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Chapters Two and Three - An Atheist Reads The Reason for God 
Thursday, January 9th, 2014 | 07:54 am [reason for god, video, vlog]
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An Atheist Reads The Reason for God
Chapters Two and Three

Chapter Two: How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?


  • The problem of evil, then. Evil and suffering in the world call into question the very existence of God for many, while others simply see God’s tolerance of evil as reason to deny him their trust, not to mention their love and worship.

  • Keller brings up the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed a quarter of a million people and spread devastation across a significant portion of the planet. In the aftermath of this tragedy, people openly wondered where God had been, and how one could believe in a good and loving God when faced with such horror. But, Keller argues, the existence of evil and suffering is not evidence against God.

  • Keller’s argument: the evil and suffering in the world may seem pointless to us. But just because we can’t imagine a good reason for God to allow such things to happen doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

  • “Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order.” (Timothy Keller, THE REASON FOR GOD, Chapter Two)

    • Since he chides skeptics for assuming there isn’t a good answer to why a benevolent God would allow evil and suffering, one might ask where Keller got the idea that there is such an answer. But I think we know already.


  • Keller cites Alvin Plantinga and his “no-see-um” illustration.

  • “If you look into your pup tent for a St. Bernard, and you don’t see one, it is reasonable to assume that there is no St. Bernard in your tent. But if you look into your pup tent for a ‘no-see-um’ (an extremely small insect with a bite out of all proportion to its size) and you don’t see any, it is not reasonable to assume they aren’t there. Because, after all, no one can see ‘em.” (Keller)

  • The point being, the good reasons for why a benevolent God tolerates evil might be there, but be more like no-see-ums than like St. Bernards. And why wouldn’t they be?

    • The obvious observation to make here is that no-see-ums, also known as biting midges, are real things and actually quite detectable to human senses — even before they bite you, if you know what you’re looking for. If you check your pup tent for no-see-ums and you don’t find any, it’s actually quite reasonable to conclude they aren’t there, assuming you’ve looked properly. The real question is, why are the likes of Keller and Plantinga insisting that there are no-see-ums in our pup tent to begin with? And again, I think we already know the answer to that question.


  • Keller writes about the Biblical story of Joseph, how his brothers sold him into slavery and he suffered in bondage for years, despite praying to God for help. But in the long run it all worked out for Joseph, because eventually he became a great leader. If his character hadn’t been tempered by those years of suffering and hardship, he might not have been so well suited for his eventual role.

  • Keller compares the story of Joseph to the sorts of painful experiences many people survive, including his own bout with cancer, his wife’s suffering from Crohn’s disease, and a man he once knew who was nearly blind after being shot in the face.

  • Though most wouldn’t say they are grateful for the tragedies they endured, they probably would say they are grateful for the strength they gained and the lessons they learned from the experience.

  • “With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life.” (Keller)

    • This seems to me like nothing more than stating the obvious: we are shaped by our experiences. Some of us are able to survive negative experiences and find ourselves changed by those experiences in positive ways. We’re stronger, we’re smarter, we’re more humble, more sensitive, we’re aware of things that we weren’t aware of before. But that doesn’t mean there was a good reason for horrible things to happen to us. It means shit happened and we dealt with it.


  • “If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways.” (Keller)

    • No, indeed you can’t. If you have a God so great and so transcendent as to surpass human understanding (as Christians often describe their God), then what reason do you have to think this is a good God? I know the Bible declares that God is good (and I’ll talk a bit more about that later), but if God is truly so far beyond us, if he can have reasons for doing things that we can never hope to comprehend, why should we trust what he reveals to us about himself in the Bible? Could he not have undetectable methods of deceiving us, and his own reasons for doing so that are unknowable to us? We have no frame of reference in which to judge this God. If his ways are truly not our ways, then we have no reason to assume that we know anything about him. There’s no way we could ever trust such a God, no way such a God could ever establish that what he had revealed to us as the truth was actually the truth. Either God plays by our rules or he doesn’t. Either God is comprehensible to us, or he’s not. You can’t have it both ways.

