When I first picked up Tim Keller‘s book entitled The Reason for God, I did not expect that out of fourteen chapters he would only devote one to offering any actual arguments for the existence of God. I’m not sure what I expected, but after all the hype from my Christian friends and their pleading with me to read it for myself, it wasn’t that.
A Very Brief Case Indeed
Keller spends the first seven chapters responding to what he describes as the seven most common objections to the Christian faith, leaving out the most important one (a request for tangible evidence) only to turn in the Intermission to dismiss that issue entirely on principle (read my review of that chapter here). In typical apologetic fashion—particularly among presuppositionalists—he intimates that there’s something wrong with our asking for evidence, overstating our case as if we were demanding some kind of elusive epistemological perfection.
This kind of overreaction says a lot to me. It reminds me of that scene from the show Friends, right after Monica and Chandler hook up, when Joey innocently asks Chandler if he knows where Monica is and Chandler starts screaming “No, okay?! What’s with the third degree?! Why don’t you just shine a light in my eyes?!”
But finally in Chapter 8, Keller proceeds to lay out for the reader four positive arguments for the existence of God. Really there will be a fifth, although he doesn’t explicitly name it in the chapter, but I will save that one for my next post because it will take the longest to explain. There will be one more additional argument woven into Chapter 9 (the Argument from Morality), followed by five chapters of what can only be described as straight up preaching.
In other words, he devotes about 33 pages out of 250 (not counting the introduction) to giving actual “reasons for God,” admitting throughout his apologetic work that he knows any one of these arguments will individually come up short, leaving a rational way out for anyone disinclined to subscribe to his religion. At several key moments he will go on to admit that the reason he won’t spend any more time presenting either arguments or evidence (note that they are not the same thing) is that somehow deep down we already believe in, specifically, his God.
I don’t want to argue why God may exist. I want to demonstrate that you already know that God does exist. (p.147)
A strident claim to be sure, but far from an unfamiliar one for anyone accustomed to talking to people who are emotionally invested in accepting whatever the Bible says. For a thoroughgoing Calvinist, devoting very much time to laying out reasons for believing in God is a betrayal of the clear biblical assertion that people already know enough to believe (see Rom. 1:18ff). Perhaps that is why Keller keeps the number of his positive argument for God to a minimum.
In this post I will list and describe the first four arguments he gives in Chapter 8, giving them my own descriptive names in order to encapsulate what’s wrong with each one of them. Keller keeps admitting that any one of them taken alone is full of holes, insisting instead that if you put them all together they make a convincing cumulative case. Speaking for myself, however, even a dozen or more bad arguments for the existence of God cannot combine to make one good one. That’s not how this works.
Four (Bad) Reasons for God
1. The Argument from Inexplicability. In essence, every form of this argument follows the same pattern, reasoning from an unknown thing to a presumed cause, which invariably invokes what I call the Giant Invisible Person hypothesis. Why it always has to be that specific cause is beyond me, and it’s never really demonstrated why that hypothesis is superior to other alternatives (e.g. Why does it have to be a single person? Why not several? Or maybe an impersonal force?). The argument from inexplicability can always be boiled down to the same recurring template:
We do not understand how X happens, therefore there is a Giant Invisible Person.
You wouldn’t believe how many theistic arguments distill down to this flawed argument. In Keller’s case, he started with the “Unmoved Mover” argument, which dates back at least to Aristotle, if not further. In fact, I would argue that all belief in invisible spirits traces back to this same basic question: “Where did everything come from? How can something come from nothing? There must be a person…” Keller says:
Everything we know in this world is “contingent,” has a cause outside of itself. Therefore the universe, which is just a huge pile of such contingent entities, would itself have to be dependent on some cause outside of itself…What could that be but something outside of nature, a supernatural, noncontingent being that exists from itself. (p.133)
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter whether or not we can explain how the universe got here. It’s not a valid argument to say that because we cannot yet explain it, therefore there must be a Giant Invisible Person behind it all. This is yet another instance of the God of the Gaps argument, an argument from ignorance which basically asserts that if we cannot fully explain a thing, that’s another point for theism.
