I’m Reading Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” So You Don’t Have To

I’m Reading Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” So You Don’t Have To November 6, 2015

tim-keller2I really don’t like reading books on apologetics. It’s a tedious chore even making it all the way through the book, and substantively interacting with one is mentally exhausting because for every single word it takes to put forth a bad argument it takes ten to adequately debunk it.  But in every decade there seems to be a favorite book which religious friends and family put into their doubting or apostate loved ones’ hands, and this particular decade that book appears to be Tim Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

Because so many of my post-Christian friends have had this book shoved into their hands by well-meaning fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and friends who used to think they were just fine the way they are, it behooves me to read and respond to this book despite my own aversion to spending that many hours of my life reading something so lacking in new ideas or perspectives.  I guess you can already tell that I wasn’t super impressed with this book, but my feelings about it are immaterial. For the sake of this next task, I’m going to focus on responding to the arguments (or lack thereof) Keller puts forth, and I’m going to do this in order to show why this approach to people like me accomplishes the opposite of what it purports to do.

Far from making a case for believing in one particular theistic construction (he never even addresses the other options available, which is typical), Keller spends the first half of the book misrepresenting what non-theists actually believe, then tearing down those constructions (that’s called strawmanning). Next he turns in the second half of the book to discuss positive reasons for believing in (his and only his) God, except that he actually spends very little time doing that, using the bulk of the second half to simply preach at you, laying out a fully developed Christian sermon series without every stopping to demonstrate why each plank of this platform deserves to be in there. It’s as if he thinks that, once he’s shown to his own satisfaction that there are gaps in the arguments of non-theists, the only alternative is to uncritically adopt his nineteen-point theological system just like that, with no real proof needed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  For today, I’m only going to interact with the introduction to the book, and this will be the first in a series of more than a dozen posts about this book (there are 17 chapters if you count the intro, intermission, and epilogue).  I was originally going to just write one long post about it, but the book irked me so thoroughly on so many occasions that I really feel the need to hit each chapter on its own, pulling out the key issues I take with his treatment of the subjects from each chapter.

Once I am done making my way through the book, I plan on writing one, long, massive post that encompasses all my problems with Keller’s book, linking each piece to the previous post that goes into more detail. This way my readers can have a handy reference the next time they want some help thinking through the swarm of half-baked arguments buzzing around their heads, pretending to represent a cumulative case in favor of one particular religion to the exclusion of all other worldviews.

Deep breath.  We begin.

A Great Start, Then a Nose Dive

I was really enjoying the first few pages of this book.  Keller started out on a high note, exposing the increasing polarization of current public discourse.  This is a problem I’ve discussed in my own ways several times before. The culture wars in America have reached a fever pitch, and each side of the divide seems convinced that his team will soon defeat the other.  Keller says,

First, each side should accept that both religious belief and skepticism are on the rise. Atheist author Sam Harris and Religious Right leader Pat Robertson should each admit the fact that his particular tribe is strong and increasing in influence. This would eliminate the self-talk that is rampant in each camp, namely that it will soon be extinct, overrun by the opposition.  Nothing like that is immanently possible. If we stopped saying such things to ourselves it might make everyone more civil and generous toward opposing views. (p. xvi)

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, while Keller wrote these words seven years ago, the latest Pew study has corroborated this conclusion by showing that while “the nones” continue to grow in number, the religious devotion of the still-religious seems to only grow stronger and stronger with time.  In other words, neither camp is vanquishing the other, nor is either fading away or losing strength.  On the contrary, we are just becoming a more polarized society, which makes productive dialogue harder and harder to come by.

Speaking to his fellow Christians, Keller then appears to take the high ground by saying,

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own friends’ and neighbors’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them.  Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive.  And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt. (p. xvii)

Fantastic point to make. Thank you!  I realize it is too much to ask for devout believers to walk as far outside of their own assumptions as many of us have walked (that requires almost putting on a totally different head, in a way), but that doesn’t mean they can’t walk at least a few steps in our direction to try and see why we think the way we think.

I suspect that journey feels threatening to many of them, and most can’t handle going very far along that road.  It’s a scary place to stand, because all your bearings disappear and you may find yourself struggling to know which way is up. It’s almost like leaving earth and trying space travel for a time. The disorientation of weightlessness can be overwhelming at first, and suddenly there’s no such thing as “north.”  But the ones who try it out just a little bit come away with a heightened appreciation for the way we think, and those people are far more likely to show respect for our differences of belief.

Put differently, I will always get along better with believers who lose sleep wrestling with their own doubts. Those people know how I feel, and that makes their company much easier for me to enjoy.

False Equivalence Strikes Again

But then Keller goes and harshes my buzz before he even finishes the introduction by rehashing a false equivalence I have heard championed by every presuppositionalist apologist I have encountered:

But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics much learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their own reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B

The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith. (p. xviii, emphasis mine)

Facepalm.  This again?

Okay, first of all, let me clarify that this is a fundamental assumption of the presuppositionalist apologetic method, to which Keller subscribes as a Calvinist.  In essence, they like to argue that all argumentation requires building premises on top of some kind of basic assumptions, which means whenever you debate or think through anything, you have to start with some kind of presuppositions in place before you can even begin.

For example, you can hardly speak intelligibly without first assuming what people call the law of noncontradiction, which basically states that a thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time.  Okay, fair enough.  Although I hasten to add here that I already can’t take a Christian apologist very seriously when he brings this up because I know as well as he does that at the heart of his religious system is a belief that spiritual truths can comfortably contradict themselves without raising any internal suspicion whatsoever.