    • Speaking of having it both ways, did you catch how, in the midst of telling us that God is great enough to have a reason for allowing evil that we can’t know, Keller told us the reason? Or at least, one of the reasons: that suffering builds character. I’ve never been very impressed by this argument. God allows us to suffer because it makes us better people. Too bad, then, that we are not all Josephs — we don’t all endure and rise above and achieve greatness, tempered by the brutal circumstances from which we emerged. A lot of us just experience agony without relief or redemption. Not everyone gets to rebuild their ruined life. A lot of us just struggle on in the ruins until we succumb to despair or exhaustion and die. Life isn’t a drama and we don’t all get satisfying character arcs. Many of us are not strengthened or purified by our suffering; we’re destroyed by it.

    • And suppose you did suffer, and suppose your suffering came to an end, and then you met someone who told you he had watched the entirety of your suffering. He had watched it all without intervening — he had the power to intervene and to end your suffering at any time, and he did nothing. And he had done this for your own good, because he knew it would make you a stronger, better person. Would your reaction be to thank this person? Would you regard him as a good person? Would you feel compelled to defend him and make excuses for his behavior if other people questioned his benevolence?


  • Keller cites C.S. Lewis and his argument that the existence of evil, and our natural revulsion at it, should actually be considered evidence in favor of a benevolent God.

  • “On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust? The nonbeliever in God doesn’t have a good basis for being outraged at injustice, which, as Lewis points out, was the reason for objecting to God in the first place.” (Keller)

    • The moral argument, in other words. “You’re offended by the evil God allows — ah, but how do you judge what’s evil in the first place? Checkmate, atheist!”

    • To answer Keller’s question: an atheist might (and I say might because there isn’t a single code of ethics atheists are obliged to follow) judge something to be wrong, unfair, or unjust on the basis of empathy, of a feeling of solidarity with his fellow humans — or perhaps more broadly, his fellow creatures. An atheist might be outraged at a perceived injustice because he wouldn’t wish to find himself or someone he cares about in a similar situation, or because he cares about the overall welfare of his community and believes no society can thrive while it tolerates injustice and unfair treatment of some of its members.

    • Keller (and Lewis) are also assuming that if there is an objective standard of morality, it must come from the God they believe in. Personally, I think human morality is ultimately of human origin and that there are no ultimately objective standards and that things are good or bad because we have defined them as such. But not every atheist agrees with me. Some people who don’t believe in God believe in objective moral standards that exist apart from us.

    • Regardless of where we think they come from, atheists have moral standards the same as everyone else. And it is those very standards to which we appeal when we look at the suffering in the world and decide that the concept of an all-powerful and benevolent God Christians are always talking about doesn’t make sense. We are judging God, as Christians describe him, according to our standard of how a powerful person ought to respond to suffering and injustice, and finding that he comes up well short. That’s not evidence for the god; that’s evidence for the standard.


  • Keller addresses those who suffer without apparent positive result. What about the clouds that have no silver lining? Keller advises that in these cases, while Christianity may not be able to explain why such horrible things were allowed to happen, it can help us to face the pain with hope and courage.

  • Keller talks about how Jesus suffered and was crucified, and how he experienced great physical and emotional pain on the way to his death. Many later martyrs faced their deaths with much more outward bravery than Jesus displays in the gospels. This, Keller says, is because Jesus’s sufferings were so much more inconceivable than anything suffered by the martyrs or anyone else. The worst part of the suffering of Christ was experiencing the total separation from God that is the punishment for all sinners. On the cross, Jesus experienced suffering and rejection beyond all human experience.

  • “So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth. We can know that God is truly Immanuel — God with us — even in our worst sufferings.” (Keller)

    • Except we can’t know that, because there’s no evidence that it’s anything other than a story people tell. One of the only consolations for those who must endure suffering that they’re powerless to stop is to know that they aren’t alone, that there are others who understand what they’re doing through. It’s less consoling, though, when the person who is with you in your suffering is also the person who has the power to end that suffering at any time and doesn’t.