What amazes me most about the resilience of this argument is how universally its counterargument is known, even by preschoolers. The next time a six-year-old asks where the universe came from and an adult says “God made it,” count how many seconds it takes for the child to fire back with “So where did God come from?” The flaw in this argument is so readily apparent that even the youngest thinker can see it for what it is. You cannot assert that everything must have a cause and then make an ad hoc assertion that you know a thing that does not need a cause. You are destroying your own argument before it even gets off the ground.
2. The Argument from Fabricated Probabilities. Also known as “the Argument from the Fine Tuning of the Universe,” this argument paradoxically puts humankind in the center of the universe (which they tell us never to do) and reasons backwards from there to see how perfectly the universe seems to have come together to produce life, and more to the point, us.
For organic life to exist, the fundamental regularities and constants of physics…must all have values that together fall into an extremely narrow range. The probability of this perfect calibration happening by chance is so tiny as to be statistically negligible. (p.134)
The first problem with this argument is that it asserts that it is possible to calculate the probabilities associated with a whole host of natural phenomena which it is in fact impossible to calculate because, for any calculation of such probabilities, you would have to know the total number of possible outcomes. But we cannot know that. Exactly how many other ways can the constants of physics in the universe be combined to produce variant results which are still favorable to life? And do we know that has not in fact happened trillions of times before, only just this time producing the right combinations to bring about matter, gravity, and organic life? Statistical models need controls in order to be meaningful. We have no such things available to us in this case, which makes this an Argument from Meaningless Statistics.
But even leaving that problem aside, the anthropocentrism of this argument strikes me as highly hypocritical coming from a religious tradition which accuses everyone else of being egocentric. Doesn’t it stand to reason that, regardless of causation (accidental or purposive), the only way we could be here discussing these things is if the universe we inhabit has all the necessary conditions to produce our existence? For this, I know no better counterargument than the one put forth by Douglas Adams years ago, his analogy of the puddle:
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’
I have already broken down these and other reasons to disregard the fine tuning argument in a previous post, in my response to the Wall Street Journal article entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” In my response, I borrowed yet another analogy, this time from The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins in which he showed that some scenarios strike us as impossible which are not. He imagined a card game in which each player is dealt 13 cards only to discover that each player acquired all 13 of his own cards in the same suit. This would seem to us so highly improbable as to be nearly impossible, leading us to think this must have happened on purpose. But in reality the chances of that happening are exactly identical to any and every other combination of hands you could possibly calculate.
In other words, the appearance of design which we see when we look out into the universe tells us more about our own egocentric way of seeing things than it does about the way the universe really is. We are always superimposing our own selves onto the world in such a way that it always seems precisely designed to produce who we are. But that’s getting our reasoning backwards.
3. The Argument from Regularity. This argument, if it can be called an argument, asserts that the presence of regularity in the universe (e.g. in the laws of physics, in chemistry, etc) necessitates that behind it all there must be a God, an Intelligent Designer if you will. Honestly, I’m not sure why this was included as a separate argument, since it is merely an extension of the ones before it. For Keller, the presence of natural laws means that a person must exist who made them happen.I’m at a loss for understanding how this seems persuasive. Why exactly does regularity require that a person is behind it all? I’m just not even seeing why that’s necessitated, and an argument which demonstrates that necessity is never given. I suppose this is a slight variation of the Unmoved Mover argument, so that we could perhaps call this the Unregulated Regulator argument. As it is, I find it so weak that I can’t justify spending any more time responding to it.
4. The Argument from Wishing. Leaning heavily on C.S. Lewis, as Keller often does throughout his apologetic works, this argument essentially boils down to an assertion that because we want there to be more to the world than there really is, there must be another world beyond this one, because why would we want it to be there if it’s not? I remember a time when I found this argument persuasive, and to this day there are people very close to me who find it reassuring. C.S. Lewis’s original articulation of this idea is even hanging on my daughters’ wall. But upon serious scrutiny, I have to admit that it is a terrible argument, even if Switchfoot can make it sound really appealing. Keller states it this way:
Isn’t it true that innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them, such as sexual desire…physical appetite…tiredness…and relational desires?
