J. L. Schellenberg

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J. L. Schellenberg (born 1959) is a Canadian philosopher best known for his work in philosophy of religion. He has a DPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford, and is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University, both in Halifax, Nova Scotia.[1]

Schellenberg’s early development of an argument from divine hiddenness for atheism has been influential.[2] In a subsequent series of books he has arrived at a form of religion called ‘skeptical religion’ which he regards as being compatible with atheism.[3] In 2013 the Cambridge University Press journal Religious Studies published a special issue devoted to critical discussion of Schellenberg’s philosophy of religion.[4]

Philosophical work[edit]

Divine hiddenness[edit]

Schellenberg’s first book, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell University Press, 1993), developed the argument from divine hiddenness (or hiddenness argument) against the existence of God. Discussion of Schellenberg’s argument continues today, in academic journals, anthologies, and other books, as well as online.[5]

Schellenberg’s most recent statement of the hiddenness argument may be summarized as follows. A God (construed as a perfect personal being) could not be less than perfectly loving, and a perfectly loving God would always be open to a meaningful conscious relationship with finite persons who are capable of participating in such a relationship and do not resist it. This implies that if there is a God, every finite person who fits that description is able to exercise his or her capacity and be part of such a relationship. But this cannot be the case unless everyone who fits that description believes that God exists (for to have a conscious relationship with someone you have to believe they exist). It follows that if there is a God, there is no one who fits that description and fails to believe that God exists, i.e., there are no ‘nonresistant nonbelievers’. But there are. Therefore, there is no God.[6]

Critics have argued that even a loving God might have reasons to be hidden generated by such things as the requirements of human freedom, human unreadiness for relationship with God, or the religious value of doubt.[7] Schellenberg has replied that philosophers have no reason to assume that the persons God would create would be human persons existing in a world like ours, and that there are various ways in which the same good states of affairs to which critics appeal would be capable of being experienced in the context of a relationship with God.[8]

Skeptical religion[edit]

Schellenberg’s work after 1993 includes a trilogy on philosophy of religion (also published by Cornell: 2005, 2007, 2009). This project aims to address the most fundamental issues in that field and to set an agenda for future inquiry.[8]

The first volume, Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, examines basic concepts in philosophy of religion such as ‘religion’, ‘belief’, ‘faith’ and ‘skepticism’ (or ‘doubt’) and proposes what Schellenberg regards as ways of revamping the discipline, including a new understanding of faith without belief.[9]

The second volume, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, offers various different arguments for religious skepticism that are intended to prepare the reader for the third book – The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion.[10]

In the third book, Schellenberg argues for a religious orientation grounded not in belief, but in the sort of imaginative faith detailed in the first volume. Instead of focusing on theism, or any other specific idea from today’s religions, this sort of religion, which Schellenberg calls ‘skeptical religion’, is focused on a proposition to which he gives the name ‘ultimism’. Ultimism, as he defines it, is more general than other religious ‘isms’ – it is the proposition that something is ultimate in the nature of things, ultimately valuable, and the source of our ultimate good, but the details of that something it leaves open.[11]

Schellenberg suggests that arguments criticized as unable to support traditional belief in God can be adapted to support skeptical religion. In his view, skeptical religion therefore offers a solution to the problem of faith and reason.[12]

A central feature of Schellenberg’s trilogy is his suggestion that if we alter our perspective on time – looking into the deep future as well as the deep past – we will see that we may be at a very early stage in our development as a species (given that it is possible that the Earth will remain habitable for another billion years). With this vast stretch of time before us, he asks, why would we think that our best ideas – even ideas about religion – are behind us?[13] At this stage in our development, Schellenberg argues, religion of a different sort from what we have seen before is called for.

