Atheist Argument From Non-Belief (vs. Dr. Ted Drange)

Atheist Argument From Non-Belief (vs. Dr. Ted Drange) August 8, 2018

Dr. Ted Drange is an atheist philosopher, renowned in atheist circles for his arguments against Christianity. Back around 2001, he started vigorously challenging me. At first I had no idea that he was a philosophy professor (which was a bit unfair, and should have been disclosed, but anyway . . .).  This particular argument was much ballyhooed on Jeffrey Jay Lowder’s Secular Web. He wrote there about it, and several papers along these lines; also about Dr. Drange in particular:

Philosopher Theodore Drange introduced a related but distinct argument for atheism in his 1998 book, Nonbelief and Evil. Drange calls his argument simply the “argument from nonbelief” and bases it upon all nonbelief, not just reasonable nonbelief. (In “Nonbelief as Support for Atheism,” Drange states he considers the distinction between culpable and inculpable nonbelief to be both unclear and irrelevant.)

Apparently the book was in part derived from a 1996 article, “The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief .” It’s that article that I respond to below. It was from Dr. Drange that I learned (back in 2001 when I first encountered him) that otherwise intelligent atheists and academics like himself often don’t have the slightest clue what they are talking about when describing Christianity or the Bible.

Subsequently, I’ve seen countless examples of this ignorance and attempted “appearance of knowledge” where in fact there is little (and have numerous related posted dialogues to more than prove my assertion). Expertise and credentials in one area (philosophy or, oftentimes with atheists, science) doesn’t necessarily carry over into expertise in another (biblical exegesis and hermeneutics and the fine points of historic Christian doctrine). Credentials and book learning in completely separate fields can’t produce an “instant Bible scholar” or “Church historian” without the requisite study.

This trait was rather spectacularly exhibited by the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, in his (sadly) influential book, The God Delusion. I recently read it and critiqued it; particularly his outlandish pseudo-“arguments” regarding alleged biblical teachings.

Dr. Drange’s words will be in blue.

*****

According to this objection, which may be called “the Free-Will Defense” or FWD for short, premise (A3) of ANB is false because there is something that God wants even more strongly than situation S and that is the free formation of proper theistic belief.

It doesn’t follow that He wants it “more.” He wants both (as far as that goes), but both cannot (or often, or potentially cannot) exist together, and even an omnipotent being cannot make it so, if He creates and allows free will in human beings. I suspect that this misunderstanding will be the seed of further fallacious arguments . . . We’ll see.

God wants people to come to believe the propositions of set P freely and not as the result of any sort of coercion.

Indeed.

He knows that people would indeed believe those propositions if he were to directly implant the belief in their minds or else perform spectacular miracles before them.

In the first instance, yes, but that would be the coercion that God doesn’t desire. The second is untrue because it is known that whatever miracle occurs, many skeptics like you guys on this list will disbelieve it (see, e.g., Luke 16:30-31), because you either rule out the possibility of the miraculous beforehand (“define it away”) or make verification practically impossible, so that no miracle can occur, let alone a belief in God which oftentimes follows such a remarkable happening. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, who wouldn’t believe that he healed a blind man, when He did it right in front of them. They cared little about demonstrable fact (John 9:1-41 — all).

But for him to do that would interfere with their free will, which he definitely does not want to happen.

Miracles don’t interfere with free will, but people often refuse to believe them because of their false philosophical presuppositions or, e.g., unwillingness to accept the conclusion that the miracle suggests, about God, or about the difference that a God would make in their own life and responsibilities.

Since God’s desire that humans retain their free will outweighs his desire for situation S, it follows that premise (A3) is false, which makes ANB unsound.

It doesn’t “outweigh” anything in God’s desires; it is simply a state of affairs that makes sin and rebellion against God, and evil possible, and hence, human beings not believing in God, etc.

There are many objections to FWD. First and foremost, assuming that God wants to avoid interfering with people’s free will, it is not clear that that desire actually conflicts with his desire for situation S. Why should showing things to people interfere with their free will?

It doesn’t; I agree.

People want to know the truth.

