7.29.2013

Divine Hiddenness, Prayer, and Agnosticism

This week I was reading through a book I got for Christmas that I've been wanting to read for quite a while.  It's called "Divine Hiddenness: New Essays."  The problem of divine hiddenness, for those of you not familiar, is simply the question of why God, if he is who Christians say he is, hides from (some of) us.  While divine hiddenness is a very interesting topic, I don't really want to write a lot about divine hiddenness here.

I want to talk about Paul Draper's contribution to the book.  Paul Draper is one of the foremost agnostic philosophers of religion in the United States.  I'll give a really brief summary of his essay, then I'll give a few of my thoughts on the topic.  Draper, as I said, is an agnostic, which is to say he's not sure whether or not God exists.  He thinks there is quite a bit of evidence for both theism and naturalism (which entails atheism).  For those of you curious, here's a quick little list of features of our world that he sees as evidence for each:

Evidence for Theism Evidence for Naturalism
The universe has a finite past Earth is not the center of the universe
The existence of intelligent life The universe is much older than humans
It appears we have free will Life came about via evolution
It appears we have immaterial minds Physical processes largely determine mental states
The world is full of beauty Pain and pleasure are systematically connected to reproduction
Some people have religious experiences The existence of tragedy in the world

The distribution of religious experience is very uneven

Now, of course these lists aren't meant to be comprehensive, and I'm sure there are plenty of other things Draper would include if that were his goal, but it isn't.  His point is simply that there is a lot of, at least what seems on the face of it, evidence for both positions.  Further, he says this it's really quite impossible to look objectively at these things and know which evidence is stronger.  One can't simply assign number values for strength to each of the facts about the world, take whichever has the highest number, and believe it.  It's quite impossible to tell what those strength measurements would be.  So unless one has actually had those religious experiences, there's no good reason to sway one direction over the other.

Draper's conclusion is what I find truly interesting, precisely because it's as intellectually honest as they come.  Draper quotes H.H. Price's abbreviated version of the Agnostic's Prayer: "O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul."  I quote his conclusion at length.  He says:

Since...I regard God's existence as a real possibility, I whole-heartedly agree with Price that it is reasonable – indeed, I would say rationally required – for me to behave differently than I would if I were an atheist. For example, I ought to pray – unlike the atheist I believe there just might be a God listening. More generally, I ought to do what I can to cultivate or at least prepare for a relationship with God.”

He goes on to say:

Religious practice is very difficult for an agnostic, and for some there may be value in that difficulty. After all, human beings are psychologically very complex, to say the least. And it is well known that belief is not strongly correlated with sanctification. Thus, if theism is true, then I seriously doubt that the moral and spiritual development of every single human being is best served by belief in this life.”

He concludes with:

I hope and even believe that my assessment is the result of an open mind rather than a closed or tender heart. But if this is so, then is the ambiguity of the evidence just an unfortunate coincidence? Or is it designed, not by me, but by a God whose policy is, 'Don't find me, I'll call you...when the time is right”? I don't know the answers to these questions. So for now I will sit on the fence, lost perhaps but still looking, leaning perhaps but not leaping, listening I hope, but not yet hearing.”


I have three things I want to discuss with regard to these comments.  One is directed to others who consider themselves agnostic along with Draper, one is directed to atheists, and one is directed to my fellow Christians.  

First, how should agnostics think about this issue?  Well, I can't see how an agnostic would get
around Draper's conclusion here.  Draper isn't sure exactly what probability to assign to God's existence, but he's pretty sure it's not zero.  If it isn't zero, it seems to me that a Pascalian decision calculus would come into play.  It's not exactly Pascal's Wager, since Draper isn't prescribing changes in beliefs or affirming a faith, but the reasoning is similar.  It's really just a piece of intellectual honesty.  Here's what really struck me: it seems like many agnostics use their agnosticism as an excuse to simply not have anything to do with religion.  I consider this variety of agnosticism intellectual laziness.  One presumably is an agnostic because she doubts both God's existence AND his non-existence.  So why do the vast majority of agnostics out there treat their agnosticism as license to act exclusively as if he doesn't exist?  Shouldn't one equally as often act as if she doubts that God does not exist, and thus act in a way similar to the one Draper describes (prayer, preparing for a possible relationship with God, etc.)?

