Would some non-theists just form an improper relationship with God if they became theists in their current state?
Clarifying the question
The question most directly relates to the problem of divine hiddenness (i.e. 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 if they wanted?). Consider two responses:
- God's bringing some persons to faith at any time would result in their entering into an improper relationship with God, and this is a worse state of affairs than being out of relationship at all times.
- God's bringing some persons to faith prior to a certain time would result in their entering into an improper relationship with God, and this is a worse state of affairs than being out of relationship prior to that certain time.1
A proper relationship would presumably be, among other things, durable, worship-involving, morally transforming, and not done for poor reasons (e.g. for power, pleasure, or pride). Some of these features, if lacking in divine-human relationship, would plausibly preclude relationship to begin with. It would be a pseudo-relationship.
For any given non-theist, it is notoriously difficult to establish that this individual would not have an improper relationship, either immediately or some time after entering into relationship.2
So the following question is important: would some non-theists form a perpetually improper relationship upon becoming theists?
- For example, a belief that was formed for wrong or inferior reasons:
• Paul Moser (Philosophy professor at Loyola Chicago) & Daniel Howard-Snyder (Philosophy professor at Western Michigan): “It may well be that God wants people to believe in His existence for certain reasons and not for others, that He prefers that they do not believe at all if the only option is to believe for the wrong reasons.” [“Introduction” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (eds) P. Moser & D. Howard-Snyder (Cambridge, 2002), 12.]
Perhaps some reasons for belief are wrong because they preclude other traits:
• Peter van Inwagen (Philosophy professor at Notre Dame and Duke): “Most theists hold that God expects a good deal more from us than mere belief in his existence. He expects a complex of things, of which belief in his existence is a small (although essential) part. It is certainly conceivable that someone’s believing in him 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.” [“What Is the Problem of the Hiddenness of God?” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (eds) P. Moser & D. Howard-Snyder (Cambridge, 2002), 29.]
Traits which they can't simply will themselves to acquire:
• Robert T. Lehe (Philosophy professor at North Central College): “…if God had revealed himself so clearly that no one could reasonably deny his existence and planted in everyone's mind truths about God's nature and expectations, it would be like telling an alcoholic that he needs to stop drinking. The alcoholic might agree intellectually that he needs to change his life. But there is a kind of inner appropriation of this truth that is required in order for the alcoholic to be willing to take the steps necessary to get his life in order.” [“A Response to the Argument from the Reasonableness of Nonbelief,” Faith and Philosophy 21(2) (2004): 166.]
So a certain amount of delicate bobbing and weaving may be necessary to cultivate belief for right reasons:
• Chad Meister (Philosophy professor at Bethel University): “On one interpretation of this passage [Matthew 13:13-15], Jesus' reason for speaking in parables was that some people are not in a position to hear about the truths and reality of God in a straightforward manner since they have shut their eyes and closed their ears (perhaps knowingly, freely and culpably; perhaps not). The parables, then, are a means of getting the truths and purposes of God into human hearts and minds by veiling the message in such a way that it nonthreateningly and gradually unfolds in the hearts and minds of the hearers. This veiling may be due to either intentional (and so culpable) unreceptivity or unintentional (and so nonculpable) unreceptivity by the individual.” [“Evil and the Hiddenness of God” in God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain (eds) Meister & Dew Jr. (IVP, 2013), 146.]
- As noted by one philosopher:
• Daniel Howard-Snyder (Philosophy professor at Western Michigan): “Even if there were any such people [people thoroughly well-disposed to God, from their own merit, and not in need of further virtue/better motives before properly entering into that relationship], we don’t have what it takes to tell whether there are any. This is one of the key differences between the Argument from Divine Hiddenness and the best versions of the argument from evil. While, in the words of Ivan Karamazov, it is ‘unanswerably clear’ that innocent children suffer horribly, it is unanswerably unclear whether the love to which any well-disposed inculpable nonbeliever is disposed is sufficiently fitting for its object.” [“The Argument from Divine Hiddenness” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26 (1996) 450.]
