The Reason Against God

August 25, 2008

My reasons for leaving Christianity are exactly the same as Tim Keller’s reasons for why you should join it: There is no one overwhelming argument which can’t be denied; instead there are a lot of smaller reasons which, when taken together, provide an inductive force so compelling I couldn’t resist it. Also, like Keller, I like this story better.

Ironically, Keller’s book was fairly instrumental in my deconversion. As I’ve said other places, it was a long and gradual process which finally led me away from the faith. But the last lifeline I had was Tim Keller’s recent book, The Reason for God. I know and respect his work in many other places and was hoping that this book would provide me with the rationale I needed to counter credible unChristian arguments and sustain my Christian belief. The opposite happened.

Keller takes up a two-part strategy: First, he demonstrates how the objections to Christianity, or “defeater beliefs,” assume the same form which they intend to criticize. Second, the constructive portion of his argument can probably be accurately caricaturized1 as: “Christianity is a really nice story, so you should accept it.”

In the first half of the book, the “defeater beliefs” section, Keller astutely lays out the overall problem: there is no objective place from which to judge various worldviews. Kudos to Keller on this because many people never get this, especially many Christians! Unfortunately, the book is all down hill from here. Keller tries to illustrate the issue with his elephant analogy. A summary: Imagine several blind people touching a creature which they don’t know is an elephant. One says, “It’s long and flexible like a snake,” feeling the trunk. Another says, “No it’s thick and round like a tree trunk,” feeling its leg. Another touches the side and says, “No it’s large and flat.” Then Keller says:

In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant? … How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?

As someone who was wrestling with this very question, I was thrilled when it looked like Keller would say something profound about it. Excitement turned sour when instead of the profound and rational thinking I’ve come to expect from Keller (and I have read/listened to his work many other places with the highest praise), I was given a very flimsy straw man and logic-less pebbles hurled in its general direction.

My immediate response to this particular analogy was first that it is probably a good analogy, and the many different religions do “feel” different parts of a single great reality. But to answer the last question in this quote above: We would know by listening to each other charitably, thinking clearly, and not by a theological imperialism that claims the perspective of omniscient narrator simply because we already proved no one can hold that position (sic).

The rest of Keller’s first section on “doubting your doubts,” is filled with more of the same: straw man arguments weakly attacked. No person who actually holds the various positions Keller represents would agree with his caricatures—evidenced by each of the non-Christians and even my Keller-loving Pastor friend who made up our book discussion group. By the end of the first half, our group continued reading out of astounded disbelief at what could possibly be in the second half that would redeem the first.

The second half of Keller’s book is nice. He starts with a smart approach which finally recalls his admission in the Introduction that no one stands in an objective position to evaluate other worldviews. So he suggests that instead of looking for airtight arguments, we look at the gestalt of small indicators like: The origin of the Big Bang, cosmological constants allowing for life, the regularity of nature, beauty, and “the clue-killer [that] is really a clue.” This is not meant to be a long book review, so I must deprive you of specifics, but as Keller went through his clues for God, each of them struck me as either having a simpler explanation short of God, or even as full support against his Christian suggestion.

To close, Keller morphs the last six chapters away from almost any rational argument at all. Instead, he describes features of Christianity that are nice and appealing, expecting to make the sale on ideal virtues. Isn’t it nice that Christianity gives you paradise after you die? Isn’t it nice that Christianity gives you a justification for morality? Isn’t it nice that God did such a dramatic thing as sending his son to “write himself into the story?” If you’re ready to convert, see the epilogue.

So Keller’s project is actually three-part: 1.) give reasons to doubt objections to Christianity, 2.) Present Christianity as something that “would be nice if it were true,” then 3.) Invite the reader to believe it.

My response to Keller’s book went like this: 1.) every single objection you raised has far deeper merit than you even begin to acknowledge, 2.) There are parts of Christianity which are great and really “would be nice if it were true,” but “want makes not.” 3.) I already want to believe Christianity is true, but it’s the real arguments which your straw men caricaturize that have twisted my arm away from belief.

After reading Keller’s book, I’m left at the last conclusion that Christianity is a nice story—and even my favorite religion—but it’s a long way from being true. But his book is very convincing: It has convinced many Christians that they should be Christians; and it has convinced many non-Christians that they should be non-Christians. But it has also convinced at least one Christian that he should be a non-Christian.


1 I use this word “caricaturize” several times despite my spell-check trying to make it “characterize,” because I mean it as: “a good natured exaggeration of the most significant features: to make a caricature.”

