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. Is God Imaginary?

As many of you know, I am continuously involved in debates with atheists. My simple purpose is to not let them get away with their attacks on Christianity, for the sake of young Christians. Secondly we are required to state the reason for the hope that is in us. In any case, one of the arguments that atheists always parade is that God is purely imaginary to us on the same level as Santa Klaus, the tooth fairy, the easter bunny, pink unicorns and even Harry Potter. This is a straw man kind of debate but sadly many use it and many see this kind of argument level as reasonable and legitimate. Now, I have written long responses to these questions but in an ongoing debate form. However, below is an article that should be a blessing to you. This was based on a question to William Lane Craig whose website is called reasonable faith and it is recommended under our 'recommended sites'. It is written by one of their staff by the name of Steve. Enjoy!


Is God Imaginary? -



Is God imaginary? The famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he found himself before God on Judgment Day and God said to him, “Why didn’t

you believe in Me?” Russell shot right back: “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!”

Many have taken what they consider to be an apparent lack of evidence for God as evidence that God doesn’t exist; that is, they look around, don’t see “enough” evidence and conclude that atheism is true.

But Russell realized that the inference from apparent lack of evidence for God to atheism is fallacious. That’s why in his famous debate in 1948 with Frederick Copleston he preferred the label “agnostic” instead of “atheist.” Yet today, many call themselves “atheists” when really they are agnostics.

Let’s first define some terms around the question “Does God exist?”

"Does God exist?"

Theism: "God exists"

Non-theism1: "I don't believe in God"

Agnosticism: “I don’t know if God exists”

Atheism: “God does not exist”

Hard Agnosticism: "I don't know
if God exists and no one else can
know either."

Soft Agnosticism: "I don't know
if God exists, but it's possible for
someone to know."

Notice a few things about these definitions. First, non-theism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive because you could be a non-theist and so fail to believe in God (i.e., you could lack belief in God) but you might also be an agnostic saying, “For all I know, God exists. I just don’t know.” Notice also how extreme hard agnosticism is, since it claims even more than atheists do; the hard agnostic says that everyone is wrong, both atheists and theists, and that they cannot know what they claim, even if they have apparently sound arguments! Little wonder, then, that hard agnosticism is sometimes called “ostrich agnosticism!”

There are sound arguments for God’s existence. Some of them are very good. But suppose it were not so; suppose all the arguments for God fail and there are no further good reasons to believe in God. What follows?—Atheism? It’s very important to realize that the answer to this question is NO. What follows is, at most, soft agnosticism.

Is God Imaginary? - When Does Absence of Evidence = Evidence of Absence?
(Or, when is the inference from “I see none” to “There is none” valid?)

What I have said so far raises the question, When does the absence of evidence become evidence of absence? This is a good question because sometimes (but not always) the former implies the latter. Let’s start with some examples to work with.

Example 1. Elephants in the Room (Absence of Evidence = Evidence of Absence)
Someone asks, “Are there any elephants in the room?” After looking about and seeing none, I say, “No, I see none. There are no elephants in the room.”

The inference from “I see none” to “There are none” in this example is justified. With respect to elephants in this room, I’m not agnostic; rather, I positively affirm: There are no elephants in the room. In this case, absence of elephants in the room is evidence of their absence. But this inference doesn’t hold for Example 2.

Example 2. The Grand Canyon Fly (Absence of Evidence ≠ Evidence of Absence)
We’re standing atop the Grand Canyon and someone asks, “Is there a fly way down there?” After a quick glance I say, “No, I see none. There is no fly down there.”

As in the last example we move from “I see none” to “There is none”—but unlike the last example the conclusion is unjustified. Agnosticism regarding the fly is the appropriate response here. So in the Elephant Example we don’t have to be agnostics, but in the Grand Canyon Fly Example we do. Why? Notice that it is not the relative size of the object which creates the difference (The zookeeper might have asked you on your zoo trip, “Do you think an elephant is in the cage in the next room?” to which your reply might be agnosticism: “I have no idea. Maybe.”)

The salient difference between these two examples has entirely to do with your epistemic situation — which is, roughly, the extent and limits of your ability to know something through your primary sources of knowing (i.e. perception, memory, introspection, testimony, etc.) — and the fact that only in one situation (Elephants in the Room) do we expect to have knowledge which we lack. My epistemic situation regarding knowing whether an elephant is in the room is quite good, while my epistemic situation regarding knowing whether a fly resides at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is quite poor. Why? When are we in an epistemically good situation in order to say, “There is no X”? What conditions have to be met? At least two. In the absence of evidence of an object O you may deny that O exists only if these Criteria are met:

Evidence Expectation Criterion. If an object O existed, then we would expect there to be evidence for it.

