Revisiting Tim Keller’s The Reason for God

Revisiting Tim Keller’s The Reason for God May 8, 2021

tim-keller2I don’t really care for apologetics books. It’s a tedious chore to make it all the way through them, and interacting with them is exhausting because for every single word it takes to put forth a bad argument it takes ten to properly debunk it.

But in every decade there seems to be a favorite book which religious friends and family put into the hands of their doubting loved ones, and this particular decade that book appears to be Tim Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

A few years back, I did a chapter-by-chapter review of the book and I would like to revisit those thoughts before I dive back into reviewing Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Perhaps in time I will make these available in a single volume, but enough people have been asking to see these again that I’d like to put them up online again first.

It seems to me that Keller spends the first half of the book misrepresenting what non-theists actually believe and then tearing down those constructions (i.e. strawmanning). In the second half of the book he turns to discuss the positive reasons for believing in God (specifically his), except that he actually spends very little time doing that. Instead, he uses the remainder of the chapters to simply preach at us, sermonizing without ever stopping to establish why we should accept anything else he says.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  For now, I’m only going to interact with the introduction to the book, and as we go I will be including links at the bottom of the page to each of the chapters we have covered.

A Good Start, Then a Nose Dive

I enjoyed first few pages of this book because 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 boiled over at this point, and each side of the divide seems to think the other deserves to just go away.

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)

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, while Keller wrote these words many years ago, all the Pew studies since then have 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, 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 find yourself struggling to know which way is up.

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

But then Keller goes on to make a false equivalence that I have heard championed by every presuppositionalist apologist I’ve 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)

This is a fundamental assumption of the presuppositionalist apologetic method and, like most Calvinists, Keller finds it compelling. Their central point is that 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 the law of noncontradiction, which states that a thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time. Fair enough, although I know at the heart of his religious system is a belief that spiritual truths can comfortably contradict themselves without raising any internal suspicion whatsoever.

Historically speaking, 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 buys their story as easily as they once did. 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 while their beliefs are based on certain presuppositions (e.g. inerrancy of scripture), we have assumptions too, so we’re no better off. We have “faith” of our own kind, they claim, so we should not feel like we’re in an intellectually superior position to theirs. If we cannot disprove their beliefs without using prior assumptions of our own, then their religion must be true. But it’s not that simple, is it?

Not All Beliefs Are Faith

It’s 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, it doesn’t—not if you want to have any consistency in the way words are used. Just because I’m using the word “belief” doesn’t mean it’s synonymous with the word “faith.”  There is a good 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 as far back as the human species. I cannot find a single exception to it, can you? This is an observation based on more examples than we 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.

That’s where the word “faith” comes in handy. We use the word to indicate that some kind of reach is required—some kind of step off of what is known with certainty to something that requires extrapolating from that to some other conclusion that is not readily apparent. In other words, we use faith to indicate some kind of leap that isn’t entirely 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 faith. 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 (see: Abraham and Sarah) 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—it’s measured by how contrary to normal expectations its claims run.

When 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.

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 could find to eat and drink in the desert. It’s not unreasonable to say that people don’t walk on water or levitate into the sky until the clouds conceal them. When 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.

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)

No, rejecting unreasonable claims doesn’t require faith in anything at all. That’s an inconsistent use of a word that is loaded with meaning for them everywhere else. Its meaning for them is clear, but it ceases to mean the same thing after it’s been lifted out of one context and dropped into another.

So right out of the gate, Keller has demonstrated that even though he can start off on a high note, he can only sustain that for so long before launching into a shell game with words. He needs you to feel that your disbelief in 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, preacher. But you’re going to have to work a lot harder than that.

(Other Posts in this Series)

[Featured Image: Gospel Coalition]


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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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