When people ask me why I left my faith, I always find myself spending the first part of the conversation discounting assumptions they bring about why this keeps happening to people they know. They usually reach for one of several non-rational causes:
- Somebody hurt you once
- You went to the wrong church
- You just want to be your own boss
- You want more sex/money/power/freedom
- You’re afraid of commitment
- The devil has blinded you
These are the reasons that make the most sense to them, but for most of us it boils down to the same basic thing: We don’t see enough credible evidence to believe that gods are real things at all. In the end it comes down to a lack of evidence. We see evidence for the natural world, and the natural explanations we have for what happens in the world keep outperforming the supernatural ones because the latter never seem to withstand direct scrutiny.
To believe in supernatural things, we would have to see credible evidence that something supernatural is happening. Notice I didn’t say that something supernatural happened once before—a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Because stories alone are not evidence. When it comes to claims this big, anecdotal evidence isn’t going to cut it.
That’s why most of us reject stories about other things, too, like alien abductions for example. It doesn’t matter how convinced the storytellers are that their own stories are true. Anyone who has gotten around knows that we are way too good at fooling ourselves, which is why we should demand more than stories before we entertain extraordinary claims.
Can you imagine how much would change if Christians began reading the stories in the Bible with the same skepticism that they use toward stories put forth by other religions like Islam, or Hinduism, or Mormonism, or Scientology? If they didn’t privilege their own stories the way they do, their own religion would all but vanish inside of a year.
Related: “Religion and the Nepotism of the Mind“
Skirting the Issue
After I finish explaining what they don’t seem to understand, a frustrating pattern emerges. After I’ve ruled out stories—including the ones found on the onionskin pages of their favorite leather bound book—the conversation shifts and instead of presenting evidence, the discussion comes to center around you and your demands for evidence.
Sometimes they question your motives. Other times, it’s your authenticity. Then when all else fails, they question your authority to judge for yourself whether or not the evidence presented is credible. They will do anything and everything except present actual evidence for their supernatural claims. For a perfect illustration of this predictable routine, one need look no further than Chapter 6 of Tim Keller‘s The Reason for God.
In the midst of discussing whether or not science has disproved Christianity (see my treatment of the rest of this chapter here), Keller turns to the matter of miracles—only he doesn’t ever tell us where to go to see them for ourselves. Like everyone else before him (excepting the charismatics), he questions if anyone can legitimately say whether or not a miracle has happened. He spends most of his time debating the epistemology of miracle denial without ever stopping to acknowledge that he completely sidestepped the central challenge. We asked for evidence, and instead we got a debate.
In moments like this, I recall a line from the preface of what was once my favorite book. In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer writes:
Current evangelicalism has (to change the figure) laid the altar and divided the sacrifice into parts, but now seems satisfied to count the stones and rearrange the pieces with never a care that there is not a sign of fire upon the top of lofty Carmel.
We could of course debate whether or not the supernatural miracle in the story Tozer is referencing ever occurred, but we aren’t getting anywhere debating whether or not things happened thousands of years ago. If the claims of the Christian faith were true, we wouldn’t be having this discussion because there would be evidence now—right in front of us—not just in a book.
If the supernatural claims of the Christian faith were true, there would be no need for apologetics books at all. We wouldn’t be reading shelves upon shelves of books attempting to explain why we aren’t seeing miracles, or how they’re actually happening everywhere but we’re somehow just missing them, or why we’re not in the right frame of mind or heart to get to witness them. We would just go out and see them for ourselves. As hellbent on denying this as Keller’s sort are, that would change everything for us.
Why Are We Even Having This Discussion?
To see what I mean, observe what happens if we take an illustration Keller offers, in this case borrowed from Alvin Plantinga, and let it play out in a more realistic scenario. Plantinga challenges the notion that since scientific inquiry never authenticates any miracles, none have happened.
[This] argument…is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there. In fact, it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light. (p.89, emphasis mine)
I love this analogy for how it inadvertently supports the same point that I am trying to make: It would be so easy to show the guy in this analogy that he is wrong about where the keys are. If the keys are there in the dark, all it would take is a friend who’s sober picking them up and showing him that in fact, they were right there all along.
Let’s reimagine this story by telling it the way this discussion about miracles usually unfolds, this time including a sober friend:
Drunk: Dude, I can’t find my keys. I’ve been looking under this light forever and they’re just not there.
Friend: That’s because they’re over there, in the dark. I found them myself.
Drunk: You found them? Thank you! Can I have them? Or better yet, would you drive me home? Because clearly I’m in no shape to…
Friend: I can’t do that. You have to find them yourself.
Drunk: Huh? If you found them, why don’t you just give them to me?
Friend: Because you don’t really want to find them.
Drunk: But…I’m asking you for them. You do have them, right? Can I see them?
Friend: I left them there. You’ll have to take my word for it and go looking for them yourself.
You see what I mean? After a while it becomes significant that the person who claims to have found something seems unable or unwilling to demonstrate the validity of his claim. At this point the protagonist of our story has good reason to distrust his friend. Unless this is some kind of twisted game, ending the discussion would be easy. All he would have to do is show the poor man the keys, or better yet just drive him home. It would have saved them both a lot of effort.
But that’s what happens in every apologetics debate I’ve ever heard. Instead of presenting observable evidence—proof that the claims of this religion are true–most of the time is devoted to arguing about philosophy, ancient history, and whether or not a person has a right to say what is and isn’t possible. Always the movement is away from actual evidence and toward an endless word salad intended to substitute for the real thing, which never seems to show up. It always moves from what is objective and demonstrable to what it subjective and completely your fault if it doesn’t work.
What Are Miracles For?
At the end of Chapter 6, Keller does what most apologists do by intimating that God isn’t in the business of performing party tricks to earn our trust:
Jesus’ miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce. You never see him say something like: “See that tree over there? Watch me make it burst into flames!” Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. (p.96)
That’s funny, because aside from the fact that one story has him doing almost exactly that, according to the fourth gospel Jesus’s first miracle was quite literally a party trick. He turned water into wine at a wedding even though everyone at the reception had already tied on a few. This wasn’t some life-altering restoration of sight, mobility, or mental health. It wasn’t feeding hungry people or bringing anyone back from the dead. According to John’s gospel, the first miraculous thing he did was help a house full of people get drunker. And according to the text:
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11)
It seems natural to conclude from this language that—at least according to the text itself—these miracles were provided for precisely the reason Keller wishes to discount: They were—at least in part—a sign provided to elicit faith from the people he wished to win over to himself. I see no reason why anyone requesting the same today should be dismissed on the grounds that their motivations don’t qualify for a response.
Related: “The God Who Performs Party Tricks.”
Tomorrow I hope to take on the notion of biblical inerrancy, work permitting (I teach for a living). 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: “Revisiting Tim Keller’s The Reason for God“
- Chapter One: “Christian History, Revised“
- Chapter Two: “The Problem of Evil in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Three: “Straw Skepticism and The Reason for God“
- Chapter Four: “Whitewashing Christian History in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Five: “The Evolution of Hell in The Reason for God“
- 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 Midstream“
- Chapter Eight: “Four (Bad) Reasons for God“
- Bonus: “The Argument from Misunderstanding Evolution“
- Chapter Nine: “Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality“
- Chapter Ten: “Why Everything You Do Is Wrong“
- Chapter Eleven: “Your Religion Is Special, Just Like All the Others“
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