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Review of Nonbelief and Evil (2005)

Charles Echelbarger


 Review: Ted Drange. 1998. Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 403 pp.

This article was originally published in Philosophy Now Issue 47 (August/September 2004). This Secular Web version contains minor editorial changes.

Theodore Drange is one of a relatively small number of academic philosophers who have devoted a large part of their intellectual efforts over the last thirty-some years to systematically opposing theism. Other philosophers in this group include Michael Martin, Richard Gale, Paul Kurtz, Kai Nielsen, and J. L. Mackie. The writings of all of them deserve attention from readers with some background in philosophy, both because of the generally high quality of their work and because the number of philosophers who have published in defense of theism is much larger than the number of nontheistic philosophers. Those who are swimming against strong currents ought not to be ignored, even by those who are sure that they are moving in the wrong direction.

Drange hasn't published as many books as some of these nontheists, but he deserves far more attention from both theists and nontheists than he has so far received. Readers of this book will be impressed by the author's high degree of technical skill and rigorous argumentation.

It is easily verified that there is a vast outpouring of theistic apologetic literature both in print and on the Internet. I have so far spoken of Drange as a professional academic philosopher, and it is quite clear that he is addressing other philosophers, both theists and nontheists, in this book.

Anyone who is familiar with the works of such theistic philosophers as William P. Alston, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, or Peter van Inwagen will find that Drange is closely familiar with their work, and that he has many important criticisms of their opinions. Drange also clearly distinguishes his views from those of certain other nontheists. For example, he disagrees with those who reject theism as cognitively meaningless on the grounds of its not being empirically verifiable. He also criticizes philosophers (like Antony Flew) who call themselves negative atheists and simply have no belief in God (as opposed to positive atheists who deny the existence of God). Indeed, to a certain extent he is critical of Kai Nielsen and Michael Martin for their position that theism is so deeply incoherent that it can only be rejected as unintelligible, rather than declared false.

Drange makes the strategically crucial move of pointing out that the issue of theism vs. nontheism cannot be usefully discussed without recognizing that a variety of gods are referred to by different theists. While one may speak of something that might be called 'God-in-general,' Drange argues that a nontheist must proceed by considering different versions of theism, one at a time. Thus, he discusses what he describes as the god of evangelical Christianity, the god of liberal Christianity, and the god of Orthodox Judaism. Because of the theological differences between these traditions, he maintains, it is necessary and proper to formulate somewhat different versions of his main arguments. He handles this large task systematically and clearly.

However, this book is by no means written only about the opinions of professional philosophers. Drange reminds us of the very important distinction between 'the God of the philosophers' and 'the God of the people.' The main distinction he makes between these two gods is that the god of the people is quite anthropomorphic. He creates the universe by a deliberate act, is closely involved with the universe--and especially with human beings--throughout history, has emotions and feelings, manifests himself at specific places to particular human beings, and so on. Drange finds a very close similarity between the god of the people, thus described, and the god of the Bible. The god of the philosophers is eternal, nontemporal, immutable, nonspatial, omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, as well as creator and ruler over all.

Drange has considerable sympathy with the view of such nontheists as Michael Martin and Kai Nielsen that the concept of the god of the philosophers is deeply problematical, possibly even contradictory or incoherent to the point of unintelligibility. He does not so regard the concept of the god of the people. In particular, he devotes a large share of his attention in this book to the god of evangelical Christianity, a god he considers to be essentially the same as the god of the Bible. However, Drange finds that there is a substantial similarity between the god of the Bible and the god of the philosophers. Thus, he maintains that it would be wise for those whose theism aspires to greater sophistication than that of biblical theism to take his criticisms of the latter seriously. This reviewer would like to point out that both Nielsen and Martin acknowledge more and less sophisticated versions of theism, and both admit that the less sophisticated, more anthropomorphic (Zeus-like) types of theism are coherent and generally intelligible, but may be shown to be false beyond a reasonable doubt.

Most of the book develops and defends two arguments against the existence of God: the argument from evil (AE) and the argument from nonbelief (ANB). The first is essentially the 'problem of evil' that has been defended and attacked since ancient times. Drange has his own formulation of it, more sophisticated than any of the ancient or modern versions with which I am familiar. Arguments similar to ANB have been advanced, in particular by J. L. Schellenberg, but they have generally been conceived of as having to do with the problem of 'divine hiddenness.' Drange rejects this way of characterizing the problem on the ground that it implies that there is a divine being that is hiding. By characterizing the problem as one of widespread, long-standing, nonculpable nonbelief, he tries to make it evident that nonbelief is powerful evidence for atheism rather than just a problem for theism. One of the many important points Drange makes about ANB is that it is not simply a specific form of AE, though its structure is parallel to that of AE. Indeed, if one defines evil as Drange does (massive suffering and premature death), it is not plausible to classify nonbelief as a type of evil without begging the question in favor of evangelical Christianity.

Nontheists have a considerable burden to show that the existence of even the god of evangelical Christianity is highly improbable, given the existence of evil, though Drange does think that AE is capable of doing so. In spite of the efforts of nontheists like the late J. L. Mackie, it takes considerable work to show that even an omnipotent being could create a world in which no suffering or premature death are possible. By contrast, it is the theist whose burden is enormous if he wishes to show that God could not have made his existence known to more people than he has.

Drange distinguishes between deductive an inductive versions of AE and ANB. He makes it clear that he does not think that the deductive versions are successful. The inductive versions, he maintains, are highly successful, especially against the god of evangelical Christianity. However, he thinks that ANB is even stronger than AE. In his discussions of AE and ANB, Drange systematically formulates many defenses against each argument and then states objections to each of the defenses. He maintains that nearly all of the objections to the defenses are completely successful. If he is right, these arguments provide more than enough evidence that the gods of many traditions do not exist. Interestingly, he does not think that ANB has any force whatever against what he terms 'God-in-general.' I hope that this last bit of unadorned information about Drange's book will serve to arouse even more interest in reading it. I believe that readers will find that the effort is extraordinarily worthwhile.

Copyright ©2005 Charles Echelbarger and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.