Is Natural Knowledge of God Real If Nonresistant Nonbelief Is?

Lari Launonen
Tuesday 14 June 2022
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

According to the Christian doctrine of general revelation, God has revealed his existence and basic attributes to all humankind through the natural world and human conscience (Demarest 1982). General revelation gives rise to natural knowledge of God (NKG). Christian theologians have traditionally argued that this knowledge is something every single human has. Let us call this claim the strong universality thesis. This thesis is highlighted especially in the writings of John Calvin and of many other theologians in the mainstream Reformed tradition. The third chapter of the first book of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion begins with these words:

That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [sensus divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. (1.3.1.; italics mine.)

As the last line exemplifies, NKG or what Calvin calls sensus divinitatis plays an important function in Reformed theology. NKG makes all people morally accountable and culpable before God. This claim is based primarily on the first two chapters of the Epistle to Romans. Apostle Paul writes that even pagans – those without the Mosaic law or any other special revelation – “are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). Universal moral culpability provides grounds for Paul’s central argument: all people need salvation in Christ. The idea of NKG therefore has great theological weight.

Since having knowledge implies having a belief, the claim that all people have NKG indicates that all humans believe God exists. But obviously not all humans do. For example, atheists consciously reject the claim that God exists. Some hunter-gatherer tribes believe in local, finite supernatural agents but seem unaware of the concept of a transcendent creator. For Calvin, however, atheism and idolatry do not serve as evidence against the existence of sensus divinitatis but as instances of the noetic effects of sin on it. Atheists “stifle the light of nature, and intentionally stupefy themselves” (1.4.1). Idolaters who “fall away into superstition” might seem merely ignorant of God’s true nature, but in reality, their “pride and stubbornness” causes them to distort the truth about God (1.4.1). Since one cannot stifle or distort what one does not have, even atheists and idolaters have NKG. Deep down, all people believe there is a God.

However, there are many people who seem to lack any belief in God and whose nonbelief is difficult to explain away as willful rebellion against God or as intentional distortion of NKG. As examples, J. L. Schellenberg lists lifelong seekers (“individuals who seek [God] but do not find”), former believers (who “grieve what they have lost and seek to regain it”), converts to nontheistic religions (individuals who engage in an “honest and conscientious search” which ultimately leads them to nontheistic belief), and isolated nontheists (groups that are “intellectually [and often also geographically] isolated from such as possess theistic concepts”) (Schellenberg 2007, chapter 10). Schellenberg calls such people nonresistant nonbelievers. They are individuals who do not believe in God but not because they resist worshipping God or having a relationship with Him.

Can we consistently hold knowledge of God to be natural for humans while allowing that some people may not have it – that sometimes nonbelief is nonresistant? My hypothesis in this puzzle is that science can help us understand the naturalness and universality of god-belief in ways that lets us retain several key features of the Reformed account of NKG without committing to the strong universality thesis. I begin by discussing what scholars working in the field of cognitive science of religion (CSR) mean by the claim that religion is natural (cognitive naturalness), what sort of universality it entails (weak universality), and what sort of supernatural agents people tend to believe in (cognitively natural god concepts). Next, I analyze the Reformed tradition with the intent of discovering and constructing a version of NKG that would have a better fit with the CSR view of naturalness and universality. In light of Romans 1–2, I consider also the propositional content of NKG and how this fits together with cognitively natural god concepts. Importantly, general revelation reveals God as one to whom people are morally accountable. For this reason, we must consider an anthropological challenge against the idea that belief in moralizing deities is natural. I end by discussing what is gained and lost by our account of NKG.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Cognitive Science of Religion

In what sense is religion natural?

Since the 1990s, several CSR scholars have argued that religion is natural. Like with the theological claim about NKG, it is not immediately clear what is meant by naturalness (Launonen 2018). Justin Barrett and Aku Visala (2019) separate cognitive naturalness from three other kinds of naturalness; methodological (religion can be studied by scientific methods), ontological (religion is not caused by anything supernatural), and cross-cultural naturalness (at least some aspects of religion are not culture-specific but universal). Cognitive naturalness means instead that “religion (or at least some part of it) is natural in the sense that forming, thinking, and transmitting religious ideas is relatively easy for human beings with normally functioning biological and psychological makeup” (Barrett and Visala 2019, 70). This doesn’t mean that religious beliefs are biologically hard-wired or innate. Rather, humans display a general disposition or a tendency toward religious thinking.

