Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality

Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality June 8, 2021

chimps groomingReformed pastor Tim Keller devotes Chapter 9 of The Reason for God to regurgitating the Argument from Morality, which essentially states that without a belief in a Supreme Being, there can be no basis for moral restraint among human beings. This argument typically takes one of two directions:

Argument 1: People who don’t profess faith in a Supreme Being behave less morally than those who do, or

Argument 2: Skeptics cannot elucidate satisfactory reasons for being moral without believing in a Supreme Being.

Both claims are wrong, and I’ll do my best to explain why since Keller made this the focus of an entire chapter.

We Are Not Less Moral

Zooming out globally, we find that non-theistic democracies fare much better than their theistic counterparts on measures of cultural, governmental, and mental health. Look no further than Scandinavia to see what it looks like for a region to be relatively free from religion but quite healthy on most measures for success. By contrast, the United States is the most religious of all industrialized countries and it has the highest rates of all the things you don’t want to see like incarcerations, gun deaths, infant mortality, income inequality, and mental health problems.

The same pattern holds true within the United States itself. Those states that are the least religious have the lowest rates of things like poverty, gun violence, teen pregnancy, STDs, and incarceration while those states consistently scoring the highest on measures of religious devotion (e.g. the Deep South) have the highest rates of all the things you do not want. My home state of Mississippi is the poster child for this phenomenon, topping the list for religious devotion but consistently bottoming out on measures of education, economic health, mental health, and even physical well-being.

Granted, none of these things necessarily relate to the question of morality, but collectively there are strong associations between them all. If it were true that atheism leads to immorality, the least religious countries should be the worst places to live, but they’re not.

When religious people say you can’t have morality without religion, they say it because of their own ideological prejudices. They are not getting it from empirical observation. Having become an atheist after being a Christian once myself, I can tell you that I did not observe a decrease in moral restraint upon moving from one group to the other.

For what it’s worth, neither am I ready to assert that atheists are more ethical or morally upright than their religious counterparts. Each subculture has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve seen far too much to think that losing your religion makes you a better person. I just know it doesn’t make you worse.

But Keller says we are lying, either to ourselves or to everyone else. He says that all of us who say we don’t believe in invisible beings really do, deep down inside:

I have a radical thesis. I think people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know. (p.151)

I talked about this before when another Reformed pastor, John Piper, dodged a sincere request to explain the empirical basis for this belief. The bottom line is that it’s not a radical thesis at all. It’s an ideological prejudice thinly predicated upon a single Bible passage, and if you’ve ever tried to argue with an evangelical Christian about the reliability of anything the Bible says, you know what a waste of time that can be.

In this chapter encapsulating everything wrong with Presuppositional apologetics, Keller exhibits a familiar strategy:

Step 1:  Misrepresent what non-theists actually think.

Step 2:  Choose the worst possible moral issues for demonstrating the superiority of your own worldview.

Step 3:  Pretend the only alternative to the other guy’s worldview is your own.

Step 4:  Restate what the Bible says in your own words and proceed as if the case were closed. Begin preaching.

Keller’s system of belief doesn’t yield the objective a sense of morality that he would have us believe, and in the end his reasons for doing good fall short.

Not-So-Objective Morality

Keller loves to accuse non-theists of being relativists. He insists that if you don’t believe that God determines what is right and what is wrong, your only alternative is to subject all moral questions to the whims of your own personal preferences.

If there is no God, then there is no way to say any one action is “moral” and another “immoral” but only “I like this.” (p.159)

Keller cannot seem to understand that humanistic ethics are not individualistic but communal, even societal. They seek to find the greatest good for the most people possible. They aren’t based on a me but a we. He never seems to acknowledge that.

What’s more, I challenge the notion that theism provides a superior path to objective (in this case meaning transcendent) morality. In the end, all systems of morality are man-made whether we realize it or not. You can claim that a moral guideline originates from a deity but it’s not that simple, nor is the result so reliable. For starters, which deity? Allah, Yahweh, Brahma or Vishnu? People can’t even agree on which one is the right one (or even that there should be only one), so how is this to yield a reliable basis for figuring out right from wrong?

