Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Timothy Keller Has Never Met an Atheist: Review of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

What is ultimately so unsatisfying about The Reason for God is that I really suspect that, on some level, pastor of Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church and author Timothy Keller was making a sincere effort at engagement with nonbelievers. His tone is cordial, even genial, when writing about prominent atheists (including the typically reviled "four horesemen" of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens); he doesn't sling mud, distort assertions of nonbelief beyond recognition, brand rationalists as evil or culturally subversive, or even try to explain unbelief as the result of some undisclosed childhood trauma. He concedes that there may even be reasonable and rational arguments for atheism, rather than viewing it as a variety of moral turpitude or delusion. The civility of his discourse is at complete odds with, say, the spin and outright lies of the Intelligent Design creationists of the Discovery Institute or the faith-is-conservatism of the Family Research Council.

And that's why it's disappointing that the book misses the mark so badly in attempting to address the arguments of religious skeptics. It's not that Keller's refutations are particularly poor, even if they are, by his own admission, so heavily dependent upon C.S. Lewis; it's that they're not aimed at his alleged audience. Keller claims that "believers and nonbelievers will rise to the level of disagreement [over mere denunciation] [...] when each side has learned to represent the other's argument in its strongest and most positive form." And so, each topic in the opening seven chapters in the book purports to be a refutation of skepticism, according to such terms--what Keller calls "a distillation of the many conversations I've had with doubters over the years."

But what the author has instead compiled is a litany of complaints from troubled believers: one chapter addresses, "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" Keller answers, following Lewis' The Great Divorce that this is a choice made by the selfish that they assiduously make into perpetuity. That's fine as far as Christian apologia goes, but that isn't responding to a question nontheists ask each other, really. It would be a bit like asking if they think Santa is a racist for ignoring African children. As a batch, the godless aren't much into moral analysis of entities they hold not to exist, other than as fodder for cruel jabs at the faithful. Keller treats the issue of theodicy similarly: he maintains that reconciliation of God with the existence of evil and suffering somehow heads off the galloping hoards of New Atheists; but that is essentially an in-house debate among the religious, at a time when nonbelievers prefer to deal with physical evidence for deities and their powers over the vagaries of divine-command moral philosophy.

His chapter refuting the historical critiques of the Gospels, entitled (ironically, of course) "You Can't Take the Bible Literally," is in much the same vein, if appreciably worse: Keller argues for the accuracy of Paul's Epistles based upon their chronological proximity to the life of Jesus, while conveniently overlooking the fact that the oldest copies of these manuscripts hail from the third century, after 200 years of amateur scribes had unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) had their way with the story. He argues that the Gospel of Mark would have been written when "thousands" of witnesses to Jesus' ministry were still living, as if sexagenarians on up were a dime a dozen in first century Palestine. He assumes the authenticity of all four canonical gospels, apparently unconcerned that Matthew and Luke are acknowledged by nearly all Christian theologians and biblical textual scholars as later revisions of Mark. He includes the story of the fallen woman from John, although this is a well-established medieval interpolation into the text. Additionally, he supports the historical veracity of the Gospels with the following howler:
For a highly altered, fictionalized account of an event to take hold in the public imagination it is necessary that the eyewitnesses (and their children and grandchildren) all be long dead. They must all be off the scene so they cannot contradict or debunk the embellishments and falsehoods of the story. The gospels were written far too soon for this to occur.

One less charitably inclined might gather that Timothy Keller is unversed in Holocaust denial, or grassy knolls, or Roswell, New Mexico, or Bigfoot, or Nessie, or 9/11 conspiracy theories or...well, it is unloading artillery on insects to belabor a point so obvious: "highly altered, fictionalized account[s] of an event" "take hold in the public imagination" all the time, without three generations of corpses being at all compulsory to smooth the way toward their widespread public acceptance. The very living nature of Elvis Presley's descendants has not precluded all manner of wild re-creations of his life and death, it merits note.

Either Keller has never read Bart Ehrman, a recent biblical scholar who might dispel some of this confusion, which seems unlikely, or he's betting that his "skeptical" reader hasn't, which is also a suspect wager. Again, his argument seems aimed either at a waffling believer or a serious one looking for argument fodder, not at any group of college-educated humanists.

The second half of the book, the positive case for theism, fares little better in targeting anyone but the already-converted. It begins with a discussion of what Keller deems "The Clues of God": and while so-called anthropic coincidences (the existence of physical constants in the universe that allow for the emergence of life) are interesting, the kind of God implicit in such fine-tuning of the universe is at best Deistic; the evidence, if we accept it as such, has nothing to do with the truth of Christianity. (To his credit, Keller acknowledges as much.) The conversation then dovetails into assertions that human feelings of sublimity, the "unfulfilled longing evoked by beauty" is evidence of something other than itself. And we run into the same problem again: any rational materialist will simply find the argument puzzling; aesthetic appreciation is not something that scientists find, in principal, particularly arcane. The evolutionary narrative says that this is exactly as it should be if sight and sound are means by which we navigate the world.

