“Arguments that explain everything - explain nothing.”
― Christopher Hitchens

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Critique of Tim Keller's "The Reason for God"

This book would be great for an ‘ardent believer’ who is looking for a way to justify his claim, or a doubting believer who needs encouragement, or an agnostic looking for a reason to believe Christianity.  However, the informed skeptic will not be persuaded by this book because it has several major flaws.

First, it is insulting to skeptics.  It refers to them as emotionally hysterical, dishonest and lacking integrity. 

“Emotions and rhetoric are intense, even hysterical.  Those who believe in God and Christianity are out to ‘impose their beliefs on the rest of us’ and ‘turn back the clock’ to a less enlightened time.”

“There is no integrity in (refusing to think out the implications of an empty Cosmic Bench). … (Although) it is dishonest to live as if he is there and yet fail to acknowledge the one who has given you all these gifts.”

If I wrote a book billed to Christians containing reasons why they should be skeptical of their beliefs... and started out my book saying their dogma was hysterical nonsense that preys on the fear of death... and then spent about 8 chapters misrepresenting Christian theology... and finally claimed that their assertion in a God when they can’t prove one is dishonest and shows their lack of integrity... only to go on and talk about how humble I am – the Christian would not likely find much value in my book (and rightly so). 

In fact, they didn’t find much value in the man who happily embodied that example (Christopher Hitchens), as many of them publicly celebrated when he lost his life to cancer.  It’s also worth noting that Richard Dawkins gets obscene hate mail from mainly Christians, and he broadcasts himself reading them on YouTube.  Worth a look.

Second, Keller has dealt himself a serious blow to his credibility by intentionally misquoting or misrepresenting prominent atheists.

The nature of a skeptic is to research, look stuff up, and admit they don’t know when they don’t know.  It floors me that Keller thought he could get away with this in the age of Google and information overload.

In chapter eight 'The Clues of God,' Keller is trying to show that there is evidence of a singularity from which the universe outwardly exploded. He quoted Stephen Hawking as saying:

"Almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang."

What Keller fails to mention is that the very next sentence in that book after the quote given is:

"It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe – as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account."

It has been said that Keller was only using Hawking’s statement to show that many scientists believe in the Big Bang as a creation event, and is not using it to show that Hawking believed in a singularity.

However, this quote was used in the same paragraph where Keller attempts to assert that there is evidence for a singularity, and the actual assertion is the very sentence before.  What he’s saying is, “The singularity is the evidence for creation – and look!  This really famous atheistic scientist and nearly all his cohorts believe in the singularity too.”

Hawking was making the statement in the negative.  As in, “unfortunately, all these scientists believe in a singularity.”  Keller presents this quote in the positive – as in, “everyone agrees that the singularity is evidence for a creation event.”   Therefore, I submit this as disingenuous and misleading.

Unfortunately, the average reader is not going to know (or look up this quote and discover) that Hawking does NOT believe in the singularity as a beginning.  They are also not likely to know that this science is outdated (1998) and the current thought, as a result of String Theory (2006), considers the Big Bang to be an inflation, versus a creation, event.  Instead, they will likely recognize Hawking’s name as a leader in physics, and accept Keller’s version of his quote as accurate.

Additionally, in chapter 9 'The Knowledge of God,' Keller quoted Raimond Gaita, an athiest thinker, as 'reluctantly' writing:

Not one of (these statements about human beings) has the power of the religious way of speaking... that we are sacred because God loves us, his children.

His actual quote is:

Not one of (these secular examples of sacred) has the simple power of the religious ways of speaking.  Where does that power come from? Not, I am quite sure, from esoteric theological or philosophical elaborations of what it means for something to be sacred. It derives from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children.

It has been presented that Keller was only illustrating what the religious ways of speaking are, and not trying to misrepresent Gaita’s quote.

I reject this rationalization.  Keller is saying “even this atheistic writer feels compelled to admit that the religious version of sacred is more powerful because we all know God loves us as his children.”  After all, the whole point of this chapter was to show that we all have an innate knowledge of the Christian God.

Again, Gaita meant this as a negative statement, as in “it has nothing to do with theology or philosophy, but how they define their deity.”  Keller mutilates the quote, creating a misleading positive statement.

