An Atheist Reads The Reason for God
Chapters Four and Five
Chapter Four: The Church Is Responsible for So Much Injustice
Keller begins by telling the story of Mark Lilla, a University of Chicago professor who once wrote of how he left Christianity after having a born-again experience as a teenager. Lilla had been put off by the rigid dogmatism of the church he had fallen in with. Watching how these Christians wielded the Bible as an instrument to control others led Lilla to question the truth of holy scripture for the first time.
Keller writes that many critics of Christianity, despite how outwardly intellectual their objections may be, have a history of personal disappointment with the faith and the faithful, and that these experiences had something to do with shaping their negative attitudes toward Christianity.
“If you have known many wise, loving, kind, and insightful Christians over the years and if you have seen churches that are devout in belief yet civic-minded and generous, you will find the intellectual case for Christianity much more plausible.” (Timothy Keller, THE REASON FOR GOD, Chapter Four)
That all depends on how serious you are about your intellectual objections, though, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that emotions and personal experience doesn’t play a role. We aren’t robots. But if you reject Christianity on truly logical, factual, intellectual grounds, I don’t see how knowing a good number of kind-hearted, community-minded Christians is going to make that big of a difference. Nor do I see any reason it should. I’ve been fortunate enough to know many Christians who were kind, generous, intelligent, moral, generally wonderful people. I would never want to diminish the value of those qualities. But I still think their religious beliefs are ridiculous.
“Mark Lilla’s determination that ‘the Bible might be wrong’ was not a pure act of philosophical reflection. He was resisting the way that a particular person, in the name of Christianity, was trying to exercise power over him.” (Keller)
Lilla’s first suspicion that the Bible might not be what his then-fellow-Christians said it was may have been triggered by an emotional response to how some of those Christians were behaving, but that doesn’t mean Lilla’s objections to Christianity never progressed beyond that point. Perhaps the problem (as Keller sees it) of Christians developing serious objections to their faith isn’t due to dogmatic churches or misbehaving members, but to the fact that the faith itself is so difficult to justify through reason and evidence.
First: Character flaws. If Christianity is true and its teachings lead to positive outcomes, why do so many Christians seem to come up short in terms of their own character and behavior? And why are there so many non-religious people who seem to be living more morally upstanding lives than the Christians?
The problem here, Keller says, is another misunderstanding of Christianity. The Bible teaches that every act of kindness or justice is ultimately from God, whether that act is performed by a Christian or not. He imparts gifts through his grace to everyone.
In addition to God’s indiscriminately distributed grace, Christianity also teaches that humans are morally inferior and can only attain salvation by calling on God. Keller quotes a saying, “the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”
Finally, Keller accounts for the perceived poorer character of many Christians by observing that many people turn to God after enduring difficult circumstances, since such people are more likely to recognize a need for God in their lives.
In discussing character flaws, Keller seems to be focusing on people who are undeniably troubled – people with anger issues, or who struggle with addiction, or who have backgrounds that include some form of abuse. But those aren’t the sort of things I would bring up if I were asked to name some common Christian traits that I find off-putting. And, judging by Keller’s description, they aren’t the sort of character flaws that compelled Mark Lilla to re-examine his faith, either.
What about Christians who willfully misrepresent scientific facts? What about Christians who taunt and shame women who have abortions? What about Christians who would deny same-sex couples the right to marry or adopt children? What about the victim-playing in which many American evangelicals indulge at the mildest provocation? The persecution complexes? The self-centered insistence that their interests always be considered before those of other groups? The attempts to deform the law into an instrument by which they can impose the standards of their church on those outside it? I think those are much more typical of what we, the non-believers, find unappealing about the character of many Christians.
Next: Religion and Violence. Is Christopher Hitchens right when he writes, in God Is Not Great, that religion is a multiplier of tribalism and hatred? Keller says he is. Keller admits that religion elevates cultural difference to the level of cosmic struggle, and that Christian nations in particular have tolerated and even institutionalized violence and oppression. He also cites the totalitarian governments that ruled for a time in parts of the world influenced by Shintoism, Hinduism, and Islam.
Keller counters this view by arguing that the regimes of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Cambodia that originated in the 20th century rejected organized religion, and were actually following in a tradition that began with the French Revolution, which Keller points out was a secular, nominally rational movement.
“Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it. In the twentieth century, however, violence has been inspired as much by secularism as by moral absolutism. Societies that have rid themselves of all religion have been just as oppressive as those steeped in it.” (Keller)
And I agree with him on that. I also think that if we were to magically rid ourselves of all religious superstitions tomorrow, we’d find other shit to fight about before too much more time had passed. But that doesn’t get religion off the hook. Keller realizes this, which is why the best he can do is to suggest that religious societies aren’t any worse than secular societies in this regard. But that argument would have a bit more oomph to it if the supposedly secular regimes he cited as examples were not theocracies in disguise. I mentioned previously in this series that while Stalin and Hitler, to name the two most infamous examples, may have taken steps to oppress and undermine traditional religions, they replaced them with religions of their own making – complete with strictly controlled, idealized history and self-consciously heroic imagery that encouraged worship of the leader and obedience to the state.
It may not be a factual refutation of those beliefs, since a belief can encourage negative, destructive outcomes and still nonetheless be true. But if the violence and warfare of a particular society can be shown to be tied to those prevailing beliefs, then doesn’t that at least suggest that those beliefs are bad? That they aren’t helpful? That was Hitchens’s point in that chapter of God Is Not Great – not that the historically violent and war-like character of Christian societies showed Christian beliefs to be false (there are lots of other reasons to think that), but that religion in general has not been a positive influence on our species. When you condition millions of people across multiple generations to unquestioningly accept false or unsupported claims, it can sometimes bring about breathtakingly horrible results. Go figure.
Keller describes a spectrum of Christianity, with nominal Christians at one end and fanatical Christians at the other, then argues that this view is part of the problem, since it encourages those who are the most fervently devoted to the faith to look down on the less religious.
Keller suggests that the solution to fanaticism is to come to understand Christianity in terms of salvation through Christ – “salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us”. This belief in salvation that has not been earned but given by God’s grace, Keller says, is humbling.
“The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed to it enough. . . . It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough.” (Keller)
Note that Keller’s idea to address the problem of fanatical Christians is for them to practice his version of Christianity. This seems to be his preferred solution to all of Christianity’s problems, but it’s especially silly here. On the previous page he criticized viewing Christianity as a spectrum, because those who think they’ve got it right will eventually begin to feel negatively about those they think have got it wrong. But what’s Keller doing here? Telling fanatical Christians that they’ve got it wrong – they aren’t Christian enough – and that he’s got it right.
Committing further to his “fanatics just aren’t Christian enough” argument, Keller writes of how a fuller understanding of the Bible should discourage the type of behavior and attitudes we associate with religious fanaticism. In the gospels, Keller says, Jesus criticizes religious fanaticism and elitism, condemns legalism and self-righteousness, and is eventually condemned to death by the religious establishment.
Additionally, Jesus’s criticism of religious intolerance belongs to a pattern of such thought in the Bible that reaches back to the Old Testament and the prophet Isaiah, who called out those who practiced their religion conspicuously but continued to mistreat and neglect other people.
It’s to Keller’s credit, I suppose, that these are the sorts of ideals he derives from the Bible. But isn’t it possible to derive the more intolerant ideals of fanatics from that same Bible? Afterall, the same Jesus who preaches love and forgiveness and charity also behaves like an entitled megalomaniac and demands total devotion from his closest followers, including the abandonment of their families and livelihoods. And the same God who inspired Isaiah to speak out against false piety and the abuse of the poor by the powerful also personally committed acts of horrifying genocide whenever it suited him, commanded his chosen people to do the same, and imposed exactly the sort of intrusive totalitarian laws that Keller says modern zealots would be better off avoiding. His comparatively gentle, community-minded Christianity is no more genuinely Biblical than the harsher, stricter version practiced by the fanatics.
The problem, Keller says, isn’t with the practice of religion, but with the use of religion to gain power over others. The solution is to recognize and accept that salvation comes only through God’s grace, not as a result of personal goodness or accomplishment. If we accept that it doesn’t make any difference to God how religious we appear, we’ll be less likely to think and behave like fanatics, and more humble and selfless and concerned for others.