 

 


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8 Responses to “The Reason Against God”

  1. thewordthatpierces said

    I am curious, what were your reasons for following Christianity, and did you seek the religion or God?

    I do not mean this in a derogatory way, I am genuinely curious and I want to know why you think the way you do. If you wish, I would like to talk to you mre about this. E-mail me at lyrafowlpotter@gmail.com Thanks!!!

    God Bless ~Amy

  2. exxn said

    Simply said, I believed it was true. I believed that the story of Christianity was a historical account; that 2000 years ago, there was a person named Jesus who was the divine son of God born to a virgin who died and changed the way the cosmos worked; that before that, God picked a special people who alone received his special revelation.

    Now I don’t. I know a lot of people who either left Christianity or never joined in the first place because of bad experiences with a particular church or Christian. That’s not me. I left because I don’t think it’s true. But ironically, I still like Christians and the Church.

    I’ll be posting more about how this came to be in the coming days; but I’ve learned that I can’t put it in a single post (or comment). It takes an entire blog.

  3. Miner42 said

    I’ve read your response to Keller’s book and am encouraged to “hear” a tone of humbleness in what you’ve written, although occasional hints of sarcasm. Not knowing you, perhaps that’s unfair to say. Forgive me if I’m wrong.

    My questions for you are related to your understanding of what many Christians believe, including Dr. Keller, although he did not address these things in his book.

    You say that you were once a Christian and simply no longer believe. That is a view of Christianity, which is inconsistent with those who hold to Calvinist doctrine including Dr. Keller…namely that it’s God who gives faith to anyone. In fact, the Apostle Paul describes this view of faith in Ephesians 2:8-9 as the “gift of God”, which is only by His grace–apart from any external issue (i.e. your good deeds, the evidence you see/don’t see, your bad deeds, etc). So, if God gives the gift of faith, then it stands to reason that losing this gift is 1) God’s doing 2) your doing or 3) external forces beyond your control. So, my question is what is your understanding of your situation? Dr. Keller and many others hold that once God gives the gift of faith, it is impossible to lose it. This is repeated throughout scripture (see all of Romans Chapter 8), which can only mean that you were never a Christian if the Calvinist doctrine is true. Do you believe it’s possible you were never a Christian?

    It’s at this point that I must remind you that true Christianity hinges on faith in a single historical event found only in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we now call the Gospel. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 that if Jesus didn’t raise from the dead, then we (true Christians) are still dead in our sins and we are to be pitied more than anyone else. Notice this is quite different from following Jesus’ teachings and claiming to be a Christian simply because we like what He said. And, Christians believe–although this often expressed poorly–it’s not what we DO that makes us Christian. It’s only our faith in what Jesus DID. So, my next question is if this is consistent with your view of what it means to be Christian: faith only in the Gospel–as I defined it earlier–as the basis for being a true Christian?

    I think the purpose for Dr. Keller’s book was not to PROVE God or Christianity was the only basis for belief. Instead, I think his purpose was to suggest that the reason for God requires faith just like the reason for no God and any other view in between. He’s saying to the reader “how did you come to the conclusion that you’re ‘right’ about your beliefs?” In other words, what steps of faith have you taken to believe you’re right about Belief A, which opposes Belief B? And, if Belief B says something completely different from Belief A (A does not equal B), then how can any rational person suggest both are true without some sort of superior knowledge that cannot be obtained? I once heard that we’re all just a bunch of beggars trying to show other beggars where they can get some food. No doubt, this is true for Christians.

    Finally, the Bible says that the moment a true Christian has faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit enters their hearts and serves as a seal–similar to a king marking official correspondence with his ring in a drop of wax (see Ephesians 1:13-15). Dr. Keller mentions very little of the Holy Spirit in his book “Reason for God” since it would serve no purpose to speak of this to those who are not Christians. But, since you said you were once a Christian, my question is if you believe the Holy Spirit resided in your heart and then departed? To say you were once a Christian and now you’re not is to suggest something that true Christianity does not allow. The Holy Spirit is the only means of true transformation in the life of any true Christian. To suggest otherwise is not consistent with the Bible and therefore, Christianity. (Btw, I recognize there are professing Christians who disagree with me on this.)

    There have been moments–even seasons–in my life where I have wrestled with trusting in God. But, as a Christian, we must understand it’s not the strength of our faith, but the OBJECT of our faith, that withstands the test of time. I will pray that God continues to work on your heart, because God knows He must work in mine daily.

