Unfamiliarity with the Divine

The Elephant in the Room of the Theist

The atheist makes extraordinary efforts to ignore the queerness of the universe, and the impression that everything visible appears arranged for us in advance. [1] The theist makes extraordinary efforts to ignore the fact that God—presumably omnipotent, loving and all-powerful—is invisible.

Every person who believes in God should pause, just once in his or her life, and get perspective on this. We carry on as if it’s perfectly normal to believe in an invisible God, and even speak to him on a regular basis. If asked what God’s most immediate, obvious quality is, I imagine that believers might talk of his love. No. The most obvious quality of God is that he cannot be seen, touched, heard, or generally experienced in any way by the five senses that we employ when experiencing absolutely everything else. Do not prevaricate, you faithful. Somewhere deep inside, you know that this is the most glaring bit of dissonance that can exist in a human mind, and yet it is the least discussed among them all. If you believe in God, then ask the question: why is he invisible? How can you possibly pretend that he isn’t?

We have come up with a few reasons for God’s reclusiveness. Perhaps he hides from us so that we can live our lives freely, with the choice of seeking him out via the scent on the trail. This is a compelling explanation, and it could even be true, but it is still a post-hoc rationalization. Regardless of how much trust you may place in the Bible, it says very little about this; so little, in fact, that some Christians have concluded that God was openly involved in the lives of human beings in the past, only recently cutting back on appearances. There is a distinct possibility, however, that God was just as hidden from the ancients as he is from us.

First and foremost, I believe that it’s important for Christians to acknowledge the gravity of this point, and to act in a way that’s consistent with the way that things actually are. I have read articles and books that deal with God’s invisibility as if it were a minor traffic disruption. Things are fine between me and God, although not being able to see or hear him gets in the way from time to time. The subject is treated as if some unidentified third party is responsible for this inconvenience—as if we’ll just have to sit idly over some tea until the superintendent gets here. He’ll tell us where God is, at which point we can get back to what we were doing. I have met people who are convinced that God sits all day long behind a thin curtain, chattering to their subconscious; responsible for every idea that they don’t remember trying to come up with. In turn, they allow their subconscious to play his role entirely. They frequently say “God told me this,” and the citations that follow are ostensibly meant as verbatim. If a believing person cannot acknowledge the biggest difference between a relationship with God and a relationship with a human being, this person is one short step away from believing no longer.

I also believe it’s important for Christians—once they have properly digested the issue—to give up on explaining it. There is no palatable explanation for this. If you’re going to keep on believing, you’re going to have to do just that: believe.

While I do intend to stir up some doubts by writing this, I do not intend to stir up poisonous quantities of them. This is a powerful objection to the existence of God (I suppose no one would argue about it otherwise!), but I believe it can be accepted. One of the red flags that goes off in my mind is that so many people—dare I say, we—continue to believe in him, despite the paucity of empirical evidence. This tells me that the matter is worth close consideration, and that the idea does not arise from a trivial aspect of the human condition.

What of the evidence? I was once infuriated by this letter to the editor in the morning paper:

“Why is it that believers can offer nothing but childish rationalization [for believing in God]? Oh, right: because there isn’t a single shred of scientific evidence for his existence.”

Why do some people keep asking for scientific evidence of God’s existence? They know that there isn’t any, and they know that most believers know that there isn’t any (nothing replicable, anyway). The reason, of course, is that they enjoy asking loaded questions, knowing that the underlying assumptions prove them correct, and preferring not to debate them. However, scientific evidence is largely irrelevant in this matter—not merely because it is arbitrary to demand such a particular kind of evidence in this case, but because if God is out there somewhere, existing, it would appear that he is intentionally being subtle about it! One cannot expect that God would fail at such a task, leaving behind enough proof for the clever people to demonstrate his existence just as plainly as if he were visible.

It is not so much of a stretch to imagine how someone might be kept from a very real thing while still inferring its existence. A blind person never experiences sight, but hears the rumours from sighted people. A man kept in a white room his entire life would be shocked by the sun, the moon, and the stars. A native who has never seen snow would (should, says Hume) not believe in it. Yet it is possible to imagine that these people might acquire an inkling of the things that are kept from them, since the framework of existence, in and of itself, entails them.


[1] “But that’s evolution!” they might say. My experience tells me that biologists are the most likely to propound this kind of truncated thinking [I retract this statement – apparently it is more widespread than that]. They get their minds up into the big picture, and then they postulate something above it that spits out largely nonsense, but nonetheless is perfectly capable of producing the big picture. Look how easy that was! We don’t have to feel surprised anymore. After all, this was bound to happen eventually.


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