    • The fact that God has supposedly suffered himself doesn’t make it any better — it actually makes it worse. To allow a person to needlessly suffer when you yourself have first-hand experience of their agony is unconscionable to me.

    • But there I go assuming that it’s needless again! I really need to abandon that baseless faith position that God doesn’t have a reason for allowing suffering, and instead embrace the position that God must have some reason, even though that position is equally baseless and faith-based.


  • Finally, Keller gets around to talking about the redemption believers can have through Christ. Christianity tells us that, for those who have accepted Christ, their suffering is not in vain. They have a new heaven and a new earth waiting for them, a paradise, a perfected world to look forward to.

  • “The Biblical view of things is resurrection — not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.” (Keller)

    • It was smart on Keller’s part to put this bit at the end of the chapter. You don’t want to open with the deranged wish-thinking — it makes you look weak. Though opening with “God’s reasons for allowing suffering are beyond our understanding!” and then spending the rest of the chapter discussing several of those reasons might not have been the best way to go, either. Ah well, what’re you gonna do?

    • This last bit, the “it’ll all work out fine in the end” bit, troubles me even more than the rest of this chapter, because I see it as an unserious attempt to solve a deeply serious problem. How do we make sense of suffering in the world? What do we say to a mother whose child drowned in a flood? What do we say to a man who lies in a hospital bed, dying in agony from cancer? How do we make sense of death and destruction that has happened for no sensible reason? These are serious, unavoidable questions that we all have to face at some point. Eventually, we will all be the person who suffers the loss, or be faced with the responsibility of comforting that person. What should we do? What should say?

    • To say, “well, all of this will eventually work for the good” in the absence of any evidence suggesting that is actually true is cowardly, and childish, and ignorant, and cruel. To say “all this evil and suffering will be defeated someday and then we’ll all live forever in happiness and peace” is to deny that there’s even anything to worry about. It’s a tacit admission that we have nothing useful to say, no idea what we can do to help, so let’s all just imagine things are actually okay.

    • I’m not saying there are easy, satisfying answers to any of those questions. I’m not saying there is a right thing to do in difficult situations. I am saying that to pretend there are answers when we don’t know that there are, or worse yet to pretend that we know what those answers are, is arrogant and foolish and wrong.

    • Keller focuses on the evils we experience and hear about in our everyday lives for this chapter. And typically that has been the focus when people consider the problem of evil. How can a good God tolerate the evil we see in the world? But I think a much better question is, “How could a good God do the evil things he does in the Bible?” It’s one thing to excuse God for tolerating the suffering that befalls others as a result of natural disasters or human violence. It’s quite another to excuse God for the horrific crimes he himself commits or commands others to commit in the Old Testament. (There are divinely wrought evils in the New Testament, as well, particularly the wicked proposition of salvation through the scapegoating of Jesus, but I’ve been there before and I’ll get there again, eventually.)

    • Before we ask Christians to explain how a good God could allow people to drown in a flood, maybe we should ask them to explain how a good God could personally cause the drowning of virtually the entire population of Earth. Or kill the firstborn infants of Egypt. Or order his followers to wage a genocidal war against another tribe.

    • The answers typically proposed to these questions aren’t that different from those Keller offers in this chapter — his ways are not our ways, any suffering on this world is redeemed by the paradise waiting in the next, etc. But to me, the best answer is the same one I gave at the end of the last video: there’s no problem reconciling a benevolent God with the suffering we find in the Bible, or in the world in general, because there’s no reason to think that God, or any other god, benevolent or otherwise, exists in the first place.



Chapter Three: Christianity Is a Straitjacket


  • Keller opens the chapter this way:

  • “Is a belief in absolute truth the enemy of freedom? Most people I’ve met in New York City believe that it is. Christianity names some beliefs ‘heresy’ and some practices ‘immoral.’ It bars from its community those who transgress its doctrinal and moral boundaries. This seems to contemporary observers to endanger civic freedom, because it divides rather than unites our population.” (Keller, Chapter Three)

    • It only endangers civic freedom to the extent that Christians are successful in forcing people outside their church to stay within their boundaries. Christians and members of other religious communities should be free to draw whatever doctrinal and moral boundaries they want, so long as they don’t break the law or insist that those outside their communities be bound by their doctrines and morality.