And even if you could get everyone to agree on the same God (good luck with that one), would everyone agree that we can know what she, he, or it really wants? Does it even communicate with humans? Once it does, will humans agree on what was said? Will they agree on a common method of interpretation? Have they ever?

Keller would say we have to look to the Bible, but even the Bible says different things depending on where you look. Is it okay to kill your child to appease a deity?  Well, it depends, doesn’t it? If the Bible is to be your guide, there are occasions during which killing your child is exactly what God is asking you to do. What about killing a village full of people? Again, it depends. One time Yahweh instructed his own people to drive out an entire nation, killing anyone who wouldn’t turn over their land to the Israelites, including women, children, and even the unborn.

The Bible even claims that one time God wiped out almost every living thing himself because he was so angry at humans. Evidently for the biblical worldview, genocide can be justified under the right circumstances. But sure, ours is the one that’s relativistic.

Doing Right for All the Wrong Reasons

Not only does Keller root his reasons for moral behavior in a standard which is far from consistent, but even his reasons for doing good reveal a major weakness of his own perspective.

We all live as if it is better to seek peace instead of war, to tell the truth instead of lying, to care and nurture rather than to destroy. We believe that these choices are not pointless, that it matters which way we choose to live. Yet if the Cosmic Bench is truly empty, then “who sez” that one choice is better than the others?…

If the Bench is truly empty…There will be no one around to remember any of it. Whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no difference at all. (p.163)

No difference at all? Really? So that’s it? In the end it’s all about getting a gold star? Is that really our only—or our best—motivation for cooperating and connecting, for showing compassion and mercy to those around us?

How bankrupt must your moral system be in the end if it can find no reason for doing good besides hope of reward after you die? Granted, Calvinists like Keller would rather argue that what is right and what is good depends upon what pleases God rather than what rewards man. But under the circumstances that would be a bit too question-begging to be of any use to anyone outside of his own theological tribe. But then, that is exactly the problem, isn’t it?

Statements like Keller’s above show that in the end religions like Christianity rely on appealing to people’s selfishness, their desire to earn rewards and avoid punishment. For it to take hold, it must tap into the shallowest of motivational levels, failing to root moral and ethical decisions in what is truly useful to the entire human race and to the ecosystem as a whole.

Choosing the Worst Examples

Keller’s selective vision of Christian history astounds me. I’ve already written about how he conveniently claims for his own side the progressive victories of the abolitionists and civil rights activists even though his own tradition bitterly opposed those movements in their own time.

Read: “Whitewashing Christian History in The Reason for God

He is the one who then brings up the subject of genocide (bad move) and suggests that non-theists would have no basis for opposing the violent actions of Nazi Germany (p. 152). I find this highly ironic for at least three reasons:

  1. Hitler wasn’t an atheist but a deist, albeit according his own idiosyncratic construct
  2. Hitler’s Germany was majority Christian, but the church generally looked the other way, much like evangelicals do today with everything Donald Trump does, and
  3. Genocide is something the Bible says is okay under the right circumstances.

Keller begins the chapter by bringing up the role of women, which is another huge mistake. He relays a conversation which ironically illustrates the impotence of his own worldview toward determining how we should view the place of women in the world today.

A young couple once came to me for some spiritual direction…I asked them to tell me about something they felt was really, really wrong. The woman immediately spoke out against practices that marginalized women. I said I agreed with her fully since I was a Christian…She responded,”Women are human beings and human beings have rights. It is wrong to trample on someone’s rights.” I asked her how she knew that. (p.149)

Considering how Keller’s denomination doesn’t allow the ordination of women, I’m guessing she won’t learn by attending his church.

Of all topics, Keller chooses this as his springboard for asserting that the only way we can have any basis for discerning right from wrong is, ultimately, the Bible. Keller takes her moral outrage at the marginalization of women and appropriates it for his own use, arguing that her sense of injustice comes from the same God who, according his tradition, supports the differential treatment of women.

