An Atheist Reads The Reason for God
Chapters Six and Seven, and Intermission
Chapter Six: Science Has Disproved Christianity
Keller opens by asking the question: Are prominent New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett correct when they say that science has rendered belief in God optional and unnecessary? He also asks if we must choose between a scientific view of the world and belief in God.
“Scientific mistrust of the Bible began with the Enlightenment belief that miracles cannot be reconciled to a modern, rational view of the world. Armed with this presupposition, scholars turned to the Bible and said, ‘The Biblical accounts can’t be reliable because they contain descriptions of miracles.’ The premise behind such a claim is ‘Science has proven that there is no such thing as miracles.’ But embedded in such a statement is a leap of faith.” (Timothy Keller, THE REASON FOR GOD, Chapter Six)
Those of you who have read apologists on the subjects of miracles, or who have watched the previous “An Atheist Reads” series that I’ve done, can probably see where Keller is going with this. Let me cut to the chase here and confirm that yes, in the pages that follow, Keller makes the exact same argument for miracles that every other apologist who has addressed the subject has made: you can’t prove that miracles are impossible, therefore they shouldn’t be ruled out and the Bible’s accuracy shouldn’t be doubted because it contains accounts of them.
Saying “No supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is possible” might be a philosophical presupposition. But that is not the relevant statement. You don’t need to suppose that supernatural causes for natural events are impossible in order to reject miracles. You can reject miracles just as well on the basis that no supernatural cause has ever been demonstrated. And that is precisely the basis on which I do reject miracles. I can’t say for certain that miracles are impossible. I can’t say for certain that leprechauns don’t exist. What I can say is that I’ve never seen any evidence for the existence of leprechauns, and so far as I know, neither has anyone else, and therefore I don’t believe they exist.
Keller directs his arguments against the statements that miracles are impossible and that a miracle-working God can’t exist. This is the same straw-man tactic used by his fellow apologists, and it’s a shame Keller isn’t any better than this. He clearly wants to position himself as a more reasonable, self-aware version of the Lee Strobels and Josh McDowell’s of his faith, but when it comes to miracles he resorts to the same ignorant, dishonest horseshit that they rely upon.
One more time: the scientific reason to reject miracles is not the presupposition that they can’t happen. The scientific reason to reject miracles is the total lack of compelling evidence that they ever have happened. I’ve said before, I fear I will have to say again: show me evidence that a single miracle has ever taken place, and I’ll believe it. I have no presupposition. I have a provisional conclusion based on the evidence – or rather, on the lack of evidence. I don’t believe in miracles for the same reason I don’t believe in God, or leprechauns, or faeries, or the china teapot that orbits the Sun between Earth and Mars – because there is no evidence. You want me to believe in miracles? Show me evidence of one.
Keller moves on to the broader notion that science has disproved Christianity. Keller blames this perception on the media’s either/or depiction of stories. Whenever secular and religious interests are at odds, the coverage of the story always suggests that the two sides are mutually exclusive – that one cannot be both scientifically-minded, and religious.
Keller points out that many Christians (including, officially, the Catholic Church) accept both evolution and the God of the Bible. He cites the specific example of Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, critic of creationism, and Christian.
Keller refers often in this section to Richard Dawkins, and Dawkins’s supposed statement that it is impossible to believe in both evolution and God. Again, I think Keller is straw-manning here. Dawkins says that science in general, and evolution in particular, renders belief in God unnecessary. He says that evolution points to naturalism rather than religious belief. He doesn’t say evolution absolutely, positively rules out any possible existence of God. He says, in light of the evidence for evolution as the mechanism responsible for the development of life on Earth, there’s no reason to assume God (or any supernatural cause) had anything to do with it. You can still be a theistic evolutionist if you want – there’s just no reason to be.
Citing Ian Barbour, Keller describes four ways science and religion can relate to each other: conflict, dialogue, integration, and independence. Conflict and independence are on opposite ends of the spectrum – either science and religion are at war, or they have nothing to do with each other. Dialogue and integration lie somewhere in the middle, the more moderate modes of relation.
