Straw Skepticism in Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God”

Straw Skepticism in Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” November 15, 2015

scarecrowherringI simply cannot take seriously a book which misrepresents my own views as consistently as does Tim Keller‘s The Reason for God.  I am only on chapter three and already I’ve encountered enough straw men and red herrings to make me want to quit reading. And I haven’t even gotten to chapter four, which is the one that made my blood pressure skyrocket so badly that I had to put the thing away for a while. I’m saving that gem for later this week.

Like every other Christian apologist I’ve encountered, Keller is pushing a narrative that slavishly follows the source documents of his religion by insisting that people only reject his faith because they want to live how they want to live.  It’s all about being your own boss and not being subject to a higher power. It’s never about legitimate epistemological concerns or a sincere need to see credible evidence before buying into this alternate view of reality.

Keller’s approach to apologetics cannot acknowledge those as genuine concerns. Which is a shame, especially since at the beginning of this book he offered such lofty sentiments about authentically wrestling with doubts because, as he says, “such a process will lead you…to respect and understand those who doubt” (p.xvii). Sadly in the end, like Procrustes, he seems compelled to squeeze the cultured despisers of his faith into a mold that fits the biblical narrative, because that’s just what evangelicals do. They seem unable to resist, especially if like Keller they belong to the biblical inerrantist camp.

Let Me Tell You What You’re Really Thinking

In the first half of his book, he says he wants to “review the seven biggest objections and doubts about Christianity [he’s] heard from people over the years.” But it seems to me chapters one and three take on essentially the same topics twice (relativism and postmodernity), framing things in ways that fit his theological aims better than they fit what most skeptics I know actually say. I don’t recall ever coming across anyone who left the Christian faith because “it was too limiting,” and yet he claims this is one of the most common challenges he hears.

He also seems convinced that skeptics don’t believe there is such thing as “truth” at all, and he suggests that’s because to do so would only mean they would have to subject themselves to someone else’s control (as if that’s the only possible outcome of discovering truth).  He conflates skepticism with his understanding of postmodernism, quoting C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton to buttress his argument. He reminds us that Chesterton warns:

The new rebel is a skeptic, and will not trust anything…For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind…Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything. (p.38)

In other words, these apologists reject the ethos that says you should question everything because they feel it’s a self-defeating ideology. They see it as a categorical denial that a single true way to see a thing even exists.  But that’s a mischaracterization—certainly of skepticism, if not of postmodernism as well (I touched on that in my response to chapter one).

On the contrary, skeptics are most concerned with whether or not your story is true, not whether or not it’s limiting.

Most skeptics I know reject the claims of the Christian faith because they feel they lack evidential support.  It’s not that believing in one god out of the hundreds available would be “too narrow.” It’s more that they don’t see good reasons for believing in any of them. But that’s not what Keller sees when he looks through his evangelical pastoral lens. He sees people wanting the freedom to make moral choices according to their own individual preferences.

In this view, “freedom” means that there is no overarching purpose for which you were created. If there were, we would be obligated to conform to it and to fulfill it, and that is limiting.(p.36)

Keller can’t seem to let this idea go.  He is convinced that the real problem here is an unwillingness to bend the knee to an ideology that he believes everyone naturally knows is true, somehow. But they don’t. And it amazes me that for all his talk of empathizing with unbelievers, he cannot see past his own theology enough to allow us to describe for ourselves why we don’t believe.  Perhaps out of the thousands he has spoken with, a handful have indeed fit his preconceived notions, with selection bias then taking over from there so that now that’s all he sees.

Evidence or Get Out

There is a simple way through this misunderstanding, of course. Simply present persuasive evidence that validates the claims of your religion, and people will change their minds. That’s assuming of course that you have something more to give them than logical syllogisms or a leatherbound religious text.  Like Captain Cassidy often says, “arguments aren’t evidence,” nor is quoting the Bible evidence for that matter.  The reliability of that book is one of the claims of the religion, and you cannot use one of the claims to support the rest of the claims. That’s not how it works.

But I suspect I know what Keller might say to that. Most defenders of the faith within his particular subculture charge that even if we were to be presented with evidence, we would still reject it because we wouldn’t be willing to submit ourselves to the control of another person. Leaving aside for the moment how conveniently that attempts to dismiss the aforementioned burden of proof, changing the subject to our motives in questioning their story, I can state categorically that many of us have already proven our willingness to subject ourselves to someone else. Some of us did it for decades, so this particular indictment doesn’t stick at all.

Keller promised at the beginning of the book that after first addressing the seven biggest objections to the Christian faith, he would then spend the second half of the book giving the reasons we should believe his story. I will address later on whether or not he stayed true to that promise. But again, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

Humanism Isn’t Individualism

Theism, generally conceived, posits a divine referent for every decision human beings make. Underneath all values and priorities, humans are constrained to follow someone else’s dictates (that’s assuming the gods in question have any human-related desires at all, or that we can know what those are, which is a lot to establish).

Humanism, on the other hand, counters that human beings do not have a reliable transcendent referent to which they can appeal. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t even assert that there cannot be any gods; rather, it simply says that if we are going to know what to do with ourselves, we will have to decide that as a species without invoking a higher power. History has demonstrated that humans have never been good at agreeing with each other about which higher power we are supposed to be following anyway, much less what he, she, or it wants from us in the first place.

But Keller doesn’t see the collectiveness of humanism. He sees it as an ultimately individualistic ideology. He keeps referring to “The popular concept—that we should each determine our own morality”(p.47). This is a common misconception perpetuated by preachers and apologists alike.  It’s so much easier to poke holes in a misrepresentation of your opponent’s views. Just don’t expect the other fella to take you seriously, because whatever you just critiqued, it wasn’t what your intended audience actually believes.

Humanistic ethics are constructed out of much larger, more broadly-conceived concerns about what is good for the largest numbers of people possible. They take into consideration all of humanity, not merely one nation, one religion, or one subculture.  There is a balancing effect that comes from applying what we have learned over the course of human history and from opening the conversation up to the widest variety of people possible. Doing so levels the playing field in such a way that those voices which were previously privileged will not drown out the voices of those whom your tribe most naturally overlooks and underrepresents. Unlike Evangelicalism, humanism is an innately liberal and progressive ideology.

Throughout this book, Keller is going to build a case for the superiority of his own religious tradition. He is going to argue that his religion, and his religion alone, deserves credit for most of the social progress that humankind has experienced. Many of these pages positively ooze with Christian exceptionalism, as if what his worldview has to offer oustrips any other worldview around.  I remember harboring that much arrogance once, although at the time I had no idea that’s what I was doing. I was just repeating what I had learned from others, so I don’t entirely blame myself. I think I meant well.

Quite the opposite is the case, in reality, particularly when we focus on the particular tradition which Keller himself represents. I will argue in my next post that the Christian faith has failed miserably to earn those accolades, making Keller’s case all the weaker for making so bold and baseless a claim as that one. The historical dishonesty is astounding.


In case you missed it at the end of the last post, Steve Shives covers chapters two and three as a unit, making his way through the book two chapters at a time. That video is available here if you’d like to see it.

And if you’d like to read my coverage of the previous chapters, you can find that here:

(Other Posts in this Series)

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