  • Keller counters this claim that Christianity is an enemy of community and even of freedom itself by arguing that it is based on misunderstandings of the concepts of truth, community, Christianity, and liberty.

  • First, truth. Keller argues that the concept of truth held by many modern people is influenced by Michel Foucault (Foo-ko), who connected truth with power — someone who makes a truth claim is trying to control other people. But this is untenable because if all truth-claims are power plays, then so is the claim that all truth-claims are power plays.

    • Roadrunner tactic!


  • Likewise, if you claim, as Freud did, that all truth claims about God are projections of your own guilt and insecurity, then that claim itself must also be evidence of guilt and insecurity.

    • Double roadrunner tactic!


  • The inevitable conclusion, Keller says, is that some truth claims must be true — not power-plays, not projections, but actually true. Otherwise, the very concept of truth collapses in inconsistency and contradiction.

    • I might say, so what if it does? Not to treat the matter too lightly, because I think it’s an important and fascinating subject, but why does Keller assume that just because a concept of truth seems to become inconsistent when taken to an absurd extreme, it is an invalid way of conceiving truth?

    • My own concept of truth is pretty mundane and empirical. If it agrees with reality, it’s true. If it contradicts reality, it’s false. But even this concept of truth gets complicated when we zoom in close enough. How do we determine what corresponds to reality and what doesn’t? Sometimes it seems obvious, sometimes not so much. And no matter how we try to argue our way out, we are all imprisoned inescapably by our senses. Ultimately even reason itself can be shown to be circular. And how are we to make judgments about truth claims if not by our reason?

    • The point is, Keller can reject modern concepts of truth popularized by Foucault or Nietzsche or Freud because he finds them ultimately inconsistent and self-defeating if he wants, but let’s at least be honest enough to admit that everything we have learned through our senses and understood through our reason can be reduced to absurdity in just the same way. Truth, reason, perception — these are complicated things, no matter how simple we try to make them, and in a discussion like this it’s no use to pretend otherwise.

    • The problem with Christianity’s truth claims isn’t that they’re absolute. It’s that there are no good reasons to accept them as being any more true than the truth claims of any other religion.


  • Keller moves on to community. Christianity is charged with being contrary to the spirit of community because it requires Christians to hold certain beliefs and to abide by certain moral standards. But this uniformity of belief and morality is not necessary for a strong community, critics supposedly say. All that is needed is respect for privacy and individual rights, and equal opportunities for education, jobs, and participation in the political process.

  • Keller calls this view of the community as a “liberal democracy” simplistic.

  • “Every human community holds in common some beliefs that necessarily create boundaries, including some people and excluding others from its circle.” (Keller)

    • And Keller is right, of course. All communities, no matter how pluralistic and inclusive, have some standards and shared values that define them as a community, however broadly. He goes on to say that we should criticize Christians who condemn unbelievers and treat them ungraciously, but not those who merely maintain standards in accordance with their beliefs. But as he did when he was writing about truth a moment ago, Keller (either innocently or willfully) ignores the far more common objection: most critics of Christianity who criticize it for being intolerant and exclusive aren’t complaining about the presence of standards, but rather about the standards that are present. (See that? I can spin bullshit rhetoric with the best of ‘em.) They also criticize the effort of many Christians to impose their standards on the whole of society, as I mentioned before.


  • Keller then argues that Christianity is not a cultural straitjacket. It does not, as critics allege, forcibly homogenize people from diverse backgrounds. Instead, Keller claims, Christianity has shown itself to be more adaptive of diverse cultures than secularism.

  • Keller compares Christianity to other world religions. The Islamic population remains largely centered in the Middle East where that religion originate. Likewise, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism have their demographic centers in the parts of the world where they first arose. Christianity, on the other hand, has gone from a Jewish-dominated Middle Eastern religion, to a Hellenistic Mediterranean religion, to a largely Northern European religion, to a largely western European and North American religion, to today when most Christians in the world live in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, far from the region where Christianity originated.