“Many criticize the church for being power-hungry and self-regarding, but there are many cultures in which the drive for power and respect is considered a good. Where, then, did we get this list of virtues by which we can discern the church’s sins . . . ? We actually got it from within the Christian faith.” (Keller)
“[I]magine seeing a little old lady coming down the street at night carrying a big purse. Why not just knock her over and take the purse and its money? The answer of an honor-shame culture is that you do not take her purse, because if you pick on the weak you would be a despicable person. No one would respect you and you would not respect yourself. That ethic, of course, is self-regarding. You are focused on how the action will affect your honor and reputation. There is, however, another train of thought to take. You may imagine how much it would hurt to be mugged, and how the loss of money might harm people who depend on her. So you don’t take the money because you want the best for her and for her dependents. This is an other-regarding ethic; you are thinking completely about her.” (Keller)
That’s also known as “empathy,” and I hate to break it to Keller, but it’s not a quality that’s unique or even particular to Christianity. In fact, if you look close enough I think you’ll even find it present within that first example of the self-centered ethic of the honor-shame culture. Afterall, why is it despicable to take advantage of the weak? The culture might emphasize the concept of personal honor and strength over empathy for others, but if that empathy weren’t there, why would it be considered dishonorable to mistreat the weak?
Sommerville would put this thought experiment to students, then explain how that other-regarding ethic was Christian in nature, which he illustrated by the example of Christian missionaries transforming honor-shame cultures into cultures based around the ideas of humility and service.
“What is the answer, then, to the very fair and devastating criticisms of the record of the Christian church? The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction.” (Keller)
This is one of the more insidious tactics Keller employs in the book, and it’s very unbecoming of a guy who tries so hard to appear open and reasonable. The way he describes it, Christianity is something fundamental and necessary and inescapable. Even non-Christians are dependent on it, even when we’re criticizing it! It’s similar to how he tried to resolve the conflict between religion and skepticism of religion by just claiming it was all religion. It’s worse this time, though, because he’s not merely saying that the values to which we appeal to criticize fanaticism are dependent on religion – he’s saying they’re dependent on his religion. We can’t criticize Christianity without relying on Christian principles to do so.
My answer to this, respectfully, is like fuck we can’t. Humility, charity, kindness, and concern for others might be important virtues on the version of Christianity Keller practices, and of ostensible importance to Christianity in general, but that doesn’t mean they originated with Christianity, or that they are exclusively Christian. These traits, and the empathy in which they are rooted, are deeply rooted in our humanity, and to suggest that to abandon Christianity is also to abandon them is preposterous and insulting, and betrays a level of conceit that I’d think Keller would wish to avoid if he values modest, not to mention intellectual honesty, as much as he professes to.
“Christians began to work for abolition not because of some general understanding of human rights, but because they saw it was violating the will of God. Older forms of indentured servanthood and the bond-service of Biblical times had often been harsh, but Christian abolitionists concluded that race-based, life-long chattel slavery, established through kidnapping, could not be squared with Biblical teaching either in the Old Testament or the New.” (Keller)
And so they took a stand against that particular, narrowly defined form of slavery – not because their humanity cried out in outrage, but because they realized it was probably against the rules. Very commendable. I can’t argue with the result – the abolition of slavery is the abolition of slavery, regardless of its philosophical foundations. But I’ve always found it telling that it took so many centuries for large numbers of Christians to realize this and decide slavery was an intolerable institution, and that they only came to this realization after the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.
“White Northern liberals who were allies of the African-American civil rights leaders were not proponents of civil disobedience or of a direct attack on segregation. Because of their secular belief in the goodness of human nature, they thought that education and enlightenment would bring about inevitable social and racial progress. . . . When Martin Luther King, Jr., confronted racism in the white church in the South, he did not call on Southern churches to become more secular. . . . He invoked God’s moral law and the Scripture.” (Keller)
And he also continued a tradition of civil disobedience that, in the United States, is traceable directly back to Henry David Thoreau, and beyond that to Percy Shelley, whose work was a strong influence on Mohandas Gandhi, who in turn strongly influenced Martin Luther King Jr. Neither Thoreau, nor Shelley, nor Gandhi are notable for their devotion to Christianity, nor were their ideas dependent upon it.