Robert McCauley argues that recurrent religious beliefs – such as beliefs about gods or supernatural agents – are underpinned by “maturationally natural” cognitive systems. He (2011, 37) gives four criteria for such systems:

  1. They operate “unconsciously, and their signals arrive to consciousness automatically and nonreflectively”.
  2. Their deliverances “begin arriving early in life” but “do not all exist from birth”.
  3. They evolved to deal with “fundamental cognitive challenges” for human survival.
  4. “Their operations do not depend on anything that is culturally distinctive – not on instruction, or on structured preparations, or on artifacts”.

We may summarize these four points by saying that recurrent religious ideas (or what CSR scholars call “representations”) are cognitively natural in the sense that they are intuitive, early arriving, evolved (based on naturally selected cognitive systems), and independent of cultural scaffolding.

Cognitive or maturational naturalness does not entail strong universality. There are many reasons why. Consider just three cognitive explanations of religious disbelief discussed by Ara Norenzayan and Will Gervais (2013): mindblind atheism, apatheism, and analytic atheism. First, since religion depends on normally functioning biological and psychological makeup, some “less normal” individuals may lack religious intuitions altogether. Autistic people are often described as “mindblind” because of their poor mentalizing abilities. Supernatural agents are personified beings, and conceptualizing a personal God or gods requires mentalizing. This may explain why many people on the autistic spectrum (as well as many undiagnosed individuals close to the spectrum) find it hard to believe in a personified deity. Second, religious intuitions do not prosper in all environments. Unnatural environments include safe, modern cities which reduce everyday existential threats so radically that implicit religious intuitions do not mature into explicit beliefs. People become apatheists or indifferent to religion. However, I don’t think indifference necessarily entails disbelief or nonbelief, since even apatheists quickly turn to God when their safety gets shaken. Third, cultural institutions such as universities where analytic thinking is rehearsed push individuals to question and trump their intuitions, including religious ones.

Nevertheless, as McCauley notes, even in hostile environments, such as in communist countries, religious ideas have repeatedly proved their persistency.

Religion … arises in every human culture. Religion is a universal phenomenon among human groups, which may well have existed from very nearly the emergence of our species in prehistory … This is not to assert that every individual is religious, but it is to say that religious ideas and practices invariably bubble up and persist in human groups… (McCauley 2011, 149)

Let us call this kind of cross-cultural ubiquity McCauley describes weak universality.

What are cognitively natural gods like?

Even if belief in supernatural agents is cognitively natural and weakly universal, this does not mean that belief in God is. The theistic concept of God as an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good, transcendent deity is a theological concept, not a religious one (e.g. Jong, Visala and Kavanagh 2015). Theological ideas such as the Trinity are often counterintuitive and depend on instruction and analytic thinking. What sorts of gods do people naturally tend to believe in, then? Justin Barrett has suggested that “children’s minds are naturally tuned up to believe in gods generally, and perhaps God in particular” (Barrett 2012a, 4). In his view, humans tend to conceptualize supernatural agents in the following terms:

(A) Elements of the natural world, such as rocks, trees, mountains, and animals are purposefully and intentionally designed by someone(s) who must, therefore, have superhuman power.

(B) These agents are not human or animal.

(D) Moral norms are unchangeable—even by gods.

(E) Immoral behavior leads to misfortune; moral behavior to fortune.

(H) Gods exist with thoughts, wants, perspectives, and the free will to act.

(I) Gods may be invisible and immortal, but they are not outside of space and time.

(J) Gods can and do interact with the natural world and people, perhaps especially those that are ancestors of the living and, hence, have an interest in the living. This interaction with the world accounts for perceived agency and purpose in the world that cannot be accounted for by human or animal activity.

(K) Gods generally know things that humans do not (they can be superknowing or superperceiving, or both), perhaps particularly things that are important for human relations.

(L) Gods, because of their access to relevant information and special powers, may be responsible for instances of fortune and misfortune; they can reward or punish human actions. (Barrett 2012b, 322.)

