About 10 months ago, a friend recommended that I read The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. Here is a blog post I made at that time, with my impression after reading the introduction. I'm sad to say that my impression of the book did not improve much after reading it.
I finished the book many months ago, and I've been meaning to write a review ever since, but I've found it difficult to commit myself to spending the time necessary to do it justice. So I've decided to write a crappy review instead. Here's what you'll get:
1. A basic overview of what the book claims to be, and my impression of what it actually is.
2. A summary of the biggest problems that became increasingly frustrating as I read the book.
3. An unedited transcript of my notes, which I hastily scrawled on index cards, natch.
Despite all the negative things I say throughout the review, I would mildly recommend reading the book if you're interested in this kind of thing. At the very least, it did make me think, and I appreciated that. Also, the book seems to be pretty popular, and it may be useful to be familiar with it. On to the review!
1. What the book actually is
The book bills itself as helping skeptics to evaluate their doubts in the same way they evaluate belief. That's fine, and I think this is a noble goal. I am in favor of everyone reevaluating their beliefs, and questioning not only why they believe certain things, but why they doubt as well.
As for me, I know exactly why I doubt: lack of evidence. When the evidence is good enough, I believe. Unfortunately, this book never addresses evidence. It presents many philosophical arguments against some questions that I doubt many atheists would actually care to ask, such as "How can one religion be right and the others wrong?" Um, I don't have a problem with that concept. But I also don't have a problem with the concept that they're all wrong. Although it is logically consistent for one belief to be correct, and many others to be wrong, that does not imply that your particular belief is correct. For that, we would need evidence.
2. The many problems with the book
Reading this book made me increasingly frustrated for many reasons.
First, despite the book's billing, the author approaches every question from the point of view of a believer justifying his belief, not the point of view of a skeptic looking for evidence. This leads to a lot of begging the question, e.g. "Our existence is evidence of God's existence." No, in fact that's not evidence. That's just assuming the thing you are trying to prove.
Second, he often falls prey to the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. He dodges legitimate concerns about Christianity by claiming that people who believe X, Y, Z are not true Christians. For example, those who support violence, injustice, a literal hell of fire and brimstone, etc. Just because you don't believe something as a Christian doesn't mean it's not a real consequence of believing in Christianity for many Christians. Yes, true Christians.
Third, and most importantly, he is a philosopher, not a scientist, and the book reflects this. The entire book is about philosophy and never addresses evidence. That was probably the most frustrating thing to me. I expected something very different.
Oh yeah, and chapter 9 ends with a quip about how anyone who disagrees with him is dishonest and lacks integrity. That didn't thrill me either. I do question my beliefs, and I do question my doubts. I question everything, and I try to base my beliefs on evidence. In doing so, I reach a different conclusion from Timothy Keller, but I don't believe he is dishonest or lacks integrity.
3. The unabridged brain dump
Enjoy this. I would like to hope that my frustration was not in vain. I apologize for the rough nature of the notes, but I just can't bring myself to go back through the book again to make them more coherent.
I make no claims of being unbiased; as I recall, I tended to take notes mostly on the things I disagreed with. Also, if you are offended by colorful language, be sure to skip the notes from chapter 8. If you enjoy colorful language, be sure to skip directly to the notes from chapter 8.
Ch 2: Suffering
- Our sense of justice is evidence of God
- Therefore, Jesus suffered and died for our sins because the Bible says so
- Suffering is a good thing because it will make the glory and joy of heaven that much greater
Ch 3: Christianity is a straitjacket
- He sure likes to attack straw men. "All truth is a power play"? Please.
- Christianity is more like African supernaturalism than secularism is.
- This guy is in love with C.S. Lewis.
- This chapter was mostly a waste. This is not an issue that I have any problems with.
Ch 4: Religion breeds injustice
- "No True Christian" would be a fanatic
- Secularism has started just as much violence as religion (???)
- The Crusades were caused by values outside Xianity, therefore we should more fully embrace true Christian values
- Christianity is the only belief system that could perceive the injustice of slavery & segregation, b/c MLK was a Christian
- Let's pick and choose lots of good Christian examples of charity, shall we?
- Those who support injustice are not "true Christians". Ta da!
Ch 5: God sends people to Hell
- This guy is in love with C.S. Lewis.
- Someone should tell Christians about Keller's idea of Hell. I don't think they've heard of it.
- If everyone chooses Heaven or Hell for themselves, where does Christ come in?
- Evidence? None.
- I don't want "proof", just some evidence that shows how God's existence is the most likely explanation, or at least more likely than the null hypothesis. Is that too much to ask?
- You CAN study the sun best by looking directly at it.
- Saying that our existence supports the argument for God's existence is BEGGING THE QUESTION.
Ch 8: Clues of God
- Who caused God? And why don't you mention this objection? You only like accusation of self-insufficiency against skeptical logic? Does the existence of God imply the existence of infinite gods?
- Welcome mat: BTQ again. We exist and have evolved to adapt to the universe, not the universe to us. This is a misunderstanding of evolution.
- The regularity of nature is an argument for God ... why exactly?
- The Clue of Beauty: it is the nature of an illusion that you don't know it is an illusion. (or find it hard to believe) The existence of beauty implies the existence of God ... why exactly?
- Interesting that the lack of evidence is transformed into "clues"
- Holy flying fuck, he really actually went there. He's trying to claim that reason is a product of evolution and therefore we can't trust it. Give me a fucking break. What about EVIDENCE!? Evolution is not philosophy, it is science! "We can't know anything, therefore this might even be a dream world, therefore God exists." Huh?
THIS WHOLE F-ING BOOK IS ABOUT PHILOSOPHY AND NEVER ADDRESSES EVIDENCE.
Ch 8 cont.
- Just because our emotions are the result of chemical reactions doesn't mean they are not REAL.
- A secular person doesn't say "Maybe the Big Bang caused itself." She ought to say, "we don't know what caused the Big Bang but we're trying to find out."
- He assumes too much.
Ch 9: Knowledge of God
- "Everyone knows there is a God" is not a radical thesis, it's an arrogant one. What about everyone who lived before the concept of monotheism was even developed?
- Perhaps no values are objectively better than others, since we are the measure of our own values. But subjectively we each believe our own values ARE better, so we fight to give them influence. This is not a contradiction.
- What is the basis for human rights? I am. And so are you. Not our beliefs, but our persons. We must act in a way that would be fair to us if we were in the minority. Appealing to God doesn't provide a solution any more than appealing to the sun. We believe in human rights because we are humans.
- "There is no God" may lead to the conclusion that napalming babies is culturally relative. I don't know. Just because I have an opinion doesn't mean that opinion is objective, even if I feel it is. It is the nature of subjectivity to feel objective. There are cultures that have practiced human sacrifice. it is a culturally relative morality. This is true and consistent. And subjectively, it is wrong. Sez me.
- Living with dignity despite the nonexistence of gods is not a lack of integrity. In what universe does that make sense? There may be no objective meaning of life, but we are here. Now. And we create our own.
- This chapter ends with a real stinker. Anyone who disagrees with him is dishonest and lacks integrity. Whatever.
Ch 10: The problem of sin
- Not everyone has to live for something. I believe I live for many things. I don't need cosmic significance, just to make the world a better place.
- Why is God the one thing that can bring fulfillment? Why couldn't it be my imaginary friend Marvin?
Ch 11: Religion and the gospel
- This chapter is pretty much right on, even though there's a fair amount of "true Scotsman" logic happening.