An Initial Response to Timothy Keller's Book, The Reason for God

I have much more to say about this book than what you'll read below. These are my initial thoughts. How would you respond?

Timothy Keller, Pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, claims: “All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.” Writing to skeptics he claims that “The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.” (p. xviii). Faith, according to him, is anything we accept that is unprovable. As such, “All of us have fundamental, unprovable faith commitments that we think are superior to those of others.” (p. 20). Then by defining religion as “a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing,” he goes on to argue that even the most secular pragmatists have an “implicit religion.” Why? Because skeptics, just like religious believers, have “set of faith assumptions about the nature of things.” (p. 15-16). So he argues that skeptics likewise “must doubt your doubts.” [The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. xix].

But even if I grant for the sake of argument that faith is what we have when we cannot prove something, then what method does Keller propose to distinguish between that which is provable from that which is unprovable? Surely he doesn’t mean to say that if we cannot be absolutely certain of something all we have left is blind faith, or that everything that is unprovable has an equal epistemological merit. Christians like him want to claim that skeptics too have beliefs which cannot be proven, and then try to drive a whole truckload of Christian assumptions and beliefs through that small crevice. If that’s what he’s doing then a Mormon or a Muslim could have written the same things he did, and then driven a whole truckload of Mormon or Muslim assumptions and beliefs through that small crevice too. And we would still be in no better position to judge between faiths, even granting that skeptics also have faith assumptions. What I’m proposing with the Outsider Test For Faith is a way to distinguish between what we should accept from what we should not. I’m arguing there isn’t a better test when it comes to religious beliefs. So again, what better method is there?

And even if I grant Keller’s definition of religion for the sake of argument such that everyone has one, including skeptics, then once again what better method is there but The Outsider Test to decide which one of them is correct, if any? When we all apply it to our respective religions we should all be agnostics about all metaphysical claims, all of them. We should all be agnostics. We should all doubt our doubts. Agnostics already do this. This double negative way of expressing things does not lead to faith. It leads to agnosticism.

Keep in mind that the choices in front of us are emphatically NOT between any one particular situated cultural form of Christianity and atheism. The choices are Legion. This fact makes agnosticism the default position. Anyone, and I mean anyone including myself, who leaves the default position and affirms an answer, any answer, has the burden of proof. The denial is the easy part. We deny the beliefs of nearly everyone else, sometimes without even considering them. The hard part is in affirming the correct set of beliefs. I am an atheist because that’s the direction agnosticism pushes me. My atheism is due to the process of elimination. One supernatural entity, being, or force after another was rejected by me leaving the only reasonable answer to be atheism.

But in fact, I do not accept Keller’s definition of faith or of religion. He’s manipulating the debate by using a language game in his favor here. I refuse to play this game. I know as sure as I can know anything that there is a material world, and that I can trust my senses. Therefore I know the scientific method is our only sure way for assessing truth claims. Words like hope and faith and trust just don’t do these things justice. The word faith must be reserved to apply in this context to beliefs about that which cannot be sensed or empirically tested, like ghosts, angels, demons and gods. And likewise the word religion must be based upon beliefs about those kinds of entities if it’s to have any separate meaning at all.

What Keller is doing is descibing a worldview anyway. Everyone has one but that does not make everyone religious. An atheist worldview is not a religion. That is a language game I refuse to accept. If by denying all religions this makes the atheist worldview a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby!


ahswan said...

"That is a language game I refuse to accept."

John, you play this game all of the time (and in fact just did in this post) ... you just want everyone to play by your rules. But why should we?

Words are nothing more than symbols; many words have more than one meaning. When someone defines what they mean by a word in order to make a point, arguing the meaning as opposed to the point being made is just avoidance.

It is even more ridiculous when people who claim to have no faith claim to have the only true definition of faith. Who should get to define terms, the believer or the unbeliever?

stevec said...

