Peter van Inwagen explains why God is hidden

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.

.

98 Comments

  1. Ludo
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Again: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17hEcSsv57g&feature=related

  2. lanceleuven
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Nice take down. I particualrly like ‘Theology, in fact, is the art of making the unconvincing seem plausible.’ Great quote! But using it as a definition, I have to suggest that Peter has failed. Because none of his ideas seem plausible. They all seem utterly ridiculous.

    • Frank
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      To me, even better is: “I call this exercise “making theological virtues out of scientific necessities.” I must remember that one.

      A lot of this boils down to viewing God as an entity that curiously LOVES giving people “exams”. He wants us to demonstrate learning of particular things, and in a particular way. Just think of the complexity of his grading spreadsheet! I, on the other hand, hate giving exams to biology classes – although it can be a challenge to craft an exam that does its job well, exams ultimately take up valuable lecture time and must be considered a necessary evil.

      • lanceleuven
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Yeah you’re right, I thought that was a good one too. Lots to remember!

        I don’t think you’re the only one tired of the time exams take up. God seems to set them but never bother marking them. As a consequence the good often get punished and the bad often get away with it. The marks of the omniscient red pen often seem lacking. Although I don’t understand why God even had to make the “exam” so difficult in the first place. Such as the whole “I will give you absolutely no evidence whatsoever for my existence, in fact I will give you lots of evidence to contradict and undermine the assumption of my existence, but if you dare doubt it I will send you to hell to burn for eternity” seems a little harsh. It just doesn’t make much sense to me. Although the “I will send you to burn in hell for all eternity for not praising me even if you happened to have lived and died in a place during a time where word of me had never reached” hasn’t really ever made a great deal of sense to me either. It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist at all.

  3. scaryreasoner
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    You quoted this line: “Women are not intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually equivalent to men.” and then later you quote, “Not intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually inferior to men”

    I suspect you meant to put “inferior” instead of “equivalent” in the first instance.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I fixed it, thanks!

  4. eric
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    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…

    Ah yes, the “its perfectly clear that my interpretation is the only rational one God could’ve meant” defense.

    Its amusing when one sect uses it. It gets infinitely more amusing when all of them do. One book, approximatly 30,000 different sectarian interpretations of what it means, and every sect claims their interpretation is the obvious one.

  5. eric
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Spelling note: in the first van Inagwen quote, first sentence, “now” should either be “know” or have a [sic] after it.

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    van Inwagen is like all the other ‘sophistcated’ theologians- childish conclusions based on false premises stirred up by illogical processing.

    Why any university puts up with these fabricators is mind boggling.

  7. eric
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    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.

    That must be why he used signs and wonders to guide his chosen people throughout their early history. [facepalm]

    All apologetics for the hiddenness of God must eventually grapple with the fact that, according to the bible, God did show himself to lots of people and it doesn’t seem to have damaged their free will or faith or whatever.

    • Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      Indeed. And far from turning them all into robotic worshippers, they still went off chasing golden calves or doubting the resurrection. The capacity of theologians to imagine scenarios that directly contradict their (literal) Bible is staggering.

      • kagekiri
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        Oh, but worshiping the golden calf despite definite evidence of God is totally proof that seeing miracles isn’t as good as blind, stupid faith! /fundie-ism

        Ah, or another one would be saying “God has to judge us for how we respond to evidence, so that’s why he doesn’t give us evidence, because he doesn’t want to judge us yet!” when people mention Elijah calling down fire from heaven or Paul condemning people for not converting due to signs and wonders.

        Of course, then they’re forgetting Gideon, who was allowed a boatload of miracles in order to just get him to obey, on top of God speaking to him audibly.

        Ooh, or they could cite Job, and say “God might be doing horrible things just to test us, so questioning him is bad, because you could get scolded like Job did” to try and shut down the questioning and thinking process.

        Theological rationalizations suck.

  8. Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    He is pitifully unaware that his reasoning shows god is redundant–a repugnant perspective to those who insist on absoluteness–just like evolution does. This aspect is staring them in the face, but they insist on believing god chooses to be a social contortionist and trickster while maintaining their blindness to god’s stupidity and powerlessness if it can’t find a better way to get us to behave.