Keller responds to the claim that most professional scientists are atheists by pointing out that the studies on which this claim is based were designed to identify scientists who believed in a personal God who communicates with humanity. This screened out any scientists who might have believed in a more remote, general God. Also, there is no reason to assume that there is a causal relationship between a scientific worldview and atheism.
But compatibility is not the issue. Look, lots of people, atheist and theist alike, have disagreed with the tone Richard Dawkins takes when he discusses religion and how it relates to science. Dawkins sees nothing in the world as we have come to understand it through science compelling a belief in God. That doesn’t mean religious beliefs are necessarily incompatible with science. It means science has rendered religious beliefs unnecessary. We don’t need them to explain anything. They serve no purpose. You can keep them if you want – they are compatible with science, to the extent that they don’t contradict scientific knowledge that has been well established by evidence – but there’s no compelling reason to have them.
Keller takes most of the rest of the chapter describing how it’s possible to be both a Bible-believing Christian and one who accepts evolution as a fact. He states that he himself believes God guided the process of natural selection. He cautions prospective Christians not to be put off by what he calls the intramural debate between those who interpret the Bible in a way that allows for evolution, and those who interpret the Bible in a more literal way that rules it out.
Here’s the thing: you can be both a Bible-believing Christian and a person who accepts that the evolution of life through common descent by natural selection is a fact. As someone who thinks evolution is a fact, I say good on Timothy Keller for finding a way to accommodate that established scientific fact within his Christian faith. But I’m not interested in finding a way to make an established scientific fact fit within any religious model. I’m interested in what is actually true.
I don’t reject Christianity because science absolutely, positively rules it out as a possibility – I reject Christianity because there’s no evidence compelling me to believe its supernatural claims are true in the first place, and because science explains things without any need for those or any other supernatural explanations. Ultimately, I don’t care if religion and science are compatible or not. I care about what is true. If there’s no reason to think the claims of Christianity or any other religion are true, then the hell with it. Why do I give any more of a shit about a God I have no reason to think exists being compatible with science than I do about a leprechaun being compatible with science?
Chapter Seven: You Can’t Take the Bible Literally
Keller summarizes the modern scholarly consensus about the origins of the gospels – oral traditions passed from one person or group to the next, evolving and gathering legend and embellishment as they went, until eventually, decades after the supposed actual events, they were written down.
“If this view of the New Testament’s origins and development is true, it would radically change our understanding of the content and meaning of Christianity itself. It would mean that no one could really know what Jesus said and did, and that the Bible could not be the authoritative norm over our life and beliefs.” (Keller, Chapter Seven)
The modern view, then, is that the divine, miracle-working Jesus of the Bible is unproven. But Keller argues that the actual state of affairs is exactly the opposite – it is the non-divine Jesus whose existence cannot be adequately demonstrated.
Having addressed the scientific objections to the Bible in the previous chapter (or rather, tried and failed to address those objections), Keller moves on to the historical and cultural barriers that keep people from believing in the Bible.
First, can the Bible be trusted historically? How does a Christian like Keller respond to the view that the Bible is, at best, overwhelmingly historically unproven? For his purposes, Keller limits the question to the gospels. How can the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John be trusted as reliable sources for the life of Jesus?
Which means the gospels are extremely unlikely to contain material that is invented or embellished, right? Wrong. There are numerous examples of not just somewhat historically inaccurate but out-and-out false beliefs taking hold among certain groups of people, even when there were plenty of people around who knew better. In past series I’ve mentioned examples like the legends surrounding the early life of George Washington, the reports of Elvis being seen alive after his death, and the rise of the Mormon church. There are also any number of cults I could cite, where the members came to embrace with great conviction beliefs that those outside the cult found to be obviously false. The fact that an account depicts a relatively recent event and was created and circulated in an environment where many would have recognized any falsehoods it contained doesn’t mean it should be treated as a reliable authority, especially if it contains details – like miracles and other supernatural events – that should compel our incredulity in any case.
As with the “you can’t prove that miracles don’t happen” argument, this is a typical horseshit apologist argument, and it’s disappointing, though not unexpected, to see Keller using it.