Many features on Barrett’s list overlap with the divine attributes that theologians consider as having been generally revealed. For instance, there exists a superhuman creator and designer of the natural world (A). Supernatural agents have personhood (H), invisibility (I), and eternality (I; since immortality implies eternality). The naturalness of objective morality (D), “you reap what you sow” thinking (E), and beliefs in policing and punishing supernatural agents (J, L) overlap with theological claims regarding universal moral law and universal accountability (Rom. 2:15). Although (I) also suggests that cognitively natural gods are not transcendent nor omnipresent like the Christian God, this apparent discrepancy may be easily solved (see Launonen and Mullins 2021).

Although Barrett’s list of attributes sounds a lot like the Christian God, he is not suggesting that all supernatural agents must have all these features. After all, our naturally developing cognitive systems also reinforce beliefs in “elves, dwarves, goblins, tree spirits, and witches” (Clark 2019, 76). Even Christians believe in finite supernatural agents such as angels and demons – beings conceptualized as invisible beings with special powers and strategic knowledge, but not as creators or moralizing deities. However, the naturalness of “idolatrous” beliefs need not concern us here. Our focus is on whether it is also natural to believe in the kind of God that theologians claim has been generally revealed to all humankind.

2.2 Analytic Theology

Why would naturalness entail strong universality?

Mainstream Reformed thinkers from Calvin’s time to the nineteenth century have been rather uniform in their description of NKG (Sudduth 2016). However, there are also variations and inconsistencies in the tradition. This makes it possible to discover and construct a version of the Reformed concept of NKG that does not logically entail that every single human has knowledge of God. While Reformed theologians have consistently linked naturalness to strong universality, we may be able to retain many key features of the tradition while settling for weak universality.

Reformed thinkers make several distinctions between different kinds of knowledge of God. Calvin separates between knowledge of God as the Creator and knowledge of God as the Redeemer (Dowey 1952). Only the latter – the “pure and clear knowledge of God” (1.5.15) – is saving knowledge that only true believers have. Knowledge of God as Creator, however, is natural and common to all humans. What makes this knowledge “natural”? For one, it has a natural source or cause. It is partly intrinsic to “human nature” (1.5.4.) and partly derived from the “course of nature” (1.5.7.). In other words, the proximate cause of NKG is the created order instead of special divine action such as supernatural grace (although NKG is sometimes said to result from common grace). It is also derived from God’s general revelation instead of from special revelation in the Scriptures (or from prophecies, dreams, or other forms of special revelation). Calvin and the later tradition also differentiate between two different kinds of NKG, between “implanted” (or “innate”) and “acquired” knowledge. In this article our focus will be on the implanted knowledge that Calvin calls sensus divinitatis.

What is it about implanted NKG that seems to entail strong universality? First of all, while independence of special divine action does not by itself entail that all humans know God exists, the idea of implanted knowledge as something intrinsic to human nature seems to do so. According to Calvin, the sensus is “thoroughly fixed…in our very bones” (1.3.3.), “stamped on the breast of all men,”, “inscribed on every heart” (1.3.1.) and “naturally engendered in all” (1.3.3.). Moreover, it is “not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master” (1.3.3.).

Such statements are often summarized by saying that Calvin believes sensus to be “innate”. But innateness is a slippery term. The innateness rejected by John Locke, for instance, may not be identical to the innateness of the ancient Hellenistic philosophers whose view of “preconception” (prolepsis) may lie in the background of Calvin’s sensus (see Adams 2001, 284–285; Clanton 2017). Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof understands the doctrine of innate ideas as the claim that “there are certain ideas, of which the idea of God is the most prominent, which are inborn and are therefore present in human consciousness from birth” (Berkhof 1949, 37). Some Reformed authors sound like asserting something like this. According to Bruce Demarest, the human mind intuits the truth about God “from the first moment of mental and moral self-consciousness” and that “God, in creating me, placed this idea [i.e. God] within me” (Demarest 1982, 228–229). Berkhof, however, argues that implanted NKG “does not consist in any ideas or formed notions which are present in man at the time of his birth” (Berkhof 1949, 37). Michael Sudduth concurs: “Reformed theologians have typically denied that this [implanted] knowledge is conscious or occurrent knowledge impressed on the mind from the time of birth” (Sudduth 2016, 57). Berkhof’s and Sudduth’s statements are more in line with McCauley’s account of maturational naturalness, where the products of natural cognition such as religious intuitions “begin arriving early in life”, but “do not all exist from birth”. We may thus safely reject the view of NKG as something humans are born with.