    It comes down to theologians preserving their status and jobs which is tied to keeping the present waters muddied along with their minds, that is, keeping their god belief alive. Changing careers late in life do not come easy for many.

  9. jeffery
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    What is even more amusing (and appalling) than seeing Van Ingwagen stand logic and semantics on their heads in order to try to validate a flawed hypothesis is the realization that some people actually believe this shit! He arbitrarily proclaims that Paul, one of the most revered figures in Christianity and the “founder” of the church itself, is “wrong”, and goes on to arbitrarily decide that he, Van Ingwagen, knows the motivations behind an omnipotent deity’s actions- what hubris!
    In answer to the basic question, “Why is it, then, that we are here; that all of this exists?”, I say, “The universe exists because there is no such thing as nothing.” I believe this phenomenon is what led our dualistically-“wired” brains (which cannot approach the subject accurately) to assume that there must be a “something” that created it, as a potter “creates” a pot. I believe that the very concept of God arose from this, with this “God” eventually being ascribed human traits, a situation which results in so many paradoxes that the Xtians (and all other religions) are still fumbling around, trying to somehow make the hypothesis “work”.

    • zendruid1
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      [Van Ingwagen] arbitrarily proclaims that Paul, one of the most revered figures in Christianity and the “founder” of the church itself, is “wrong”…

      I can agree with that bit. I approach the epistles from the perspective that Paul lied about his conversion and proceeded to sabotage the nascent Christian movement from within.

      • Posted August 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        and then god ignored this and allowed it to happen. woooooooooo, god is mysterious…..

  10. Barney
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Van Inwagen’s argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

    • Jeff D
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Yes, I thought of this instantly. Van Ingwagen is spinning a version of the “I refuse to prove to you that I exist” / Babelfish argument.

      • Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps we can hope that van Inwagen disappears in a puff of logic? No… ? Oh.

        /@

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted August 20, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

          Surely it is God who would have to disappear if he… er… appeared. I always knew absence of evidence wasn’t evidence of absence, but it’s the first case I’ve found where absence of evidence is evidence of presence (should that be omnipresence)?

          I need a liitle lie down.

  11. teacupoftheapocalypse
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Popeye say “I am what I am”? Does this mean that Popeye is God? He does, after all have superhuman strength, a Magic Hat and a Magic Jeep.

    That should be enough evidence to convince anyone, because I say so and you can’t prove otherwise:)

  12. Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Can we make this seem plausible?
    Not only does this line give the game away, it also gives us the opportunity to ignore its rhetorical nature & reply “No, apparently not!” judging by the extracts that Jerry has provided That’s not to say I hold out any hope of improvement in the dross that Jerry did not deem worthy of inclusion!.

  13. Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    To me this is very close to the problem of the Hiddenness of Santa.

    Everyone that knows of Santa, knows that he only comes when you are asleep and will not come to you if you stay up waiting to see him come to your house. Why should this be so?

    Closely related is the “Santa doesn’t come to those who stop believing in him.”

    • Posted August 17, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Indeed.

    • Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      “I never got any presents for Christmas when I was a child even though I believed in Santa Clause… and so did my parents.” — after Carrottop.

      /@

  14. raven
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    If the god’s existed, they would be as obvious and noncontroversial as trees, rocks, and water.

  15. raven
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    The hiddeness excuses fall apart when you look at them.

    Supposedly god is hiding so we can exercise our free will.

    We all have institutions in our lives that limit our free will.

    1. First our parents.

    2. Our society, friends, family, pets. Customs and expectations of what proper and normal behavior is.

    3. Governments.

    4. The laws, police, DA’s, and prisons.

    5. Reality.

    Society, reality, government, and the law aren’t hiding. We still exercise our agency and/or free will.

    The hiddeness of god is like a government with laws and means of enforcing them that nevertheless, no one knows about or sees. Until the hidden police take you away to the hidden prison for stuff you did that you didn’t even know was illegal.

    Shorter: It’s an excuse for the absence of any evidence for an Invisible Sky Fairy.

  16. Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Sometimes I wonder: these STs seem to be playing a game: “how well can I make the case for something that is ridiculous”?

    I wonder how many actually believe the stuff that they write.

