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Divine Hiddenness and Demographic Distribution7 min read

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20_religionCountryMapOne challenge to the Christian faith is the claim that the uneven distribution of faith around the globe may challenge some of Christian claims about God. This topic is nicely described in this abstract:

According to the much-discussed argument from divine hiddenness, God’s existence is disconfirmed by the fact that not everyone believes in God. The argument has provoked an impressive range of theistic replies, but none has overcome, or, I suggest, could overcome, the challenge posed by the uneven distribution of theistic belief around the world, a phenomenon for which naturalistic explanations seem more promising. The ‘demographics of theism’ confound any explanation of why non-belief is always blameworthy or of why God allows blameless non-belief. They also cast doubt on the existence of a sensus divinitatis: the awareness of God that Reformed epistemologists claim is innate in all normal human beings. Finally, the demographics make the argument from divine hiddenness in some ways a better a theological argument than the more familiar argument from evil. ~ Divine hiddenness and the demographics of theism (PDF)

I have to admit, I find this argument not very compelling, but surprisingly, many skeptics do, and so I’ve tried to figure out what assumptions or beliefs about God made this seem compelling to some.

Should Theism Be Evenly Distributed?

To me, there are multiple claims here. One is

If the knowledge of God (plain theism) is universally available, we ought to see a more even distribution of faith around the globe.

I find this argument (assuming it is not a straw man) specious for these reasons:

  • Faith can be suppressed by competing ideologies like Communism
  • We have no real way to measure people’s actual inner beliefs – membership in organizations is a poor measure, especially when those organizations are persecuted
  • The universality of religion in general seems to support the fact that the desire for God, if not the knowledge of the existence of God, IS universally distributed.

Should Christianity be Evenly Distributed, and Why?

There are a host of arguments to unpack here, but here’s the syllogisms I think are in here:

  1. If God is omnibenevolent and wants a relationship with all humans equally, the distribution of Christian faith across the globe would be even.
  2. Since the distribution is not even, God is either not good or does not exist (euthyphro dilemma)
  3. Therefore, the Christian God does not exist.

There are some other assumptions under premise one that are suspect, including:

  • There are no other factors that affect the spread or acceptance of the Gospel
  • God would not self-limit his revelation to human messengers, and his love requires that, since all humans probably seek god roughly equally, he would provide access to all equally, even if supernatural means were necessary.
  • God is obliged to give every individual an equal chance at hearing and responding to the gospel.

There is another syllogism here that is more related to a Reformed view of God and sovereignty, that is:

  1. If election and regeneration are unmerited, unconditional and sovereignly given, we should not see an even distribution of Christian faith around the globe, and perhaps even spread evenly from many loci instead of the plodding path outward from Jerusalem (see this awesome Map of Religions and how they expanded and contracted across time).
  2. We see a non-even distribution that can be explained using naturalistic means
  3. Therefore, sovereign, unmerited election is not occurring.

Not only do some of the objections above apply here, but new oversights seem abundant, including:

  • Unconditional does not mean that there are no conditions that affect whether or not someone responds – it merely means that they do not have to meet any conditions of merit to hear or respond to the gospel. There may, however, be a host of embedded ideas, previous rejections of the gospel, emotional experiences, and even pure temperament that may make some individuals more resitant to the gospel than others.
  • While God *could* overcome such impediments with a supernatural revelation, as he may have done with Paul the Apostle, he is not obligated by fairness or love to do so. I would argue that all factors and principles must be weighed in order to determine the proper outcome, if there is such a thing.
  • It is clear to me that even Paul himself admitted that people need to hear from human messengers or, generally speaking, they will not believe and be saved (Romans 10:14)

Who is to blame for the uneven distribution of the Christian faith?

The article I cited above generalizes the Christian responses to this ‘problem.’ Christians respond by either:

  1. claiming that non-believers are always blame- worthy for their non-belief;
  2. acknowledging blameless non-belief but insisting that God has specific good reasons for permitting it; or
  3. failing to address the challenge or even to take it seriously.

Again, one reason why Christians, including myself, respond with choice 3 above is because we fail to find the argument compelling – in fact, we are somewhat mystified by the interest in this fact, and fail to understand the many assumptions behind it that might lead one to expect a more even distribution.

Regarding choice 2 above, while I suppose we could answer that God has some unknowable reason, that’s a bit of an evasion. William Lane Craig, whom I greatly admire, responds with an unfortunate and cringe-worthy bit of Reformed logic which goes like this:

I suggest that it’s possible that God, desiring that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (I Tim. 2.4), has so providentially ordered the world that anyone who would believe in the Gospel if he heard it is born at a time and place in history where he does in fact hear it.  In that case, no one could stand before God on the Judgement Day and complain that, while he may not have responded to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience and so finds himself condemned, he would have responded to the Gospel if only he had had the chance.

This is one of those arguments that is logically possible but so utterly anti-intuitive that it is almost instantly rejected by those of us, both Christian and not, who find this smacking of a convenient post-hoc argument.

I prefer my own variant of argument 1, which is that if you believe that justice and love obligate God to give all people a roughly equivalent chance to hear the gospel (which I do not), the problem of the unevangelized and uneven distribution of the gospel and faith can still be explained by the principle of Generational Justice – that is, nearly all areas of the world have had a gospel witness in the past, and current generations are merely suffering the just punishment of the consequences of their ancestors’ rejection of God. See