Ultimately, The Reason for God leaves us with something of an odd set of choices. It's possible that Timothy Keller, despite his indications otherwise, has never actually read the popular works of modern atheism except in condensed and secondary form. Since we all cheat on our reading lists here and there, this wouldn't necessarily be a damning indictment. The second option is that Keller has read Dawkins and Harris, and doesn't understand them well. The third is that he is intentionally misrepresenting the views of nonbelievers in a classic straw-man polemic. I'm not comfortable making any of these assertions. He seems too diligent to be a slacker, too literate to be obtuse, and too sincere to be strategically dishonest.

What I suspect, rather, is that Keller has confused a group of his current and former Manhattanite congregants and visitors who pose pointed theological questions with an entirely different group: nonbelievers who are not "soul searching" but instead are intellectually satisfied with the rationalist project, all its unfulfilled potential notwithstanding. And that's why I want him to participate in a new and different book. This time, I want him to introduce, edit and reply to an anthology of essays by his godless opponents, in order that he may grant them their own voices and idioms and respond as cordially to what atheists actually maintain as he has to what they do not. He might call it The Reason for Dialogue, or something such. Because then I can change the title of this review to: "Timothy Keller Has Met an Atheist."


  1. To be fair, both Hitchens and Stenger spend a good deal of time and effort with the "if there's a god, he/she/it is evil" argument. Stenger also spends a reasonable amount of time and effort in The New Atheism, which I just read, demolishing the fine-tuning deist arguments.

  2. Fair enough,I suppose: a great deal more atheist print gets devoted to the idea than I suggested, but that's not really the point. The argument against a loving God isn't really the hangup for most nonbelievers, and so it's a bit of a red herring to address it as such. They don't employ it generally, I think, as an argument against gods but as an intellectual challenge to the idea of a benevolent god--sort of getting the foot in the door of the Christian mindset, which is what my brief reference to "jabs at the faithful" was about. My bigger point is that if one is writing a book intended to address (at least in part) nonbelievers, one ought to move against ground that we seek to hold. The moral character of divinity is a problem for disgruntled religious folk to explain, and that's who atheists address it to. Most atheists, as I suggested in the post, center their shared godlessness around lack of evidence--for prayer, for miracles, for moral benefits of religion, etc. And these are the things Keller touches the least.

  3. I take your point. Methinks perhaps Keller doesn't address these because he lacks such evidence? Just possibly?

  4. I'm going to have to start cracking a beer and sitting down to this at the same time you do... to replace lost discussions, by the way.

  5. I agree on both points. Send a current email to my and perhaps I'll tell you when I'm likely to post next. "Real time" blog discussions sound fun.

  6. In the last paragraph you mentioned "an anthology of essays by his godless opponents." Which would you suppose need to be addressed? What are the prime atheist texts, etc., that theists are simply unable to answer (or haven't)?

  7. A. Noni Mouse>

    Well, firstly, the burden of proof doesn't lie with the ones who doubt the proposed construct, i.e. theists have to actually prove the existence of any deity, much less their own, before there's a real debate here. But on top of that, I've not seen a reasonable attempt at addressing the infinite regress created by assuming a creator for the universe, nor have I seen a solution to theodicy. Other texts, including those of Harris, Dawkins, etc., have been addressed by the likes of Jonathan Haight and others, but they amount to pleading "that isn't my religion you're describing" and other things of that sort.

  8. Anon,

    I try to reply to each comment, but anonymous entries are not sent to my email, and hence I just read your reply now. Should you wander back through, I offer the following reply: I am not suggesting that theists as a whole do not address atheist arguments so much as suggesting that I do not think, in the specific instance of the book that I have tried to describe, that Timothy Keller does. That said, here are some of the more persuasive ideas that he walks partly or completely around: 1) God of the Gaps; the fact that deities have been used to explain all manner of natural phenomenon in every age, with a track record that is pitiful and worsening; 2) Historical localism; the fact that religions live and die within specific geographic and temporal limits, that the religions always reflect only the natural and political circumstances of the people who invent them, and that nearly all religions ever believed by mankind are dead, and the fact that all believers of exclusionary faith traditions believe all other traditions to be wrong and/or heretical, as if each happened to be lucky enough to be born into the right one; 3) Extant superstitions; the fact that human beings seem inherently credulous and prone to believing in fantastic stories, from Chupucabra to the Nessie, without any evidentiary basis at all; 4) Psychoanalysis (and its modern iterations); the compelling idea that humans invent religions with afterlives as coping mechanisms to deal with a material world lacking in inherent purpose and the terror of death; 5) The total lack of evidence that prayer works; 6) Special pleading; the fact, mentioned in the previous comment, that every religious person is obligated to disclaim most of his co-religionists when trying to craft a rational defense of religion; 7) An honest representation of both current physics and current Bible scholarship, and not a skewed whitewash.

    I could go on, or I could simply refer Keller (and, possibly, you) to the Christopher Hitchens-edited anthology The Portable Atheist. You'll see an entire range of careful, erudite arguments that are in either obliquely or in no way addressed in Keller's book.

  9. Timothy Keller is a deluded idiot. It's as simple as that. I have sincere doubts as to whether or not he ever had any sort of non-Christian education despite his claims. What a fucking idiot.