Feb 05

The Problem of Sincere Believers

A common claim by theists is that God values our freedom and, as such, can not make his existence obvious. Such obvious grandstanding would rob us of the choice to freely choose good acts, so they say. Yet, a fairly simple problem arises.

1. Very sincere believers exist who are virtually certain about various “facts” about God – his existence and the content of at least some of his desires, to name a few.

2. These sincere believers, after coming into their sincere belief, make a variety of choices.

3. When they do so, no one, to my knowledge, claims that these sincere believers are not making free or valuable choices.

4. Therefore, a dilemma arises. Either the sincere believers are lying about their convictions or virtual certainty about God does not affect our ability to make free or valuable choices.

A further point to be made here is that these sincere believers don’t even always choose “good” acts. So, to seriously suggest that we would become some kind of automaton if given a great deal more confidence in God’s existence seems patently false. If you are talking to a Bible-believing Christian, the case becomes even stronger. Satan is a particularly powerful example in that he knew with certainty that God existed and still rebelled. Of course, people can explain away Satan as mythological (and rightly so) or Moses, Abraham, or even the disciples. Thus, we are left with the problem of sincere believers as one that can’t be explained away, like stories in the Bible.

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  1. Paul So

    I think another interesting point to make is that if very sincere believers believe that knowing the existence of God due to God revealing his presence would rob us of our freewill, then religious experience of the presence of God would rob us of our freewill. One could also argue that if our freewill is extinguished once God makes himself present to us, then it should follow that the Israeli people in Exodus (specifically in Mt. Sinai) had no choice but to follow and obey God’s presence (i.e. in the form of some obscure cloud). However, what is unusual about this is that God explicitly gave Moses and his people the ten commandments to follow AND God punished Israeli people so many times. Why would God give people commandments if his presence would render them completely obedient to begin with? How can one hold the idea that God’s presence would extinguish freewill to render us into involuntary obedient saints yet believe that the biblical stories literally happen in book of exodus? After all, how could the israeli done bad things or Moses make mistakes such as hitting the stone with his rod more times than God commanded? Of course, the fundamentalist theist could insist that God did not reveal his “true face” to everyone, but then this is a non-sequitur because the theist initial claim is that we would become involuntary obedient saints without freewill only if we are directly aware of the presence of God, which means that being directly aware of God’s presence due to public revelation should be a necessary condition to rob us of our freewill.

  2. Chris

    I think there needs to be a change in your starting point to look at this from another perspective. Revelation of God wouldn’t rob anyone of their free will and if anyone is arguing that point then they don’t the human person, who at their core has ontological freedom which the Philosopher Martin Heidegger develops in depth. Furthermore this ontological freedom leads to a fundamental option of gift (hermeneutics of love) or theft (hermeneutics of power). Basically this is how the person interprets reality. Now back to the main discussion of God revealing himself. I’m sure what you mean by revealing himself is that God makes himself known with certainty, or clear and distinct as Descartes and the rest of Modern Philosophy searched for. Look at something that is clear and distinct, 1+1=2. This is something clear and distinct (unless your a “dustbowl” empiricist). 1+1=2 is known to us but it isn’t something that you moves you. Nobody is willing to dedicate their life to 1+1=2. It doesn’t move anything deeper inside us beyond the mental recognition that indeed 1+1=2. Well what about something that does go deeper than an understanding of the theoretical? Take for instance a man’s relations with his parents. He cannot possibly know that his parents love him like he knows 1+1=2. There is a certain mystery to relationships that requires us to invest more of ourselves, ultimately to love. Since God desires our love He doesn’t make Himself known in the theoretical concepts that are clear and distinct. He reveals Himself in relationship which at the fundamental level require ontological freedom. God doesn’t strip us of that cause then the relationship is nothing. If you want to discuss whether “religious experiences” are God or not that is another issue but to say argue that God’s revelation removes freedom isn’t a valid starting point and neither are the conclusions drawn from that.

  3. Mike


    You’ll have to be much clearer if you want your points to be understood. This sounds like theological silliness to me.

    Further, I can’t see where you’ve actually disagreed with my conclusion. In fact, you seem to agree with my conclusion that it is incorrect to say that a near certainty of God’s existence would rob us of the ability to make valuable choices. It sounds like you endorse that conclusion. If you don’t like the starting point, don’t pin it on me. Blame Christians making the argument, including philosophers like Michael Murray in his comments on the argument from hiddenness. My response is within the context of that ongoing dialogue, not some way I’m approaching the problem.

