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The Improbability of GodReview - The Improbability of God
by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (Editors)
Prometheus, 2006
Review by Erich von Dietze, Ph.D.
Jul 10th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 28)

A companion volume to an earlier book by the same editors (The Impossibility of God), this book presents a collection of papers from an atheist perspective arguing the improbability of the existence of a God.  The earlier volume presented the arguments about the impossibility of the existence of God. 

This book mirrors the key line of arguments ordinarily given in philosophy of religion.  It intends to present a kind of 'antidote' to the usual debates which largely address arguments for the possibility of the existence of a God (see p.13-14).  It offers a useful contribution to these ongoing debates of the philosophy of religion.  This is a good resource which should be seen not so much as presenting the opposite case for each of the traditional arguments, but of building an overall atheist case.  As such, the book needs to be read as an endeavor to build a cumulative argument rather than an attempt to provide definitive arguments in each section.

The papers are varied, and although many are previously published some have been updated or written for the current volume.  Most of the previously published papers would take considerable effort to locate and collect, which enhances the usefulness of bringing them together into a single resource.

The four sections of the book cover cosmological arguments for the improbability of God as creator (p.17-106), teleological arguments for the improbability of God as designer (p.107-230), arguments for the improbability of God from evil (p.231-336), and non-belief arguments for the improbability of God (p.337-426). 

Part 1 on the cosmological argument presents a series of papers focused around the notion of Big Bang.  One criticism is that these papers do not directly address the subtleties of some of the traditional arguments in this area.  While this is not necessarily the intention, it does mean that the market for this book will be more those seeking a resource than those seeking a text book or supplementary text book.  Part 2 which deals with the teleological arguments is broader in scope and covers a wider range of arguments.  Again, it is directed mainly at the specialized reader.  I found it helpful that I had been taught philosophy of religion by a logician, which made much of the line of argument more immediately familiar.  Part 3 examines the arguments from evil.  Most of the papers in this section are written by one author and as such present a reasonably coherent line of argument through the section of the book.  This section also addresses the arguments raised by some of the well known philosophers in this area (in particular Hick and Plantinga) and gives a sense of deliberate engagement with the wider debates.  Part 4 addresses the question of arguments from non-belief.  This is the section of the book that most attempts to define a notion of God (e.g. p.341) and hence clarifies what is being argued about.  While the first three sections assume a vague notion of God, section four expressly addresses the God of evangelical Christianity. 

In a sense this book is a useful leveler to the line often taken as part of teaching the philosophy of religion.  However, the book is not a textbook; the articles are too specialized and the content too specific.  It would be interesting to see the material re-worked into a textbook alongside the more typical arguments for the existence of a God.  Some care needs to be taken; it is commonly assumed that the lines of argument in the philosophy of religion are diametrically opposed to each other but one thing that emerged for me was a reminder that this is not necessarily so.  While I do not agree with the underlying premise of the book, I am comfortable with the basis of epistemology, ontology or ethics from which the arguments emerge.  It is a useful reminder that just because the authors reject theism does not mean that they also reject the kinds of values that theists might hold (e.g. p.56-57). 

The approach of the book is useful.  However, it was at times somewhat frustrating that a number of authors have two or more papers in the book which leads to some repetition of content as each author repeats and builds on earlier segments of an argument.  For me the book did not read as seamlessly as I had hoped.  On the other hand it provided a consistent focus on the issues being addressed and ensured some useful cross-referencing between papers.  This reinforced some of the arguments and added new angles and insights to various points being made.

It would be very interesting to see if there will be further books in this series -- for instance a book on the philosophical issues raised by belief more generally, or perhaps a book constructed more as a traditional text book which offers the 'for' and 'against' arguments side by side not as simple alternatives but as insight into the more complex web of ideas that this debate raises.


© 2007 Erich von Dietze


Erich von Dietze, Ph.D., Manager, Research Ethics, Murdoch University, Western Australia 



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