    • That’s not due to the inclusivity of Christianity, Tim. That’s due to something called “conquest.” Colonialism. It’s the same reason English and Spanish are such commonly spoken languages. I wonder, if you could travel back in time and ask the indigenous people of North and South America who were told by European Christians what to believe, how to dress, by what standard they ought to conduct themselves, what they thought of Christianity, would they describe it as respecting, preserving, and adapting to their native culture? I wonder what they would say — the ones who were forcibly converted rather than killed, of course.

    • Keller seems to think that the fact that the population center of Christianity has shifted so many times throughout its history is indicative of what an adaptable and inclusive faith it is. I think it’s actually indicative of the fact that it was the official religion of most of Europe during an era of aggressive colonial expansion.


  • Keller touts the diversity of his own church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Manhattan. His church embraces urban life, including the arts, racial diversity, and efforts to ensure social justice for all people.

    • All of which is great. I applaud Keller for it. Good on you for leading such an inclusive, tolerant, community-minded church, Timothy Keller. Good on you.

    • Of course, my applause is muted somewhat by how much space Keller devotes to shamelessly tooting his own horn. I had to tap my Kindle five times before he finally got on to something else. “People have been shocked at how fast my church grew! They all ask what the secret is, why so many thousands of people are flocking to my church! My church is so diverse, all different kinds of people come to it, including John DeLorean (well, not anymore, I guess), and a speechwriter for a Republican presidential candidate, and a songwriter for Madonna! And this one time, a man from the Southern U.S. visited my church and wanted to know how we attracted all these people without flashy presentations and hip, modern music. And I said it was because my church wasn’t pompous and full of itself like other churches! The people who come to my church are intelligent, sensitive, and most of all — humble!”

    • I’m paraphrasing, of course, to make Keller sound like even more of an asshole than he comes across as in the book, but those of you who are following along with me will note that I didn’t have to change all that much.


  • Now on to the subject of freedom. Freedom (unlike truth, apparently) isn’t simple, Keller says. Sometimes, as in the case of a musically inclined person who submits him- or herself to years of piano lessons, restriction of freedom can lead to liberation.

  • “In many areas of life, freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. . . . Instead of insisting on freedom to create spiritual reality, shouldn’t we be seeking to discover it and disciplining ourselves to live according to it?” (Keller)

    • Tell you what: when you discover the tiniest trace of verifiable spiritual reality, you let me know, okay?


  • Keller takes this concept of liberating restrictions into the realm of morality:

  • “The popular concept — that we should each determine our own morality — is based on the belief that the spiritual realm is nothing at all like the rest of the world.” (Keller)

    • a) No, it isn’t; and b) is it really that popular of a concept? I believe morality is a human invention, but that doesn’t mean that I think we as individuals do, or should, determine our own morality. Moral standards exist outside ourselves as individuals. I just don’t think there is some kind of objective moral reality that exists apart from the moral concepts invented by us (and by other moral beings, whoever they might be). I do play a role in determining my morality — I make moral judgments, I accept certain standards and reject others. But that’s no different than what anyone else does, whatever their religious beliefs, so far as I can tell.


  • So let’s just assume, since Keller does, that there is a moral-spiritual reality, and that in order to thrive we must acknowledge this reality. What is it?

  • “Love. Love is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.” (Keller)

    • Perhaps. But in what way is love a moral-spiritual reality?


  • Keller describes a healthy love relationship, how those involved must each lose some independence. If only one party does all the sacrificing for the other, then the relationship will not be healthy for both. How, then, can a relationship with God be anything but exploitative and dehumanizing?

  • Easy: It’s not one-way. God has adjusted to us.