Some do; not all, by a long shot. Of course all of us here are pure truth seekers who flee in horror from all falsehoods, no matter how minor. :-)

It would seem, then, that to show them things would not interfere with their will, but would conform to it. Even direct implantation of belief into a person’s mind need not interfere with his/her free will. If that person were to want true beliefs and not care how the beliefs are obtained, then for God to directly implant true beliefs into his/her mind would not interfere with, but would rather comply with, the person’s free will.

Only if he were free to change his mind. If not, it would interfere with his free will and free choice.

An analogy would be God making a large unexpected direct deposit into someone’s bank account. It would make the person quite pleased and would not at all interfere with his/her free will.

Sure, but this is irrelevant to the question at hand. The truly free person can now take that money and squander it in whatever fashion he likes. Likewise, free persons can reject God, even if they know that He is exactly what Christians claim Him to be, just as people rejected Jesus during His lifetime, even though He was an obviously and extraordinarily good person by virtually any criteria of ethics and behavior towards others.

Furthermore, as was explained previously in Section I, there are many different ways by which God might bring about situation S. It is not necessary for him to use either direct implantation or spectacular miracles. He could accomplish it through relatively ordinary means. It would be ludicrous to claim that free will has to be interfered with whenever anyone is shown anything.

Again, I agree. But this goes off into different ground from ANB proper (at least as Steve presented it). It’s really very simple: if people can freely choose, then that must include the possibility of a rejection of God. That’s utterly obvious, and is proven by the very beliefs of the folks on this list. You have all chosen to reject a belief in God. You claim there is no God to even reject.

Whether or not God actually exists is beside my current point. You have chosen to deny it. So if God exists, clearly there are people who reject Him and deny that He is the Supreme Being, worthy of a full allegiance, and so forth. If He does not exist, you still have freely made the choice. If you haven’t freely made it, then what is the point of having any discussions here at all, since we are all believing what we must believe and can do no other?

People have their beliefs affected every day by what they read and hear, and their free will remains intact. Finally, even the performance of spectacular miracles need not cause such interference. People want to know the truth. They particularly want to be shown how the world is really set up. To perform miracles for them would only conform to or comply with that desire. It would therefore not interfere with their free will. Hence, FWD fails to attack premise (A3) of ANB because it fails to present a desire on God’s part that conflicts with his desire for situation S. That failure makes the Free-Will Defense actually irrelevant to premise (A3).

What is irrelevant here is the shifting to this “spectacular miracles will prove to virtually every person that there is a God” approach. I suppose that is part of Ted’s overall argument (as I have heard him argue this before). But if so, it should have been a prominent part of the original presentation. I deny this new premise, and I deny that FWD rests on some alleged conflict between different desires of God. I am contending that FWD is true because there are certain things that even an omnipotent being cannot do, not because God desired one thing more than another.

Even if there were people whose free will would be interfered with by God showing them things, it would seem that such people would be benefited by coming to know how things really are. Quite apart from the issue of salvation, just being aware that there is a God who loves humanity and who has provided an afterlife for it would bring comfort and hope to people.

Sure it would. The Christian view is that all people know this without even a spectacular miracle before their eyes. And they know it by creation itself. The Apostle Paul makes the argument in Romans 1:18-32. He says that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” can be known by His creation (Romans 1:20). It’s a simple presentation of the Teleological Argument. Then he goes on to state that people reject truth even when they know full well what it is (Romans 1:18,21,25,28). The biblical and Christian view of human nature is far more pessimistic, and doesn’t see man as this objective truth machine who will inevitably follow truth whenever it is presented.

And again, that argument works and is fairly self-evident whether God exists or not. If He does, and if Christianity is true, then all of you disbelieve it. That shows both that you have the free will to do so, and that (granting our premises) truth can be rejected. If there is no God, on the other hand, then all of us Christians are rebelling against the obvious truth of atheism. You present your crystal-clear arguments to people like me and I reject them utterly. In that case, I am not seeking the truth you find to be so obvious and compelling. Either way, people are not truth-seekers by nature, and Ted’s point here fails, as clearly and demonstrably untrue, in both a theistic and an atheistic state of affairs in actuality.

