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Review of “The Reason for God” (Part 1)

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In The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller (pastor of the popular Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan) tries to not only preach to the choir, but persuade non-believers to become Christians.  Keller makes a lot of claims in the book, and if someone does not examine whether those claims are actually true, they will probably think that Keller makes a very compelling case for Christianity.

Even though I believe the book fails at persuading thoughtful nonbelievers, it has become quite popular.  It has been the top selling apologetics book an Amazon for months and even reached #7 on the New York Times Best Seller list for non-fiction.  I’ve also spoken to a couple people who highly recommended Keller’s work.

Although I find the book unpersuasive, Keller does make a lot of good points.  He even recognizes that religion is one of the main barriers to world peace.  “Each religion informs its followers that they have “the truth,” and this naturally leads them to feel superior to those with differing beliefs. … Therefore, it is easy for one religious group to stereotype and caricature other ones.  Once this situation exists it can easily spiral down into the marginalization of others or even to active oppression, abuse, or violence against them” (page 4).

I also completely agree with what he says about doubt.  “A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.  Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’.  It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs because you inherited them” (xvii).

This should apply not only to believers, but to atheists as well.  Atheists should be just as willing to consider objections to their beliefs.  As Keller points out, if someone believes that God does not exist because she says that “There can’t just be one true religion,” but does not have good evidence to back up that statement, believing it is an act of faith.

However, Keller errs when he says that “All doubts, however, skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really just a set of alternate beliefs.  You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. … Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith” (xvii).  If I say that I’m going to flip a coin and it will come up heads, you can doubt that it will come up heads without having to believe that it will come up tails.  If you don’t think that we have a good enough idea of the values in the Drake equation to say whether there is intelligent life on other planets, you can doubt someone’s claim that there is extraterrestrial life without believing that there isn’t.  It is possible to simply say, “I don’t know.”

In order to doubt that Christianity is true, you don’t need an argument to show that it is false, just as you can doubt that invisible unicorns exist even without an argument showing that they do not exist.  Of course, many atheists do believe that things like the problem of evil are evidence against Christianity, but even if all those objections were refuted, it would not show that Christianity is true.  There could still be no good reasons to believe in it, just as there are no good reasons to believe in invisible unicorns (as far as I know).

Early in the book, Keller describes his own religious journey.  Growing up in the ‘60’s, he saw “two camps before [him], and there was something radically wrong with both of them.  The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world” (xii).  He was drawn to the former camp, but kept asking himself: “If morality is relative, why isn’t social justice as well?”  I agree with Keller that both of these camps have it wrong, but these are definitely not the only camps.  While Keller ended up in the camp of Christians who care about social justice, I ended up in the camp of atheists who reject moral relativism and care about making the world a better place.

The Reason for God is broken up into two parts.  In the first half, Keller attempts to refute what he sees as some of the incorrect faith beliefs of nonbelievers which stand in the way of them believing in God.  In the second, Keller explains what he sees as sufficient reasons for believing that Christianity is true.

He opens the first half of the book by addressing the claim that “There can’t be just one true religion.”  I agree with him that this is a bad reason for thinking that Christianity must be false.  The diversity of religions does mean it’s unlikely that we happened to be raised into the one true religion and gives us a good reason to examine whether there is evidence for our religious beliefs.  But it does not show that all religious beliefs are false or that all religious beliefs are true any more than a diversity of moral beliefs proves moral nihilism or moral relativism.

In the next chapter, he engages with the biggest objection many non-believers have: the problem of evil.  He rightly points out that “just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one” (23).    I agree with Keller that my own inability to think of good reasons why an omnibenevolent God would permit the Holocaust is no proof that there aren’t any.

Even if horrendous evils are not a logical disproof of God, they at least seem like evidence against the existence of such a God.  This world is far different than what I would expect if the world had been created by a perfect God.  However, a lot has been written on the problem of evil, so I feel I should read more before being confident that the evidential argument from evil can withstand all objections (I’m particularly interested in reading The God Beyond Belief, in which Christian philosopher Nick Trakakis argues that the evidential problem of evil does provide evidence against Christianity).

But even if Keller’s approach, which is known as skeptical theism, is a sufficient answer to the problem of evil, it has consequences that Christians might be unwilling to accept.  Skeptical theism asserts that an inability to think of a morally sufficient reason for God having done something is no evidence that God didn’t have a morally sufficient reason.  As I discussed in previous post, if skeptical theism is true, then our inability to think of a morally sufficient reason for why God would lie to us about heaven existing is no evidence that God didn’t have a morally sufficient reason to lie about heaven.  Accepting skeptical theism means accepting that you have no good reasons to believe that the most basic tenants of the Christian faith are true.

