Changing Gods In Midstream

Changing Gods In Midstream January 24, 2016

Halfway through his book The Reason for God, Presbyterian minister Tim Keller pauses for an “intermission” in which he pivots from his previous misrepresentation deconstruction of “the seven biggest objections…people in our culture have about the Christian faith” to lay the groundwork for part two of his book, the part in which he finally gives us, at long last, his “reasons for God.”

We’ve waited for this for seven chapters, and the positive reasons still haven’t been offered. He promises they are coming. But first he stops in this chapter to address the notion of “proof” itself. In essence, he takes the bulk of this intermission to argue that such proof will never come, and we should not ask for it. To do so, he says, is unfair, and philosophically unsupportable.

…some systems of belief are more reasonable than others, but…all arguments are rationally avoidable in the end…this doesn’t mean that we can’t evaluate beliefs, only that we should not expect conclusive proof, and to demand it is unfair. (p.125)

I’m glad he stopped to address this because in his list of “seven biggest objections” he neglected to mention the most important one of all, the one which almost every atheist I know cites as their most basic reason for their nontheism:  A lack of evidence. In short, they don’t accept the claims of the Christian story (or any other supernaturalist story, so far) because sufficient evidence to support those claims has yet to be offered. Somehow after seven chapters addressing objections to the Christian faith, Keller has skipped over this one entirely, when really it should have taken up the majority of any book aimed at giving us “reasons for God.”

Instead we get this short chapter (the shortest in the book), in which he essentially shifts the burden of proof for his own beliefs onto the rest of us. It’s as if we have said “Prove to us that your beliefs are true,” and he responded by saying, “Well, prove to me that they’re NOT!  You can’t do it, can you? Ergo, my beliefs are true!”

Toward the end of this chapter, Keller does something which every apologist I’ve ever read does—something fundamentally dishonest in a way which most likely he cannot even see. I am itching to get to that, but first I have to address another misrepresentation about our demand for evidence.

We’re Not As Picky As You Think

Keller takes a shot at “The Four Horsemen” of “New Atheism” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett) by claiming that they “want a logical or empirical argument for God that is airtight…They won’t believe in God until they get it” (p.122). He accuses them of advocating for “strong rationalism,” a perspective which claims to have no bias whatsoever—complete and perfect objectivity. This sounds suspiciously like the accusations I hear from other apologists who insist that skeptics believe that science is infallible.

Now, I’ll acknowledge that there will always be those who forget this, even among my own skeptical tribe. We could all use an occasional reminder that a little bit of epistemic humility goes a long way toward guarding against error. But Keller misrepresents the position of each of these men by conflating skepticism with logical positivism (a common problem).  Just because a person says he needs evidence before he will accept a claim doesn’t mean he is being unduly picky, or that he demands absolute infallibility on anyone’s part.

Would you purchase and swallow a pill which has never been able to reliably demonstrate its own effectiveness beyond that of a placebo? Even after decades of testing?  Would anecdotal evidence from people who swear that a pill made them lose weight override 16 pages of documented testing which could not verify a single claim of the drug’s manufacturers?

You know what? Maybe don’t answer that. I’m afraid the answer might depress me.

Keller objects to the very notion of empirical proof, arguing that empiricism is somehow self-defeating.

It can’t live up to its own standards. How could you empirically prove that no one should believe something without empirical proof?  You can’t, and that reveals it to be, ultimately, a belief. (p.123)

I’ve addressed before the problem of conflating the word “faith” with the word “belief” (an error of equivocation), but Keller’s disparaging of empiricism leads me to ask:  What exactly is the alternative?  If empirical observation cannot help us determine if a thing is true, then what does he have to offer that is more reliable?

These discussions interminably devolve into philosophical tussling over the nature of knowledge and the warrants of belief, but it seems to me that we always end up with the same final question:  If human perception cannot be trusted, then how can we gauge the truth of what we believe?  I maintain that both skeptics and believers share a distrust of human perception.  We both agree that people make mistakes, and that we are experts at fooling ourselves. What sets us apart from each other is what we believe will rescue us from our own subjectivity.