Knowledge Expectation Criterion. If there were evidence of object O, then we would expect to have knowledge of the evidence.

In short, in the absence of evidence, we can deny the existence of something O only if we should expect to possess evidence sufficient to know that O exists but in fact lack it.

(Two technical comments. First, when I say “evidence” I just mean any sort of positive epistemic considerations in favor of the object O. Thus, having non-propositional considerations for something might very well count as “positive epistemic considerations.” This point becomes important in light of Reformed Epistemology and the fact that belief in God can be “properly basic,” which can count as “positive epistemic considerations.” (See Q&A Archive Questions #68 & #30) Such positive epistemic considerations also include a notion being logically incoherent. If the idea of something is logically incoherent — like a “married bachelor” or a “square circle” — then we don’t really have an example involving absence of evidence, for we have maximal positive epistemic considerations for its non-existence. (This point also disproves the objection sometimes made that “God exists” is not falsifiable. I ignore this for our purposes, since no atheist has been able to show that the idea of God is logically incoherent). Second, these are necessary conditions for being in a good epistemic situation for denying the existence of something; they are not sufficient conditions. In other words, just because—even if—someone meets both Criteria, that in no way obliges him to deny O’s existence.)

To prove his position the atheist has his task cut out for himself: What he must do is show that (a) the epistemic situation in which we find ourselves with respect to belief in God’s existence satisfies the above Criteria; and (b) demonstrate that we lack sufficient evidence for knowing that God exists. Equivalently, he must show that all the arguments for God are unsound and then argue that if God existed then we would expect to be in a position to know whether God exists. But as we’ll see, there is good reason to think (a) is false because our epistemic situation in which we find ourselves with respect to belief in God’s existence does not satisfy the above Criteria.

Is God Imaginary? - Problems with Satisfying the Criteria for the God Question

Let’s apply these criteria to God and the atheism/agnosticism distinction. Concerning God, if either of these conditions are not satisfied—if even one fails—atheism cannot be concluded in the absence of a sound argument for atheism. Atheists say both Criteria are satisfied when it comes to the God question, and they say they lack sufficient evidence for knowing that God exists. Now, since many atheists frequently recognize (as did Russell) that there are no sound arguments for atheism, this leaves the atheist’s case resting entirely upon the Criteria.

But it can be argued that one’s epistemic situation regarding belief in God does not always satisfy these Criteria, and therefore one cannot conclude that atheism is true in the face of (apparent) lack of evidence for God. Here’s another way to think about this: Suppose for the sake of argument there were no good arguments or evidence for God; then, in terms of the Examples given above, one’s epistemic situation concerning God is closer to the Grand Canyon Fly Example than it is to the Elephants in the Room Example — and therefore that, at most, (soft) agnosticism is the stance that should be taken, not atheism, in the face of (apparent) lack of evidence for God.

A. Why the “Evidence Expectation Criterion” Is Not Always Satisfied

The Evidence Expectation Criterion — which you will recall said that if an object O existed, then we would expect there to be evidence for it — is not always satisfied by our epistemic situation concerning knowing whether God exists.

It can be questioned that God satisfies the Evidence Expectation Criterion if you think for a moment about the fleeting nature of evidence. Only in the last 20 years or so have we discovered the incredible and incalculable fine-tuning of our universe for intelligent life (see the discussion of the Teleological Argument in chapter 4 of Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition); and only within the last 80 years have we learned scientifically that the universe is expanding and that it must have begun to exist (see discussion of the Kalam Cosmological Argument — chapter 3 in Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition). For eons of history this evidence simply wasn’t available to our ancestors. But since future progress in knowledge requires present ignorance, this means our current understanding will be incomplete or false. So it’s not always the case that “If there were evidence for God, then we would expect to have evidence of it.”

An Objection and a Reply

But we can imagine the atheist objecting:

True, true, evidence and good arguments, for theism and much else besides, fluctuate with time and place. But if God exists, then he has a moral duty to reveal himself clearly to all persons irrespective of time and place. Since he’s not done that — since he’s flouted his moral duty to reveal himself clearly to all persons — we can safely say that God does not exist.

Is God imaginary? I had an atheist professor agree with this sentiment. He said if God really wanted us to believe in him, he would be out there in the sky waving hello to everyone, parting more seas, and elevating massive objects.

The problem with this reasoning is that God is not interested in performing party tricks so we can say, “Wow, that’s really something else!” and go on and live a life unchanged, continuing in our sinful, self-centered ways. God would have a moral obligation to perform more miraculous deeds only if, in performing them, more people would come into a saving, personal relationship with him. But would they?