Why depict Jesus as a criminal who was crucified? Why show Jesus’s agony at Gethsemane? Why have women, who occupied a lowly social position in Jesus’s culture, be the first witnesses to the resurrection? Why depict the apostles as stupid and jealous and quarrelsome, when they were supposedly going on to become the first leaders of the church?
There are actual answers to those questions, though if Keller knows them he must not think his readers are interested. The passage depicting the agony at Gethsemane was probably a later interpolation added to the gospel to help settle a dispute in the early church over the divine and human natures of Christ; the women may have been shown as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb because of an early tradition that held that the apostles accepted the risen Christ on the basis of his appearances, not the empty tomb; and the reason for depicting the apostles as dumbasses is obvious to anyone who’s ever read a Sherlock Holmes story: the hero needs a foil to play off of to demonstrate his superiority. Though thankfully for we Holmes fans, Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t make Watson nearly as stupid as the gospel writers made the apostles.
The point is, Keller points out aspects of the gospels that seem, superficially at least, to cast the events and the people involved in a negative or suspicious light, and immediately moves to “They wouldn’t have made this up – every word of it must be true.” There’s just no good reason to go there, and there wouldn’t be even if we weren’t dealing with a text with as much obviously made-up material as the gospels.
Next, Keller argues that the form of the gospels suggests they aren’t legendary. He quotes a passage from the same work by C.S. Lewis that Josh McDowell quoted in Evidence That Demands a Verdict, where Lewis argues that he knows legends – and the gospels just don’t feel like legends. Keller elaborates, claiming that the gospels are filled with far too much detail to be works of fiction.
“The gospel accounts are not fiction. In Mark 4, we are told that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. In John 21 we are told that Peter was a hundred yards out in the water when he saw Jesus on the beach. He then jumped out of the boat and together they caught 153 fish. In John 8, as Jesus listened to the men who caught a woman in adultery, we are told he doodled with his finger in the dust. . . . The only explanation for why an ancient writer would mention the cushion, the 153 fish, and the doodling in the dust is because the details had been retained in the eyewitnesses’ memory.” (Keller)
And if those were the most incredible claims Christianity asked me to accept, maybe I wouldn’t have such a hard time accepting it. But come on. If I ask you why I should believe that a god exists and the Bible is his perfect, divinely inspired word, and you tell me about the cushion, the fish, and the doodling in the dust, I’m going to laugh in your fucking face. Good-naturedly, probably, but I’m still gonna do it.
There’s just as much evidence for Jesus sleeping on a cushion in a boat as there is for Jesus turning water into wine or coming back from the dead – that is to say, no evidence, nothing. The difference is, the claim that someone slept on a cushion, all other things being equal, is believable. It’s acceptable. It doesn’t compel incredulity. People sleep on cushions all the time. No part of the natural order needs to be violated in order for someone to sleep on a cushion, or catch a mess of fish, or draw in the dust with his finger. So even if there’s no empirical evidence for it, if I read that some guy did one of those things two thousand years ago, I’ll probably buy that.
But if you tell me that same guy worked miracles – did things which in any other circumstance would be impossible – that does inspire my incredulity. That does require me to hold out for good evidence before I accept that such an event took place. Those two claims – that someone did something mundane, and that someone did something miraculous – get treated differently because the nature of the claims are different. One lines up with the way my experience – and, from what I can tell, the experiences of most other people – tells me that the world works, and the other directly contradicts that experience. It doesn’t mean I can’t possibly accept it – it means I’ll need good, solid, compelling evidence of it, in order for me to accept it.
Finally, Keller turns to the argument that the Bible isn’t relevant to our culture. Many find the Bible socially regressive, supporting slavery and subjugation of women among other things modern society has rejected.
Keller advises those who are troubled by difficult passages of the Bible to take a more thoughtful approach, to consider the historical context, and to seek out commentaries that might illuminate meanings they hadn’t considered.
However, Keller admits that this approach doesn’t work for everything in the Bible. Some passages still seem outrageous, even to those who have carefully studied the texts. In these cases, Keller suggests resisting the urge to use terms such as “regressive,” since they assume our present culture to be superior to that (or rather, those) which produced the Bible.