[Read “What Will Save Us From Our Own Subjectivity?“]

In the end, I do not think you can responsibly escape the need for empirical verification. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for evidence before you accept a claim, and the inquirer shouldn’t be subjected to a character assassination for doing so (“It is a wicked and adulterous generation…”). It is also a red flag to anyone with sense when other people twist our request for evidence into a demand for airtight perfection. Why must you exaggerate what we say to such an extent? What drives this compulsive need to embellish what we say until it is a caricature of our real position?

This is only one of the many slippery tactics I see employed by apologists, who feel compelled to stack the deck in their own favor by denigrating a process of knowing (empirical observation) upon which they themselves rely for their most basic daily functioning. It’s a highly hypocritical move. Which leads me to that other thing I wanted to talk about.

The God Who Is Everywhere, But Nowhere

Defenders of the Christian faith have a really bad habit of switching Gods on us in midstream. When we say we need evidence before we will accept their claims, they often respond first by telling us that no such evidence will be given because God cannot be observed like some test subject in a lab. He is a completely different kind of thing—a no-thing, in fact, since all things owe their existence to him. His existence cannot be proved in the same sense that the existence of anything else can be proved, since all other things derive their existence from him.

When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C.S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare. If there is a God, he wouldn’t be another object in the universe that could be put in a lab and analyzed with empirical methods… (p.126)

If the God of the Bible exists, he is not a man in the attic, but the Playwright. (p.127)

But wait a second. Is that really the case?

According to the Christian worldview, this particular playwright interacts constantly with the characters within the story he is writing. The Bible is filled with dialogues between God and man—in fact the Bible itself is supposed to be “the word of God,” which means that in this particular play, the writer keeps leaving notes for the characters which somehow indicate what he wants from them. But more than that, he speaks directly to his own characters and often writes plot twists into the script which make no sense at all apart from the existence of a third-person omniscient writer.

In other words, the God of Christianity breaks “the fourth wall” all the time. Like Daffy Duck and the mischievous cartoonist in one of my favorite Looney Tunes vignettes of all time (you’ll have to google “Duck Amuck” since they took down the original video:


Keller eventually admits this himself at the end of this intermission:

If there is a God, we characters in his play have to hope that he put some information about himself in the play. But Christians believe he did more than give us information. He wrote himself into the play as the main character in history, when Jesus was born…(p.128, emphasis mine)

Indeed, that’s exactly what they believe, and that’s only the beginning. According to their story, this particular playwright spoke to his characters on multiple occasions, spelling out for them the many ways in which he would intervene within the story. He encouraged them to speak to him, and promised them that he could be found, and known, and perceived by the characters within the story. He instructed them to ask for things, and assured them in many different ways that he would answer their petitions. He indicated in no uncertain terms that they should expect him to intervene within the story whenever two or three of the characters agreed together that the active presence of the playwright was needed.

The God of Christianity is an intervening deity if ever there were one. So why is it that they always begin these arguments by insisting that we should not expect this deity to show up in any empirically observable way? One second we’re debating the God of Deism, then before we know what’s happened, we’re debating the God of Christianity. They cannot seem to make up their mind, and I’m becoming highly suspicious that they will select whichever God is most convenient at the moment in order to circumnavigate the most difficult questions.

Does it never occur to them how inconsistent they are being with the way they frame their arguments?  I doubt it does, because the only alternative is to conclude that they are being fundamentally dishonest, and I would rather give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are simply unaware that they are switching gods in the middle of the conversation.

Whether they realize it or not, they are “fair weather interventionists,” ready to jettison the Christian framework the moment a non-believer enters the conversation. When they are around other believers, they speak of a God who keeps showing up everywhere. But then when they speak to us, suddenly God disappears, and will not be found no matter how hard we look. And shame on us for wanting to find him!

Make up your minds, folks. Which one do you want us to believe?


If you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:

(Other Posts in this Series)

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