A loving God would certainly want them to have such comfort and hope.

And He provides it, and all men know it, at least in outline form. We disagree on how much evidence is needed to establish that God exists. All anti-supernaturalists place the bar of “proof” so high that it will never be reached for most individuals in the world.

So, even if it were granted that showing things to some people interferes with their free will, FWD would still not work well, for it has not made clear why God should refrain from showing them things of which they ought to be aware. Such “interference with free will” seems to be just what such people need to get “straightened out”.

He has done so. There is creation itself; there is the law written upon our hearts” and conscience (Romans 2:15); there is widespread agreement across religions and cultures about basic moral tenets, and a religious awareness itself. And there is the Christian revelation and religious experience and miracles performed in history, and the life of Jesus, and (above all) His Resurrection, and on and on.

There are all kinds of evidences. It’s never enough for the atheist. That is the point, not that God should provide sufficient evidence and hasn’t done so. So again Ted is arguing in a circle. He assumes that this presentation of evidence is lacking, when in fact it is not. So that leads him to make silly arguments, such as, “it has not made clear why God should refrain from showing them things of which they ought to be aware.”

There is a further objection concerning God’s motivation. FWD seems to claim that God wants people to believe the propositions of set P in an irrational way, without good evidence.

I don’t see how, unless one accepts Ted’s straw man presentation of what both Christianity and FWD supposedly teach.

But why would he want that? Why would a rational being create people in his own image and then hope that they become irrational?

He doesn’t. It’s a straw man. Atheism is the irrational path, and it is chosen voluntarily.

Furthermore, it is not clear just how people are supposed to arrive at the propositions of set P in the absence of good evidence.

I agree.

Is picking the right religion just a matter of lucky guesswork? Is salvation a kind of cosmic lottery? Why would God want to be involved in such an operation?

Indeed. More non sequiturs . . .

Sometimes the claim is made that, according to the Bible, God really does want people to believe things without evidence. Usually cited for this are the words of the resurrected Christ to no-longer-doubting Thomas: “because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

This is not an encouragement of belief without evidence, and quite obviously so, as this very passage occurs when Jesus has appeared to Thomas after His Resurrection, telling Thomas to put his hands in his wounds. So, clearly, Jesus isn’t enjoining a blind, irrational, non-empirical faith, because He has just appeared, offering empirical proof in His own resurrected body! That might be enough even for Ted! If I fell into a tree shredder in front of Ted and came out hamburger, and then my body came back together and I was resurrected and came to Ted and had him feel all my shred-wounds, perhaps he would suspect that there was something to this afterlife business. Or he could convince himself that he had too many drinks, or was hallucinating, etc.

To reach such a conclusion of supposed “fideism” or “blind faith” in this passage, context has to be thrown to the wind, and literal absurdity adopted as “exegesis.” Jesus is not knocking evidences for faith at all; rather, He is simply praising those who can believe without having to have such miracles as a requirement before they will believe. And that is because there are many evidences of Christianity besides miracles.

Also, Peter praises those who believe in Jesus without seeing him (I Peter 1:8). But the message here may not be that God wants people to believe things without any evidence whatever. It may be, rather, that there are other forms of evidence than seeing, such as, for example, the testimony of friends. Perhaps God is simply indicating that he approves of belief based on the testimony of others.

Yes, much better. This is exactly what Peter is saying here. He is simply extolling their faith. But the same Peter appealed to empirical eyewitness testimony of the risen Jesus: his own (see, e.g., Acts 2:32, 2 Peter 1:16).

Note that, earlier, the resurrected Christ had upbraided some of his disciples for not trusting the testimony of other disciples (Mark 16:14). His words to Thomas may have been just a continuation of that theme.

Correct. And He rebuked them precisely because they were disciples and had seen enough miracles to know Who Jesus was. In other words, it is a special case, if one had walked with Jesus for three years and missed all His miracles, and wouldn’t even believe Him when He predicted that he would rise from the dead (see, e.g., John 10:17-18).

Thus, it is not clear that God desires irrational belief on the part of humans, nor is it clear why he should want that, if indeed he does.