Just like Hawking’s quote, the average reader is not going to go look up Gaita’s quote (especially since Keller’s version of this quote is more prominent with a Google search), but rather trust Keller's version of the quote, never knowing the actual position of this atheistic thinker/writer.

In addition to this, he misrepresents the positions of George Williams, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen J. Gould and more.  Either he’s completely ignorant of modern moral philosophy, or he willfully ignores it.  Based on what I see, I believe the latter.

Third, this book is peppered with errors.  He has three major categories of errors.  First, he misuses terminology like secular, moral relativism, and irony.  This is not forgettable.  An informed skeptic is going to know these words.  An uninformed but honestly seeking skeptic will look them up.  An uninformed skeptic who doesn’t care to do their homework is low hanging fruit. 

Second, he uses outdated science.  Hawking’s theories were from the 90s, and other quotes and references were from even earlier.  What about current science and philosophy?  String Theory came out two years before this book was published.  Informed skeptics are going to know this information, and will reject any of his arguments that are based on old evidence.

Third, he uses many kinds of logical fallacies.  While the most popular was begging the question/assuming the answer (our existence is proof of God’s existence, morality is proof of God’s existence, etc), he was also known to use:

·         ad hominem - taking this position makes you dishonest and lacks integrity, therefore your premise is false

·         ad ignorantiam - we can’t explain it, thus God exists

·         ad populum  - so many people believe it’s true, so it must be true

·         argument from authority - mostly CS Lewis, too much CS Lewis for a book not written by CS Lewis

·         argument from final consequence - the universe seems fine-tuned for life, therefore there must be a creator

·         argument from personal incredulity - life is too complex to have happened from blind chance, therefore God exists

·         confusing the unexplained with the unexplainable - we cannot explain it, therefore God exists

·         false analogies – no-see-ums in the tent, looking directly at the sun to study it, and AASM/LGBTA analogies

·         false dichotomy - us believers versus those nonbeliever camps in the introduction of the book

·         No True Scotsman - those people who would do those things are not ‘real’ Christians

·         non-sequitor - a positive statement about atheism is automatically a negative statement about Christianity

·         reductio ad absurdum - believing in no god makes napalming babies morally relative

·         straw men - Keller does not know his audience whatsoever and spends inordinate amounts of time defending beliefs that don’t belong to skeptics

·         tautology - Jesus died for our sins because the Biblical Jesus says he did in the Bible

·         moving goal post – this just proves how great God is

·         tu quoque - you say Christianity is nothing more than an asserted belief, but so is yours 

It’s shocking to me that anyone would find this many errors reasonable.

Fourth, he does not address modern skeptic claims, like:

·         Infinite Regression

·         Increasing Improbability

·         Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof

·         Increasing Responsibility

·         Irreconcilable Characteristics (perfectly just/perfectly benevolent, omniscient/omnipotent)

·         Natural Explanation

·         String Theory

·         Possession of Onus

Lastly, I’m not convinced he knows what a skeptic really is.  Make no mistake – this book was billed to skeptics as a way for them to evaluate their doubts in the same way they evaluate belief.  Check the back of the book!

Timothy Keller addresses the frequent doubts that skeptics, and even ardent believers, have about religion.

Not “as well as ardent believers.”  He said he addresses doubt that ardent believers can have, but doubts that skeptics traditionally claim.  If you take this clause out of the sentence, you’ll see this perfectly.  If he meant it for skeptics and doubters, he would simply say “addresses the frequent doubts that skeptics and believers have about Christianity.”  Additionally, most of the advertisements for this book on the internet have directed it toward the skeptics who are not believers.

The last four chapters are basically an overview of Christian apologetics, written from the position of someone who thinks he’s won the argument already.  I found nothing new, as I had decent teaching on these doctrines already.  Most skeptics are either going to know it already, by nature of their seeking both positions - or they'll be informed but not convinced by it.

However, his celebration is premature.  The only skeptics this book will persuade are disingenuous about their claims to not really know if there is a God, thus having a preference for a deity... or the ‘low hanging fruit’ I mentioned earlier who would prefer to take a position out of ignorance and can be easily persuaded by bad evidence.

Therefore, I give this book a 1/5.  I give him one star for what appears to be an honest attempt, but I cannot in good conscious give him any more than that as a result of his multiple fatal errors in logic, reasoning and argument.