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A Rebuttal to Pardi’s Criticism of ANB



I argue that Pardi’s criticisms of Drange’s version of the argument from nonbelief (ANB) do not refute ANB, although they may or may not require peripheral corrections or clarifications on Drange’s part. I focus not so much on Drange’s formulation, but on what I take to be the central intuitions of ANB and on the inadequacy of Pardi’s objections. I assume some familiarity with Pardi’s paper and with ANB, although I present what I consider to be ANB’s central claims.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Salvation

Pardi points out that the complex belief that God exists and that God tries to save people by sending Jesus is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for salvation, according to evangelical Christianity. From this Pardi infers that “the key feature in actualizing S [the situation in which most people believe the gospel] for person P would have to involve changing the will of P and not simply altering her doxastic structure,” that is, not simply altering the person’s beliefs. This is because “God wants the will to be turned such that the believer not merely believes the truths of the gospel but willingly submits to them in an act of love.”

But this avoids the heart of ANB, which is the need for God to remove an insurmountable obstacle to many people’s salvation, namely their inculpable nonbelief in God’s existence and in a few other central Christian propositions. ANB is about the necessary, not the sufficient condition of salvation, since the claimed obstacle is not willful disobedience to God but rational, inculpable nonbelief at least in his existence. Given that there is this difference between the necessary and the sufficient conditions of salvation, there is no need to reformulate ANB to account for how God should affect people’s wills as opposed to their beliefs, contrary to Pardi.

If interpreted charitably, then Pardi is essentially correct that, according to evangelical Christianity, “if God merely actualized S, it would be wholly ineffective for salvific ends and thus would be pointless.” The proponent of ANB need not deny that, given people’s libertarian freedom, the mere belief in the gospel message would not necessarily sway people to become lovers or haters of God. Original sin might tend to lead to hatred of God. If a person merely believed that God exists, that person might still be condemned to hell. On the other hand, theistic belief is surely not wholly ineffective or pointless for salvific purposes. Belief that God exists is a psychologically necessary condition of a person’s salvation, which is to say that without this belief the person could not possibly be saved. My own formulation of ANB highlights the necessary condition, by focusing on God’s need to remove an intolerable obstacle to his forming a loving relationship with his children.[1]The obstacle is rational nonbelief in God’s existence. Anyone with this nonbelief lacks even the opportunity to love God, since it’s impossible genuinely to love what is believed not to exist.

While God should also be concerned with people’s fulfillment of the sufficient condition of salvation, still the atheist’s inculpability is inexplicable, given evangelical Christianity. Just because it would be pointless for people to satisfy merely the necessary condition without also satisfying the sufficient one, this hardly means that removing the possibility of rational nonbelief would be pointless; on the contrary, theistic belief would be the springboard to an opportunity to satisfy salvation’s sufficient condition. Presumably, God could have more than one grave concern. Nevertheless, his love for his children should compel him to remove the possibility of blameless atheism so that everyone could have at least the opportunity to respond positively to their knowledge of God.

To see the need for God to satisfy the necessary condition, I will formulate ANB by way of analogy. Sarah is the mother of Fred. Sarah wants to have a loving relationship with her child, because that desire is essential to parenthood. (Some parents lack this desire, but they’re the exceptions.) Let’s add that Sarah happens to be psychic: she can look into the future and see that without this loving relationship Fred will grow up to be a very bad person, say a serial killer who will be caught, thrown in prison and finally executed. Her desire, then, for this relationship is extremely strong, based as it is not only on her love for Fred, but on her knowledge that he will suffer immensely without the relationship.

Now a necessary condition of this relationship is Fred’s belief that Sarah exists. Without this belief on Fred’s part the relationship is impossible, not just improbable. Let’s say, though, that for some reason, through no fault of Fred’s, he lacks this belief. Imagine that aliens experiment on the family by cloaking Sarah in an invisible force field such that whenever she’s near Fred he can’t sense her at all. Not only that, whenever she tries to interact with him some other explanation is always more probable for Fred than that someone named Sarah, his mother, is somehow present and responsible for the interaction. For example, if Sarah bakes a cake and hands it to Fred, what Fred sees instead is that a professional male chef bakes the cake. Fred’s nonbelief, then, is inculpable.