Good; now you know that Christianity is not blind faith or fideism at all. Quite the opposite; we stake our claims on empirical evidence and eyewitness testimony.

As another objection to FWD, even if it were true that showing people things interferes with their free will, that seems not to have been a very important consideration for God. According to the Bible, he did many things, some of them quite spectacular, in order to cause observers to have certain beliefs. An advocate of the argument needs to explain why God was willing to do such things in the past but is no longer willing to do them in the present.

Again, Ted assumes that miracles no longer occur: more circular argument. For example, there was the miracle of the sun at Fatima, Portugal in 1917, connected with the Marian apparitions there. Thousands of people saw the sun spinning like a pinwheel; then all of a sudden everyone was dry, where before it was rainy and muddy. The ground was instantly dry too. This was a crowd of thousands, and is a miracle somewhat similar to Ted’s hypothetical of (if I remember correctly) “John 3:16 written on the stars.”

Here was something involving the sun (in some sense) and the elements (rain) and thousands of eyewitnesses. But will Ted accept that? Of course not; he will dismiss it as a fairy tale and nonsense. And if the same thing occurred tomorrow and Ted was there, I suspect that he would find some way to reject that, too, because his prior presuppositions do not allow such a thing.

My best guess as to the nature of the miracle at Fatima is that God simultaneously made everyone see the same thing, by changing something in their brains or eyes. The water and mud drying up is something else again. That would be a miracle where the thing itself changed, rather than perceptions of it. God could, of course, do the same thing with the stars, in Ted’s scenario. We could even look at it in a telescope, but if God performed some sort of galactic optical illusion, we wouldn’t know if the stars had actually moved, or if our perception was altered. None of that is logically impossible for God to do.

Something remarkable happened at Fatima, and all the skeptic can say is that there were thousands of nutcases there, or it was a communal acid trip or something (just as with all the implausible alternate “explanations” of Jesus’ Resurrection). The cavalier dismissals of strange happenings are often as ridiculous as the detractors of miracles claim alleged miracles are. How many people can be nuts at once, for heaven’s sake?

Finally, the claim that God has non-interference with human free will as a very high priority is not well supported in Scripture. According to the Bible, God killed millions of people.

Millions, huh? I am dying to know how you arrive at this description of “millions.”

***

Surely that interfered with their free will, considering that they did not want to die.

God is also judge and has the prerogative over life and death. He created it, so He can take the life away and judge human lives. This shouldn’t be a controversial notion for anyone who advocates abortion, where a human being who merely conceived (not created) a child has a so-called “right” to destroy it as they choose. I don’t think your average child in the womb (with a heartbeat at 18 days and brain waves at six weeks) “wants to die” either. And that wrecks their free will.

So one (who holds such a view on abortion) can hardly quibble with the notion that God has the power of life or death over those whom He created. But God’s judgment is perfectly just and righteous, whereas child-killing is not at all. And the Creator-creature gulf is much greater than the big person-little person distinction. God killed people because they deserved judgment. We kill our own because they are small and helpless and inconvenient. Yet we sit in judgment of God?

Furthermore, the Bible suggests that God knows the future and predestines people’s fates.

God predestines only to heaven, not to hell, as most Christians have believed (excluding Calvinists). And even that involves human cooperation. It is a paradox and one of the most mysterious elements in theology, but man is free in some sense, within the parameters that God sets, just as the fish freely chooses where to swim in its fish tank, not being very conscious of the limitations of the glass edges of the aquarium.

That, too, may interfere with human free will. In addition, there are many obstacles to free will in our present world (famine, mental retardation, grave diseases, premature death, etc.) and God does little or nothing to prevent them.

But He also takes into account how these would affect people’s choices, religion-wise. When there is an eternal afterlife, that vastly changes the perspective on suffering on this earth. All atheists have is this life, so suffering is a much greater difficulty in their position and attempt to find meaning in life, than in the Christian position. The atheist life on earth is analogous to the entire universe, whereas the Christian life on earth is but one atom of the entire universe. The rest of the universe is analogous to the relative amount of the afterlife in one’s existence.

