Recently, I've been reading a lot on divine hiddenness as a challenge to theism, and I find it a particularly interesting and forceful argument in favor of atheism. The idea is, roughly speaking, that non-culpable unbelief is incompatible with the concept of a loving, all-powerful and good God who would want a relationship with his creatures. I was particularly struck by reading about Mother Teresa's persistent doubts about the existence of God, and her inability to feel his presence in the eucharist or his responding to her prayer. Although she had mystical experience early in life, when she went to live with the destitute in Calcutta, her mystical experiences ceased and she was troubled by her continued inability to experience or relate to God.
For decades, she passed through what has been dubbed a "dark night of the soul". On a recent conference organized by the CFI, Dennett talked about Mother Teresa's unbelief, and said that 'dark night of the soul' is, "let's face it, just a fancy term for atheism, a way of theists to explain away persistent unbelief in a person who is such an exemplar for Catholics and christians more generally '. He wrote elsewhere: "wouldn’t it be wonderful if the outing of Mother Teresa inspired a few thousand of them to come out of the closet and acknowledge their atheism! Then it might start being obvious not only that faith in God is not a requirement for morality". In response to this, theists have argued that Dennett et al do not get "dark night of the soul" at all... For instance, Anne Barbeau Gardiner argued that "The dark night of the soul that saints experience is the highest rung of the contemplative ascent in the Catholic faith. It is a state reserved for a very few whom God prepares for perfect union with Him. In this mysterious dark night, the saints experience a painful abandonment of mind and soul, as if God were absent, when in fact He is more truly present, though deeply hidden, than before."
It seems to me that both sides of the debate get it wrong. I think there is a qualitative difference between DNS and atheism - for one thing, it seems far-fetched on the part of Dennett to argue that "Perhaps it was her [Mother Teresa's] guilt at being unable to convert herself that drove her to work so hard to convert others to take her place among the believers." But at the same time, DNS hardly seems a boon, reserved for the very few mystics - there is some connection to atheism, since Mother Teresa did express her doubts that God exists in several of her letters.
Perhaps we can distinguish between atheism and DNS as follows: DNS is an alief (to borrow Tamar Gendler's distinction), a non-reflective belief ("God isn't present, he doesn't respond etc"), but this alief does not translate itself into a reflective, atheistic belief (i.e., "God doesn't exist"). By contrast, an atheist may have an alief that God exists and an explicit, reflective belief that he doesn't exist. Indeed, another possibility are those atheists who admit to having theistic aliefs but disavow theistic beliefs. For instance, Jesse Bering, an atheist cognitive scientist, admits to sensing God's presence, but explains this by arguing (in detail in his recent book The God instinct) that this alief is a cognitive adaptation to facilitate cooperation - a view similar to Ruse's error theory about moral objectivism. If that's true, there is a distinction between DNS and unbelief. An unreflective unbelief is not sufficient for atheism.