We have no good reason to think they would; the atheist has not provided us with a reason to think that if God revealed himself more overtly then more people would come to enjoy a saving relationship with him than would otherwise if God did not. While entertainment and party tricks would likely result in people coming to believe the proposition “God exists,” how could we know that would result in changing one’s heart (cf. Luke 16:30-31)? The New Testament says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19), and it’s plain that demons lack a personal relationship with God. Moreover, the Old Testament describes God revealing himself through various miraculous wonders — through the plagues upon Egypt, the pillar of fire and smoke, the parting of the Red Sea, among others — yet these events, miraculous as they were, did not produce long-lasting heart change in the Israelites. Time and time again they fell into apostasy.

Thus, even if God were to part more seas or elevate massive objects, there is no reason to think that merely producing propositional knowledge of God (like believing the proposition that China’s population exceeds one billion) would result in a personal, life-transforming relationship with him. The atheist has not shown that God has a moral obligation to reveal himself in such ways to all persons; to do so might be mere entertainment.

B. Why the “Knowledge Expectation Criterion” Is Not Always Satisfied

Consider the second criterion, the Knowledge Expectation Criterion, which says that if there were evidence for something, then we would expect to have knowledge of that evidence. At least three reasons can be given why our epistemic situation concerning knowing whether God exists may not satisfy this Criterion, that is, there are times when we should not expect to know of evidence for God’s existence. Saying this is likely to sound counter-intuitive at first, but hear me out.

First, given the universality of sin and its effect on our epistemic situation, it’s not at all surprising that God’s existence is not obvious and that we don’t always satisfy the Knowledge Expectation Criterion. According to traditional Christianity, one of the effects of our human sinfulness is malfunctioning cognitive faculties: they don’t always function so as to lead us to non-self-centered conclusions. This means they might not always be helpful in interpreting evidence in a favorable and truthful light because many truths conflict with our being self-centered. (Jesus said, “The world . . . hates me because I testify of it that its deeds are evil” (John 7:7)). These effects upon our cognitive faculties are called the “noetic effects” of sin, and they can distort evidence of God, including the witness of the Holy Spirit (see Q&A Archive Questions #68 & #30), as well as many other more mundane things in life (e.g., it is easier to misrepresent our opponents than to take the time first to understand them). Professor Plantinga aptly describes these noetic effects:

The noetic effects of sin are concentrated with respect to our knowledge of other people, of ourselves, and of God . . . Sin affects my knowledge of others in many ways. Because of hatred or distaste for some group of human beings, I may think them inferior, of less worth than I myself and my more accomplished friends. Because of hostility and resentment, I may misestimate or entirely misunderstand someone else’s attitude toward me . . . Due to that basic and aboriginal sin pride, I may unthinkingly and almost without noticing assume that I am the centre of the universe (of course if you ask me, I will deny thinking any such thing), vastly exaggerating the importance of what happens to me as opposed to what happens to others . . .

Further, Plantinga adds that

The most serious noetic effects of sin have to do with our knowledge of God. Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects, and the past . . . Our knowledge of his character and his love toward us can be smothered: it can even be transformed into a resentful thought that God is to be feared and mistrusted; it may see him as indifferent or even malignant.

In the traditional taxonomy of the seven deadly sins, there is sloth. Sloth is not simple laziness, like the inclination to lie down and watch television rather than go out and get the exercise you need; it is, instead, a kind of spiritual deadness, blindness, imperceptiveness, acedia, torpor, a failure to be aware of God’s presence, love, requirements.2

Plantinga goes on to explain how the deliverances of the inner instigation of the Holy Spirit (by which the Holy Spirit works convicting us of God’s existence, among other truths) may be suppressed or impeded by turning one’s attention away from God by, for example, desiring to live a life of which God disapproves. This was Aldous Huxley’s self-admitted reason for his unbelief. He says he had “motives” for not wanting to believe in God and so “assumed” he didn’t exist and “was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.” He confessed:

Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless.3

More recently, New York University Professor Thomas Nagel has said something similar: “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.” He continues: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want a universe like that.”4

A second problem arises with the Knowledge Expectation Criterion because atheists often apply inappropriately high epistemic standards — standards they would not have in other “normal” contexts — when evaluating the rationality of theistic belief, insisting that the theist’s argument’s premise isn’t known. For example, everybody’s ordinary, everyday intuitions wouldn’t lead one to think that objects could pop into existence uncaused from nothing — yet, when it comes to the Kalam Cosmological Argument for God’s existence, for example, this is affirmed by many atheists. So when it comes to arguments for theism, many atheists dig in their heels, raise the bar for proof, and claim not to know the premises to be true.

