from the twofold fact that (a) the reality of God is not obvious to many people
and (b) there is widespread disagreement concerning religious matters among
people with considerable integrity and relevant competence? This book offers
an answer. It recommends neither atheism nor agnosticism but rather tentative,
nondogmatic religious belief, even tentative theistic belief.
The fundamental feature of divine hiddenness, according to McKim, is “the fact that God’s existence and nature are not obvious” (p. 5). In other words, “the central idea is just that it is not clear whether the claims that theists make about God are true...” (p. 6). What exactly does McKim mean by “obvious” and “clear” ? It’s not clear what he means, but he does give some hints. He remarks that “... God’s existence and nature would be clearer if there were in the world clear and obvious signs of God’s presence, as would be the case if virtue were always rewarded, vice always punished, and if various signs and wonders were constantly available” (p. 6). He imagines the following possible “signs and wonders” that allegedly would make God’s existence clear or at least clearer: the morning sky overhead would always be lit up with a verse from the Psalms; a person’s prayers to God would always be followed with help of a clear sort; and future astronomical discoveries would be announced to us in advance. It’s not clear to me, at least, that such signs would be clear indicators of God’s reality. Many people would not regard them as obvious signs of God’s existence. This suggests that what’s clear varies among people.
Does divine hiddenness vary relative to people, and, if so, how? McKim is unclear on this issue. He promises to “present a series of arguments in support of the claim that God is hidden from all human beings” (p. 8). His thesis is that “if God exists, God is hidden to a considerable degree from all human beings at all times” (p. 10). He offers a number of supporting arguments but then, without any explanation, weakens his thesis as follows: “... we have reason to conclude that, if God exists, God is hidden to a considerable extent from almost all human beings at almost all times” (p. 12). Which is it? “All human beings at all times”? Or “almost all human beings at almost all times”? McKim shifts between these logically different theses without any explanation or rationale. One is thus left wondering what exactly he aims to establish. The thesis concerning “almost all human begins at almost all times” looks like a statistical empirical claim whose warrant would require salient statistical empirical evidence, but McKim has not supplied such evidence. In addition, it is unclear how he might readily gather such evidence. One obvious problem is that he would need statistical empirical evidence that bears on “almost all times.” It’s not clear that he has such evidence at hand.
Additional lack of clarity marks McKim’s talk of God’s being “hidden to a considerable degree.” When exactly is a degree considerable? Is any degree a considerable degree? We are not told. One of McKim’s arguments for the thesis that “God is hidden to a considerable degree from all human beings at all times” runs as follows.
"... it may be that the explanation of why some people find that God is hidden is that those people have the wrong attitudes or the wrong beliefs or have gone wrong in some other way. This ... might be thought of as a matter of failing to seek the truth with enough of their energies, being proud instead of humble, refusing to countenance the possibility that God might exist, being utterly unwilling to think or live or respond in ways in which one thinks one ought to think or live or respond if God were to exist, or something else. Insofar as the explanation [of divine hiddenness] is to be found in an area such as this, one has reason to concede that God is always hidden from everyone to some extent" (p. 11).
“God is always hidden from everyone to some extent,” it does not
obviously follow that “God is hidden to a considerable extent.”
Typically, we do not regard just any degree of hiding as a considerable degree.
So, it’s unclear how the kind of reason, or explanation, just offered
is supposed to yield the conclusion that “God is hidden to a considerable
degree from all human beings at all times” (p. 10).
McKim begins with talk of God’s being “hidden,” and he suggests that this is to be understood in terms of “the fact that God’s existence and nature are not obvious” (pp. 5, 6). Such talk then shifts to (non-equivalent) talk of God’s being “hidden to a considerable degree” and “hidden to some extent” (pp. 10, 11). We have, as it happens, an absolute use of “obvious” where either something is obvious or it isn’t. A direct analogue to this is our absolute use of “unique.” Either something is unique or it isn’t. Initially, McKim seems to use “hidden” in an absolute manner on the basis of an absolute use of “obvious.” He shifts, however, to a non-absolute use that allows for degrees of hiddenness. His non-absolute use evidently rests on a notion of degrees of obviousness that has not been clarified. Discussion becomes murky here owing to lack of clarity in a standard for measuring degrees of obviousness and thus hiddenness. We sometimes talk rather casually of something’s being somewhat obvious, just as we sometimes talk very loosely of something’s being rather unique. This offends some linguistic purists, but the real concern is that such talk calls for a standard of measuring (at least in principle) degrees of obviousness. In the absence of such a standard, our non-absolute use of “obvious” will be unclear. McKim’s use is in fact left unclear.
What exactly does McKim mean in saying that “God is always hidden from everyone to some extent” (p. 11)? If we use McKim’s talk of what’s “obvious” to supply clarification, we might have the claim that:
(1) God’s reality is always not obvious to some extent for everyone.
In McKim’s language, (1) seems to be synonymous with:
(2) God’s reality is always not clear to some extent for everyone.
understand (2) as the innocuous claim that God’s reality is never fully
revealed to any human. McKim, however, does not understand (2) in that innocent
manner. Nor does he settle for a solely psychological lesson from (2). He aims
to get cognitive, or epistemic, mileage from (2). But can he?
