The Problem of God and the Problem of Belief

J.L. Schellenberg has written about the pragmatic benefits of ‘not’ believing that God exists (where ‘believing that’ God exists is to be understood propositionally, and ‘not’ is to be understood disjunctively in terms of propositional attitudes). In other words, the supposed benefits that Pascal and William James say can only come when one believes that God exists, is false. One can have many-if not most/all- of the benefits without believing that God exists.

But how is this so? It gets back to propositional attitudes. So, for instance, one can imagine a world (not ours) where God exists; or, one can hope that God exists; or, one can believe-lessly accept that God exists (this is “voluntary”, whereas belief is not voluntary; however, ‘acceptance’ of God still runs into the problem of multiple gods/religions).

Personally, I have no problem with God existing–I really do wish and desire that God did exist, contrary to what fundamentalist/evangelical Christians and conservative Muslims claim. But I don’t believe that God exists because I can’t believe that God exists or rationally believe. That’s because belief isn’t a choice, so it’s not a question of ‘rebelling’ against God— as if anyone even has beef with an all-loving entity…besides Stalin. (1)

With that being said, as Schellenberg argues, believing that God exists is totally different than something like hoping that God exists. As the person sees it, reality has totally changed. Clearly, me believing that my mother exists is different (and better) than me hoping that she still exists. But this is not inconsistent with what was said earlier regarding the pragmatic benefits of not believing in God. For, as already alluded to briefly, one is going to need evidence to think that God actually does exist.

Thus, the world has to appear a certain way in order to believe that God exists, and one is necessarily going to need evidence to discriminate which religion/philosophy/world-view is true. This is why Schellenberg says that if God exists, then God would provide evidence that is (causally) sufficient for belief (and ‘evidence’ here could include powerful experiences). In addition, as alluded to before, Schellenberg argues that belief isn’t just a matter of degree but also a matter of ‘kind’. As Schellenberg writes:

But to get at the deeper issue here:
when belief comes to the person…who had thought there might be no God, the change of her perceived relation to God will be a change not just in degree but in kind. It is much different than, say, a move from hoping with intensity x that God exists to hoping this with intensity x + 1 or even x + 20. Indeed, in a very real sense now everything has changed for her, for what she hoped has (as she sees it) come true!

By the way, as Schellenberg mentions, one isn’t going to solve the Hiddenness argument by equivocating on the word “belief” or nitpicking around whether belief is necessary in order to have a conscious and reciprocal relationship with God (or the best relationship). Rather, Schellenberg’s Hiddenness argument is a serious argument that can’t be hand-waved away (To be clear: I don’t agree with everything that Schellenberg has written). (2) (3).

To be clear, Schellenberg’s argument is not the same problem as religious ambiguity that John Hick spoke of. That’s because, as Schellenberg points out, even if we granted that certain theistic arguments were persuasive or sound, there would still exist people in the world who either don’t have access to those arguments or are not convinced by those arguments. (4)


(1) And even if they did rebel or resist, how would we expect a loving parent to respond? Would we expect a loving parent to completely give up on relationship just because the child is resistant to relationship? Would a loving parent just quit? Given that God would be all-loving, all-empathetic, all-kind, all-generous, all-understanding, all-thoughtful, all-considerate, all-patient, etc., then the answer is apparent.
(2) One of the reasons (Schellenberg argues) God would provide belief is because God, as all-loving, would be open–not closed– to a conscious relationship with any finite creatures there may be. Schellenberg says that God being open can include simple, undemanding facts such as: God comforting someone, God letting someone know that God is there, God encouraging someone or giving compliments , etc.
(3) In his book, “The Wisdom to Doubt” Schellenberg gives other reasons why we expect nonbelievers to be aware of God’s existence; Schellenberg’s arguments combine various attributes of God (God being ‘all-just’, for instance) with various kinds of non-resistant nonbelief (e.g. former believers).
(4) Schellenberg’s Hiddenness argument (argument from divine hiddenness):

(1) If a perfectly loving God exists, then there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person.

(2) If there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person, then no finite person is ever nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.

(3) If a perfectly loving God exists, then no finite person is ever nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists (from 1 and 2).

(4) Some finite persons are or have been nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.

(5) No perfectly loving God exists (from 3 and 4).

(6) If no perfectly loving God exists, then God does not exist.

(7) God does not exist (from 5 and 6).

scenic view of mountain during daytime
Photo by ArtHouse Studio on

2 thoughts on “The Problem of God and the Problem of Belief

  1. I understand most of your argument, but I don’t see what do (6) and (7) have to do around here. Even if a perfectly loving God did not exist, it could still be possible for a maltheistic, or simply an amoral God, to exist.
    To be clear, I’m Agnostic.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      Right. The premise only has to do with perfect being theism or traditional theism (God as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good.) So, yes, even if that God does not exist, there could still exist an evil god, indifferent god, etc.

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