No it isn’t. And to reject the Bible as regressive requires no assumption that we have arrived at the ultimate historic moment – though in a sense, we have, since the present moment is always, literally, the ultimate historic moment. All it requires to judge the Bible as regressive is a recognition that society and its moral standards have evolved – I might optimistically say “progressed” – since the time when the Bible originated. From our perspective in the present, things have changed quite a bit since the time when the Bible was being written. In another few thousand years, things will have changed even more and human societies of that time (if there are any – there goes the optimism, I guess) will fancy themselves as far more advanced than we were. That’s just the way it works. It’s unavoidable. Keller even acknowledges this:
What would be tragic is if people decided that it would be better to follow the teachings of a scientifically illiterate and historically inaccurate religious text written thousands of years ago than the values and interests of their own society. Also: if we consider the Bible to be offensive and regressive today, why does Keller assume people in our grandchildren’s generation will view it as any less so?
“You may appeal, ‘But I can’t accept the Bible if what it says about gender is outmoded.’ I would respond to that with this question – are you saying that because you don’t like what the Bible says about sex that Jesus couldn’t have been raised from the dead? I’m sure you wouldn’t insist on such a non sequitur.” (Keller)
If I can’t accept what the Bible says about sex, or any of its other moral teachings, or its teachings on morality in general, then you’re right, that isn’t a reason to reject any of its factual claims. It is, however, a reason to reject it as a moral guide – and I do, and I would, whether I thought its factual claims were true or not.
Actually, I think the precondition for a personal relationship with God is God. No God, no personal relationship with God. And even if Keller’s God does exist, anyone who chooses to communicate with me primarily through an ancient religious text isn’t someone I’m likely to be very interested in having a relationship with, anyway.
I notice that Keller, like the other apologists I’ve read and discussed in these series, always counsels people to start with the assumption that the Bible is the Word of God and work out from there. If the Bible and science or history seem to conflict, then either find a way to harmonize them or throw out the science and history and go with the Bible. If there’s a difficult teaching in the Bible you have a problem accepting, consider all the factors, find some way of accepting that teaching, don’t reject it, whatever you do. If there’s a superficial reading that agrees with the assumption that the Bible is the Word of God – like that business about the supposedly embarrassing or troubling details in the gospels about the apostles – then go with that. If a superficial reading points in another direction, then dig deeper until you find something that points back toward the Bible as the Word of God.
Keller tries to be a more modern, reasonable sort of Christian, but his work here is no different than that of any other apologist. He’s not interested in helping people find the truth. He’s interested in justifying the dogmas of his church, no matter what. That only makes his play-acting that much more insulting.
This section lies between the first half of the book, The Leap of Doubt, and the second half, The Reasons for Faith. Keller begins this intermission by reminding me, as if I needed it, of how dishonest and/or ignorant he is beneath the warm, smiling, acceptable facade he affects:
Keller’s said this before, and it’s no truer now than it was the first time. All objections to Christianity are not dependent on unprovable assumptions. Everything we believe or think or think we know is not just some form or another of religion. It’s possible to base beliefs on reason and evidence. It’s possible to have beliefs that are falsifiable. Religious believers make claims for which there is no evidence, which are unfalsifiable. Sometimes they also make claims that are demonstrably false. You don’t need to base rejections of these claims on baseless presuppositions. In saying otherwise, Keller shows himself to be stupid or willfully misleading. I wouldn’t wish to be either.
Anyway. Keller explains that in the second half of the book, he will move from addressing the arguments against Christianity, to presenting the arguments for Christianity. But first, there are a few questions to settle.
First, for which Christianity is Keller going to argue? For his purposes, Keller defines Christianity as consisting of those believers to agree with the basic creeds all variations of Christianity have in common: the Apostle’s creed, the Nicene creed, the Chalcedonian creed, and the Athanasian creed. These creeds contain the fundamental beliefs of Christianity: the creator God, the trinity, the fallen nature of humankind, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the salvation that can be received by grace by all who believe in him, and the belief that Jesus will one day return to renew Earth and finally conquer sin and death.