I have settled on a definition of faith that goes like this:

To exercise faith is to deliberately attempt to be more certain of something than the available evidence warrants.

A lot of people don't like that definition, because obviously, if you're really trying to find out what's true, to exercise faith as I define it is obviously a rather stupid way to go about it.

Anyway, the point I really came here to make was this:

Notice how desperate they are to show that you the skeptic, you too use faith. It's almost as if they're saying, "Look! You're just as dumb as I am!"

But, in so doing they tacitly and accidentally admit that they know that there's something wrong with faith.

AFter all, they are essentially saying, "Look! You have arrived at your wrong conclusion -- *by faith*."

So. Are we to conclude from this that they think that faith doesn't work? That faith isn't good for finding out what's true? That beliefs held on faith are not on solid ground? That, in forming ones opinions about what's true, and what's not, that faith is something to be guarded against, something to be avoided, something to be rooted out of one's thought processes?

Is that the point they are trying to make?

Wow. For once I can agree with them!

Ah, but of course this is not the point they are trying to make, it is only the point which they accidentally make.

Rev. Ouabache said...

Sounds like the old Bait-and-Switch scam that apologists have been using for years. "Everyone has faith, therefore my faith is the correct one." I can't believe that there are people out there that actually fall for it. Like you said, there is no way that this argument would ever be convincing to an Outsider. This argument is to make the flock feel better about their beliefs.

atimetorend said...

I think you do the right thing in staking out your position in your post when you "grant for the sake of argument" a few points about epistemology. Keller's goal is to get the reader to the point where their main objections to Christianity have been undermined or thrown into doubt so the person will give Christianity a chance. I think it is his analogy from the book if I recall correctly, that a person seeing a thin branch when they are falling down a cliff will grasp for it, trusting it will hold, if it is their only chance. It's like he is crying, "Just give Jesus a try. But do it in faith." I agree with your statement, "He’s manipulating the debate by using a language game in his favor here." You provide an excellent analysis of the problem with his approach.

What I find troubling about that is a lack of evidence for the bible being true, which is necessary to go from undermining one's doubts to "believe in Jesus' substitutionary death on the cross for your forgiveness of eternal sins so you won't go to Hell." He goes through the standard apologetics for that, and in a way that seemed smug to me.

M said...

Tim's book is too short and doesn't go into much debth, which makes it easy to attack. So be careful not to set it up as a strawman. I enjoyed your initial response, and look forward to future posts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stevec,
I agree to a degree with you on your definition of faith. Though it seems to me to be a good definition, I would like to see it take into account the "feeling of certainty".

In my opinion, I think ultimately belief is going to be found to be involuntary, and faith to be something like a commitment to an idea we make based on that.

Russell Bulmer said...

I tried reading this book on holiday, but had to give up about half way through. I like to read from all sides of the argument, for fear of becoming blinded, but this books is just pure claptrap.

I bought the book when I saw he was going to address things like tsunamis that kill hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of babies.

So how does he explain it? He points out that he got cancer, recovered, and is stronger for it.

Personally I don't see how that explains why his omnibenevolent invisible zombie skylord kills so many babies with natural disasters.

In fact it sounds a lot to me like "I'm alright Jack".

Thankfully I also had Karen Armstrong's The Case for God, which was fascinating, even if I didn't agree with her conclusions.

ismellarat said...

If religion is simply a philosophy that happens to give weight to the idea that there might be a supernatural realm, why is it talked about (by both sides) as if it were in some kind of distinct category?

Atheists can't prove their spouses don't intend to kill them in their sleep, even though they give this belief a lot of weight. Like Christians with their belief in the existence of their unprovable God.

And Christians talk as if they have "more than just a philosophy." But I've never seen a religious statement that can't be paralleled in form by a secular, "merely" philosophical one.

So what's with the special categorization of "religion" that both sides seem to engage in? Religion seems to be just as "valid" as any other exercise in guessing about what one doesn't know.

Its propositions should neither be necessarily given more weight, nor dismissed from discussion.

