The Demographics of Evidence About God: A Novel Argument Against Theism

Christian apologist Tom Gilson attempts to turn the tables on proponents of the argument from nonresistant nonbelief (aka the argument from divine hiddenness). According to Gilson, the fact of divine hiddenness is evidence for God’s existence. Before I quote Gilson’s argument from divine hiddenness to Christian theism, I first need to provide some context.

1. Gilson’s Defense Against the Argument from Nonresistant Nonbelief

In The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion, the eminent philosopher J.L. Schellenberg makes a distinction between objective and subjective types of divine hiddenness.

Though others have spoken of ‘Divine hiddenness’ or the ‘hiddenness of God’ differently, contemporary philosophers who employ such expressions usually have in mind either (1) that the available relevant evidence makes the existence of God uncertain or (2) that many individuals or groups of people feel uncertain about the existence of God, or else never mentally engage the idea of God at all. The first sort of hiddenness may be called objective and the second subjective. Of course there are various possible connections between these two, and both may consistently be affirmed.[1]

Gilson argues that the following is a successful defeater of Schellenberg’s argument.

An Answer To the Divine Hiddenness Argument

With that as background I begin to explore an experimental thought:

(1) Judaism and Christianity teach that God desires to make himself known to those whose hearts seek him.

(2) Judaism and Christianity teach that God’s self-revelation will be hidden from those who reject his holiness and righteousness.

(3) Therefore (1 and 2) knowledge of God is a matter of heart attitude as much as (or more than) evidences.

(4) But Christianity teaches that God is creator and true; therefore his creation should give a true witness (evidences) concerning his reality.

(5) Given (3) and (4), we would expect the world to provide evidence for God, but not to compel belief in God, leaving room for a decision of the heart.

(6) Therefore (5) we would expect God to have created a world in which evidences could be interpreted either as supporting or not supporting his existence.

(7) Those who know God affirm that there are objective evidences to support their belief in his objective reality, and deny that purported evidences against God are decisive.

(8) Those who deny God deny that those evidences count adequately for the existence of God, and/or affirm that evidences against God are decisive.

(9) Therefore (7) and (8) the world is such that, it is humanly possible to conclude either that God exists or he does not: belief in God is not compelled by the evidences.

(10) The world is such that the conditions in (5) and (6) are met.

(11) The state of the evidence is consistent with Judeo-Christian teachings (1) through (6).

The argument so far is a defeater for Schallenberg’s [sic] hiddenness argument against God, and I think rather solid as far as it goes.

Notice that, at best, Gilson’s argument only addresses objective hiddenness: it attempts to explain why the available, relevant, and objective evidence makes “God exists” uncertain in a way that “the sun exists” is not. It says nothing about subjective hiddenness, which, again, refers to the fact that “many individuals or groups of people feel uncertain about the existence of God, or else never mentally engage the idea of God at all.” Why does this distinction matter? Because there can be nonresistant nonbelievers with or without objective hiddenness.

Again, consider Schellenberg’s example of people who “never mentally engage the idea of God at all.” Gilson’s answer to the hiddenness argument does not explain nonbelievers of that type. (In fairness to Gilson, he might appeal to some other explanation for that fact or he might deny it is a fact.)

Or consider former believers who lost their their belief in God as a result of examining the evidence about God’s existence.  They had a good relationship with God when their doubts began to increase. Gilson’s “decision of the heart” theodicy does not explain them.

Thus, Gilson’s answer to the hiddenness argument is, at best, incomplete.

2. Gilson’s Divine Hiddenness Argument for Christianity

Let’s now consider Gilson’s divine hiddeness argument for Christianity.

(12) The Judeo-Christian understanding of God in (1), (2), and (3) was developed thousands of years ago.

(13) The state of the evidence in (11) having persisted for centuries, it is remarkable for its endurance.

(14) Both believers and unbelievers in God must acknowledge that no matter how strongly they hold to their own beliefs, thoughtful persons can hold to the opposite. Neither belief for nor against God is compelled by the evidence.

(15) Thus (from (14) the state of the evidence in (11) is also remarkably fine-tuned.

(16) This persistence (13) and fine-tuning (15) are suggestive of an intelligent guiding intentionality ruling over them.

(17) This guiding intentionality could only come from a personal God who has intended that state of affairs.

That’s the argument in outline. Steps (1) through (11) are defensive: they answer and undercut an argument against God. In (12) through (17) I attempt to go beyond that and show that God’s “hiddenness” may hint at something more positive. I do not claim it as a proof for God; it is not that strong. But it is at least intriguing, and, as I have said, suggestive. (emphasis mine)

I agree with Gilson that this is an intriguing argument. What should we make of it?

I think it would be difficult to support premise (13), even if we assume that (11) is true in the present day. But, in fact, I would go further and argue that (13) is probably false. Consider Richard Dawkins’s famous words about the link between Darwin and atheism.

Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

I am not exactly sure what Dawkins has in mind by the expressions “logically tenable” and “intellectually fulfilled atheist,” but I agree with him that biological evolution is evidence favoring naturalism over theism, evidence that humans did not “have” prior to Darwin. Overall, it seems to me that the weight of the evidence for and against theism has not “persisted for centuries.” Rather, it seems to me that for most of human history, the available evidence favored supernaturalism or theism. Most of the (alleged) evidence for naturalism (which entails atheism) wasn’t even discovered before two centuries ago, whereas most of the (alleged) evidence for theism was known before two centuries ago.

To support my point, I’m going to list a representative summary of the (alleged) evidence for theism and naturalism, along with the approximate date of its discovery.

(Alleged) Evidence(Allegedly) FavorsWhen Discovered
Big Bang theory (universe has a beginning)Theism20th century
Scale of the UniverseNaturalism20th century
Life-Permitting Data (aka so-called ‘fine-tuning’ data)Theism20th century (?)
Hostility of UniverseNaturalism20th century (?)
Evolution (common ancestry)Naturalism1800s
Biological role of pain and pleasureNaturalism20th century
Flourishing and LanguishingNaturalismLate 20th century
Problem of EvilNaturalismThousands of Years Ago
BeautyTheismThousands of Years Ago
ConsciousnessTheismThousands of Years Ago (?)
Mind-Brain DependenceNaturalism20th century (?)
Types and Distribution of Moral AgentsNaturalism20th century (?)
Objective Moral ValuesTheismThousands of Years Ago (?)
Ethical DisagreementNaturalismThousands of Years Ago (?)
Religious ExperienceTheismThousands of Years Ago (?)
Intelligibility of so much of the universe without appealing to supernatural agencyNaturalism20th century

The precise dates of these discoveries are not important; what is important is the distribution of these discoveries over time. If this distribution is roughly correct, then that is evidence against (13).

In fact, the demographics of evidence about God is itself evidence against theism. Other than the problem of evil and perhaps ethical disagreement, most of the (alleged) items of naturalistic evidence became known only in the last two centuries and then only because of scientific discoveries. That state of affairs is antecedently much more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true (and the progress of science involves more and more correct scientific explanations, explanations which do not appeal to supernatural agents) than on the assumption that theism is true (and a correct scientific explanation could involve supernatural agency and so antecedently there is no reason to predict the progress of science would involve an increasing number of correct naturalistic explanations).


[1] J.L. Schellenberg, “Divine Hiddenness,” in Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, and Philip L. Quinn, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion (second ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 509-518 at 509.