McKim proposes that “to say that God is hidden ... is to say that religious ambiguity extends to the existence of God” (p. 21). At this point, epistemic considerations are built into McKim’s notion of divine hiddenness. He clarifies his talk of religious ambiguity as follows: “our lives are ambiguous in that they may reasonably be interpreted in entirely secular terms or in religious terms, but also in that they may reasonably be interpreted using the concepts of various religious traditions” (p. 22). Note the twofold occurrence of “reasonably.” McKim has moved beyond any psychological notion of hiddenness or clarity to an epistemically loaded notion. The notion now carries a notion of reasonableness. We may presume that McKim has epistemic, or cognitive, reasonableness of some sort in mind, as he is concerned with the truth of theistic claims, and not the practical utility of holding theistic beliefs.
What specific notion of epistemic reasonableness does McKim have in mind? It’s actually not clear, and the index lacks a helpful entry for rational, reasonable, justified, or warranted belief. Philosophers have circulated a number of specific notions of epistemic reasonableness; so we need careful specification here. One might surmise from a passing remark on page 7 that McKim would somehow link epistemic reasonableness with best available explanation, but it’s unclear how, if at all, the connection is supposed to go. This is a critical matter, because in the absence of a clear standard for epistemic reasonableness, it will be impossible to give a judicious assessment of McKim’s claim about reasonableness in connection with hiddenness and ambiguity. Indeed, in that case his claim will be semantically unclear. It is in fact unclear.
McKim does not use divine hiddenness to recommend against any particular religious belief. He explains:
"I do not presume that I have presented a set of arguments that are powerful enough that they require of anyone that they give up their religious position. I do not feel that I am in a position to judge what it is like to be a member of a tradition, or to possess a viewpoint, of which I have no personal experience, or to consider all of the relevant evidence at once, or even seriatim. As far as I know, there are numerous positions that may reasonably be held on religious matters, including the positions that go with being a member of any of the main world religions" (p. 203).
Even so, McKim adds: “An implication of my position is that most martyrs who have died for their faith have been misled, [for] ... they have died in the name of certainty about their beliefs” (p. 204). McKim thus has a recommendation, on the basis of divine hiddenness, for how religious beliefs should be held. They should, he proposes, be held tentatively, without certainty.
It seems incorrect for McKim to say that most martyrs have died “in the name of certainty about their beliefs.” Rather, they have died in the name of the God regarding whom they held firm, non-tentative beliefs. There’s a big difference here. What a martyr dies for, relative to the martyr’s intentions, is the God being served, not the psychological or cognitive status of the martyr’s beliefs. It’s a category mistake to suggest otherwise.
It’s unclear how McKim could substantiate his claim that most martyrs who have died for their faith should not have held their religious beliefs with certainty. He has already conceded the following, as noted: “I do not feel that I am in a position to judge what it is like to be a member of a tradition, or to possess a viewpoint, of which I have no personal experience, or to consider all of the relevant evidence at once, or even seriatim.” If, as he admits, he cannot consider all of the relevant evidence at once, or even seriatim, then he is in no position to recommend that most martyrs who have died for their faith should not have held their religious beliefs with certainty. McKim, by his own acknowledgment, does not have an adequate vantage point on their evidence. For all he knows, by his own admission, their relevant evidence called for firm belief that resulted in martyrdom for the God they followed.
Judgments of epistemic reasonableness must be careful, given the different specific standards of reasonableness in circulation. Relevantly competent people of considerable integrity disagree about reasonableness. In suggesting that most martyrs have been misled owing to the cognitive mistake of non-tentativeness in their beliefs, McKim proposes that most martyrs have been unreasonable. This proposal has not been substantiated by McKim; nor can it be, given his own standard for reasonableness. Many relevantly competent people of considerable integrity disagree about the specific conditions for reasonableness. McKim’s so-called critical stance that recommends tentativeness in belief relies on such disagreement as a basis for recommending tolerance toward alternative religious beliefs. His tolerance should thus be extended to the case of martyrs. At a minimum, he should withhold judgment on whether most martyrs are misled owing to non-tentativeness in their commitments. Their evidence and standards for reasonableness may actually call for firm commitment, so far as McKim knows.
McKim uses divine hiddenness to try to minimize the importance of theistic belief. He claims: “If theistic belief ... were very important, each person, surely, would have an equal shot at it.... There is the fact of religious ambiguity, [which] suggests that theistic belief is not important” (p. 122). McKim thus suggests that God must not regard theistic belief as very important. The suggestion is premature at best. An all-loving God could regard theistic belief as very important but value other things as more important. For example, God could value letting human sin mature into its nasty futility (so that its futility could be readily seen) even if this entails some obscurity about God’s reality. This, in fact, is what the apostle Paul suggests in Romans. McKim’s suggestion is challenged by such a scenario.
Even if McKim has not made a convincing case for tentative religious belief, his book does raises vital questions for the philosophy of religion. It will repay close attention from all philosophers.
Loyola University of Chicago