  4. exxn said

    @Miner42: Thank you for your post! It is both intelligent and insightful. This is exactly the kind of reasoned response I hope for on this blog.

    As a quick answer to a few of your specific questions: Yes, I believe faith only in the Gospel as you defined it is the basis for being a Christian. And yes, I believe faith in what Jesus DID and not what a person DOES is what it means to be a Christian (understanding the distinction you’re trying to make there).

    Now, your other questions for me seem to center around particular problems or features of Calvinist theology. I’m sure you know that other schools of theology don’t suffer from those problems in accounting for a “status change” of the elect. Nevertheless, since I was a pastor in the same denomination as Dr. Keller, and still do find the Calvinist interpretation to be the most coherent interpretation of the Bible, I’m willing to accept it as such and proceed on those grounds.

    Having said that, let me kindly say now: accounting for how I “walked away from the faith” is not something I have to do, but something you have to do. It isn’t a problem for me to try to make the tenets of Calvinism fit with experience because I don’t believe they do fit experience. To say again for clarity: I think Calvinism is the most coherent interpretation of the Bible, but I think the Bible is not an accurate account of reality. As a similar example, one may think a post-structuralist criticism of “Moby Dick” is the most insightful interpretation, but this person would never expect to come within a thousand leagues of Captain Ahab while on a Carnival Cruise. I feel no compulsion to reconcile Hebrews 6 with my former faith because I don’t believe a faith in the Bible is accurate or defensible. Your dichotomy of “…which can only mean that you were never a Christian if the Calvinist doctrine is true” I answer squarely by denying the consequent: I was a Christian; and the Calvinist doctrine isn’t true.

    Having had wide experience with Calvinists and the tendencies of that theology, I might suppose that a Calvinist would insist that my Christian experience before leaving the faith is qualitatively different than that of a Christian who’s faith “perseveres.” Since that isn’t an argument, I can’t argue against it. All I can say is: It wasn’t. I was a Christian if there ever was. I believed it at least as soundly, as passionately, as thoroughly, and as fervently as anyone. I preached it. I prayed it. I evangelized it. I sang it. And I believed the gospel entirely. So I would ask every Calvinist to please refrain from insisting that my experience “couldn’t be true Christian faith” simply because my departure causes problems for the “U,” “I,” and “P” of TULIP.

    While I appreciate them all, there are many of your questions which I simply can’t answer because they assume a confusion of categories. I don’t think “the Holy Spirit came and left me” not because I wasn’t a “true Christian” (how is that different than just a “Christian?”), but because I don’t think there is a Holy Spirit that actually exists. As I think I’ve made clear now, I am not trying to be “consistent with the Bible” because I think the Bible is wrong. I would deny numbers 1, 2 and 3 in response to “losing the gift of faith” because I don’t think there is such a thing as “the gift of faith.” To be frank: I think Christianity is false. I said, “I was a Christian if there ever was one.” The real content of that statement, ontologically speaking, is that I believe there never really was one, because it is false (ontologically).

    I tried to answer you as directly as I could and I hope you read it charitably and with a pleasant friendliness from me. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and time spent sharing your insight. I also look forward to any other comments or correction you might offer and covet additional input. Thanks again!

  5. Anonymous said

    Your response was kind and very thoughtful. Thank you.

    I guess my struggle with your logic is that you now (after becoming non-Christian) say the Bible is not an accurate account of reality, so how is it that you’re comfortable saying you “were” a Christian if it’s not a possible reality? (again, I’m coming from a Calvinist’s perspective, so bear with me) Can you argue for something if you deny it as a possible explanation? To say that you were a Christian is to confirm that it was once true for you, which means you are saying it was reality for you. But, that contradicts your understanding of reality, which states that Christianity is false, including the Bible. So, if you say that Christianity is not reality (for you, me, or anyone else), then isn’t it more correct to say–from your perspective–that you never were a Christian, because Christianity is a false reality to begin with.

    Perhaps this is wrong and I’ll regret making this analogy…but as I think of it now…Suppose woman=Christian and man=non-Christian

    It’s like you’re saying you looked in the mirror one day after living like a woman and realized you were a man. Up until the point of looking in the mirror, you had thought you were a man-become-woman and lived like a woman based on a book you read that described how men could become women and said this is how women should act. After looking in the mirror you discovered both your impression of yourself and the book to be false. Yet, you continue to speak of the time before you looked into the mirror by saying “when I was a woman”. But, after careful thought, you now deny that being a woman is a plausible explanation for who you were during your experience “before the mirror”, because you’re a man and women can’t exist, because the book that described women is false.

