An Initial Response to Timothy Keller's Book, The Reason for God

I have much more to say about this book than what you'll read below. These are my initial thoughts. How would you respond?

Timothy Keller, Pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, claims: “All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.” Writing to skeptics he claims that “The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.” (p. xviii). Faith, according to him, is anything we accept that is unprovable. As such, “All of us have fundamental, unprovable faith commitments that we think are superior to those of others.” (p. 20). Then by defining religion as “a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing,” he goes on to argue that even the most secular pragmatists have an “implicit religion.” Why? Because skeptics, just like religious believers, have “set of faith assumptions about the nature of things.” (p. 15-16). So he argues that skeptics likewise “must doubt your doubts.” [The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. xix].

But even if I grant for the sake of argument that faith is what we have when we cannot prove something, then what method does Keller propose to distinguish between that which is provable from that which is unprovable? Surely he doesn’t mean to say that if we cannot be absolutely certain of something all we have left is blind faith, or that everything that is unprovable has an equal epistemological merit. Christians like him want to claim that skeptics too have beliefs which cannot be proven, and then try to drive a whole truckload of Christian assumptions and beliefs through that small crevice. If that’s what he’s doing then a Mormon or a Muslim could have written the same things he did, and then driven a whole truckload of Mormon or Muslim assumptions and beliefs through that small crevice too. And we would still be in no better position to judge between faiths, even granting that skeptics also have faith assumptions. What I’m proposing with the Outsider Test For Faith is a way to distinguish between what we should accept from what we should not. I’m arguing there isn’t a better test when it comes to religious beliefs. So again, what better method is there?

And even if I grant Keller’s definition of religion for the sake of argument such that everyone has one, including skeptics, then once again what better method is there but The Outsider Test to decide which one of them is correct, if any? When we all apply it to our respective religions we should all be agnostics about all metaphysical claims, all of them. We should all be agnostics. We should all doubt our doubts. Agnostics already do this. This double negative way of expressing things does not lead to faith. It leads to agnosticism.

Keep in mind that the choices in front of us are emphatically NOT between any one particular situated cultural form of Christianity and atheism. The choices are Legion. This fact makes agnosticism the default position. Anyone, and I mean anyone including myself, who leaves the default position and affirms an answer, any answer, has the burden of proof. The denial is the easy part. We deny the beliefs of nearly everyone else, sometimes without even considering them. The hard part is in affirming the correct set of beliefs. I am an atheist because that’s the direction agnosticism pushes me. My atheism is due to the process of elimination. One supernatural entity, being, or force after another was rejected by me leaving the only reasonable answer to be atheism.

But in fact, I do not accept Keller’s definition of faith or of religion. He’s manipulating the debate by using a language game in his favor here. I refuse to play this game. I know as sure as I can know anything that there is a material world, and that I can trust my senses. Therefore I know the scientific method is our only sure way for assessing truth claims. Words like hope and faith and trust just don’t do these things justice. The word faith must be reserved to apply in this context to beliefs about that which cannot be sensed or empirically tested, like ghosts, angels, demons and gods. And likewise the word religion must be based upon beliefs about those kinds of entities if it’s to have any separate meaning at all.

What Keller is doing is descibing a worldview anyway. Everyone has one but that does not make everyone religious. An atheist worldview is not a religion. That is a language game I refuse to accept. If by denying all religions this makes the atheist worldview a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby!

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