Critics have argued that if Schellenberg is skeptical or doubting about ultimism on the basis of future possibilities, then he should also be skeptical about theism instead of being an atheist, and that the idea of skeptical religion might be hard to put into practice.[14] Schellenberg has said that there is a danger here of "crying over unspilt milk" since we have hardly begun to think about skeptical religion.[15] He has also suggested reasons for distinguishing between theism (which he says may be disbelieved) and ultimism (which he says should only be doubted) on the basis of the former’s detailed content.[16]

The science and religion debate[edit]

Schellenberg’s Evolutionary Religion (Oxford University Press, 2013) aims to be a more widely accessible account of his arguments in the trilogy.[17] It seeks to place these arguments into an evolutionary framework and maintains that skeptical religion provides a new way of responding to the science and religion debate.[18]


  1. ^ Schellenberg CV, p. 1.
  2. ^ Howard-Snyder 2013, 141.
  3. ^ Schellenberg 2013a, 147.
  4. ^ Robin LePoidevin, ed. Religious Studies 49(2), 2013.
  5. ^ Howard-Snyder and Moser, eds., 2002; Cuneo 2013; Murray and Taylor 2007, pp. 376-377; Dumsday 2010, 423-424; infidels.org
  6. ^ Schellenberg, "Recent notes", Session 2, pp. 2-3.
  7. ^ Swinburne 1998, p. 209; McKim 2001, p. 101; Poston and Dougherty 2007, 195-196.
  8. ^ a b Schellenberg 2007a, 202-203; Schellenberg 2010, pp. 515-516.
  9. ^ Schellenberg 2005, x-xi, pp. 127-166.
  10. ^ Schellenberg 2007b, p. 311; Schellenberg 2009, xi.
  11. ^ Schellenberg 2005, pp. 37-38.
  12. ^ Schellenberg 2009, p. 251.
  13. ^ Schellenberg 2007b, pp. 93-94.
  14. ^ McCreary 2010, Morriston 2013, 217-218; Dole 2013, 240-245.
  15. ^ Schellenberg, 2013b, 273.
  16. ^ Schellenberg, 2013b, 280-281.
  17. ^ Schellenberg, ‘Extract,’ pp. 6-7.
  18. ^ Schellenberg, ‘Extract,’ p. 8.


  • Cuneo, Terence. 2013. "Another look at divine hiddenness." Religious Studies 49: 151-164.
  • Dole, Andrew. 2013. "Is skeptical religion adequate as a religion?" Religious Studies 49: 235-248.
  • Dumsday, Travis. 2010. "Divine hiddenness, free will, and the victims of wrongdoing." Faith and Philosophy 27: 423-438.
  • Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Paul Moser, eds. 2002. Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Howard-Snyder, Daniel. 2013. "Introduction." Religious Studies 49(2).
  • LePoidevin, Robin, ed. 2013. Religious Studies 49(2). Special Issue: Critical Essays on J. L. Schellenberg’s Philosophy of Religion.
  • McCreary, Mark. 2010. "Schellenberg on divine hiddenness and religious skepticism," Religious Studies 46: 207-225.
  • McKim, Robert. 2001. Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity. NewYork: Oxford University Press.
  • Morriston, Wes. 2013. "Is faith in the Ultimate rationally required? Taking issue with some arguments in The Will to Imagine." Religious Studies 49: 209-220.
  • Murray, Michael J. and David E. Taylor. 2007. "Hiddenness." The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion 2d ed. Chad Meister and Paul Copan, eds. New York: Routledge.
  • Poston, Ted and Trent Dougherty. 2007. "Divine hiddenness and the nature of belief." Religious Studies 43: 183-198.
  • Schellenberg CV. Schellenberg website: jlschellenberg.com, retrieved May 26, 2013.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. "Recent notes on divine hiddenness." Session 2. Schellenberg website: jlschellenberg.com, retrieved May 26, 2013.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. "Extract from forthcoming book on evolutionary religion." Schellenberg website: jlschellenberg.com, retrieved May 26, 2013.
  • infidels.org, retrieved May 25, 2013.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. 2005. Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. 2007a. "On not unnecessarily darkening the glass: a reply to Poston and Dougherty." Religious Studies 43: 199-204.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. 2007b. The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. 2009. The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. 2010. "Divine hiddenness." A Companion to Philosophy of Religion 2d ed. Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper and Philip L. Quinn, eds. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. 2013a. "My stance in philosophy of religion." Religious Studies 49: 143-150.
  • Schellenberg, J. L. 2013b. "Replies to my colleagues." Religious Studies 49: 257-285.
  • Swinburne, Richard. 1998. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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