It would be unfair to argue that Christians deserve no credit for the abolition of African slavery or the reforms of the Civil Rights Movement. Certainly there were Christians who felt called by their faith to challenge oppression and discrimination, and who played significant roles in accomplishing those reforms – in addition to King, Keller also mentions William Wilberforce. The problem is, Christians tend to want to take all the credit, and to exaggerate the role the church played in these movements, especially early on, and to overlook the contributions of non-Christians like Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and most especially William Lloyd Garrison, who was not only one of the most prominent abolitionists of the 19th century but also a passionate supporter of women’s rights. They also tend to gloss over the many Christians who used their faith as justification for supporting slavery and racial discrimination, though I suppose Keller would just hand-wave this and chalk it up to those folks not being Christian enough.
Chapter Five: How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
Keller opens this chapter with an account of a Pew Foundation forum in 2005 where mega-church pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren, was asked how he reconciles the contradiction of recognizing that non-Christians deserve the same rights and privileges in society as Christians, while simultaneously believing that those same people are going to Hell when they die because they haven’t been saved. Warren answered that he saw no contradiction, but some of the journalists attending the forum suggested that the doctrine of Hell conditions Christians to perceive those outside their church as of lesser worth.
Keller claims to understand the distress the teaching that the unsaved go to Hell causes to many. He deconstructs the objection to Hell, first examining the belief that it simply can’t be true, that a God who sends people to Hell can’t possibly exist.
“Our culture, therefore, has no problem with a God of love who supports us no matter how we live. It does, however, object strongly to the idea of a God who punishes people for their sincerely held beliefs, even if they are mistaken.” (Keller, Chapter Five)
I agree, generally speaking, that we’re far more welcoming of affirmation than we are of condemnation. Of course a loving and accepting God is more palatable than a judgmental one. But there’s more to the objection to Hell than that. It’s not the concept of divine punishment that bothers a lot of us so much as the arbitrary and extraordinarily excessive nature of that punishment. And speaking for myself, I’m not as morally troubled by the fact that so many Christians believe that non-believers will go to Hell when they die, as I am by the fact that it doesn’t seem to bother them very much.
“In ancient times it was understood that there was a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. . . . Modernity reversed this. Ultimate reality was seen not so much as a supernatural order but as the natural world, and that was malleable. Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires.” (Keller)
What’s the evidence that this transcendent, universal moral order recognized by the ancients actually, you know, exists? And isn’t it just possible the shift away from that concept of morality by many is due in part to the lack of such evidence?
Also, the natural world is not nearly so malleable as we, in our selfishness, might like it to be. Our ability to control our environment is limited, local, and extremely temporary. If modern science has revealed nothing else, it has revealed that the world is as it is, not as we would have it be.
Finally, is a man who believes that an invisible, omnipotent God will grant him eternal life in a blissful paradise after he dies, a man whose solution to religious conflict is to recommend that everyone take up the practice of his religion, really trying to take the piss out of other people for trying to shape reality to fit their desires?
Keller ties this rejection of the concept of a God of judgment to the modern desire to control our own lives. Keller again points out the inconsistency of objecting to a judging God, but not to a forgiving God. He suggests that someone from another culture might have the opposite objection – the God of judgment could make sense, while the concept of forgiveness and turning the other cheek could be offensive. And who is to say which culture’s judgment is valid?
“For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Christianity is not the product of any one culture but is actually the transcultural truth of God. If that were the case we would expect that it would contradict and offend every human culture at some point, because human cultures are ever-changing and imperfect. If Christianity were the truth it would have to be offending and correcting your thinking at some place. Maybe this is the place, the Christian doctrine of divine judgment.” (Keller)
Maybe. Or maybe it’s Keller’s interpretation of Christianity that needs to be corrected, and it’s the universalists who actually have it right. Or the annihilationists. You never know. That’s the thing about doctrines based on unfalsifiable, invented bullshit – you just never know.
Sure, you get angry. Even though you yourself are ultimately responsible for their ruination, since the most severe consequences they face are the result of arbitrary and impossible-to-satisfy conditions you yourself established. And in your anger, you see to it that this person you love is made to suffer horribly for their transgression – forever. Unless they ask for your forgiveness in just the right way, of course. I mean, we can all relate to that, right? Who hasn’t been there?