Keller also describes people who went through periods of suffering and became better because of it.  This is a good point.  I’ve had some rough periods in my own life, and I definitely think that temporary suffering can sometimes help change one’s life for the better.  However, it is very hard for me to accept that that the Holocaust made all the Jews better off or that a young girl who is gang raped and then killed benefits from the experience.

Keller then argues that evil is actually a bigger problem for atheism than for theism.  He says that without God, there is no good basis for saying that an action is good or evil.  But here he is guilty of what he just accused atheists of.  He assumes that an inability to think of a good basis for morality outside of God means that there can’t be one.  I, as well as many moral philosophers, do believe that morality can exist without God.  But even if we are all wrong, this wouldn’t prove that God exists, it would instead show that theism would be more desirable than atheism for people who want morality to exist.  Similarly, belief in God is more desirable for people who want to live forever, but this doesn’t prove that God actually exists.

Christianity also has a problem of saying what the basis of morality is.  Many Christians say that it is God’s benevolent nature.  But is his nature good just because it happens to be God’s, or is it good because it is consistent with some principles of moral goodness.  If it’s the former, then if God had thought murder was good and love was evil, murder actually would be good and love would be evil.  It would then be omnibenevolent of God to hate and kill everyone.  In this case, it seems meaningless to call God good.  But if you take the latter approach and say that God’s nature is good because it adheres to principles of moral goodness (such as kindness and fairness), then you still have to give a basis outside of God for those moral principles.  And this is even more problematic for Christians, since it is very hard to come up with an ethical system under which all the things the Bible says that God did would be moral (1 Samuel 15, Numbers 31, and Exodus 11 are particularly problematic).

Not only does atheism provide a better answer to why there’s evil in the world (animals that kill and eat other animals have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes), it is also better able to give a basis for morality.

The Nerd said...
July 15, 2010 at 4:12 PM  

Cool, now I don't have to read it. :)

~~Just Me in T~~ said...
July 15, 2010 at 9:58 PM  

I admit I have not read the book, so thanks for your review:

As a Christian I am often challenged on why “Your Good God causes bad things to happen to people?”

It’'s all well and good for me to right now feel assured that it is not God who is causing these things to happen. My faith is strong today. That might sound very strange limiting “strong faith” to ‘today’ – what about tomorrow, next week, five years from now?


WAR_ON_ERROR said...
July 15, 2010 at 11:40 PM  

I wonder if there is a psychological term for when people are too intimidated by something to accept ignorance as an option? The lynch pin to so many theistic ways of thinking seems to be that if you pull that mental block out, the entire thing comes crashing down. I wonder if that's a concept of threat management or something. Dunno.

Inquiring Infidel said...
July 22, 2010 at 8:09 PM  

Thanks for your comment ~~Just Me in T~~. I think some evil might be explainable, but I think that it's very hard to explain why a God, who could have set up nature however he wanted, would allow so much natural evil.

I can understand having strong faith in God despite the problem of evil. Even if it is some evidence against God, there might be stronger evidence for him. But I think that what most believers think is evidence for God actually isn't.

Good luck in your search for truth.

Grimsqueaker said...
September 30, 2010 at 11:08 PM  

Any chance of fleshing this out into a fully fledged section-by-section refutation of this book? I read it last night and it's bollocks, but I would like to have an essay to send back to the people who gave it to me and I don't have time to write one myself. :) I will be sending this post to them though, thanks for that! :)

Anonymous said...
February 9, 2011 at 7:20 PM  

I am late to your post, but I have been thinking about these things. In regards to the last portion of your review, about animals killing, I have been troubled with a related question: how does the existence of empathy and unselfish behavior fit with the idea of survival of the fittest? I cannot think of a good reason why unselfishness would "evolve." But, as you pointed out, just because we cannot think of a good reason, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I'd still be interested in your thoughts on this. - J

kadir karabaş said...
February 22, 2013 at 10:12 PM  
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Steven said...
May 29, 2013 at 6:55 AM  

"Not only does atheism provide a better answer to why there’s evil in the world (animals that kill and eat other animals have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes), it is also better able to give a basis for morality."

I find that intriguing, as it would imply that as animals (which is all we are, right?) then the statement applies to us. Yes, we're social animals, but the fact remains there are going to plenty of examples where treating one's neighbour poorly (for example, spreading lies about a colleague at work, so as to advance your own promotion; cheating on your spouse, as Dawkins advocated in his recent essay) is going to benefit you. I think the most logical conclusion for atheism is *no morality exists*. Hanging onto the coat tails of the Judeo-Christian worldview just makes us look desperate.

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