  17. Iain Walker
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    “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?” – van Inwagen

    Plausible? Not particularly. Because if God really, really wants us to figure things out for ourselves, there’s an obvious advantage to clearly and unambiguously telling us so (and by signs and miracles if necessary). By remaining hidden, he keeps this wish for us hidden as well, leaving his followers open to dogmatism, authoritarianism and obscurantism in a way that they wouldn’t be if he made it clear that intellectual curiosity and figuring things out for ourselves was one of the highest virtues.

    But then maybe that’s also something that we’re supposed to figure out for ourselves. But then we’ve still got the problem that this is incredibly wasteful, and that a substantial number of his most devout supporters end up actively hindering this long term goal. It’s as if God were the headmaster of a school with an intended ethos of free-form, unstructured learning, but who didn’t bother to tell anyone – pupils, teachers or parents – that this was the case, and what’s more makes no attempt to reign in disciplinarians who enforce rote-learning from out-of-date texts. This is not a helpful or efficient way of realising your pedagogical goals. It is counter-productive. At least Dumbledore had a reason for keeping Snape on staff. What’s God’s excuse for hanging onto Ratzinger?

    • Iain Walker
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Also, how on earth does faith fit in with van Inwagen’s argument? On the face of it, religious faith would be counter-productive – it would be fine if people simply accepted God’s existence as a matter of faith, but the problem is that faith has no constraints or limits to what it can apply to. What’s to stop believers going further and accepting other things on faith, other things which God actually wants us to work out are false (e.g., that women are inferior to men)?

      Van Inwagen’s God really doesn’t seem to have thought this through.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        I think Inwagen is on dangerous grounds here. If he isn’t more circumspect he may find himself excommunicated for heresy and blasphemy for his radical departure from scripture and doctrine. The catholic church has lately been smacking people down pretty hard for far less outré stuff than Inwagen is proposing.

  18. MNb
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    “theology … begins with a conclusion or belief that has to be rationalized, no matter what the data”
    That’s exactly what we would expect from a line of subject that took over its main method from Aristoteles. Now if theologians were honest and would indeed be eager to deserve the same respect as mathematicians get they would replace that teleology by backward logic – begin at the conclusion and investigate which assumptions are needed.
    There are no prices to win for those who can guess why theologians and philosophers of religion don’t do that.

    “putting them in God’s mouth”
    I can play that game too. God wants us to become atheists. We don’t need to stretch Van Ingwagen’s logic too much to arrive at that conclusion. And I can give a very good reason too: god is tired of all the believers using him as a justification for his wrongdoings and misrepresenting his good intentions in distorted Holy Books. Then we immediately understand why we don’t observe miracles anymore in our days.

    • MNb
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      line of business/subject: linguistic blend.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Aristotle is far better at reasoning these things out. Christians adopted him rather late.

  19. Claimthehighground
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    He demonstrates the truism:
    Ones tongue should not be Inwagen before the brain is Inguagen.

  20. Barry McGuire
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    God wishes to remain hidden yet throughout history men (invariably men) like van Inwagen have written tomes, both voluminous and slender, in the endeavor to prove beyond doubt that God exists. Is there, perhaps, a special room in Hell for those who attempt to blow God’s cover, with punishments meted out according to how successful they have been? Delicious to conjecture.

    • eric
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      You could turn this into an amusing theological argument:

      If god can remain hidden and wishes to remain hidden, then all theological proofs of his existence are doomed to failure and can be assumed to be fatally flawed, because God would make it impossible for us to discover an unflawed proof.

      If not, then absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

  21. Tim
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    …believing in [God] for a certain</strike. reason … might make it difficult or even impossible for that person to acquire other features God wanted him or her to have.

    Features like “shit for brains”, for example? Theology problems are just so deep, aren’t they? If God wanted people to have shit for brains, why would people, some people at least, not have shit for brains? Is it Satan who gave us something other than shit for brains?

    • Tim
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      Whoops – strikethrough defect!

  22. Tim
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Inwagen chooses some nice, very recent, liberal viewpoint “women are not the intellectual, emotional, or spiritual inferiors of men” and flatters his liberal readers (fundamentalists are reading his particular Sophisticated Theology™) by telling his that they’re on the side of God when they say that this is an evident proposition if you’ll just use evidence from your healthy social lives. Great! Now, why did we get the Ten Commandments?