You say your God is three, but also one?  No problem!  And he sends himself to die in order to appease the wrath of…himself?  Sweet!  There are no rules here. I could totally get used to this.

Historically speaking, though, the presuppositionalist method (invented in the 1930’s by Calvinist theology professor Cornelius Van Til) represents a retreat from the classical approach, sometimes called the “evidentialist” approach.  Somewhere around the turn of the last century it began to dawn on defenders of the Christian religion that the surrounding culture no longer bought their story as easily as they once did.  In fact, due to the growing body of scientific knowledge around us, it’s getting harder and harder to find gaps into which someone can squeeze their simplistic “God did it” explanations.

So they’ve turned instead to claiming that, sure, their beliefs are based on certain presuppositions (namely that you have to trust the Bible, for some reason), but that you have assumptions too, so you’re no better off!  You have “faith” of your own kind, so you can’t feel like you’re in an intellectually superior position to mine, so back off and prove to me why my view can’t possibly be right, and try to do it without using any prior assumptions whatsoever. See?  You can’t do it!  I win.  My religion has to be right!

Hold on, now. It’s not that simple.

Not All Beliefs Are “Faith”

It is a false equivalence to say that it requires a position of faith to reject someone else’s faith-based claim.  Let me see if I can illustrate it with an analogy.

If you tell me that you believe you can fly, I am going to tell you that I do not believe you can fly.  Does that mean I have “faith” in something?  No, not really. At least, not if you want to have any consistency in the way words are used at all.  Just because I’m using the word “belief” doesn’t mean we should use the word “faith” synonymously.  There is a reason we have two different words. They connote two different things.

Believing that humans don’t fly (I mean without airplanes, work with me here) is based on repeated observations that go back, well, as far back as the human species goes. I cannot find a single exception to it.  This is an observation based on more examples than I can count.  Disbelieving in human flight is the norm.  It’s the reasonable position.  If someone wants to claim something contrary to that, the burden of proof will be on that person to demonstrate why he believes differently.

And that’s where the word “faith” comes in handy.  We use the word “faith” to indicate that some kind of reach is required—some kind of step off of what is known with great certainty to something that requires extrapolating from that to some other conclusion that is not readily apparent.  In other words, we use the word “faith” to indicate some kind of leap that isn’t necessarily warranted by what has been observed thus far.  Other kinds of leaps which are more reasonable don’t get called “faith” precisely because they indicate extrapolating in a direction that logically follows from what has been observed thus far.

When scientists make predictions based on models that have been tested and retested in multiple trials under rigorous constraints, their expectations are not a kind of “faith” because the leap that is made follows previous trends, lines of regression or progression which suggest what will happen next.  A 100 year old man expecting a baby from his 90 year old barren wife is not an expectation based on previous observation. On the contrary, that extrapolation runs in direct contradiction to common knowledge. That’s why the Bible says the guy in that story had “great faith.”  Faith in the Christian religion is “great” in direct proportion to how contrary to normal expectations its claims run.

So jumping from that kind of definition of “faith” to claiming that “all beliefs are faith” is a false equivalence.  When I say that I expect the sun to rise in the east tomorrow morning, is that “faith?”  No, it’s not.  This is a rigged game that presuppositionalists like to play, and they know they have to rig the rules this way or else they don’t have much else to offer us.  If we won’t accept at once the entire corpus of their religion’s claims as a key witness in this testimony, the case is going to be extremely weak.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

It’s not unreasonable to say that people don’t come back from the dead.  It’s not unreasonable to say that two million people couldn’t exit a country of six million leaving no traces of their presence there in order to subsist for forty years on whatever they find in the desert to eat and drink.  It’s not unreasonable to say that people don’t walk on water or levitate into the sky until the clouds conceal them, never coming back down.  Whenever people make claims that grandiose, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that it’s reasonable to accept what they are saying.

But that’s not how Keller sees it.  He says that:

The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it. (p. xix)

That, my friends, is called shifting the burden of proof.  It’s a slick trick, but I’m not buying it.  This game is rigged because they know they will never win if everyone is on the same level.  But rejecting unreasonable claims does not require “faith” in anything at all.  That’s a misuse—an inconsistent use—of a word that is loaded with meaning when it’s being spoken by a Christian. That’s a word with a very specific weight of significance that ceases to mean the same thing after it has been lifted out of a religious context and dropped into a discussion about, well, pretty much anything else.

So right out of the gate, Keller has demonstrated that even though he can write several introductory pages that sound off a high note, he can only sustain it for so long before launching into a sneaky shell game in which he needs you to feel that your disbelief in the claims of his religion means you have a religion of your own, and now the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate why it’s reasonable NOT to believe the stuff he wants you to believe.

Nice try, brother.  But we’re onto your game.

Postscript:

If you’d like another resource as we walk through the chapters of this book, my virtual friend Steve Shives has devoted one of his many “An Atheist Reads” video series to doing the same thing I’m doing with Keller’s book. So throughout my treatment of this I will be referencing his videos by embedding them at the end of each post.  If you’ve never checked out Steve’s channel (link here), I would highly recommend it as a way to keep in touch of all kinds of current events, complete with concise commentary from one of the guys in the skeptical community who isn’t a jerk.

Posts in this Series:

[Featured Image: Gospel Coalition]

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