  • “In the most profound way, God has said to us, in Christ, ‘I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you though it means a sacrifice for me.’” (Keller)

    • “I’ll do this once, through a bloody act of human sacrifice, and I’ll leave behind no evidence to assure future generations that I’ve done it, just the contradictory second- and third-hand (at best) accounts of a few members of my cult, which won’t actually be written down until decades after the fact. Also, not everyone will benefit from this adjustment — only those who not only hear about it and believe that it actually happened on the basis of that terribly unpersuasive non-evidence, but also implicate themselves in the sacrifice by accepting that it was done in their name. Everyone who doesn’t do that will suffer unimaginable torments after they die — forever. Oh, and one more thing, the sacrifice is temporary at best and mostly just ceremonial, since I was never actually dead from my perspective, my sufferings amounted to a momentary inconvenience in the existence of an eternal, all-powerful God, and I ultimately lost nothing. So yeah, can you believe I did all that for you? And all I ask in return is an eternity of worship and unswerving obedience. Good deal, right?”



Next:

Chapter Four: The Church Is Responsible for So Much Injustice

Chapter Five: How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
Comments 
Saturday, January 11th, 2014 | 08:02 am (UTC) - Here we go...
Anonymous
And now it gets good...
Its down the rabbit hole time, and a lot of weird pseudo-philosophy and pseudo-science being used to back up the apologetics... (yet no mention of M-Theory or different dimensions or incessant light/dark metaphors).

I don't get the semantics; its a discussion of how cognitive dissonance would happen, and how having a contradictory deity can't be... aren't they, by discussing all of this stuff, delimiting the abilities of the said deity?

8:00-9:00
Your atheism steve I would argue is different to nihilism though; its inclusive and optimistic/pragmatic (and hence, more realist).

I mean, come on, check out the state of the universe - it might go on forever or on a huge cycle; and matter isn't destroyed- only changed.

I'd say you're more an Athiest-Constructivist, and I don't know what your exact complete worldview is at any time, but surely theres more viewpoints there too that combine to make your actual worldview.
Part of that is ethics vs morality --- codes of agreed social contracts vs slippery slopes of 'right and wrong' as defined externally and via consensus.
Ethics is some other kind of externally agreed justice --- its not this machiavellian circular infinite regress that Keller suggests it is... Ethics isn't about utility entirely - amoral and unethical persons might "change the rules as they go along" ... I think thats more what critics and commentators like Keller are talking about, that ultra minority.

Moral systems seem prone to retributive justice - an 'eye for an eye' as against the claimed higher 'turn the other cheek' passive-aggressive morality the author claims and advocates.

11:06ish -- cancer, nice foible hehehe, an apropos freudian slip? hehehe...

17:36
A resurrection definition, or as close as Keller comes to an etymology --- it sounds almost like conservativism/idealism from politics --- an attempt at establishing a state of being that was in the past and simultaneously is what we want to ideally be.

@20:00-20:40.
you sound much like Rob Ingersoll/Betrand Russel there Steve, and well said sir!

@23:33
Great point. But then, hardcore apologetics cry "Secularist!" and say the nation is founded on the elite, and the elite were of certain beliefs... therefore they say there ought not to be a separation of religion and state, and that the political system ought to reflect 'the will of the people' (proportional representation yada yada)...
Which, on the numbers, oughta be apathetic and secular anyway.

@30;34
Which first nations peoples are you referring to there steve? Mayan, Inca, Aztec etc of south america?
The Iroquois, Cherokee, Apache, and north americans?
See, the spanish inquisition is one that Roman Catholics of the present strongly distance themselves from... same with the potato famine in europe... the german church and catholic support of WWII etc...

@32:50-
priceless! Player got played: hasn't Keller heard of the prisoners dilemma or neoliberalism --- "rational choosey, self-interested people seek to improve themselves". People flocked there, because they wanted to be part of the incrowd, they wanted to benefit themselves, and they balance the rewards against the tithes...

Anywho, great video,
and I can tell this is going to get better towards the later chapters!
Great work steve!
I'd like to hear from some different faith traditions on the writings of this book; some hare krishnahs, some sikhs, some buddhists, some brahmins... some Jainists. Even some druids and wiccans...
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