  23. Tim
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    fundamentalists NOT are reading his particular Sophisticated Theology™

    • Tim
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      fundamentalists are NOT reading his particular Sophisticated Theology™

      Sigh, I have a terminal case of impatience.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      Of course not.
      ST: Scientific necessity is the mother of alternative theological invention.
      Fundie: Theological necessity is the mother of alternative scientific invention.
      Atheist: Whatever. (Yawn)

      Once again, JC has nobly suffered so the rest of us don’t have to.

  24. Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Can someone help me find my jaw, please? It dropped so hard that it rolled under the desk.

    So, God doesn’t reveal himself (except to all those folks in the Bible he DID reveal himself to, obviously,) in order to let us come to our own conclusions about complex stuff that apparently contradicts his alleged word?!

    Well, I’m convinced.

  25. deadweasel
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    I had such hope.

    I had hoped to finally understand how theologians can aquire knowledge of a hidden, transcendant, unobservable, ineffable, supernatural, inconceivable, being’s nature, intentions, designs, actions, and essence.

    My hopes have been dashed. Again.

    But then I found comfort, in the words of Saint Ingersoll, the great 19th Century agnostic, freethinker, lawyer, and railroad mouthpiece: Hope is an damned liar.

  26. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    This theology seems to somewhat conflict with the Bible.
    If God wants folks to figure stuff out on their own, (s/)he would give just a few helpful hints, not threaten anyone with hellfire, and as noted by a few posters above, not allow authoritarian fascist to rule in her/his name.

    Most bizarre is the phrase about believing in God’s existence “out of context”. That last is a frequent weasel-phrase of bad apologists.

  27. Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    why God exists but keeps himself hidden.

    and why he didn’t hide 6000 to 2000 years ago.

  28. kennyrb
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    All of us working in The Rolling Galilee Miracle Show have lost our advantage of not having an advantage. Thanks, van Inwagen!

    Whenever there are presumed consequences, those not present at the special whoopty-poopty are at a serious advantage OR disadvantage depending on how the theologian spins it. The problem with special revelation is one of justice.

  29. darrelle
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    My eight year old kids could tear this apart and would exclaim, “That guy is an idiot!” I would then feel obligated to correct their impoliteness, but that feeling would not be able to overcome the feeling that the author of this drivel is very deserving of that charge.

  30. Warlock
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    As Hitch would say: “he claims to know things he cannot know”.

  31. blitz442
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    If God is perfect, and existed in a perfect reality infinitely before He created the Universe, why alter that perfect reality by introducing imperfection? Wouldn’t that by definition reduce God to imperfection?

    Is it possible to have more than one version of a perfect reality? If so, how does Satan and stuff like SIDS factor into that perfect reality?

    Did God create the Universe to achieve some goal? Ok, how can a perfect being have goals that have not yet been achieved?

    I really think that the religious who claim that God is perfect have a worse problem that the problem of evil or the hidden god. They have to explain why a finite physical Universe, which was obviously not necessary for perfection and overall reduces perfection, exists at all.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      This is the problem of mystery. Mystery means beyond humans’ ability to understand with words. That is, you can only rely on language to state the problems that arise when proposing the characteristics of a supernatural being. Since such a supernatural being is beyond language, such terms such as “perfection” “imperfection”, “reality”, “infinitely” cannot adequately address defining characteristics of a Supernatural Supreme God.

      Language will invariably leave one chasing one’s own tail.

      Dance. Interpretive Dance. Then you will feel the essence of Mystery.

      • blitz442
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        “Since such a supernatural being is beyond language, such terms such as “perfection” “imperfection”, “reality”, “infinitely” cannot adequately address defining characteristics of a Supernatural Supreme God”

        When a religious person uses the word “perfection” to define God, do they have a definite meaning in mind or not?

        How about the word “good”?

        “Dance. Interpretive Dance. Then you will feel the essence of Mystery.”

        I had a nice word salad with lunch today, but thanks anyway.

      • Posted August 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        I can’t tell if this is seriously said or only someone making fun of the “interpretive dancers” that some Christian sects have (I knew one, danced in sacklike dresses made of fleece so no one could see her body)

        if serious, it’s the usual woo spoken by people who want to pretend they “know” something the rest of us mortals do not. Language doesn’t mean anythign when convenient, supernatural beings are magically “beyond language”.

