The Reason Against God: Part 1 image

The Reason Against God: Part 1

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A friend of mine pointed me to a fascinating rebuttal of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. It’s in two parts: a response to the first part of Keller’s book, in which Keller explains why the seven most common objections to Christianity are invalid, and then a critique of the second part, in which Keller presents the positive case for Christian belief. Since Keller’s book has been so influential for apologetics, and since as a theology forum we reviewed it at last year’s Together on a Mission conference, I thought a thoughtful, atheistic response would be worth reading, and engaging with. Hence this post, in two parts.

The reviewer is actually fairly positive about Keller as a person:

The success of Keller’s church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller’s style, I can see why he’s successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there’s no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.

Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn’t completely crazy. That’s certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.

We’ll come on in the second post to his point about evidence. It’s worth noting, though, that the author (who identifies himself as a New Atheist) does concede Keller has shown that “belief in a God isn’t completely crazy”. That must have got him in trouble with the guys at richarddawkins.net.

The main body of the review takes the form of a response to each of Keller’s chapters. So Keller structures his first section by devoting a chapter to each of the seven most common objections to Christian belief – exclusivity, suffering, inflexibility, injustice, hell, science and scripture – and the reviewer responds to each chapter in turn. But the fascinating thing about this is, for all that the author clearly objects to a number of Keller’s points, he agrees with him about the weakness of most of the arguments raised against Christianity.

For instance, Keller’s first chapter responds to the objection, ‘There can’t just be one true religion’, and the author agrees with Keller:

There’s no logical basis for such an argument.

The objection raised and answered in Keller’s second chapter, ‘How could a good God allow suffering?’, is also broadly agreed to be invalid:

This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it.

(The demand for evidence, reiterated here, is completely fair at a general level, but it should be borne in mind that at this point, Keller is simply clearing away objections, rather than making his positive case. Again, we will return to this in the second post.) The author is even more emphatic that Keller is right to debunk the third objection, ‘Christianity is a straitjacket’:

The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of “The Man is keeping you down, Man” statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller’s church in New York. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

On the fourth chapter, ‘The Church is responsible for so much injustice’, the author believes that Christians ought to be better, and that it would be lovely if there was more instantaneous change in Christians’ lives (and I’m sure Keller, and most of us, would agree!), but admits:

I don’t see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn’t seem a good one.

That’s four chapters out of four in which our atheist author agrees, in essence, that the Guardian reader objections Keller is responding to have no real substance to them.

With chapter five, on ‘How could a loving God send people to hell?’, the reviewer has more objections to Keller’s argument. His main problem is primarily that Keller has derived his version of hell from C. S. Lewis rather than Scripture, and that the biblical view of hell is nothing like as compatible with postmodern sensibilities as the Keller-Lewis one:

People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction. Alas, you’ll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment).

Much could, and has, been said on the question of whether the visions of hell presented by Lewis and Keller fits with that presented in Scripture (including our seminar last year). But it is far from clear that language like ‘punishment from God’ and ‘eternal conscious torment’ is incompatible with Keller’s view of handing people over to their willful, sinful, idolatrous passions for eternity. This, of course, is Keller’s point in quoting from Romans 1: in arguably the fullest New Testament passage on the wrath of God, the heart of God’s judgment is the phrase ‘therefore God gave them up.’ He may or may not be right – and many New Testament scholars think he is – but even if he isn’t, the most it shows is that one particular way of understanding final judgment is unbiblical, and not that Christianity is incoherent or that God does not exist.

In his response to chapter six, ‘Science has disproved Christianity’, our reviewer has some concerns about whether theistic evolution might be biblical (which, again, we discussed in our seminar), but broadly agrees that the objection makes no sense:

Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone’s arguing there can’t be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they’re assuming their conclusion. I wouldn’t disagree here … He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can’t be used to show that theistic evolution didn’t happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he’s responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It’s a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn’t really prove anything.

And so to his review of chapter seven, ‘You can’t take the Bible literally’, in which he throws out a few strange comments about the gospels as history (which we will look at in the second post), but then agrees with Keller, once more:

So, Keller argues, rather than saying “bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament … which hadn’t been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.

So in the first part of The Reason for God, Keller responds to the seven most common objections to Christianity. And his atheist reviewer agrees that five of them are either inadequate or just silly; one of them – suffering – does not mean God cannot exist (although we still require evidence for belief in God); and one – hell – may have been responded to in an unbiblical way (although had the reviewer read some more biblical scholarship, he might well have expressed this less confidently.)

In other words, if we give Keller the benefit of the doubt on whether his view of hell and Paul’s are compatible – which I assume The Gospel Coalition do, to take a random example – then none of the seven most common objections to Christianity have any sticking power, when considered carefully. That’s quite a conclusion from an atheist blogger.

We’ll look at the evidence challenge, and part two of Keller’s book, next week.

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