There are more reasons to reject strong innateness and the strong universality it entails. In chapters 1.2–1.5. of the book three, Calvin does not base his case on scripture but rather on empirical observations and reasoning (Adams 2001, 282; Helm 1998, 89). Moreover, his argument proceeds from observations regarding the universality of religious belief to the conclusion that religion is intrinsic to human nature – not the other way around (Clanton 2017). “There never has been”, Calvin writes, “any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion” (1.3.1). Even “the dullest tribes farthest removed from civilization” and those who “seem to differ least from the lower animals” (1.3.1.) display having the sense of Deity. Such observations may serve as good evidence of god-belief as cross-cultural or weakly universal, but not as strongly innate or strongly universal. If Calvin thinks otherwise, he might be making the common mistake of “thinking that for an ability [or a belief] to be natural, it must be somehow built into our biology from birth, or hardwired into our brains” (Barrett 2012a, 19).

Another reason why implanted NKG might seem to entail strong universality is that many have viewed it as purely a priori knowledge. Demarest argues that Reformed scholars such as Frédéric Louis Godet and Charles Hodge interpret Romans 1:20 as a “summary statement inclusive of both an a priori knowledge stamped on man’s mind and an inferential knowledge acquired from the created order”, the former arising “apart from observation and sense experience” (Demarest 1982, 229–230). However, both science and theology lead us to doubt whether humans can have any knowledge of God completely apart from experiences of the natural world. CSR scholars point out that a natural human habitat (including other humans, animals, rocks, waters, vegetation and so on) is crucial for normal cognitive development. Theologically speaking, it would seem weird if knowledge of God as Creator could be had independently of any experiences of creation.

In fact, not all Reformed authors marry the implanted-acquired distinction with the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge. Stephen Duby explains the implanted-acquired distinction in the early Reformed tradition as follows: “The former is an awareness of God the Creator spontaneously generated by human encounter with the created order, including conscience. The latter is a discursive knowledge of God obtained by inferring true conclusions about God from the existence and characteristics of the created order” (Duby 2019, 98). Indeed, the most important thing about implanted NKG is that it arises spontaneously or intuitively – independently of reasoning and argumentation (e.g. Helm 1998, 88). Implanted knowledge “is called such simply because it arises ‘spontaneously, without ratiocinations’” (Duby 2019, 99; quoting Francis Turretin). While no great cognitive skills or a philosophical culture is necessary for having knowledge of God, it is not independent of an encounter with the natural world. K. Scott Oliphint writes “in agreement with the Reformed tradition since Calvin”, that “the means that God uses to implant true knowledge of Him in us is His creation” (Oliphint 2019a, 183). Strictly speaking, implanted knowledge is also acquired.

Finally, we saw that, in Berkhof’s view the implanted NKG “does not consist in any ideas or formed notions”. But if so, this “knowledge” seems empty of propositional content (contra Oliphint 2019b, 159). Why then should we then call it “knowledge” in the first place? Perhaps we should follow Alvin Plantinga (2000) in understanding the sensus not as knowledge as such but as a disposition, a faculty, a cognitive mechanism, or a capacity (Helm 1998, 88) that spontaneously gives rise to NKG in the context of certain experiences. After a careful analysis of the Reformed tradition, Michael Sudduth also takes the view that implanted knowledge is “best construed as an innate disposition, present from birth, to form belief in God in a spontaneous manner upon mental maturation and experience of the world” (Sudduth 2016, 57).

To conclude, sensus divinitatis or implanted NKG need not be viewed as strongly innate, as independent of sense experience, or even as knowledge as such. We may call this view the dispositional account. This account does not entail strong universality. First, the rejection of innateness indicates that fetuses, the newborn, or small children may not have NKG because their cognition has not developed to a certain level. Some individuals on the autistic spectrum as well as many persons with severe intellectual disabilities may also lack NKG. Second, if sense experiences of flora and fauna are God’s means of implanting NKG, this means that those who cannot perceive the creation through seeing (the blind) or hearing (the deaf) or in other ways may also lack NKG. A sick child who has never left the hospital where she was born and whose room has no window finds herself in a similar situation. While many such people certainly do believe in God, our account renders it probable that some individuals deprived of such experiences will not have NKG. Third, if sensus is a disposition rather than knowledge as such, NKG is not something that arises necessarily or automatically. The disposition can be prevented from giving rise to NKG.

