Can someone be in loving relationship with God while not believing God exists?

  • Clarifying the Question

    The question most directly relates to the problem of divine hiddenness: if a loving God exists, then wouldn't that God make sure no one is an atheist or agnostic, so that everyone is at least able to be in relationship with God, just by trying?

    • J.L. Schellenberg: “Now ask yourself: how can anyone express gratitude for what she has experienced as a gift of God’s grace or try to find God’s will for her life or recognize God’s forgiveness or do or experience any of the hundred similar things involved in conscious, reciprocal relationship with God if she does not believe God exists? It is impossible. To be grateful to someone in the manner of conscious relationship, you have to believe they exist. Ditto for trying to figure out what they favor or recognizing that they’ve forgiven you or are offering your moral support and their encouraging presence.” [The Hiddenness Argument (Oxford, 2015), 58.]
    • “…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 an intensity x +1 or even x + 10. Indeed, in a very real sense now everything has changed for her, for what she hoped has (as she sees it) come true! And it is in part because of this difference for the one she loves that the one who loves him will naturally want this to be where things start in the story of their interaction. So from both perspectives, the perspective of the lover and that of the one loved, the relationship made possible by belief is a different relationship than any left to subsist on hope or non-believing faith.” [The Hiddenness Argument (Oxford, 2015), 59.]

    Is explicit belief in God's existence required to be in a loving relationship with God? Many responding to Schellenberg have argued that it is not. For example:

    • Imran Aijaz & Markus Weidler: “Belief is not a necessary condition to be in a position to exercise one’s capacity for relationship with God." [“Some Critical Reflections on the Hiddenness Argument” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 61:1 (2007)]
“Yes, after all…
  • …by propositionally assuming (Howard-Snyder, 2016)

    Non-theists can still “propositionally assume" God exists.1 This is relevant because such an assuming of God's existence is sufficient for relationship.

    1. The notion of “propositional assuming” is hard to give an analysis of, but Howard-Snyder (who originated the term) offers an illustration involving a woman who was raised Christian, and lacks belief in Christianity, despite assuming it in the relevant way.

      Daniel Howard-Snyder: “After a decade of study and reflection that began as an undergraduate and continued throughout her twenties, she now finds herself deeply troubled by arguments for atheism that challenge the goodness and love of God, arguments posed by sincere, respectful, and admirable atheists. Moreover, she finds herself stunned by the failure of Christian theologians to articulate theories of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement that render them so much as marginally plausible. All this has left her in doubt about the basic Christian story, and therefore she is in no position to believe it or accept it. That’s not to say that she fails to appreciate what can be said on behalf it. On the contrary. By her lights, it’s the least false of the options she deems credible. At any rate, that’s what she would say if you caught her on a good day. On a bad day, she might be more inclined to say that, so far as she can tell, it’s no more false than the best of the credible options. She vacillates between these skeptical poles. But despite her amphibious cognitive situation, she continues to find her involvement in the church “meeting deep needs and giving her life meaning and structure,” and she finds the way of love modeled by Jesus and many of his followers supremely attractive, so much so that she is motivated to align her will with his as his disciple, and to assume and thereby use the basic Christian story “as a basis for her thought about the world and for the way she leads her life”. So, despite her doubt, she continues in the practices of devotional reading, meditation, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, charity, the sacraments, congregational participation, observing the holy days and holidays, singing the great hymns and songs, teaching her children how to live the story, etc., finding these and related activities and commitments not only satisfying, but activities and commitments around which the rest of her life is shaped. In short, our skeptical Christian intentionally opens herself to the presence of the Lord and the power of the Spirit—to no avail, so far as she can tell. But she doesn’t let that take the wind out of her sails or the sap out of her bones; she doesn’t let that dishearten or discourage her from following Christ” [“The Skeptical Christian” in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion (Forthcoming)]

  • …by loving/relating to the Good (Wainwright, 2002)

    Non-theists can be in relationship with “the Good”, responding to conscience, etc.1 (They can even have a fairly explicit and reciprocal relationship).2 This is relevant because, unbeknownst to them, “the Good” is God.3

    Mt 25:37-40 -- Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

    1. One does not have to know they are hearing/responding to God to actually be doing so.

      Paul Moser (Philosophy professor at Loyola Chicago): “Schellenberg claims that “it is logically impossible for you to hear God speak to you … while not believing that there is a God”. This is false. It rests on a confusion of (a) hearing God and (b) hearing God as (interpreted as) God. We have no reason whatever to think that (a) requires (b). Likewise, ordinary hearing of a human person does not require hearing that person as (interpreted as) that person. One can hear a voice, for instance, without (correctly) identifying the source of that voice. So people may actually hear God through conscience without correctly identifying the “voice” of conscience as God.” [“Reply to Schellenberg” in M. L. Peterson & R. J. Van Arragon (eds.), Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell, 2004): 58.]
      William Wainwright (Philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin): “When the nonbeliever responds to the good she sees, she may … be responding to God Himself.” [“Jonathan Edwards and the Hiddenness of God” In D. Howard-Snyder & P. K. Moser (eds.), Divine Hiddenness: New essays (Cambridge, 2002), 113)]

    2. The relationship can even be explicit and reciprocal (contra Schellenberg):

      Imran Aijaz & Markus Weidler (Philosophy professors at Michigan and Columbia): “Suppose I am an atheist, and God speaks to me clearly through my conscience so that, when faced with a moral decision, I have no hesitations about the proper course of action; I then ‘respond’ to the voice of God in a firm and committed way, e.g. in ending up doing the right thing, even though I do not believe that God exists. This state of affairs is certainly conceivable. And it is also conceivable in a way where my acting in accordance with the good is, as Wainwright (2002, p. 114) proposes, more or less extensionally equivalent to acting on theistic belief even though I do not hold the belief that there is a God.” [“Some Critical Reflections on the Hiddenness Argument” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion (2004): 18.]