    It’s a tough conversation for me to hold, because I have to speak to you as both a man and a woman. But, I only see you as a man. From my Calvinist standpoint you never were a woman despite all the experiences you tell me you had “as a woman”. And, you go on to tell me that being a woman isn’t even possible, because women don’t exist, yet you describe your experiences as one. At the same time you’re telling me you’re a man, which I clearly see, so how can I give any credence to the experiences you had as a woman? You say women don’t exist, but IF they did, then you were a woman at one point based on the definition of a book you say isn’t true. From my standpoint, you have the luxury of being both man and woman but deny that being a woman is possible. From my standpoint, both are possible but you can only be one or the other, not both. In addition, my standpoint creates a further restriction on me, because men can become women, but the transformation is permanent and cannot be reversed. So, for me to acknowledge you as a “former” Christian would be to deny my beliefs about Christianity, but I don’t understand why the same isn’t true for you since Christianity is not a possible reality for anyone. We both can agree that you are not a Christian.

    “True Christianity” is just my simple narrative for describing the “elect” as opposed to those who say they are Christians and “experience” Christianity, but find themselves standing before Jesus and He says “depart from me for I never knew you” even though they have cast out demons in His name, prophesied, and performed miracles. (Matthew 7:22) (Btw, that’s not a verse that I swing like a sword, but instead carry like ball and chain) Apart from faith, Jesus would say the same to me, except I haven’t done anything remotely as significant as casting out demons.

    My final questions are the following: What DO you actually believe is the accurate view of reality (i.e. atheist, agnostic, pantheistic, etc)? And–being very unclever and unoriginal–how did you come to that conclusion? 🙂

  6. exxn said

    @Miner42: How am I comfortable saying I was a Christian if I don’t think it’s a true description of reality? I was wrong. You need to distinguish between the social phenomenon of Christianity and the supposed ontological reality of Christianity. It’s the latter I deny. It’s the former I claim for my past. And in the past, I thought the ontological reality of Christianity was true; that’s what I now say I (and you) was wrong about. “To say that I was a Christian” is NOT to say that it was “true for me” because that phrase, “true for me” has no valuable content. Again, if you’re talking about “truth” as a social phenomenon, then maybe, but that’s a useless distinction since we have other better words for it (like “preference” or “agreement”) and don’t need to confuse the issue by using a word with real ontological content for a mere social construction. In short, I think ontological relativism is irrational and indefensible. As for my status as relates to others, you (or anyone) are a Christian just as much as I was a Christian. If I wasn’t a Christian, then I don’t think you (or anyone) is either. And I agree with you that the man/woman analogy is wrong.

    I think the fact that your beliefs don’t allow you to classify me as a “former” Christian is yet another reason to suppose your beliefs are inaccurate. As for discerning the “elect” like your “True Christianity” term supposes, good luck! If you think this is something any person can know (even about yourself), then you’re doing better than many of the greatest thinkers in church history like Luther, Calvin and Edwards.

  7. Miner42 said

    So, are you a social constructivist in your philosophical view(s) of reality? Do you believe any part of the Bible is historically accurate? Do you believe any part of the Bible is socially accurate?

    How did you become the benefactor of the present knowledge of reality you claim to have that I–as a Christian–don’t? Am I wrong to think you must have a basis for your interpretation of reality, otherwise how can you be sure “you’re right” or “wrong” about Christianity or anything else for that matter.

    Hopefully I did not present myself with the ability to “discern the elect”. Only Jesus can do that. It’s not for me to determine those He has chosen and those He has not. That is a matter of predestination and the fullness of God’s grace–both are things I believe only God can know. It does appear in Matthew 7:22 that Jesus acknowledges there are people who call themselves Christians and His actions suggest they are not. In addition, I do believe the Bible says Christians can know other Christians “by their fruit” (Matthew 7:15-20) and non-Christians can know Christians by their love for one another (John 13:34-35). And, I do believe the Bible reiterates that we can know if we have “eternal life” and are therefore “elect” (see John 20:31).

    I am praying for you. You cannot deny me that. If God exists, then you cannot deny His answer, regardless of whether you believe He exists or not. I–on the other hand–certainly cannot prove God exists. Nor can I prove I am a Christian or prove you were not, unless we agree the Bible provides a trustworthy definition of Christianity that both non-Christians and Christians can discuss as common ground. Apart from the Bible, there is no Christianity.

  8. exxn said

    @Miner42: Because of length and the particular issues, I will respond to your comments in a new post soon; likely to be called “Christian and Christians.”

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