Given all of this, would it be pointless for Sarah to try to remove Fred’s nonbelief? In this case, she would have to confront the aliens and remove the force field. Let’s say she has that power. The obstacle to the loving relationship would be so important to her and, moreover, so outrageous that she would do everything in her power to give Fred at least the opportunity to love her. His belief that she doesn’t even exist, maintained even when she’s right in front of him, deprives him of that opportunity. In my view, this outrage on the parent’s part, combined with the surprising lack of God’s remedy against the obstacle, is the heart of ANB.

According to Pardi, “if we are to take Drange’s notion of (religious) belief as presented in chapter 5 as propositional type belief, then clearly (D’) [the proposition that God predominantly desires to bring about situation S] is false. For no evangelical would grant that such a notion of belief is God’s predominant desire (or even minimal desire).” This is a non sequitur. Given that God’s desire for his creatures to believe the propositions that God exists, that Jesus was God, and so forth would not be God’s only desire regarding his creatures’ salvation, since these beliefs on their part would not suffice to save them, it does not follow that this desire would not be predominant or minimal for God. On the contrary, without this desire, without people’s belief that the essential propositions of evangelical Christianity are true, they could not possibly be saved. This is because the sufficient condition of their salvation, their voluntary commitment to God depends on belief in these propositions. If Fred does not believe his mother exists, he cannot possibly love her or be committed to her. Were he to try to do so, his voluntary actions in this regard would be insane and thus could not satisfy his mother. Were a Christian to claim both to love God and to disbelieve that God exists, and were the God of evangelical Christianity to exist, surely this “Christian” would not be saved, since his love for God would not be genuine, rational, or voluntary.

Moreover, the sheer outrage of a child lacking the belief that the parent even exists would surely irritate any parent enough for her to want to rectify the situation. Add to this the threat of hellfire for eternity, and the need for God at least to start the process of salvation by removing the possibility of innocent, rational nonbelief in core Christian doctrines is intensified. The desire to satisfy the necessary condition of salvation should be uppermost in God’s mind, although this need not be his only such crucial desire. The semantic debate, of course, as to whether this desire should be highest, minimal, uppermost, or crucial for God is irrelevant. ANB’s point is that this desire would be important enough for God to act on it. This raises the question of whether God has any unimportant desires such that he doesn’t act on them. Any desire belonging to the creator of the universe would seem to be important enough to be pursued.

Bare and Full Theism

Pardi addresses this point about the centrality of the necessary condition of salvation to ANB. He summarizes his response by quoting McKim as saying that “a belief would not count as belief that God exists unless it involved full belief and trust.” What Pardi calls “bare theism,” the belief in certain propositions, cannot exist on its own without a voluntary attitude, since this belief “is not an isolated mental disposition but a whole host of dispositions that affect one’s entire noetic structure.” For God to force people to believe that he exists, God would have to render their bare theism coherent with their broader worldview. If people need to be essentially free in a libertarian sense, though, for them to form a voluntary relationship with God (thus fulfilling the sufficient condition of their salvation), God would have to do the impossible just by forcing bare theism on people.

What this means, though, is surely that the necessary condition of salvation, the belief in certain theistic propositions, is automatically accompanied by a necessary condition of the sufficient condition of salvation, namely a voluntary response to this belief. In other words, it’s impossible to be emotionally neutral about God, given belief that God exists. Were the sufficient condition of salvation love of God, for example, a necessary condition of this sufficient condition would be the exercise of freewill; the love would have to be a voluntary response in part to a certain belief, in this case to the belief that God exists, which belief is salvation’s necessary condition.

But this doesn’t mean that God would have to force people to love him just by forcing them to believe that he exists; rather, bare theism would force people to make up their own mind about how they feel about God, whether to love or to hate and rebel against him. This is why Pardi distinguishes in the first place between the necessary and the sufficient conditions of salvation. He points out, for example, that “as the book of James says, even the demons believe that God exists but certainly that believe [sic] doesn’t do anything for them with regards to salvation.” If demons have freewill, this implies that coerced bare theism lets the person freely choose to be saved or condemned. Demons believe that God exists but rebel against him.

