It is a legitimate question, and one that an atheist is certainly entitled to ask. If such a being exists, why don’t we see him?
Even the most devout theists, even those who believe that miracles are still abundant today, must admit that God’s existence is not obvious in the way that, for example, the existence of one’s best friend is obvious. God is not the sort of being that one can perceive with one’s eyes, hear with one’s ears, touch with one’s hands. Instead, believers claim, God’s existence is perceived not through the ordinary five senses, but through some additional sense, one that works in a completely different fashion from the other five.
This claim, however, raises some important questions. First of all, what precisely is the sense that perceives God, and how does it operate? All the other five senses operate on objects in the physical world, objects whose existence is subject to independent verification through other means. The sense of vision operates on photons of light; the sense of smell operates on molecules that diffuse through the air; the sense of touch detects the shape, temperature, and composition of material objects. What object or phenomena is the “God sense” responding to, and can its existence be detected any other way?
Aside from this lack of independent detectability of its subject, the “God sense” faces another difficulty. Aside from occasional exceptions such as colorblindness, two people using the same sense to perceive an object will ordinarily agree on its characteristics. Different people can easily reach a consensus on whether a new object is red or not, whether it tastes sweet or not, whether its surface feels smooth or not. However, this does not seem to be the case with the “God sense”. Instead, different people – all of whom insist that their perception of God is clear, unimpaired, and correct – will nevertheless often disagree dramatically on the characteristics of this being. Some believe that God is loving and forgiving, others that he is wrathful and warlike; some believe that he is personal, others that he is impersonal; some believe that he is infinite, while others believe that he is limited; and so on. Some people even disagree over whether there exists only one god or many. Clearly, these people cannot all be correct. But without a reliable means of settling this question through independent measurement, why should we believe that any of them have it right?
Given that there is no way to independently detect the object to which it purportedly refers (no way to build a “God meter”), and given that people do not by any means agree on the characteristics of this object, the most reasonable conclusion is that the God-detecting sense does not exist at all. What it seems we have instead is a broad array of people, each of which believes their own subjective beliefs to be objective truth. Such loose and shifting sands are in no way a reliable guide to the true nature of reality. Many people throughout history have believed, and many people today still believe, things that in retrospect turned out to be completely wrong. If we are ever to gain knowledge about something, we need a more reliable way of observing and measuring it than this. (For more on the argument from religious confusion, see “The Cosmic Shell Game“. For theists who may be objecting that internal sensations such as love also cannot be directly detected, see “Spiritual Fire“).
Of course, just because there is no God-detecting sense does not necessarily mean, in and of itself, that God does not exist. There may be many natural phenomena that we cannot detect. However, something that we cannot directly detect and that has no measurable effects upon other objects that we can detect is, for all intents and purposes, equivalent to something that does not exist. Even if there are completely undetectable objects, we might as well live our lives as if there were no such objects, because we can never know anything about them, not even the fact of their existence.
However, I am not suggesting that God must by definition be undetectable; quite the contrary. If there is a god such as many religions believe in, then he clearly has the ability to reveal his existence to us – not through some unreliable, subjective inner sense, but through the far more reliable outer ones. Why does God, if he exists, not reveal himself in some unambiguous way? Why does he not manifest himself in the world as something that we can see with our eyes, that we can hear with our ears, that we can touch with our hands? This would obviously be well within the power of an omnipotent being, so if there is such a being, why doesn’t it happen?
I am not suggesting that God, if he were to manifest in the world, could only appear in some dramatic, cosmic form, such as a huge Michelangelo-like figure tearing open the sky. A far more down-to-earth manifestation would be more than sufficient for most purposes, just as long as it was detectable by the ordinary senses and as long as we could communicate with it in a meaningful fashion. In other words, all I am asking is that God, if such a being exists and desires that we know him, interact with us in the same way we would expect any human being with the same desire to interact with us.
But this simple and reasonable strategy has not been carried out. Instead, the theists say, God has adopted a strategy for getting human beings’ attention that can only reasonably be described as bizarre – always remaining hidden, never clearly showing himself despite it being well within his power, but dropping coy hints from time to time. Imagine if you loved a person with all your heart, and wanted them to love you in return; but instead of approaching them, introducing yourself and explaining your feelings, you chose to remain hidden, never letting them see or hear you, but occasionally trying to get their attention through indirect means: leaving money where they might find it, or creeping into their bedroom while they were asleep and tucking the blankets around them, or sending a steady stream of representatives to knock on the person’s door and tell them that you loved them and wanted to spend your life with them – but ordering those representatives to turn down any of the person’s requests to actually see you as indicative of a hurtful lack of faith on their part. Is this how a rational person behaves? In such a situation, in fact, would you blame the other person for beginning to doubt whether you really existed at all? And yet, if we accept the claims of many theists, this method is how God chooses to relate to humanity. What could possibly be the point of this behavior?
The argument so far can be summarized as this: When we study history, we encounter stories of great miracles and appearances of God. These stories are not corroborated by any similar events in the present. There are no reliable means for humans to detect the existence of God, and although theists tell us God has the power to bridge this evidentiary gap from the other side, there are no occurrences that can reasonably be interpreted as this happening. In short, God is absent, and evidence of his activity is nowhere to be found.
If this reasoning were taken no further, it would simply be an observation, favoring no one viewpoint over any other. However, it can be made into the foundation of a potent argument for atheism commonly styled the argument from divine hiddenness. This argument builds on the fact that God’s presence is not obvious, supplementing it with the proposition that, if God existed, there would be good reasons for him to make his presence obvious – and from there concludes that the most likely explanation for the lack of divine manifestations is that there is no divine being at all. This argument will be presented more fully in the next section.