“You can’t ride two horses with one a**, sugarbean.” —Earl Smooter, Sweet Home Alabama
Halfway through his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller pauses for an intermission in which he pivots from his previous discussion of “the seven biggest objections…people in our culture have about the Christian faith” to lay the groundwork for part two of his book, presumably the part in which he finally gives us, at long last, his reasons for God.
He promises they are coming, but first we must stop to address the notion of proof itself. Keller uses the bulk of this space to argue that, when it comes to the claims of his religion, the proof we seek will never come, so we’d better not ask for it. To do so, he says, is both 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 skeptical objections he neglected to mention the most important one of all—the one virtually every atheist I know cites as their most basic reason: a lack of evidence. In short, they don’t accept the claims of the Christian story 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 the book.
What we get instead is a brief chapter (the shortest in the book) aimed at shifting the burden of proof for Keller’s beliefs onto the rest of us. Up until this point, I’m sure many of his readers were hoping he could prove that his beliefs are true, but instead he tells them they must first prove that his are not.
Then toward the end of this chapter Keller does something every apologist does that chaps my hide, something that’s fundamentally dishonest in a way that he probably doesn’t see. I’ll get to that at the end, but first I have to address a misleading refrain about our demand for evidence.
We’re Not As Picky As You Say
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, which he characterizes as a purely rationalistic perspective with no biases whatsoever. This sounds suspiciously like what I hear from other apologists who keep insisting that skeptics believe science is infallible.
I’ll admit too many of us forget this. Whenever someone unironically leads off with “Science says,” I roll my eyes a little and take whatever they say next with a grain of salt. Science doesn’t speak univocally about anything because science is just an abstraction, and it’s a job that’s never completely done. A little bit of epistemic humility goes a long way toward guarding against our own biases, even the ones currently favored by the studies of the day.
But Keller is making a common mistake when he conflates skepticism with logical positivism. He seems to believe that needing evidence before we accept a claim means we are being too picky. Generally speaking, though, we are not the ones demanding infallibility from anything, not even from science. The pursuit of certainty is their obsession, not ours, and there they go projecting again.
Would you purchase and swallow a pill that has never demonstrated its effectiveness beyond that of a placebo, even after decades of testing? Would anecdotal evidence from people swearing the pill made them lose weight override every clinical trial that disconfirmed the drug manufacturer’s claims?
Maybe don’t answer that. I’ve learned just enough to know the truth would depress me.
Keller objects to the very notion of empirical proof, arguing that empiricism is 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 faith with belief—an error of equivocation—but Keller is disparaging empiricism itself, which leads me to ask: What exactly is the alternative? If empirical observation can’t determine if a thing is true, then what does he have that’s more reliable?
Discussions like these quickly 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 we both agree 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.
You can’t escape the need for empirical verification, and it shouldn’t be too much to ask for evidence before you accept a claim. To the rest of us, it’s a huge red flag whenever a sincere inquirer undergoes a character assassination for asking for evidence, getting labeled a wicked and adulterous generation. Why twist our request for evidence into a demand for airtight perfection? What prompts you to embellish what we think until it’s a caricature of the real thing?
This perspective is terribly misleading because it denigrates the very 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 the other thing I wanted to talk about.
Defenders of the Christian faith have a really bad habit of switching gods on us midstream.
The God Who Is Everywhere, But Nowhere
When we say we need evidence before we will accept his faith’s claims, Keller says no such evidence will be given because God will not perform for us. Besides, God is a completely different kind of entity since everything else owes its existence to him, right? 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, emphasis mine)
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 humans—in fact they call the Bible itself the word of God, meaning that in this particular play the Playwright keeps leaving notes for the characters indicating what he wants. Much more than that, this Playwright speaks directly to his own characters.
The God of Christianity breaks the fourth wall all the time, like the mischievous cartoonist taunting Daffy Duck in one of my favorite Looney Tunes vignettes of all time:
Keller eventually admits it 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)
According to their story, this particular Playwright spoke to his characters on many occasions, spelling out for them how 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 made it clear 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. For them, prayer is supposed to be like the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter. Things are supposed to happen.
The God of Christianity is an intervening deity if ever there were one. So why do 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 were debating the God of Christianity, then before we knew it we were debating deism and we don’t even know how or when the tracks got switched on us. They can’t seem to make up their minds which God we’re supposed to be talking about and I’m starting to think they’re just picking whichever one is most convenient at the time.
They’re like fair-weather interventionists, ready to code switch the moment a non-believer enters the conversation. In the company of fellow believers they speak of a God who keeps showing up everywhere, but around us God disappears and cannot be found no matter how hard we look for him. He will not return our calls. Oh, and shame on us for wanting him to! That’s not how it works.
Make up your minds, folks. Which one do you want us to believe in?
[Image Source: YouTube]
(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 7: “For the Bible Tells Me? No.“
- Intermission: “Changing Gods Midstream“
- Chapter 8: “Four (Bad) Reasons for God“
- Bonus: “The Argument from Misunderstanding Evolution“
- Chapter 9: “Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality“
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