  32. Sastra
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Inwagen seems to be contradicting himself. According to him, God wants us all to be humanists, reasoning our way to moral and factual truths by examining what is made plain to us in the world. And yet, we’re supposed to reason our way to God because He is not made plain to us in the world?

    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?

    No, that excuse doe NOT seem particularly plausible because God is supposed to be some kind of a Person with whom we have some sort of a relationship. Since when is knowing of someone’s existence a hinder to loving, hating, obeying, or rebelling against that person? If your mother tells you to clean your room do you think hey, I know my mother exists because it’s obvious that she exists so she must not want me to do anything other than know she’s real. Give her a line like that and you’ll really know she’s real. Clarity is not an impediment to having someone follow orders, or grow, or learn. Inwagen is implicitly assuming that we’ve all got ESP.

    The whole thing is muddled. So the requirement that we make a ‘leap of faith’ in order to believe God exists (because He is hidden) ensures that we don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on that requirement? Even though this is how the sheep are separated from the goats? Inwagen must be smoking crack. It’s the exact opposite. A loving and productive life inspired by the values of secular humanism is not supposed to be the model of What God Really Wants Through Faith.

  33. DrDroid
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Well, my hat’s off to you Jerry! How long can you keep this up? Eventually your mind will rot if you keep reading this stuff. But I understand that you are trying to respond to the criticism that New Atheists don’t pay attention to Sophisticated Theology.

    The arguments of van Inwagen and Plantinga are so absurd that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The only interesting question for me is: Why do they do it? I suspect the answer is: $$$$. They are paid 6 figures by the University of Notre Dame to be Sophisticated Theologians, and all professors are caught in the publish-or-perish dilemma. So publish they will, and what else can they possibly publish but mind-numbing drivel? It’s totally useless drivel, but perhaps ordinary Catholics are reassured by imagining that at a prestigious institution of higher learning there are smart people who can provide a solid intellectual defense of the tenets of their faith.

    • jeffery
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      “Imagining” that there are smart people who can provide a solid intellectual defense of the tenets of their faith is definitely the right word to use, here! Of course, Catholics have had a lot of practice at “imagining” things: the Pope is infallible; wine and bread turns into flesh and blood, a drop of water from a “magic” spring can cure all ills, etc., etc.

    • gr8hands
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Maybe Dr. Coyne will ‘find Jesus’ — collect the Templeton Prize (because they are credulous enough to want that kind of thing) — and then discover that it wasn’t really Jesus after all, only self-delusion.

      • DrDroid
        Posted August 18, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        Are you proposing that Jerry torpedo the Tempelton foundation with a Sokal-style hoax? Excellent idea!

  34. Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Satan and his minions, LLC, will codify the “plan” of reconciliation.

  35. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    So what is the purpose of a five-year-old human (or four, or three, or…down to egg and sperm) dying before they are mentally agile enough to arrive at this state of mental learnedness??

    Do such children dwell for all time without this mental training, in heaven??

  36. jose
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Ignorant, hateful bigotry.

    Very politely stated, which doesn’t negate it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      I hope Coyne’s misspelling has confused you, Inwagen is apparently against sexism. (Though as Jerry points out, he isn’t really doing the best he can.)

      • darrelle
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        I am relieved that Inwagen appears to share many of the moral values I would want to be prevalent in any society I lived in. But I am alarmed, and stupefied, that, given the content of their holy book, he is delusional enough to claim that the christian god wanted us to figure those morals out for ourselves.

        The irony is that these Sophisticated Theologians™ always shoot themselves in the foot with these attempted rationalizations. They always end up making their god look worse, not better. I mean, what kind of evil prick would give you a holy book that tells you to treat woman as property, make slaves of your enemies, stone your disrespectful children, and reinforce it all by telling you that you will die a horrible death, or maybe burn in hell for eternity, if you don’t obey? But …. what he ACTUALLY wants you to do is to figure out for yourselves that those behaviors are wrong?

        Does Inwagen just not see that? Or does it just not bother him to worship such a god? But it doesn’t really matter to them what the reasons are does it? All that matters is that god says that’s the way it is and we are such worthless servile little phlebes that we have no choice but to deal with it. They are ones to talk about atheism leading to nihilism.

      • jose
        Posted August 18, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        Damn! That wasn’t there the first time, was it?