    3. This is a popular view articulated and defended by Robert Adams (Philosophy professor at Oxford, Yale) in Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford, 2002). God is what Plato called “the Good,” and the property of being good is (loosely) the property of resembling God. This might be confusing, since obviously “good” does not mean “resembling God,” but this doesn't matter. For example, one can be drinking H2O without knowing they are drinking H2O (because they know they drink “water,” but have not discovered yet that water constitutionally is H2O. For them water does not mean H2O, but it nevertheless is H2O).
  • …by accepting God's existence (Alston, 1996)

    Non-theists can still “accept” God's existence (in the Alstonian way).1 This is relevant because accepting God is sufficient for relationship.2

    1. This notion of acceptance was articulated by William Alston. Here is a good crystallized summary of the idea:

      Jonathan Cohen: “[To accept that p is] to have or adopt a policy of deeming, positing, or postulating that p—i.e. of including that proposition … among one's premisses for deciding what to do or think in a particular context, whether or not one feels it to be true that p” [An Essay on Belief and Acceptance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 4.]

    2. As the Christian philosopher himself puts it,

      William Alston: “…my thesis that accepting basic Christian doctrine can undergird a full-blown Christian commitment,” [p. 9.] “To accept [the propositions articulating Christian doctrine] is to perform a voluntary act of committing oneself to them, to resolve to use them as a basis for one’s thought, attitude, and behavior. (And, of course, it involves being disposed to do so as a result of this voluntary acceptance.) Whereas to believe them, even if not with the fullest confidence, is to find oneself with that positive attitude toward them, to feel that, for example, Jesus of Nazareth died to reconcile us to God. That conviction, of whatever degree of strength, spontaneously wells up in one when one considers the matter. … The accepter may pray just as faithfully, worship God just as regularly, strive as earnestly to follow the way of life enjoined on us by Christ, look as pervasively on interpersonal relationships, vocation, and social issues through the lens of the Christian faith.” [“Belief, Acceptance, and Religious Faith,” in eds. Jordan and Howard-Snyder, Faith, Freedom, and Rationality. (Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), 17.]

  • …by hoping God exists (Pojman, 1986)

    Non-theists can still hope God exists.1 This is relevant because such a hoping for God's existence is plausibly sufficient for relationship.

    1. This notion of hope was articulated by Louis Pojman (see footnote below). It is a propositional attitude one can adopt when finding the evidence for a proposition to be insufficient. Here, one has a desire for the state of affairs in question to obtain or the proposition to be true.

      Louis Pojman: “For those who find it impossible to believe directly that God exists and who follow an ethic of belief acquisition, hope may be a sufficient substitute for belief. I can hope that God exists without believing that he does. … First of all, hope involves belief in the possibility of a state of affairs obtaining… Second, hope precludes certainty… Third, hope entails a desire (or a pro-attitude) for the state of affairs in question to obtain or the proposition to be true. Fourth, the desire involved in hoping must be motivational, greater than mere wishing.… hoping involves a willingingness to run some risk because of the positive valuation of the object in question. … Fifth, hoping, unlike believing, is typically under our direct control. … Sixth, hoping, like wanting, is evaluative in a way that believing is not. We may have morally unacceptable hopes, but not morally unacceptable beliefs… belief itself cannot be judged moral or immoral.” [Philosophy of Religion (Waveland, 2001, 2009), 145-147.] (See also “Faith without Belief?” Faith and Philosophy, 3(2)(1986): 162; “Faith, Doubt and Hope or Does Faith Entail Belief?” in R. Gale & A. R. Pruss (eds.) The Existence of God (Ashgate, 2003), 544.)

  • …by pragmatically assuming theism (Swinburne, 1981)

    Non-theists can still pragmatically assume God exists.1 This is relevant because such an assuming of God's existence is plausibly sufficient for relationship.

    1. For an older idea, consider Richard Swinburne's pragmatic version of assuming (not to be confused with Howard-Snyder's very different propositional-assuming):

      Richard Swinburne: “So, on the Pragmatist view, a man S has faith if he acts on the assumptions that there is a God who has the properties which Christians ascribe to him and has provided for me the means of salvation and the prospect of glory, and that he will do for S what he knows that S needs or wants--so long as S has good purposes. He will thus seek not his own fame, but long-term and deep well-being for himself and others. Seeking these things, he may believe that they are only to be had if there is a God who provides such well-being in this world and in the world to come. Hence he may act on the assumption that there is a God--for unless there is, that which is the most worthwhile cannot be had. He will do the same things as the man with Lutheran faith will do. He will, for example, worship and pray and live a good life partly in hope to find a better life in the world to come. He prays for his brethren, not necessarily because he believes that there is a God who hears his prayers, but because only if there is can the world be set to right. He lives the good life, not necessarily because he believes that God will reward him, but because only if there is a God who will reward him can he find the deep long-term well-being for which he seeks. He worships, not necessarily because he believes that there is a God who deserves worship, but because it is very important to express gratitude for existence if there is a God to whom to be grateful and there is some chance that there is. [Faith and Reason (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1981), 116-117.]

“No, after all…