In other words, Keller means to make the case for Christianity in general, not for any particular variation of it. Though he himself is a Presbyterian, he is attempting to represent all Christians, not only those who are members of his denomination. He admits, however, that he will be saying some things about sin and grace that are necessarily Protestant, and not the same things a Catholic might say.
No, they don’t. At least, I don’t think they do, judging by what I’ve read and seen of their opinions on this matter. The argument for God doesn’t have to be airtight and universally convincing. (By the way, is there such an argument for anything? There are still a few people who believe the Earth is flat, for Christ’s sake.) What they want – and what I want – is a good argument, an argument based on solid evidence, an argument that persuades me that the existence of your God is likely, or at least more likely than the nonexistence of your God. Let’s not pretend that Dawkins and the other prominent New Atheists are making some outrageous, unreasonable demand of the religious folks here. All they’re saying – with some variations in tone – is, if you want us to believe in the things you believe in, and more than that, if you want to use those things you believe in as the basis for law and morality, then give us a reason to believe in them – give us a reason to think they are real, rather than imaginary. It’s not an unreasonable burden. It’s a basic burden of proof that anyone making a claim supported by reason and evidence should be able to satisfy.
Keller goes on to attack the philosophy of strong rationalism, claiming that the verification principle rules itself out, since you can’t empirically prove that you shouldn’t believe something without empirical proof.
Yes, it’s the road runner tactic, just as we saw it used by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, when they objected to empiricism and the verification principle. I’ll respond to Keller’s argument the same way I did to theirs:
If by “proof” you mean “undeniable 100% certainty,” then no, you can’t empirically prove that you shouldn’t believe something without empirical proof. But you can’t prove anything to that degree. That sort of absolute certainty is unattainable outside of mathematics or propositions that are simply true by definition. That being the case, a more useful concept of proof is evidence that is convincing beyond a reasonable doubt. But that is ultimately beside the point, because I think we can say that the verification principle is true by definition. We believe propositions because we have judged them to be true. When we judge a proposition to be true, we typically mean that it corresponds to reality. How do we determine what reality is? Empirically. We experience it. There is no way to ascertain what reality is, or to judge whether or not propositions made within the context of that reality are true or false, except empirically, according to the verification principle.
Obviously, I’m not a philosopher, so if anyone knows of a way of evaluating the truth of a proposition that isn’t in some way empirical, or of a meaningful statement that isn’t either true by definition or based on empirical evidence, please do share it with me.
“The approach I will take in the rest of this volume is called ‘critical rationality.’ It assumes that there are some arguments that many or even most rational people will find convincing, even though there is no argument that will be persuasive to everyone regardless of viewpoint. It assumes that some systems of belief are more reasonable than others, but that all arguments are rationally avoidable in the end. . . . Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we can’t evaluate beliefs, only that we should not expect conclusive proof, and to demand it is unfair. Not even scientists proceed that way.” (Keller)
If Keller is aware that this is what Dawkins believes, and that this is the method Dawkins uses – also known as the scientific method – why did he straw-man Dawkins and other prominent atheists earlier? Why accuse them of demanding ironclad, undeniable proof, if you’re only going to admit that they don’t actually do that a few pages later?
Sure, it’s unreasonable to treat God like something we could analyze in a lab. But why does that mean we shouldn’t expect to see empirical evidence of God’s existence? The big bang isn’t something we can capture and study in a lab, and yet we can observe the evidence that it happened all around us. And it isn’t the sort of “If there’s no God, then where did all this stuff come from?” argument that Christians often make. It’s specific evidence that points to that particular explanation.
That’s the kind of evidence I need from people who believe in God if they expect me to believe in him, too. Anyone can point to the Grand Canyon and say, “Well, if Paul Bunyan didn’t drag his ax behind him, where’d it come from?” That’s not good enough. If God – and not just any old god, but the particular God Keller believes in – is real, show me some evidence. Give me a reason to believe it.
Chapter Eight: The Clues of God
Chapter Nine: The Knowledge of God