Third, because God isn’t interested in inculcating mere propositional belief in him (i.e. believing the proposition that God exists), but a filial, or personal knowledge of him, some philosophers think that God may “hide” from humans when we try to divorce propositional belief in God from a personal relationship with God. When God does this our epistemic situation concerning him won’t satisfy the Knowledge Expectation Criterion.5

Let me explain this last point in more detail. The Christian God doesn’t want to be merely some abstract “Ground of Being” or only the “best explanation for the cosmos” — he wants both to be the Lord of our lives and a loving parent. Professor Paul Moser, an eminent philosopher who has done considerable work in area of divine hiddenness, describes this filial knowledge:

In filial knowledge of God, we have knowledge of a supreme personal subject, not of a mere object for casual reflection. This is not knowledge of a vague "first cause," "ultimate power," "ground of being," or even a "best explanation." It rather is convicting knowledge of a personal, communicating Lord who expects grateful commitment by way of our appropriating God's gracious redemption. Such convicting knowledge includes our being judged and found unworthy by the standard of God's morally supreme love. God's will thereby meets, convicts, and redirects our will. Both sides of this relationship are thus personal . . . Filial knowledge of God is reconciling personal knowledge whereby we enter into an appropriate child-parent relationship with God. Such knowledge is personally transforming, not impersonally abstract or morally impotent. It is communicated by God’s personal Spirit in a way that demands full life-commitment.6

Why might, at times, God hide from us? Why wouldn’t he always make himself obvious for all to see, as obvious as the words on this page? Various reasons have been put forward in answering this important question and justice cannot done by reducing those answers to a sound bite or two. I can only sketch a couple of the responses here.7

One reason stems from the observation that if God did make himself obvious to all — as obvious as the words on this page — then for many it would destroy the possibility of developing morally significant freedom (being able to choose freely and often between good and bad courses of action) because our being powerfully aware of God would coerce us into obeying his moral commands.8 (Compare a child who is told not to eat from the cookie jar but is never given the opportunity to refrain from eating the cookies because her parents are always in the room watching). The overall result would be an underdeveloped moral character.

A second reason God might withdraw evidence of himself could be due to human sinfulness, pride, self-centeredness, and personal detachment. This brings us back to the issued mentioned in section 3, “An Objection and a Reply,” namely whether there is good reason to think that if God performed more miraculous events (parting seas for a watching audience, elevating massive objects) then more people’s hearts would be changed to want to enjoy a personal, life-transforming relationship with God. And here I think the quotations from Aldous Huxley and Thomas Nagel are quite instructive, since their heart seems to have settled the question of evidence and argument beforehand. What use is further evidence if one, in Nagel’s words, “hope[s] there is no God!” because he “doesn’t want a universe like that?”

(Objection: Some may worry that the would-be believers get insufficient evidence while those complacent toward God get the “good” evidence. Similarly, it might be thought that God would provide such evidence in the hope and chance that the atheist would have a heart change. Reply: But these objections are met if God has “middle knowledge.” The doctrine of divine middle knowledge implies not only that God knows whether people would respond to more evidence if he gave it to them, but also whether it would be ineffectual or perhaps deleterious. Accordingly, God could providentially arrange the world so that the would-be believers are given evidence, argument and gifts of grace sufficient for free and rational belief. And if God knows all this he’s under no obligation to provide more evidence than that which he already has given. For more on this see Q&A Archive Question 77, “Middle Knowledge and Christian Particularism.”)

So we really don’t have any good reason to think that if God existed then we would always have knowledge of him; and thus we lack good reasons for thinking that our epistemic situation concerning whether God exists always satisfies the Knowledge Expectation Criterion. And from this it follows that one cannot deny God’s existence without an argument for his non-existence, for atheism. That’s why Craig can demand of Hitchens an argument for atheism.

Is God Imaginary? - Some Examples: Tooth Fairies, Leprechauns, Santa Claus, Teapots, and Invisible Objects

Let me see if I can put all this together to answer your question with some examples which are thought to pose a problem for the line of thought defended thus far. Your question basically was when absence of evidence counts as evidence of absence. Answering this will depend upon whether our epistemic situation satisfies the Evidence Expectation and Knowledge Expectation Criteria for the object in question: Should one expect to possess evidence sufficient to know that object O exists? If a rhino were in the room, then the answer is “Yes.” Thus, looking about and seeing no rhino, that itself is evidence there is none present.