So there’s a dilemma for Pardi. Either bare theism (the necessary condition of salvation) implies full theism (the sufficient condition) or it doesn’t. If it does, then there are no demons and evangelical Christianity is false as it stands. Moreover, there would be no point to the distinction between the necessary and the sufficient conditions of salvation, contrary to most of Pardi’s counterargument. Finally, the notion that bare theism implies full theism excludes the possibility of healthy nonevangelical or non-Christian theism, which is absurd.

If, however, there is no such implication and bare theism implies only that the believer take some voluntary action in response to this belief, such as either to love or to hate God, then ANB goes through. This is because God could force bare theism, which in turn would force a necessary condition of salvation’s sufficient condition, without interfering with people’s free choice as to whether to follow God or Satan. Bare theism would leave untouched the sufficient condition of salvation even while it would force people to fulfill this condition’s own necessary condition.

I want to grant that were God to force on people the acceptance of very specific theistic propositions, such as perhaps some of those Pardi lists in the section, “On Missing the Point,” this might indeed compel not just a necessary condition of the sufficient condition of salvation, but full theism itself, the correct response to God’s existence. Here the proponent of ANB should restrict the argument to the need for God to force just those beliefs which are necessary both to salvation and to some voluntary response to bare theism, but which do not force full theism. Belief that God sent Jesus to save humanity, for example, may be necessary to salvation and to love of God, without yet excluding the possibility of hatred of God. On the contrary, many non-Christian theists often speak of the repugnance of the notion of substitutionary sacrifice. Even if Jesus were sent to save people, the worship of Jesus as God might be considered flatly idolatrous and a way for God to change the topic.

Many specific theistic propositions could be explained away or at least rationalized to permit the bare theist freely to rebel against God. Perhaps the hardest such proposition would be that the Bible is inerrant. On the other hand, according to a well known saying, even Satan can quote the Bible for his purposes. If the Bible contains at least the appearance of inconsistency, the difficulty of arriving at an interpretation consistent with full theism, with love of God, could permit an obstacle sufficient for rebellion against God. Say Fred believes that God exists and that the Bible is inerrant, but has great difficulty resolving apparent contradictions in the Bible. Even though God (somehow) forces him to believe that the Bible is inerrant, Fred becomes frustrated by his inability to resolve the contradictions. He grows angry and turns his anger against God. Granted, parts of the Bible tell Fred to trust that God himself will provide the answers, but Fred’s an impatient person and hates that God would put such a task in front of him when God could have written a book without the appearance of inconsistency, of immorality, and of all of the other defects with the Bible raised by nonbelievers. My point here is that it’s not obvious which theistic proposition requires full theism. Given such human weaknesses as impatience, resentment, rationalization, and so on, bare theism could be defined pretty broadly and still be forced on people by God without him interfering with their voluntary response.

Atheism as Self-Deception

Pardi has two more responses to ANB. He acknowledges a stripped-down version of ANB, one which points to the need for God to eliminate nonbelief just in his existence. Here bare theism is as bare as it can be. Pardi’s response to this version of ANB is that God has indeed eliminated this nonbelief. Atheists who take their nonbelief to be inculpable may just be deluding themselves. The claim that this delusion is impossible begs the question by presupposing God’s nonexistence, since if God did exist the existence of self-deluded atheists would be more likely than that of atheists with inculpable nonbelief.

The concept of self-deception, of the suppression of one’s own knowledge seems to me quite complicated. It’s possible that there is no such thing as the ability literally to deceive oneself. I suspect that some alleged cases are confused with the forgetting of an earlier held belief, with the honest failure to draw a certain implication from a held belief, or with an unwillingness to express a privately-held belief. One criterion that governs many accusations of self-deception has to do with the dictates of a closed belief-system. The accuser is a partisan who desperately reaches for any explanation of recalcitrant data, such as of her opponent’s contrary position.

