Sophisticated Theologians™ have a highly developed facility for making stuff up to answer any question, no matter how hard. The problem of evil is one, and two days ago I showed how theologian Peter van Inwagen explained why animals have to suffer in a world made by a loving, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. Clever that one, but not convincing.
Almost as vexing a problem is Why God is Hidden: that is, in a world in which, to a theist, God intervenes either from time to time or constantly, why do see no evidence for this?
In the last chapter of van Inwagen’s written transcription of his Gifford lectures, “The Hiddenness of God,” he gives the answer.
He begins by laying out the problem from an atheist’s point of view (p. 135):
If God existed, that would be a very important thing for us human beings to now. God, being omniscient [sic] would know that this would be an important thing to know, and, being morally perfect, he would act on this knowledge. He would act on it by providing us with indisputable evidence of his existence. St. Paul recognized this when he in effect said (Rom. 2:18-23) that the blasphemies of the pagans were without excuse because God had provided humanity in a world in which, to quote a text we can be sure Paul approved of, the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showest his handiwork. But Paul was wrong to think we had such evidence. It’s quite obvious that we don’t have it and never have had it, for the unprejudiced know that the heavens are quite silent about the glory of God, and that the firmament displays nothing of his handiwork. And, therefore, the absence of evidence for the existence of God should lead us to become atheists, and not merely agnostics.
Sounds convincing, no? van Inwagen even gives us an example of the kind of sign God might show us: having the stars in the sky spell out “I am who I am,” from Exodus 3:14.
But if you think God’s hiddenness is a problem, you don’t know Sophisticated Theologians™. No, this hiddenness of God is exactly what we would expect from the Christian God! (I call this exercise “making theological virtues out of scientific necessities.”)
van Inwagen’s answer is this (p. 146):
It is certainly conceivable that someone’s believing in [God] for a certain reason (because, say, that person has witnessed signs and wonders) might make it difficult or even impossible for that person to acquire other features God wanted him or her to have.
Can we make this seem plausible?
The last line gives the game away, and underscores the difference between theology and science: the former begins with a conclusion or belief that has to be rationalized, no matter what the data. Theology, in fact, is the art of making the unconvincing seem plausible. It is post facto rationalization.
So what’s van Inwagen’s rationale? As he notes above, those who are so easily convinced of God’s existence by “signs and wonders” aren’t going to become the kind of believers God wants. (It always amazes me that on some occasions theologians are so sure of what God wants, but on others revert to the “we-can’t-know-God’s-mind” defense.)
Here’s how the argument runs.
- A sign and wonder that convinces someone of the Christian God might be unconvincing, because God wants us to believe in more than just his existence (p. 148):
“From the point of view of theism . . . it is indeed true that God wants us human being to believe in his existence, but, like many truths, this truth can be very misleading if asserted out of context.”
What does van Inwagen mean by this? It’s this (p. 149):
And God does not place any particular value on anyone’s believing in his existence, not simpliciter, not by itself. What he values is, as I noted earlier, a complex of which belief in his existence is a logical consequence. . .
Is it not possible, does it not seem plausible, that if God were to present the world with a vast array of miracles attesting to the existence of a personal power beyond nature, this action would convey to us the message that what he desired of us was simply that we should believe in his existence—and nothing more?—or nothing more than believing in his existence and taking account of it as one important feature of reality, a feature that has to be factored into all our practical reasoning? If that is so, then the vast array of miracles would not only be useless from God’s point of view, but positively harmful, a barrier to putting his plan of reconciliation into effect.
So there you have it: God wants us to believe a lot of stuff, but if he convinced us only of the fact of his existence, that would convince us of only that single thing, and leave us immune—for reasons van Ingwagen doesn’t really specify—to the rest of God’s message. For if God wanted us to believe a whole complex of things, couldn’t he just as easily have conveyed the rest of his message by “miracles and wonders” as well, perhaps by having the stars in the sky spell out, each month, a different aspect of the complex of things he wants us to believe?
Van Inwagen doesn’t answer that question, but gives a helpful example of the complex of things God wants us to believe besides His existence. One of them is this: “Women are intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually equivalent to men.”
Now, says van Ingwagen, God could have conveyed this eternal truth to us—a truth, by the way, which is contravened by everything that appears in God’s own writing, the Bible!)—by having a burning bush proclaim the equality of women, or have “every woman born with a tastefully small but clearly legible birthmark that says (perhaps in the native language of her parents), ‘Not intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually inferior to men’” (p. 150).
But God doesn’t want to do that. Why? Because, according to van Inwagen (p. 150):
Part of the answer, I think, is that he has already given us all the evidence we need or should ever have needed, to be convinced—to know—that women are not the intellectual, emotional, or spiritual inferiors of men. And this is, simply, the evidence that is provided by normal social interaction. . .
What is really needed to eliminate sexism is not sullen compliance forced on one by evidence that has no natural connection with life in the human social world. What is needed is natural conviction that proceeds from our normal cognitive apparatus operating on the normal data of the senses. . .
And might it not be that miraculous evidence for the equality of the sexes would actually interfere with the capacity to come to a belief in the equality of the sexes in the right way?
So there you have it: we need to accept the “complex of stuff” that God wants us to believe in the absence of miracles, for miracles wouldn’t be as convincing as our arriving at those conclusions through our own reason and observations.
If that’s not a call for secular based morality—and a denigration of the notion of morality as derived from God—than I don’t know what is!
First of all, if gender equality is what God wants us to accept, why is the Bible full of cases of divinely approved gender inequality: mandating silence of women in Church, the stoning of nonvirgin brides and adultresses, and so on? Did God want us to ignore what He aid in his holy book and ultimately arrive, in fact, at the opposite conclusion?
And how is this theologian so sure about what God wants? It looks to me that van Inwagen is just taking his own liberal, moral sentiments and putting them in God’s mouth—which is, of course, what believers do and have always done. I presume part of God’s complex of beliefs is that slavery and genocide are immoral too: the exact opposite of what God tells us in the Bible.
And if God wanted us to figure out gender equality by ourselves, why did he let humanity go through many millennia of treating women as second-class citizens? Why is this realization happening only now? Did God want women to be denigrated and be prevented from reaching their full potential as human beings for so many centuries, beginning at least six millennia ago—and then suddenly allow women begin to come into their own in the early twentieth century? That doesn’t make sense. Why wasn’t this all spelled out in the Bible?
And, after all, why is van Inwagen so sure that if God told us what he really wanted with signs and wonders—after all, isn’t that what happened with the stone tablets brought down from the mountain by Moses?—we’d be less likely to accept the message than if we figured it out by ourselves? I don’t think so. There are simply too many people who would completely follow whatever God wanted, like treating women as equals, only if it was clearly conveyed with signs and wonders.
No, for van Inwagen, we’re supposed to figure out the right thing to do by using our senses and reason. And that is secular rather than religious morality.
In the end, van Inwagen’s argument for God’s hiddenness comes down to an argument that morality must come from our own reason, not from God. I will gladly sign on to that, but I can only laugh at van Inwagen’s ludicrous rationale for why God exists but keeps himself hidden.