So next is the question of whether or not any of this is relevant to atheists.  Here's my answer: so long as the atheist assigns a non-nil probability to God's existence, she should act in a similar way as Draper.  There are obviously quite a few atheists who do assign a zero probability to God's existence, and this shouldn't affect them at all.  But to give that sort of thing an absolute zero probability is a bit extreme and I'd guess probably fairly rare among atheists.  Here's the thing - if one grants that God's existence is logically possible then his existence is logically necessary.  On Christian theism, God is a necessarily existent being, which is to say that it isn't so much as possible that he not exist.  Another way to put this is to say that God exists is every possible world.  Plantinga's modified version of the ontological argument makes this point quite clearly:

If God's existence is possible, then he must exist in at least one possible world (even if it is not the actual world).  In any possible world in which he exists he is what he is - which is to say that he is a necessary being.  So in any possible world in which he exists it is necessarily false that God does not exist.  But necessary truths and falsehoods are true and false in all possible worlds (i.e. 2+2=4 in every possible world). It must, therefore, be necessarily false in every possible world (which includes the actual one) that God does not exist.  This, of course, means that it is necessarily false in our world that God does not exist, which means that it is necessarily true that God exists in our world.  

If you're an atheist, are you willing to assess a zero probability for God's existence?  If so...kudos - you're very bold.  If not, then shouldn't you at least be putting yourself in the shoes of the agnostic discussed above?

Finally, just what is the Christian to think about all this?  On the one hand, we know that "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)  John 3 makes it pretty clear that (a) belief is necessary for salvation and (b) that belief must be placed in Christ.  The story of Lazarus the Beggar (and many other scriptures) seems to make it clear that that belief needs to take place in this life.  

On the other hand, we may be the types to be inclined to see scriptures like Matt. 25:31-46, Romans 1:20, or the many teachings on the boundlessness of God's grace and think that inclusivism is the correct view for a Christian to take.  If one is an inclusivist, then I find it hard to imagine that God wouldn't honor these sorts of prayers.  

Suppose, as Calvin thought, we humans are endowed with a sensus divinitatis - a sense of the divine - that allows us to be able to sense God in a way akin to our other senses.  Suppose further that, similar to sight or hearing, this sense may be damaged in a way to where it does not function properly.  The Christian narrative would say that this feature would be damaged as a result of the fall.  Perhaps those who have religious experiences have them because their sensus divinitatis is functional (or at least partly functional) while others' are less functional or entirely dysfunctional.  

It seems to me that it would be reasonable to think that agnostics of Draper's sort, who dedicate their lives to searching for the truth in these areas and who pray and seek a relationship with a deity they aren't sure exists, must not have properly functioning senses of the divine.  Is that their fault?  Hard to say.  But even if it is, isn't it possible (even probable) that God would honor that effort even in the absence of belief?  Further, what if the so-called "soul-making theodicy" is true (and I'm inclined to think that it is)?  What if God remains silent to some people as a means to developing good characteristics in those people's souls that would not have developed otherwise?  Draper, himself, admits to this possibility.  Possibly God uses his own silence to help some people build character.  To me it seems like quite the virtue to be willing to prepare oneself for a relationship with a being she isn't even sure exists purely on the possibility that that being does exists and is worthy of worship.  I, for one, would not be surprised at all if both (a) inclusivism is true, and (b) this variety of agnostic would be "included".

Lastly, I just want to say how pathetic I felt in reading someone like Draper talking about the fact that he prays to a God he doesn't believe in as a means to "cultivate or at least prepare for a relationship with God."  I'm a Christian who believes with certainty that God exists - how much more should I pray to cultivate my relationship with God?  But do I?  Honestly, probably not a whole lot more than Draper does (I have no idea how much he does, but I have a pretty good idea of how much I do, so I think this judgment is fair).  This, of course, is deplorable.  I don't know how many of my friends are in the same boat here, but I confess that I feel ashamed yet motivated to improve that area where my life is seriously lacking.

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff, Scott. I too am shamed by Draper. Still not sure I understand Plantinga's ontological argument any better than I do Anselm's original, but anyway, good to see you back on the blogosphere.

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  2. Glad you liked it, sir. I'm sure any fuzziness in the clarity of Plantinga's argument if more a fault of my ability to communicate it than in the argument itself :)

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