        Apologies for my fuck up. I would swear I read the exact opposite yesterday!

  37. andreschuiteman
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    One may hope that van Inwagen’s book has been printed on recycled paper and that no innocent trees died for it.

    • gr8hands
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      There are no innocent trees. Not since the First Tree was intimately involved with Original Sin. All trees have since carried the stain.

      • andreschuiteman
        Posted August 18, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

        I stand corrected. Let’s cut down some rainforest in order to print the collected works of Alvin Plantinga. That’ll teach those sinful trees.

  38. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    But the actual problem is not merely that gods are hidden _but that everything we observe is most “plausibly” predicted on their nonexistence_.

    This makes them theologically either non-existing or damned liars.

    I’m sure that Inwagen elsewhere has a splendid “plausible” explanation elsewhere why that is not the case. But here it steamrolls his argument that we should take the evidence “already given us” and make the best that we can out of it.

    Certainly it would make all theologians unemployed. They work against science and for superstitious beliefs contradicted by the nature of our best methods posing theories, such as observability, monism and parsimony.

    As usual Sophisticated Theologians™ don’t see the Banal Contradictions™ in their position. (Or, in Cameron’s case of artificial selection, the Banana Contradictions™.)

    And they wonder why we laugh at them? It is the only sane defense against incessant demonstrations of outright stupidity and insanity, insanity as in the popular science definition “repeating that which not works”.

    It is Bizzaro World, and the ticket is stamped Air of Insanity.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Language… Will we ever get an Edit Facility™?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Also, I forgot:

      As an example of a world where gods are hidden, but so are natural processes, would be a chaotic world.

      That is not what we observe.

  39. Posted August 17, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Most religious folk today do not believe God is hidden. It probably never occurred to them. What he is saying is God is hidden to him.

    • gr8hands
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Probably because he’s looking up his rear — I don’t think god is hiding there!

      • darrelle
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t he supposed to be everywhere?

      • Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps a Roman diety is?

        Up Uranus!

        😮

        /@

    • sastra200
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      What he’s saying is that God is hidden until you believe He exists. Then the evidence is obvious because the definition of God says that He made nature. Can’t you see nature?

  40. DV
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I think Inwagen is making a ground-breaking argument here that God actually wants us to be liberal atheists. As he said, God doesn’t place any particular value in us believing in his existence, and God wants us to particularly be convinced of the equality of women. These are the exact opposites of the features of the faithful. Who knew! God approves of our message!

  41. Posted August 17, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    What *every* theist of every stripe says. And alas, no evidence for any of those gods.

    “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.”

    Ooooh, Paul is wrong? Paul lied? And this god didn’t correct him? So what else could he be wrong about?

    “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.”

    So this god is now impotent against puny humans, of course just right when the desperately grasping Christian needs him to be. And of course, Pete wants to use good ol’ special pleading to ignore all of the times his god appeared per the bible as convenient for his excuses.

    I love Sophisticated Theologians ™. They do such a good job of showing how ridiculous their primitive beliefs are.

    • David Leech
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      You’re right as this ‘reasoning’ would work for any and all theists so why be a Christian? Though probably best to not dismiss the effectiveness of ST’s as when my creationist Christian friend did a theology course using Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction, he was walking on air for weeks. He was seriously made up with his arguments for Jebus. I can only assume that it is someone clever enough to write a book agrees with me (confirmational bias sort of crap.)

  42. ah58
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I applaud Inwagen for telling us that we can ignore what the bible says when it’s in conflict with what we find reasonable and obvious. I find the whole god concept as described in the bible as unreasonable, therefore my atheism WRT to the Abrahamic god is fully justified.

    Thanks Mr. Sophisticated Theologian!

    • Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      One of the missing five commandments on the third tablet… “Thou shallt not believe all that thou readest in this book.”

      /@

  43. harebell
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    This sums up god’s activity.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      I just came across this cartoon yesterday; the comments in the post in which it is located directed me to another excellent demolition of the “hiddenness of God” argument:
      http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/burningbush.html

      Perhaps at this point I might be permitted a question. Since escaping from fundamentalism I have frequently come across the phrase “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” A couple of times recently I have seen it qualified thus: absence of evidence *is* evidence of absence when evidence is to be expected. OK, agreed, but isn’t this qualification a bit vacuous? After all, wouldn’t one expect that *anything* that actually exists would leave evidence of its existence? Or, in simpler terms, can someone explain to me why “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is not simply a false statement? It seems false to me, but I may be overlooking something obvious (wouldn’t be the first time).