If an atheist like Schellenberg wants to talk about a particularly deep and explicit relationship, then it becomes even less clear who would enter and stay in proper relationship. A certain amount of bobbing and weaving from God might be necessary in order to woo someone into a perpetual proper relationship.
Bad relationship: does not recognize God as Good
Appropriate relationship with God involves recognizing God as the ultimate good.1 This is relevant because, for some individuals, if they believed in God currently or at any time, they would lack belief in God's goodness (i.e. they would be dystheists).
- One cannot be in relationship with God while attributing evil to God.
• Matthew 12:24-32 -- “This man [Jesus] casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.” And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, … He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters. “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come."
- Even if God testified to being all-good, there seems to be no observation God could produce which would persuade a skeptic. Relatedly, consider one philosopher making a similar note regarding some of God's other properties.
• Peter van Inwagen: “We can imagine no sign that would have to be the work of a necessary, omnipresent, omnipotent being. Any sign you might imagine you could also imagine to be the production of a contingent, locally present being whose powers, though vastly greater than ours, are finite.” [“What Is the Problem of the Hiddenness of God?” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (eds) Moser & Howard-Snyder (Cambridge, 2002), 29.]
- One cannot be in relationship with God while attributing evil to God.
Bad relationship: lacks right desire for God
Appropriate relationship with God involves genuine reverence and desire for God as God (i.e. not treating God merely as a means to an end, behaving in relationship-like ways, worshipping, praying, etc., just for things like…
- …for gifts,
- …for religious experiences,
- …for escaping punishment.) This is relevant because, for some individuals, if they believed in God currently or at any time, they behave in relationship-like ways just to use God for instrumental value.1, 2
- This could result in a depressingly half-hearted, unfortunate, and begrudging relationship. Consider the relationship the following philosopher would have to God, if God ensured he became a theist, and he consequently started worshipping and praying:
• Thomas Nagel (Philosophy professor at New York University): “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. … it isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want a universe like that.” [The Last Word (Oxford, 1997), 130.]
- In fact, the traditional ways God is allegedly obligated to reveal himself are especially susceptible to undermining desire. Flaunting of sufficiently shocking divine fireworks or sufficiently moving religious experiences could more forcefully lead people to form relationship with God for the wrong reasons (e.g. to avoid judgment, for religious experience), forming an inappropriate relationship.
Bad relationship: rejects moral transformation
Appropriate relationship with God involves moral transformation on the human's part (loving and worshipping God, rather than the enemy: sin). This is relevant because, for some individuals, if they believed in God currently or at any time, they would not accept moral transformation, continuing instead to put sin first.1
- Revelation 3:16 -- because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.
- Relatedly: it is common in Christian theology to believe that “the Fall” (the origination of sin in mankind) has pervasively influenced all aspects of all men, affecting our nature and plausibly our cognitive faculties, notably our ability to detect God or to naturally form belief in God in appropriate circumstances. If individuals are unwilling to be morally transformed, it may be that God allows them to remain in their defective cognitive state. (see here)
- Similiarly, the emphasis in Matthew 7 is on individuals who may claim to be followers of Christ, but who Christ will say on judgment day “I never knew you.” In following his illustration (quoted above) are individuals who were not genuine fruit trees, not really connected to the vine of Christ, the vine of moral transformation.
• Matthew 7:16-19; 21-23 -- A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. … So then, you will know them by their fruits … “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, …,’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’
Bad relationship: jealous of God's power (“Should share!”)
Appropriate relationship with God trusts God with all power and authority, not being jealous or feeling it would be better elsewhere. This is relevant because many individuals, upon entering into relationship with God, would unacceptably struggle with bitterness/resentment towards God, feeling things should be done differently.
Bad relationship: judges God for allowing suffering
Appropriate relationship with God trusts God's decisions in allowing suffering (perhaps for greater goods). This is relevant because some theists might forever struggle with agreeing to God's permission of suffering.
Bad relationship: places human as authority in its formation
Apropriate relationship with God is formed in a way reflecting God's authority and sacred-relational nature. This is relevant because, for some individuals, if they came to belief in God, they would only do so having condescendingly sent God through impersonal hoops of their own making, like a circus animal. Making God submit and cow to their demands could permanently affect the divine-human relationship.