If there were such a thing as genuine self-deception, it might be a person’s unwillingness to understand what she feels, a discrepancy between her noncognitive and cognitive states. For example, a white racist might reject the option of affirmative action for black people, and despite the reasons she offers in support of her belief, ultimately she’s led by little more than irrational hatred of blacks. The racist might not understand that hatred is the true cause of her belief, but she might nevertheless be aware of this hatred. This awareness is crucial, since without it there could be no self-deception; a self-deceiver has to be able to see the falsehood for what it is. This account takes self-deception to be the same as rationalization (in the pejorative sense), the offering of a false reason in support of some position which does little more than obscure the position’s embarrassing emotional basis.

For atheism to be a rationalization, the atheist would have to feel that God exists and be unwilling to understand this feeling for what it is. This corresponds with the evangelical Christian’s emphasis on the need for a personal relationship with God, which is something more emotional than intellectual. Until the Christian can articulate the feeling of God’s existence, however, without confusing it with some other feeling such as a simple wish, there is little need for the atheist to reply to such an accusation. When the Christian claims to speak to God, for example, but is incapable of distinguishing God’s voice from that of her own conscience, this is just the renaming of a familiar experience, one which is at least divided on the question of God’s existence.

Even if there were a universal feeling that God exists, this feeling would not amount to knowledge, since feeling that p is true doesn’t make p true. ANB, however, points to an absence of knowledge among many people. Conscious, rational nonbelief should be the intolerable obstacle for God, but this nonbelief can’t be overcome by a feeling.

Pardi is right that this issue points outside ANB to the evidence for God’s existence. Instead of turning to whether atheistic arguments are superior to theistic ones, or at least to whether the former amount to reasonable doubt, I want to explore a general response. This is that the claim that atheists delude themselves and really do know that God exists is ad hoc and therefore likely to be inaccurate. To show that it’s not improvised or ad hoc, Pardi would have to invoke a standard for telling whether atheists are self-deluded, which standard would have to apply to cases of commonly accepted self-delusion. One way of telling whether a person’s claim to believe that p is disingenuous is to check whether the belief rests on (relatively) immediate sense experience and then to determine whether the person’s senses operate in a normal way. If Fred denies that he’s holding an apple even while he plainly holds one, Fred would likely be deceiving himself or others were his senses discovered to be fully operational. Unfortunately, God’s existence can’t be confirmed directly by the senses, so this case of self-delusion depends on a criterion to which Pardi can’t appeal.

Another criterion would have to do with logical necessity. Assume that Fred understands the laws of logic, but that he denies that today is either Tuesday or not Tuesday. Then there would be cause for the accusation that Fred’s denial is deceptive. This would be because of the nature of the proposition in question. Now the ontological argument for God’s existence does indeed conclude that God necessarily exists. Unfortunately, this argument is at the very least problematic. Were the laws of logic similarly problematic, notice that calling Fred a suppressor of his inner knowledge would be less reasonable.

If God’s existence can’t be confirmed by the senses or by the laws of logic, perhaps we’re dealing with indirect, circumstantial evidence. Say Fred holds an apple with a sticker attached to the stem bearing the initials “S. H.” Sarah Horton tells Fred that the apple belongs to her, but Fred rejects her claim. Sarah then accuses Fred of being a liar who knows better. Fred protests that he honestly rejects the evidence she offers in favour of her claim. Finally, she takes the further step of accusing Fred not just of deceiving her but of deceiving himself. While Fred might deceive himself as she suggests, still given the circumstantial, indirect nature of the evidence, I think Sarah’s accusation would be something of an unjustified, not to mention offensive, leap. The leap is from a proposition whose indirect evidence allows for reasonable doubt to an accusation which rests on a standard that requires near certainty or at least inside information on the accuser’s part. Just because the apple’s tag bears certain initials doesn’t mean the apple belongs to Sarah. Someone else may have the same initials or perhaps Sarah lies about her name to steal the apple from Fred.

In the case of a proposition dependent on indirect, physical evidence there is usually room for reasonable disagreement, since in everyday situations there is usually only a limited amount of such evidence accumulated. Given this, the accusation that a person deceives herself in taking a certain stand on such evidence would rest on a criterion not grounded in common experience. Assuming that the evidence in favour of theism–to the extent that there is such evidence–is of the third kind, involving such data as alleged prophecy fulfillment, miracles, Church history, the universe’s existence, and so on, which at best indirectly confirm God’s existence, Pardi’s claim that the atheist is a suppressor of his own knowledge is not likely to be accurate. It’s more likely that indirect evidence can be interpreted in different ways than that this evidence leads all honest people to the same conclusion.[2] Moreover, the theist’s evidentiary burden is raised considerably by the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which means that in the absence of extraordinary evidence of whatever kind, the atheist would be even more reasonable and further removed from possible self-deception.

