Although over half the world' population are theists (according to Pew survey results), God's existence isn't an obvious fact, not even to those who sincerely believe he exists. To put it differently, as Keith DeRose recently put it, even if God exists, we don't know that he does. This presents a puzzle for theists: why doesn't God make his existence more unambiguously known? The problem of divine hiddenness has long been recognized by theists (for instance, Psalm 22), but only fairly recently has it become the focus of debate in philosophy of religion.
In several works, J.L. Schellenberg has argued that divine hiddenness constitutes evidence against God's existence. A simple version of this argument goes as follows (Schellenberg 1993, 83):
- If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
- If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief in the existence of God does not occur
- Reasonable non-belief in the existence of God does occur.
- No perfectly loving God exists.
- There is no God.
The controversial premises are 2 and 3. Authors like Swinburne and Murray have argued against premise 2: God may have reasons to make his existence less obviously true. Their arguments state that if we knew God existed, we wouldn't be able to make morally significant choices. This is an empirical claim. Obviously, it cannot be experimentally tested directly. However, research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) on the relationship between belief in God and morality may indicate whether or not this is a plausible claim.
at least one of the reasons that God must remain hidden is that failing to do so would lead to a loss of morally significant freedom on the part of creatures. The reason, in brief, is that making us powerfully aware of the truth of God's existence would suffice to coerce (at least many of ) us into behaving in accordance with God's moral commands. Such awareness can lead to this simply because God's presence would provide us with overpowering incentives which would make choosing the good ineluctable for us (p. 64).
Murray is careful to specify that libertarian moral freedom is, by itself, not an intrinsic good. Rather, the intrinsic good is that our earthly life, when God's existence is veiled from us to some extent, allows us to develop morally significant characters (soul-making). If God revealed himself in a way that would eliminate all reasonable nonbelief,
Our fear of punishment, or at least our fear of the prospect of missing out on a very great good, would compel us to believe the things that God has revealed and to act in accordance with them. (p. 68).
One way to estimate what sort of effect God's unequivocal revelation of himself would have is to examine whether belief in God makes people more moral. This is a complex question. The correlational data are messy. For instance, contrary to popular belief (expressed recently in a Pew survey, where many people across the world, especially in poorer countries, think belief in God is essential for moral behavior), there is no obvious correlation between moral behavior and religion. Scandinavians, for instance, are among the least religious populations in the world, but they have lower percentages of rape and murder than the much more religious Americans. Moreover, they have social safety nets that cut child poverty, lower abortion rates, etc.
According to Norenzayan, Shariff and co-authors, belief in powerful, punishing entities has a functional role: it enhances within-group cooperation and discourages freeriding. People who think they are being watched act nicer than those who do not. This has been amply experimentally demonstrated, for instance, recently in Oxford where simply placing a picture of two staring eyes and the message "cycle thieves, we are watching you" reduced cycle theft effectively.
Priming participants with religious words (for instance by letting them unscramble sentences with words like "spirit" and "divine" makes participants more generous later on. For instance, in an anonymous dictator game participants who were given 10 dollars and who were religiously primed gave on average 4.22 dollars away, those who received a neutral prime only offered 1.84 dollars. Similarly, participants who received a religious prime were less likely to cheat at a test later on than those who received a secular prime. In both these studies, simply reminding theists of God's existence (at least in the first study, the effect was solely driven by theists) resulted in better moral actions. So on the face of it, it seems that incontrovertible evidence of God's existence would amplify this effect and perhaps indeed make it impossible for us to make morally significant choices.
However, later studies reveal that it is especially belief in a vengeful, angry and punishing God that reliably deters people from doing bad things, not belief in God in general. To test the effect of different God concepts on moral behavior, Shariff and Norenzayan let participants do a tedious mathematical task. They were told that due to some computer glitch, the correct answer would sometimes appear on the screen, and were asked to press the spacebar when that happened to make sure they completed the task honestly. Not hitting spacebar was coded as cheating. The experimenters found that the extent to which participants cheated could be predicted by their image of God: those who thought God was angry and unforgiving cheated significantly less than those who thought of a loving and forgiving God. A large correlational study found that belief in Hell lowered crime rates, whereas societies with a prevalent belief in Heaven (but not Hell) actually had elevated crime rates.
Extrapolating from these findings, a God who revealed himself would not automatically deprive people of making morally significant choice, if people believed God to be only forgiving and loving, not vengeful and angry. So if God only revealed that aspect of himself (or perhaps, if that is God's nature, as is held in, e.g., universalism), there would be no impediment to morally significant actions.
Assuming that universalism is not true, wouldn't this presentation of God be a form of deception? It might be so, but it's not clear to me that this would be worse than God not giving any clear indications that he exists at all. Indeed, Rowe presented a compelling case that, in the face of horrendous evil, God should be present with us while we suffer, and should assure us of his love and concern. Even if we remain unaware of God's true nature, suffering would be more bearable if we knew there was a God, thus giving a reason to believe there is a reason, and that it will all be alright at the end.