How is it not marginalizing women to keep them out of ministry? When pressed, evangelicals like Keller will argue they are showing women the respect and care they truly need by keeping them out of positions of real power. Very noble of them. But they’re doing precisely what Keller describes elsewhere as “transcendentalizing ordinary cultural differences,” lifting ancient views about the place of women in society and placing them onto women today with little or no recontextualization.

Keller skates on thin ice when he talks about rights anyway since, strictly speaking, no such vocabulary exists within his tradition. I did my graduate work at one of the seminaries affiliated with his denomination, and I distinctly remember two of my professors saying “You don’t have rights. All rights belong to God.” This opinion closely follows that of the apostle Paul who once asked:

Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

Keller’s theological tradition doesn’t envision human beings possessing inalienable rights. It views people as valuable in a derivative sense wherein all human worth comes—not from humans themselves—but from what someone else does for them. According to the Bible, if God decides that some of them are only valuable as fuel for an everlasting fire, then he alone possesses the right to make that decision. Humans have no rights of their own. They don’t even own their own bodies.

There is only one way out of this conundrum. We can pick the biblical account of things and see if it explains our moral sense any better than the secular view. (p.162)

It’s arrogant and inconsiderate of the vast diversity of religious belief in the world for Keller to present his readers with this false dichotomy, as if the only two choices we have are between youmanism—as I refer to his misrepresentation of what humanists actually believe—and Reformed trinitarian inerrantist Abrahamic monotheism. This is a common vulnerability of the presuppositionalist apologetic, and like magic it only persuades the already convinced.

The Moral Awareness of the Animal Kingdom

Finally, because Keller’s grasp of evolution is so tenuous, he doesn’t realize that science paints a much richer picture of our ancestral past than what you will hear from an evangelical pulpit:

Evolution…cannot account for the origin of our moral feelings, let alone for the fact that we all believe there are external moral standards by which moral feelings are evaluated. (p. 154)

Clearly he has never read how prevalent altruism is among the species, particularly among mammals. Elsewhere in this chapter Keller discloses that he believes “nature [is] completely ruled by one central principle—violence by the strong against the weak” (p.161). But that’s a gross oversimplification of the way that Nature works. The struggle for survival depends not only on brute force and violence but also on things like cooperation, solidarity, and empathy.

Dolphins will rescue distressed members of other species, and they will flank their own injured, swimming alongside them for days until they are better. An elephant was once observed trying to push a dying friend into an upright position, and when that didn’t work, she simply stood by her for support for days, refusing food.

In his book The Atheist and the Bonobo, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal explains that primates in particular have an amazingly well-developed sense of empathy—not only for their own species, but for others as well. Chimps will refuse rewards that are undeserved, and when one of them loses a child, the others will spend extra time grooming the mourning parent. Bonobos will share food even across tribal lines. Rhesus macaques have been observed catering to the special needs of a mentally disabled macaque toddler. The examples go on and on.

The point is that empathy and compassion are deeply woven into our evolutionary past, so humans do not have a corner on the market where morality is concerned. We share that element with the rest of the animal kingdom. Religious ideologies like Christianity view humans as unique in this respect, but an honest and thorough look at Nature doesn’t corroborate this perspective. Because empathy, compassion, and solidarity predate religion in our evolutionary history, they appear to be its roots, not its fruits.

In the end Keller’s Argument from Morality falls flat on its face because it relies on a misrepresentation of secular ethics, on ignorance of the pre-religious evolutionary roots of human compassion, and on a presumptuous false dichotomy between his own narrow preconceptions of truth and what he misunderstands about what other people really believe.

What’s more, the people he’s talking about are doing a better job of discerning right from wrong, and truth from fiction, than the majority of people in his tradition. His people have failed the Trump test miserably, and from now on all discussion about morality must start with them explaining why. Until they do that, I honestly don’t care to hear anything else they have to say about the subject.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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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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