What is the content of NKG?

What is it that people naturally know about God? As Calvin’s distinction between knowledge of God as Creator and knowledge of God as Redeemer indicates, not all divine attributes are generally revealed. Commenting on Calvin’s view of sensus, Sudduth writes that its propositional content is “perhaps little more than knowledge that there is some creator and that he ought to be worshipped.” He continues: “This self-evidently entails the existence of some being(s) with power and knowledge, but it does not entail the existence of an all wise and good being who exercises complete providential care over the world.” (Sudduth 2016, 117.)

While Calvin’s account of the sensus does not seem to take experiences of the natural world into account, our dispositional account views them as a precondition for having NKG. For this reason, we might want to add attributes such as invisibility and eternality (Rom. 1:20) to the content of NKG. Importantly, Paul emphasizes God as a moral lawgiver to whom all people are morally accountable. Even pagans “know God’s decree, that those who practice such [sinful] things deserve to die” (1:32) for “what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness” (2:15). The conception of God as a “moralizing” deity, as one to whom we are morally accountable is, after all, central to the Reformed concept of NKG. We are now ready to define our dispositional account.

Dispositional NKG: As a result of normal mental maturation and living in a normal human environment, humans from an early age develop a disposition to intuitively form a belief in a super-powerful, super-knowing, invisible, eternal, moralizing Creator independently of either cultural scaffolding (e.g. instruction) or special divine action (special revelation or supernatural grace).

Such a theological account comes very close to McCauley’s concept of maturational naturalness as well as Barrett’s view of cognitively natural god concepts. However, there is a scientific challenge to the naturalness of belief in a moralizing deity we need still to consider.

2.3 Anthropology

Since Guy Swanson’s influential study, The Birth of the Gods (1964), the consensus among anthropologists has been that belief in moralistic high gods developed as the result of increased social complexity. Socially complex societies are ones that consist of large numbers of people, various social and economic roles, large permanent settlements, and other criteria. According to a recent cultural evolutionary account, the emergence of “Big Gods” made way for large and socially complex societies around 10 000 BCE (Norenzayan 2013). Small-scale hunter-gatherer groups rarely seem to believe in moralizing deities. In such societies, moral policing from above is not necessary since people are able to monitor each other’s behavior and punish wrongdoers. However, as agriculture had people settle and live together in larger groups, increased anonymity made it easier to exploit and cheat others without getting caught. Such freeriding is detrimental to cooperation. Fortunately, the cultural evolution of a shared belief in powerful, super-knowing, morally concerned, punitive deities helped suppress freeriding. The evolution of Big Gods is thus viewed as dependent on cultural scaffolding.

However, there is also evidence to the contrary. In his book God Is Watching You, Dominic Johnson cites anthropologists such as Harvey Whitehouse who lists supernatural punishments and rewards among the “twelve characteristics that tend to be found among all religions, irrespective of period, continent, or culture” (Johnson 2016, 58). Recent analyses suggest that belief in broad supernatural punishment is ubiquitous throughout history and across levels of social complexity (e.g. Watts et al. 2015).

A recent study by Benjamin Purzycki and colleagues (2022) provides robust evidence that humans do in fact have a “moralization bias” regarding divine minds. The authors note that so far “few studies have directly and systematically asked large samples of individuals if their deities care about human morality”. Purzycki et al.’s hypothesis was based on two generally accepted findings regarding human cognition: (1) Humans conceptualize supernatural deities as agents or minds; and (2) humans generally infer that other (human) agents are moralistic, that is, they care about how people behave morally. Their data set consisted of responses from 2,228 participants from fifteen diverse populations, many of which have been previously thought to have no moralizing deities. Among their findings were that in all populations, “individuals tend to ascribe their deities with at least some moral concern” and that “when they do not, it is when the dominant tradition or state frowns upon worshiping the target deity”. Moralizing gods are likely to be cognitively natural.

3. Discussion

The hypothesis of this puzzle has been that we can retain several key features of the Reformed tradition regarding NKG without committing to the strong universality thesis. CSR offers a nuanced account of the naturalness and the universality of god-belief which encourages us to adopt a particular version of the doctrine of implanted NKG. The dispositional account is recognizably a Reformed account. Belief in God (or the disposition to believe) as a moralizing creator deity is deemed as natural in that it arises intuitively (independently of reasoning and argumentation), early in life, cross-culturally (independently of cultural scaffolding), and independently of special divine action (supernatural grace or special revelation). Contrarily to the common claim that NKG is something every single human has, the dispositional account does not logically entail strong universality. Importantly, in many cases, the absence of belief is not due to any kind of suppression or distortion of NKG. Sometimes nonbelief may be truly nonresistant.