But what about imaginary beings things like the Tooth Fairy, leprechauns, and Santa Claus? Is God imaginary in the same way they are? Atheists claim they don’t need to disprove God for the same reason they don’t need to disprove the existence of Tooth Fairies, leprechauns, and Santa Claus. The problem with the comparison with the last two items is that, while our epistemic situation regarding God doesn’t always satisfy the Evidence Expectation and Knowledge Expectation Criteria, our epistemic situation regarding leprechauns and Santa Claus does — we can, and do, disprove them all the time; it’s just that there are few, if any, people arguing for their existence so we’re never called upon to give those reasons. If Santa existed we should expect to see, but don’t, lots of evidence of that fact, including warehouses at the North Pole, a large sleigh, and so forth; similarly, were there biologically tiny human beings on this planet we should expect to see, but don’t, their evidence: miniature villages, waste products, the bones of their deceased — evidence similar to what we have for mice, hamsters and other small critters. If there were more people today who made a case for leprechauns and Santa Claus then it would be entirely appropriate for us to enter into dialogue with them, giving reasons for their non-existence.

At this point an atheist might object that the Tooth Fairy is different from leprechauns and Santa Claus because she’s invisible. (Is she invisible in the story?) Suppose she is invisible. According to the tale she collects teeth left under children’s pillows leaving behind a reward (usually money). Evidence we should expect to see if she existed then would be money left behind, stolen teeth, etc. Do we find such evidence? Well, no we don’t, but we would expect to if she existed. So, even the Tooth Fairy satisfies the Evidence Expectation and Knowledge Expectation Criteria. So because we lack evidence of her, we say she doesn’t exist (sorry kids!).

Suppose the atheist agrees that the reason why we deny Tooth Fairies, leprechauns and Santa Claus is because we do have evidence for their absence. He might nonetheless insist that the situation is significantly different for other objects which are causally isolated from us. A case in point is Russell’s famous teapot which circles about the sun, an object which is (for the most part) causally isolated from us. Do we need to be agnostic about it? Can we say it doesn’t exist? I think we know it doesn’t exist because it wasn’t put there by the Russian or American astronauts; and we know that matter in the universe does not self-organize into teapot shapes. So really, we have a great deal of evidence that Russell’s teacup doesn’t exist; and since our discussion is confined to cases where we infer the non-existence of something simply on the basis of absence of evidence for it, the example is irrelevant.

Another Objection and a Reply

But now imagine the atheist objecting:

OK, very well, I grant everything you say thus far about Santa Claus, and all the rest; but we don’t have to abide by your Criteria when it comes to objects which are both invisible (like the Tooth Fairy) and causally undetectable (like the teapot). For example, an invisible floating, pink elephant over my head. There’s no such thing.

The theist could reply:

Your example is charming and rhetorically clever but incoherent. Can something that is invisible even be an elephant? If so, then it surely isn't very much like a normal elephant— a massive, material object which exhibits all sorts of physical properties. Your “invisible elephant” question is really just a rhetorically clever sleight of hand; the question doesn’t make much sense in the first place and perhaps should be rephrased as something like: "Do we know there are not immaterial things around us?" to which the answer should be "No" in either of two senses: (i) No, because we have no evidence that there are not immaterial things, or (ii) No, because there are immaterial things around us, e.g. God, angels, immaterial minds, qualia, abstract objects like numbers or propositions, etc.9

Is God Imaginary? - Summary and Conclusion

Your question is a good one, Steven. I’ve tried to spell out all the background and make it as accessible as possible. You asked for evidence for the non-existence of Santa Claus, Tooth Fairies and the like and thought it was unfair of Dr. Craig to demand of Christopher Hitchens evidence for atheism. I argued that this wasn’t so. If Hitchens or anyone else seeks to establish atheism he or she needs to provide an argument.

After answering a larger question which loomed in the background — namely, what conditions are necessary for denying something in the absence of evidence — we found that it all boiled down to whether your epistemic situation meets the Evidence and Knowledge Expectation Criteria; in short: in the absence of evidence, we can deny the existence of something O only if we would expect to possess evidence sufficient to know that O exists but in fact lack it.

Four reasons were given for why our epistemic situation does not permit us to think that, if God existed then we would expect to have evidence sufficient to know that he does: (1) the fleeting nature of evidence shows that our epistemic situation is volatile according to time and place (contra the Evidence Expectation Criterion); and (contra the Knowledge Expectation Criterion) (2) the noetic effects of sin distort evidence toward our selfish ends; (3) the unreasonably high epistemic standards atheists apply toward theistic proofs; and (4) God may hide himself in response to attempts to divorce propositional knowledge of God with a life-transforming, personal relationship with him. After doing all this, I finally answered your question and gave some examples of what evidence for non-existent objects looks like.

Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-god-imaginary#ixzz2n95MTtsO