I used to describe myself as a "agnostic religious bigot." I don't know what's going on, yet I do guess at it a lot, and judge (and probably misjudge) people and situations based on it.

stevec said...

Lee Randolph said: "Hi Stevec,
I agree to a degree with you on your definition of faith. Though it seems to me to be a good definition, I would like to see it take into account the "feeling of certainty"."

Well, it does include that very-certain faith, it just also includes less-certain-but-still-too -certain faith.

Too me, the problem is deliberate excessive certainty. It is not only deliberate total certainty which is excessive, it is possible to be deliberately too certain without being totally certain.

So, I deliberately made my definition inclusive of this less-than-total-but-still-too -certain faith.

Jim said...

By faith, all claims are equal and there is no way of determining the superior claim.

Gandolf said...

ismellarat do you really feel you have about the same chance of proving it likely or unlikely your wife will kill you.Through use of actual observable data like through video or tape etc as well.

As you do of collecting the same amount of observable data for faith of gods etc?

I would have thought what evidence we do actually experience of this actual present world would still carry much more weight than that what yet cannot be so easily observed and even recorded by all.

I get real confused by trying to properly understand some of these type arguments for how there is little difference.

Corky said...

Faith is an old worn out excuse for believing biblical nonsense.

Not believing biblical nonsense is not faith, is not kin to faith and does not even resemble faith.

I hate it when biblicists insist that atheism is a religious faith. That is just plain stupid and it makes stupid biblicists look even more stupid than they are.

Generally, Christians have faith in what men of a priestly caste wrote down in ancient times to control their followers.

They don't really have faith in a God. They have faith in what they have been taught by parents, Sunday school teacher and preacher and it's all from ancient hearsay. It's as solid a foundation for life as silly putty.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

John W. Loftus said: “I know as sure as I can know anything that there is a material world, and that I can trust my senses. Therefore I know the scientific method is our only sure way for assessing truth claims.”

I suppose the meaning of the latter statement is “Therefore I know the scientific method is our only sure way for assessing truth claims about the material world”. But even then I don’t see how the latter statement follows from the former. Why the only *sure* way? After all the scientific method is based on the principle of induction which is not sure. And why the *only* way? The fact that the material world exists and that our senses are reliable does not imply that the scientific method is the only one for assessing truth claims about the material world.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

“Faith” means several things so it’s no wonder there is some confusion about this concept.

I think the most basic meaning of “faith” is “religious belief”. On the other hand the word “pistis” found in the Gospels which is also translated as “faith” means “trust”, like when one tells one’s friend “I have faith in you”. When Jesus called His disciples to have faith in God, He certainly did not mean that they should believe in the existence of God, for they all already believed that. Rather He was asking them to trust in God and hence to live in a way which is consistent with the belief that God exists. Some atheists use “faith” as synonymous with “belief without sufficient reason”. This too is a valid meaning of “faith”, and indeed many theists believe in God in that sense. Eric Reitan in his book gives I think a very good explanation of how this goes: For many people it’s not clear from their experience of life whether reality is just a mechanism blindly churning away (with at bottom “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” to use Richard Dawkins’s words) as naturalism has it, or whether reality does have purpose, does have good and evil in it, and stands squarely on the side of what’s good - as theism has it. Given that they don’t see enough evidence to accept either one or the other worldview they choose *on faith* the latter one. All the time we have to make decisions or take a stand without the benefit of sufficient evidence, and given the alternatives I personally find the theistic choice to be the most reasonable one.

ismellarat said...

Gandolf, I was mostly making a plea for more tolerance from atheists, and less special pleading from the religious.

Of course I agree that no one seems to know what's going on.

I could have picked a better example, but doesn't this illustrate that we do indeed still act on that which we don't know, and that this - in and of itself - isn't necessarily a bad thing?

I wasn't saying that, since we don't know A and B, that we should conclude they must therefore be equally likely.