Equally Split Evidence

Pardi’s final response grants that the empirical evidence for both theism and atheism “stands in rough epistemic parity.” He next states that were either the atheist or the theist to rest her position solely on this evidence, she would be guilty of self-deception. Were Pardi to have said that the self-deception would be due to the nature of this evidence, his accusation of self-deception would be much too liberal, as I argue above. His point, rather, is that their deception would be due to the rough equality of empirical evidence in support of both positions. Here, then, is the relevant criterion for telling whether a person deceives herself. Were the evidence to show Fred both that the apple belongs to Sarah and to someone else, and were he to base his belief just on this conflicting evidence, his belief would be self-deceptive since presumably agnosticism would be the only reasonable option, given the lack of any other kind of evidence.

Unfortunately, this criterion likewise doesn’t apply to atheism. There are two kinds of equally distributed empirical evidence. On the one hand, a person can be indifferent as to what to decide. On the other, a person can care about the decision. In the first case, I think Pardi would be correct in saying that belief based solely on this evidence would be deceptive. The problem is that the deception would have to be more lighthearted than malicious, given the person’s indifference. Take the example of Fred and the apple. Assume that Fred doesn’t care to eat the apple himself, but claims to believe that the apple belongs to Sarah even though he grants to himself that he doesn’t know who owns the apple; the evidence is insufficient to make a judgment. He goes along with Sarah’s story more to humour her than to express any conviction on his part. If pushed, however, he would likely admit that he doesn’t know to whom the apple belongs. Now I doubt that there could be a case of self-deception given the deceiver’s indifference about the matter. In any case, such indifferent pseudobelief seems very different from what is usually the atheist’s serious, firm belief about God’s nonexistence. The typical atheist is far from indifferent about theism.

Assume now that Fred does care about what to believe regarding the apple’s owner. In this case, I think Pardi would be wrong to say that Fred’s decision would be self-deceptive. On the contrary, for pragmatic reasons I think Fred’s values would be activated, as it were, and would help Fred interpret the evidence such that his belief would not be based solely on the data. In other words, in the case of nontrivial beliefs based on conflicting empirical evidence, I think that a person would make a decision and that this decision would not likely be self-deceptive precisely because the decision would be determined by the person’s values rather than just by the evidence. Given the many threats against a person, a state of indecision is also a state of insecurity–especially when the issue is an important one. While making a decision in this case could lead a person into error, there would still be a fifty-fifty chance of forming the correct belief. Given these odds, making a decision would be safer than waiting in a limbo unprotected by the predictive power of firm belief.

This view of Pardi’s criterion can be illustrated by the example of hung juries. Jurors are not normally indifferent as to their decision about the evidence. Assume, then, that a jury is split down the middle as to whether someone is guilty of a crime. This would imply that the evidence presented in court is roughly equal in favour of the prosecution and the defense. But what would not be implied is that any of the jury members would be a self-deceiver were he or she nevertheless to come to a decision. The jury as a whole may be split and undecided, but usually each of the jurors is not so split in evaluating the evidence.

Likewise, the American Supreme Court decisions are often split roughly down the middle. There are weighty arguments offered in both the majority and the minority opinions. The total evidence would seem to conflict with itself. Nevertheless, this hardly means each of the judges is a self-deceiver in affirming his or her opinion. There are many cases in which the empirical evidence is split in a roughly equal way, but in which those evaluating the evidence come to an honest decision which has nothing to do with self-deception. There need be nothing deceptive about the interpretation of conflicting evidence so long as the interpretation expresses the believer’s values.