“Can our passion for justice be honored in a way that does not nurture our desire for blood vengeance? Volf says the best resource for this is belief in the concept of God’s divine justice. If I don’t believe that there is a God who will eventually put all things right, I will take up the sword and will be sucked into the endless vortex of retaliation. Only if I am sure that there’s a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts do I have the power to refrain.” (Keller)
Well, thanks for sharing, Tim. It’s nice to know that the only thing holding you back from waging a bloody personal war against all that you perceive to be unjust is your belief that eventually God is going to do it for you – not trust in the laws of society, not a belief that being “sucked into the endless vortex of retaliation,” as you put it, would be self-destructive and ultimately futile, not that you just wouldn’t be capable of inflicting such violence on other people, no matter how deserved – but the belief that God is going to handle the wet work himself. It’s a good thing we atheists have you Christians around, to remind us of what true morality is all about.
Keller writes that the concept of Hell is better understood in terms of separation from God. Our sin separates us from God, and if we die without reconciling with God through Christ, we must spend eternity in separation from God. And since God is ultimately necessary for us to experience things like love and joy, eternity apart from God is the worst Hell imaginable.
“In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity. . . . When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy. Personal disintegration happens on a broader scale. In eternity, this disintegration goes on forever. There is increasing isolation, denial, delusion, and self-absorption. When you lose all humility you are out of touch with reality. No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.” (Keller)
Does anyone ever ask to leave Heaven? Because residence there doesn’t strike me as being on a voluntary basis, either. I mean, sure, people choose to accept Christ in order to get there, but that non-stop worship of God shit might start to get old after forever, you know?
Keller interprets the old concept of the fires of hell figuratively. Hell to him isn’t a place of literal burning and torture, but a place where God is totally absent. Even if that’s the case, how does that let God off the hook for the suffering people there experience? Keller says that we suffer so greatly in Hell because we were made to exist in the presence of God. Which means God – who is omniscient as well as omnipotent – created us to need his presence, knowing that before very long we would be separated from him by our sin, and that the vast majority of us would wind up suffering forever without him. Whether you believe in literal hellfire or just the burning torments of endless hopelessness and isolation, God is responsible for the suffering of the people there because he created the people and he knowingly created the circumstances that all but guaranteed that they would suffer greatly and endlessly.
As I said earlier, the truly offensive thing about the doctrine of Hell for many of us isn’t the concept of divine punishment. It’s how arbitrary and unjust and extreme the punishment is in the teachings of the Christian church. Eternal punishment for ephemeral transgressions. People damned to everlasting suffering for failing within a system that made it essentially impossible to succeed.
“Imagine two people arguing over the nature of a cookie. Jack thinks the cookie is poison, and Jill thinks it is not. Jack thinks Jill’s mistaken view of the cookie will send her to the hospital or worse. Jill thinks Jack’s mistaken view of the cookie will keep him from having a fine desert. Is Jack more narrow-minded than Jill just because he thinks the consequences of her mistake are more dire?” (Keller)
Are we at all interested in whether or not the cookie is actually poisoned? And if it is, should we not be the least bit troubled by the fact that the guy who baked the poison cookies forces us all to eat them, and then only gives the poison antidote to those who find him and specifically ask him for it, even though he has enough for everyone?
Keller ends the chapter by criticizing the belief of non-Christians in a God of Love, since without the Bible to tell us that God is love, we would never reach that conclusion from the state of the world today, or from history. Keller reminds us that the Bible also teaches that God is a God of judgment.
Hey, another thing we agree on! The only sources for the notion that God is a God of love, or a God of judgment, or a God of anything, are the claims of religions. There is no empirical evidence demonstrating the existence, much less the nature and character, of any god that anyone has ever believed in.
The only reason, apart from his own imagination, for a Christian to believe his God exists, and is a God of judgment or a God of love or both at once, is the Bible. And there’s no reason why any of us should take the Bible seriously as a source of authoritative information about anything, least of all God. And given the almost inconceivably cruel and capricious character of the God of the Bible, I for one am quite glad that’s the case.
Chapter Six: Science Has Disproved Christianity
Chapter Seven: You Can’t Take the Bible Literally