This is not conclusive proof that God does not have human free will as a high priority, but it does count against it. It is at least another difficulty for the Free-Will Defense. Considering these many objections, the argument seems not to work very well. Let us turn to a different defense against ANB.

I disagree entirely, and have stated my reasons why. We are either free beings or we are not. The alternative is determinism, which would render this whole discussion meaningless, as it was not free, but only an inevitable playing-out of some molecular process. Why bother convincing someone when it is not in your power to do so because they can only do what they are programmed to do?

***

It is not that atheism is obviously true, but that ANB (which very few people know about) is obviously sound.

Rather, it is obviously false because it is built on fallacious premises, as I have already shown, and will continue to demonstrate as we proceed.

The concept is so very simple: If God were to exist then he would want people to be aware of the gospel message (what his son did for them) and could cause them to be aware of it. But most people on our planet do not even believe the gospel message. Hence, God does not exist.

Hogwash. If God were to exist then He would want people to be aware of Him, in order to obtain eschatological (a 50-cent word, meaning “last things,” or “in the end”) salvation. He does that in ways which are more than merely the proclamation of the gospel (as explained in Romans 1 and 2). Thus, every person has the opportunity to be saved, whether they hear the gospel or not.

Therefore, God has indeed made fair provision, and your argument crumbles to dust (insofar as it is directed at the internal inconsistency of some supposed Christian belief-system). The Christian view already anticipates this objection and has more than adequately provided a counter-response to it.

What you need is more knowledge about how Christianity views salvation, and the attainment of same. You argue against something that Christians don’t hold in the first place. Small minorities hold such a position, but I’m sure you don’t want your argument directed towards those folks, but towards mainstream Christianity.

You say that God refrains from enlightening people on the matter because for him to do so would interfere with their free will,

That is not my argument, as explained several times already.

but that assumes something false: that enlightening people interferes with their free will. It just ain’t so!

I agree! If only you guys could figure that out. This forms no part of my argument, correctly-understood. Maybe Alvin Plantinga has explained better than I did.

In fact, it’s the exact opposite: enlightening people (especially about matters of importance to their future) enhances their free will. It increases their options and makes them more free than they were before.

I agree again.

It is ignorance, not enlightenment, that interferes with free will.

I think it makes for a much less-informed free will. To that extent I agree.

Why is it that people who have heard ANB remain Christians? It is because Christianity, which has been drummed into their brains from very young, comforts them, and it is also, that they really have not thought ANB all the way through.

In other words, you opt for the traditional atheist/skeptical recourse to the ignorance of Christians, and infantile recourse to God-as-Father. That won’t work with me or any informed Christian, and the tables can be turned, too, as I have done here in the past, with my “psychology of atheism” posts.

They come up with unsound defenses, like FWD, and are not aware of the refutations of those defenses.

Feel free to overcome the arguments I have given. Bald, unsubstantiated claims are not impressive. Whether or not some Christians are ignorant or misinformed (as indeed some are) has no bearing on the truth or falsity of my arguments.

How could having free will interfere with everyone knowing a certain truth? People have free will and yet they all know that stars exist. Why couldn’t the proposition that God exists be as obvious to everyone as the proposition that stars exist? . . .

Indeed it is:

Romans 1:19-20 (RSV) . . . what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (

David Hume made a very similar argument:

Wherever I see order, I infer from experience that there, there hath been Design and Contrivance . . . the same principle obliges me to infer an infinitely perfect Architect from the Infinite Art and Contrivance which is displayed in the whole fabric of the universe. (Letters, 25-26)

The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion . . .

Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system . . .

All things of the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author. (Natural History of Religion, 1757, edited by H. E. Root, London: 1956, 21, 26)

Or was Hume simply ignorant of ANB too, or was it because Hume had Christianity “drummed into his brain from very young,” which “comforted” him, leading him into a silly and false philosophy that had been expressed by St. Paul some 1700 years earlier?

***

(originally 2-26-03; new introduction added on 8-8-18)

Photo credit: StockSnap (uploaded on 8-6-17) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]

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