I agree with Pardi that empirical evidence is not likely the sole basis of either atheism or theism, at least when the atheist and the theist are not indifferent. While a theist might here beg the question and appeal to the existence of demons who lead the atheist away from the truth, I would point to a difference in the values that make up a person’s character. Instead of deceiving himself and others, Antonin Scalia values individual rights above most others and expresses his character in rejecting what may often be half of the evidence. Far from deceiving himself, he reaffirms his character and expresses his deeply held values. These values and personal considerations could tilt a bare theist into becoming a lover or a hater of God. A person may believe that God exists and yet may possess certain values that conflict with God’s. Moreover, a person’s values may be the products of her previous free choices. The minimal version of ANB is thus consistent with this personal source of beliefs which are based also on conflicting empirical evidence.

To summarize, the issue is whether Pardi’s criterion for deciding whether a person’s belief is based on self-deception grounds his response to the minimal version of ANB or renders this response ad hoc and thus likely to lead to a false judgment about the atheist’s credibility. The criterion is that belief based solely on conflicting empirical evidence is self-deceptive. Were atheism so based, the atheist would be self-deceptive and thus the minimal version of ANB would be unsound, since there would be no involuntary obstacle to anyone’s forming a relationship with God.

Pardi, however, mishandles the criterion. Clearly, the typical atheist is not indifferent about her nonbelief in God’s existence. On the contrary, atheism is fundamental to a person’s worldview, as is theism. In the case of passionate rather than indifferent belief about conflicting empirical evidence, the belief is not based solely on the evidence, contrary to Pardi. Rather, the person interprets the evidence to avoid the danger of indecision about an important matter, by applying her values. Such interpretation is quite different from self-deception. If this is how the atheist deals with ambiguous empirical evidence, she need not deceive herself even while forming a belief about this evidence. So far, then, the minimal version of ANB does go through. Pardi’s claim that the atheist is self-deceptive is an ad hoc contrivance and thus likely false; that is, the accusation does not flow from a criterion that covers similar cases. Even if the empirical evidence were equally split, atheism would be value-driven, not self-deceptive. When the atheist claims to have involuntary nonbelief, it’s reasonable to take this nonbelief at face value. Since rational nonbelief is incompatible with a certain characterization of God, God so characterized does not exist.

Pardi may respond that if a person’s values and character were formed by previous free choices, then a person would indeed be responsible for a decision based in part on these personal factors. Say, for example, that Fred is a juror who has to decide whether a certain woman is guilty of a crime. Throughout his life, however, Fred chose over and over again to dislike women until finally he grew up to be a misogynist. The evidence against the defendant is balanced by equal evidence in her favour. Fred’s hatred of women helps him interpret the evidence in favour of the prosecution. Fred, then, would seem to be culpable for this value-based interpretation of the evidence.

What Pardi would have to show is that atheism too is based mainly on character flaws such that in interpreting conflicting evidence the atheist would be culpable. Even if there were such typical character flaws, they would be balanced by what seem to be the atheist’s virtues, such as skepticism or lack of gullibility, allegiance to science rather than to dogma, secular humanism rather than guilt-ridden hatred of human nature, and so on.[3] At the very least, Pardi would have to enter quite controversial territory in waging a pure personal attack against the atheist.


I conclude, then, that ANB withstands Pardi’s objections. Certain expectations had of a loving, sovereign God are not well met by actual nonbelievers who cannot be held accountable for being bad children in the cosmic sense, given the lack of any obvious heavenly parent. Most theists should be surprised by the incompatibility of blameless nonbelief with any theistic position that compares God to a human parent. At any rate, theists seem able to explain the incompatibility only in an ad hoc, contrived manner, which itself is evidence of God’s hiddenness and thus, according to ANB, of his nonexistence. A loving father doesn’t systematically hide from his children.


[1] See God, Atheism and Incompatibility: The Argument from Nonbelief

[2] One interesting counterexample is the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is supported largely by indirect evidence but which is held to be so overwhelmingly confirmed that such opponents as intelligent design theorists are often considered disingenuous. Here, though, there is evidence precisely of deception. Moreover, the empirical evidence in favour of natural selection is indeed overwhelming. What Pardi would have to show is that the empirical evidence supporting theism is equally overwhelming. On the contrary, Pardi claims that this evidence is roughly equal in favour of theism and atheism.

[3] The theist might point to such alleged personal flaws as hardheartedness, resentment of authority figures, or pride.

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