  4. Chris

    I wasn’t explicit enough in my first post. I disagree with the notion that proof of God’s existence will rob human freedom as being a Christian belief. If we were to stand before God in the Beatific vision and see the “Face of God” our will would not cease to exist. The more a Christian knows God the more his will becomes aligned with the will of God. There is a distinction between the will’s alignment with God vs. not existing. And this isn’t an involuntary act but a consent of the will. To remove someone’s will would be an infringement upon their dignity.

  5. Mike

    Whether you agree with the premise or not, there are Christians who state that as an objection to the argument from hiddenness. I’ve already pointed to one who has done so in a peer reviewed article and he’s not alone.

  6. Mike

    Just to be perfectly clear, I’m not suggesting that this view is necessitated by Christianity. What I am saying is this: there are theists, including Christians, who will say that God making his existence known to a higher degree would do one or both of the following–impact free will or impact the value of our choices. I’m pointing out one reason among others to doubt the veracity of that claim. So I am suggesting that Christians should not hold this view. As far as I can tell, we agree on that, but any other argument would probably fall outside the scope of this post, which is located at a specific point within a dialogue.

  7. Blake

    I would first like to thank you posting this interesting statement. I have been observing the dialogue between you and Chris finding it both interesting and educational. However, I was wondering if you could help me understand your conclusion or thesis in this particular post so that I could give it some better thought because I am honestly not clear about it. Thanks.

  8. Mike

    Sure thing, Blake. Let me spell out the context and try to be clear.

    There are a group of arguments out there against the existence of God based on God’s alleged hiddenness. Here is one example: http://foxholeatheism.com/hiddennes/

    Essentially, the point is that if God is a being seeking a relationship with us, then it seems like there shouldn’t be reasonable nonbelief (reasonable being the key word here). So, we’re not talking about the person who disbelieves for bad reasons, due to anger, or some other unjustified cause. We’re talking about those who sincerely seek God and come up empty because they can’t discern with any confidence that God exists (and this belief seems necessary prior to forming a relationship). This is hard to reconcile with a relationship seeking God.

    Now, here are a few ways to respond to that concern:

    1. There is sufficient evidence of God’s existence, so there really isn’t any such thing as reasonable nonbelief. These people are just ignoring what should be obvious.

    2. You could also deny that God seeks relationships with us, as some theologians do.

    3. Or perhaps you might say that God has some reason for not making his existence more apparent. Maybe God’s hidden nature is a necessary feature of ensuring a greater good. This is the avenue I was exploring.

    So, per (3), one of the things people will point to as a greater good being served is our free choices or the moral value of our choices (these are sometimes lumped together). Some people who take this route say God making his existence obvious would be a form of coercion, kind of like the teacher looking over your shoulder the whole time you take your test to make sure you don’t cheat. My argument is in response to this idea. It seems implausible to say that God making his existence more obvious to these sincere seekers would somehow make their future choices less valuable or less free for the simple reason that we have plenty of people who both have a high degree of confidence in God’s existence and who we think make free and valuable choices. So, we can’t say the two are incongruous.

    Does that help?

  9. Jim

    I came across your blog while looking for another.
    I skimmed through a few posts and they all seem to contain the same problem(s) as this post
    in they make several assumptions which are not true… essentially you continue to construct
    straw-men to knock down. Granted, there are so many different doctrines in Christian history
    that it is easy (and common) to seek comfort in fighting windmills and straw-men, so nothing
    new here.

    In the post above… you assume that “sincerity” is a measure of something Biblical – it is not.

    If your fight is against Biblical doctrine, then you must FIRST ensure the doctrine you are fighting
    is Biblical (harmonizes with all Scripture) and not just some fantasy of man.


  10. Mike

    First, what assumptions did I make that are not true?

    Second, I think it’s hardly fair to say that I spend much time knocking down straw men. I spend some of my time between taking on serious philosophical debates (see my posts on actual infinites and fine tuning, for example). And I also spend some time taking on more popular level arguments and Christian trends. This post is an example of the latter, but it’s certainly no straw man. I set it up right from the beginning that this is a sentiment I’ve encountered a lot – the apologist blogger Wintery Knight, for one such example.

    Third, I don’t really see what your point is about Biblical doctrine. This is a post about one part of the debate on evil and free will. I’m explaining why I don’t think this one part is a good response for the theist and it’s independent of any particular interpretation of the Bible, as far as I can tell.

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