconsistent.)
Can You Have All the Evidence Without Experiencing It Directly?
The theist might offer one final thought. Can the non-believer have fully explored the issue? What if God does exist and something of what Hawthorne or Plantinga says is right? Then some divine being exists and maybe won't reveal this to anyone with any certainty unless they're genuinely seeking God through certain religious practices (and maybe only then when they trust in God in the right ways, whatever those might be). If this is true, then could a nonbeliever be innocent in not seeking God? The theist might argue that a nonbeliever needs to have pursued God through worship, prayer, reading of scriptures, genuine efforts to see and evaluate oneself in the way a perfect God would want us to, entering into a community of faith to see life through the eyes of faith, and so on. Simply learning about religion isn't enough, because that’s not what God is looking for in us. Only if we enter into the practices of the faith, genuinely seeking God, would God give us this assurance. If this is possible, then it may be that the atheist or agnostic doesn’t have all the information that a theist has. This is an interesting possibility that should at the very least give pause to the naturalist.
One problem is that some people do seem to try out religious practices and abandon them, thinking that there is nothing to them. But maybe they didn’t seek hard enough, or maybe they weren't really seeking the true God. These are at least possibilities that shouldn't be ruled out. Probably a more serious objection is that this opens one to brainwashing. Trying out a particular religious community's practices and viewpoint would tend to increase one's likelihood of believing, even if that group is wrong. That's a worthwhile concern, and any attempt at seeking God in this sort of way needs to involve some skepticism just to guard against that. A theist arguing this way might suggest only the attempt to engage in religious practices as a goal of seeking out whatever higher power there might be. Does that automatically open someone up to brainwashing? Or is it simply opening oneself up to see things from a different perspective? For instance, can someone truly criticize Christianity if they don’t understand it? Can they understand it without having read the Bible to understand what's going on in it, asking someone who knows more about it in the harder to understand parts? Could I consider myself to have done my homework in evaluating a particular viewpoint if I haven’t tried to become involved in how that viewpoint sees the world? Maybe there's knowledge you can't get unless you do that. Someone outside that whole mindset and way of life may not have the information the person who takes part in such practices may have.
So we see different perspectives competing to explain our experience. How do we look at those different perspectives and judge between them about what we should believe? The theist might suggest that you can't understand the theistic framework without having tried to live, think, and feel from that orientation. Then if I haven't done this, I haven't given myself the opportunity to look at the evidence in a balanced way. Perhaps the theist needs to be able to look at life from the other perspective as well, and that's how the brainwashing is avoided. It may be worth thinking about what a theist should do and what a non-theist should do, given all this. For more on this issue, see my expansion of the notes I took this from in a post I wrote last year. The discussion in the comments is excellent.
Next up: the Cosmological Argument