Let us consider some possible objections to this conclusion. The rejection of strong universality might seem to lead to the theologically problematic conclusion that not everyone is accountable and culpable before God – and therefore not in need of salvation. However, in Reformed theology universal culpability has been established also by appealing to the doctrine of inherited guilt, or the idea that because Adam is guilty all his offspring are guilty as well. We can still argue that all people need Christ. In fact, in the case of small children, many Reformed thinkers believe that no conscious awareness of God is necessary neither for culpability nor for salvation. Does this mean that the doctrine of NKG is robbed of its theological function and value? Not necessarily. NKG may increase the accountability and culpability of the people who have it. The doctrine has also other functions. NKG is often said to prepare humans to receive God’s special revelation. Perhaps it also enables one to have some level of a personal relationship with God, even if Reformed thinkers tend to reject such suggestions. Finally, in arguing that both Jews and Gentiles are just as much in need of a savior, the crux of Paul’s argument seems to be that accountability is cross-cultural or weakly universal.

One might also point out that our account only makes room for nonculpable absence of belief that is either due to cognitive immaturity or neurodiversity or the lack of experiences of the natural world. But this doesn’t automatically make room for Schellenberg’s nonresistant nonbelievers such as lifelong seekers, former believers, converts to nontheistic religions, and isolated nontheists. This is an important objection that would deserve a careful consideration. A short response goes as follows. The dispositional account predicts the existence of several humans who do not believe in God but who are not guilty of suppression or distortion of general revelation. These include the newborn, some blind or deaf individuals, some people on the autistic spectrum, and so on. If our theology makes room for these cases, why must it exclude the existence of nonresistant nonbelief due to factors such as analytic thinking? Moreover, recent anthropological studies on the moralization bias of divine minds suggest that isolated nontheists may be rare.

Perhaps one might respond to this defense as follows. The problem with taking nonresistant nonbelief at face value is that it implies suppression and distortion of NKG to be rare phenomena. Paul and Calvin, however, viewed them as the primary (if not the only) cause of the apparent absence of theistic belief. For knowledge of God to be truly natural and universal, at least most human beings must have it. Such an argument would apply a logic similar to the popular claim that while God may save a few who are unaware of Christ, His primary means of saving must be through faith in Christ. Otherwise, the biblical account would be rendered disposable. Or so the argument would run. As a response, consider the number of humans who have died before reaching cognitive maturity and hence have lacked knowledge of God. During our evolutionary history, around a quarter of humans have died in their first year of life and around half have died before puberty (Volk and Atkinson 2013). Cognitive immaturity, it seems, has been the most common cause of nonbelief.

4. Conclusion

According to Reformed theology, knowledge of God as Creator is partly implanted in humans. Calvin and his followers have argued that deep down every single human believes that God exists. Even atheists and idolaters know that there is a deity who demands their worship and obedience. At the same time, there seems to be many people who do not and cannot believe in God but not because they suppress or distort the knowledge of God mediated by general revelation.

Developments in CSR, especially McCauley’s account of cognitive naturalness and weak universality, encourages us to discover a version of the Reformed doctrine of implanted NKG that makes room for nonresistant nonbelief. The dispositional account allows for several nonculpable causes for the absence of belief in God. These include cognitive immaturity, neurodiversity, intellectual disability, impaired vision or hearing, and other causes for the lack of experiences of the natural world. There is no reason why it wouldn’t allow also for nonresistant nonbelief that may be due to atheistic arguments, negative experiences of Christianity, or other factors that arguably are the actual causes of many people’s nonbelief.

Nonetheless, belief in God may still be said to be natural. Barrett’s account of cognitively natural gods as well as developments in anthropology suggest that those divine attributes theologians claim to have been generally revealed are indeed naturally conceptualized in every corner of the world.


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Launonen, Lari. 2022. “Is Natural Knowledge of God Real If Nonresistant Nonbelief Is?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 8).

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Lari Launonen
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