Doesn’t the unfulfillable longing evoked by beauty qualify as an innate desire? We have a longing for joy, love, and beauty that no amount or quality of food, sex, friendship, or success can satisfy. We want something that nothing in this world can fulfill. Isn’t that at least a clue that this “something” that we want exists? (p.139)
First of all, no, of course simply wanting a thing does not mean it must exist. Wishing that a thing is true doesn’t make it so. Does the fact that we don’t want to die in any way prove that we are not supposed to? I have always wanted to fly. Does that mean I am supposed to expect wings? Isn’t this yet another example of taking ourselves and our own desires and building our concept of the world around ourselves in such a way that we—and our own felt psychological needs—are the center of it?
Far from presenting a persuasive case for the existence of (specifically) the Christian God, these lines of reasoning rather illustrate how central to religion is psychological projection. Here we have an entire enterprise so perfectly crafted around the human psyche that it fits us as well as the clothes that we wear. It never occurs to us that the clothes are made to fit us, and not vice versa.
When we experience wonder and beauty that overwhelm us, our cognitive faculties break down and our emotions take over. It’s a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t ever want to live without it. But just because there are things in the world which strike us as beautiful, that doesn’t mean there has to be a God. If you really want to go there, you will have to allow that the presence of terrible, ugly things in the world makes the opposite case, that there cannot be a God. That’s the unintended consequence of the argument from beauty. It’s a knife that cuts both ways.
In the end, arguments like this one show just how dependent upon personal sentiment the whole apologetics enterprise really is. If you’re already inclined to accept the claims of the Christian faith, each of these arguments will resonate with something inside you. I know because I remember once responding to these ideas favorably. But for those of us who have left (and even more so for those who have never subscribed to these beliefs), these arguments are untenably weak and unpersuasive. They are only useful for those looking for reasons to feel validated in what they already believe. They are not so useful for changing the minds of anyone not already inclined to believe what you believe.
Apologetics isn’t for the lost, it’s for the saved. It exists to convince believers they are not being foolish for believing what they do.
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) June 24, 2014
After making these points, Keller goes on in Chapter 8 to give a fifth argument which I will call “The Argument from Misunderstanding How Natural Selection Works.” I had this one thrown at me just the other day when I was a guest host on The Atheist Experience (link to that here, in case you missed it), and I would like to devote a separate post to explaining what’s wrong with that. But this list has gotten long enough already, and I figure your eyes need a break. So tune in next time for part two of my response to this chapter.
And as with the rest of this review, I am including links to the videos of Steve Shives, who covered all of these chapters in pairs in his “An Atheist Reads” series. Be sure to check them out. Here he covers Chapters 8 and 9:
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)
- Introduction: “I’m Reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God So You Don’t Have To“
- Chapter One: “Selection Bias and the Christian View of History“
- Chapter Two: “Tim Keller and the Problem of Suffering and Evil“
- Chapter Three: “Straw Skepticism in Tim Keller’s ‘The Reason for God‘”
- Chapter Four: “Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Tim Keller’s Faulty Historical Vision“
- Chapter Five: “The Evolution of Hell (and Why We’re Still Not Buying It)“
- Chapter Six: “Believing in Evolution, But Not Too Much“
- Bonus: “What’s Wrong With Asking For a Miracle?“
- Chapter Seven: “For the Bible Tells Me? No.“
- Intermission: “Changing Gods In Midstream“
- Chapter Eight: “Four (Bad) Reasons for God“
- Bonus: “The Argument from Misunderstanding How Natural Selection Works“
- Chapter Nine: “Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality“
- Chapter Ten: “Everything You Do Is Wrong“
- Chapter Eleven: “Your Religion Is Special, Just Like All the Others“
- Chapter Twelve: “But Why Does There Have to Be Blood?”
- Chapter Thirteen: “Seven Bad Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus“
- Chapter Fourteen: “Four Ways Tim Keller’s Gospel Fails to Deliver“
- Epilogue: “Why the Gospel Doesn’t Work on Deconverts“
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