      • Posted August 18, 2012 at 2:36 am | Permalink

        The Higgs boson is a good example for this. The LEP collider (electron-positron precursor to the LHC) saw no evidence for the Higgs boson, so this was evidence for its absence in the mass range that LEP could explore. Now, the Tevatron had access to a higher mass range, one that could potentially have seen the Higgs (as we’re now pretty sure its mass is around 125GeV). However, at the energy range at which the Tevatron operates,the Higgs just simply wasn’t produced often enough for its signal to be clearly separate from the background hypothesis. So here again there was absence of evidence, but not evidence of absence of its existence, only that it wasn’t being produced at a higher rate than expected. It was only when the LHC came along that its expected rate could be tested that evidence could be found.
        In short, absence of evidence could simply mean that your experiment is not sensitive enough to detect evidence. But if you expect something to occur at a given rate & you don’t see that (say, if the LHC had not seen evidence for the Higgs with all the data it has collected), then that would be evidence of absence.
        Hope that cleared it up & wasn’t too confusing/rambling!

  44. corio37
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    ‘I call this exercise “making theological virtues out of scientific necessities.”’

    If you were an IT salesperson you would call it ‘making a feature out of a bug’.

  45. Gordon
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Sophisticated theologians might do well to follow god`s example.
    I also find women realise they are not inferior so presumably the “us” who need to figure that one out are not them!

  46. Posted August 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Convinces me that JAC is a MORE sophisticated theologian than van Inwagen! Oops – I should say “more sophisticated atheologian (Plantinga’s term).”

    From van Inwagen’s comments about women, wouldn’t it follow that he must NOT base his religion on the Bible? Then JAC’s comments about the Bible would leave van Inwagen unscathed.

  47. dunstar
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Love the trademark. Thats awesum. Lol

  48. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Slightly OT, but funny in an Inwagen “we need no stinkin’ evidence” way: Girl Genius mentions that Militant Agnostics™ populates their steampunk world.

  49. lisa
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    A valid point. I only commented that a public confession, even a courageous one, is not necessarily a valid reason to trust anyone. I do not know the person being discussed in any way, so I was not referring to him personally. I meant that it is dangerous to trust someone, anyone anywhere or any time ONLY because the person has admitted to being guilty publicly. I have suffered enough disillusion on my path from a 6 year-old preening because, as the shortest kid in first grade I was first in line when we trouped into church for our First Communion (a lot of OCD nuns) to the skeptical and grumpy old lady I have become. I don’t know if I agree about which are the biggest liars, especially in an election year.

  50. David Evans
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    “And this is, simply, the evidence that is provided by normal social interaction.”
    (speaking of women’s equality)

    Maybe it is, in modern Western societies, for those that have eyes to see.

    Not so much, in societies where women are denied the education and “normal social interaction” that is allowed to men.

  51. Pray Hard
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    It’s very simple. God exists so that clergy can have jobs, money, power, flocks of brain-dead sheep to oooo-ahhh over them, an endless supply of little boys to fondle, an endless supply of unhappy, starry-eyed housewives to rumble, and a place where they can play dress up every Sunday morning and pretend it’s all sane.

  52. Pray Hard
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Oh, why is God hidden? I don’t have a clue. I guess he’s just sneaky that way. Or, maybe He is simply hidden so that He can secretly give “signs and wonders” lines to Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. I think I have that right. If not, please feel free to bring the hidden wrath of God upon me.

  53. Kevin
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    So, at the end of the day, you are saying the universe made itself. Why don’t you just defend that position?

    • Posted August 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Well, kind of. The defence of that position can be found in recent cosmology books by Krauss, Hawking & Mlodinow, and so on.

      /@

    • Tim
      Posted August 18, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      No, we’re saying we don’t know how the universe came to be – and neither do you. That’s the honest position.


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  1. […] and then go on to explain further: David, I have to say that I don’t understand the argument — Jerry Coyne has recently discussed van Inwangen’s version — that the will would be compelled if God made himself known in some irresistible way. What would […]

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