Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A crappy review of The Reason For God

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?

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.


Steve said...

I couldn't agree more, Mike. I read the book and came to many of the same conclusions, only I'm much too lazy to write such a review (particularly about a book I don't care for). And honestly, you're one of my only friends that would have been interested.

Well done.

atimetorend said...

I'll have to compare notes a bit more later when I have a moment. I read this book early in the process of openly struggling with my faith. My overall impression of it is conventional apologetics wrapped in a modern packaging. I really struggle with thinking about it emotionally, resentful of what seem like tactics to get people in the door of Christianity.

I feel Keller uses emotional pleas to cover up the lack of evidence. It seems he is eager to get people to try out Christianity, thinking that if they try it they will then be convinced of it's authenticity. Which is exactly the reason I got out -- experiencing the fruits of Christianity didn't change the fact that the facts didn't line up.

Maybe I'll pull the book off the shelf tonight and look at my notes in the margins...

Saganist said...

Thanks, Steve! I've been sitting on this review for several months because I didn't feel like making the notes into something worth reading. But now that I look at them, I'd say they're worth reading on their own. Trying to synthesize them into something else may have made them less interesting than they currently are.

The book was interesting to read, particularly because several people have recommended this book as a very good one for skeptics. I don't think I've heard any skeptics say that about it; for me, it's been believers who think the book actually addresses skeptical concerns, which it doesn't. Honestly, I think the author probably does feel that it addresses skeptical concerns, or else he wouldn't have subtitled it "Belief in an Age of Skepticism", and promoted it in that way. But it really didn't live up to the hype.

Thanks, atimetorend! You make a good point. I think you're right that although the book is touted as a "logical" defense of faith, it sort of skips over its own gaping logical fallacies by appealing to emotion. I'm interested to hear how your notes compare with mine!

atimetorend said...

"I don't think I've heard any skeptics say that about it; for me, it's been believers who think the book actually addresses skeptical concerns, which it doesn't. Honestly, I think the author probably does feel that it addresses skeptical concerns..."

I think most apologetics are written to bolster the faith of those who already believe anyway, or who are on the edge of belief, want to believe, and need something to push them over the edge. My experience as yours has been that believers find this book very convincing.

My only pause is that Keller obviously interacts with people with these questions, and no doubt built his material from those discussions. I'll guess that the people he is dialogging with are more open to the message by the fact that they have showed up at his church. Just a guess of course. And many people do not delve into the rational questions about historicity and philosophy, etc, and perhaps do not feel the need to. Oh well, at the end of the day, at least I know that *I* am not the target audience for the book!

seithman said...

Interesting review. I may check out the book for myself when I get a chance.

Even as a believer in gods myself, I will be the first to admit that I doubt I could ever provide someone with compelling evidence that my gods -- or any other gods, for that matter -- actually exist. I simply believe because of subjective experiences I've had and the way I've decided to interpret those experiences. Others may interpret those experiences differently and may be rightly unconvinced by my subjective experiences.

Unlike the author of the book you reviewed, however, I'm perfectly okay with that. I have no vested interest in convincing anyone that my subjective experiences or my interpretation of them are objective truth that they need to believe in. (In fact, I'm free to change my interpretation at any time.)

Anyway, I can see why you find this book terribly unconvincing.

By the way, I figured I was checking out your blog, I might as well make a few comments.

-- Jarred.

Saganist said...

Thanks, Jarred! I appreciate your comment, and I love your attitude. Yours is a very reasonable position to take. I wish more believers in gods would think and speak like you do!

bradfun said...

Hi Michael,
I have not read the book yet, but came across your review. I am very interested in reading it.
It sounds as if you are wrestling with God and his exitence. I was going through the same thing a number of years ago. I have spent time studying this topic and there are some authors you might consider looking into:

William Craig - he has written many books concerning the existence of God such as:
God?: a debate between a Christian and an atheist‎, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics‎ and Hard Questions, Real Answers‎.

Ravi Zacharias is another author who has written some great books such as: Beyond Opinion, Jesus among other gods and Can man live without God.

Lee Strobel who was once a very proud atheist, but as an editor for a Chicago newspaper tried to disprove God and in the process found God instead. He has two very good books called: Case for Christ and Case for faith.

I would love for you to read some of these books. Let me know what you think - I would love to talk more with you.

my email is

have a good day!

Lachrymus said...

Hi Michael,
I think the "No True Scotsman" fallacy you mention is a particular point of want in the broader cultural climate surrounding faith and skepticism. It's a bit dismaying that Keller falls prey to this. I just used an excerpt from his book in a brief post I did on the topic of God and reason, readable here.

I'm someone who is approaching the general topic from the point of view that religions, beliefs, and doubts are primarily things that people do rather than have. My first impulse is to see labelling some people as "fake" or "real" Christians to be an act which primarily serves to impede the willingness or ability of some individuals to "do belief" or "do doubt" with others, i.e. it is divisive.

However, over time my attention has settled on the enhancing effect which this labelling provides, within the confines of the respective camps. It's curious that as the polarity and tension between the opposing camps rises, the cohesion within each respective camp tightens. People become certain of their enemy, and they mobilize to defend, or attack as the case may be.

At present I see no tenable way of obviating the need for cohesion. Therefore I find that the situation calls for a way of creating cohesion, without resorting to polarization. Polarization seems to be the "autopilot" way of creating cohesion. The idea of "manually" creating cohesion has had quite the grip on my interest of late, although, in fairness I've only just started developing a position from which to accurately judge whether the idea might be more than a pipe dream.

Thanks again for your review.


noohcs23 said...

The main problem I have with your review is where you say that the statement of Keller that secularism has caused as much violence as religion. You put question marks after it so I'm assuming you disagree with that statement, however, there is overwhelming evidence that would prove otherwise. Ever heard of Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia, or Communist China, North Korea? All of these "utopias" were places were they made religion illegal mostly, but it only caused violence and destruction. Are you willing to say that the tens of millions of people who died for believing in Soviet Russia didn't exist? Or the Jews in Germany? Or modern day Christians who are underground in China?

Saganist said...

noohcs23, I'm not saying that the victims of Stalin didn't exist. I would say that I think religion is generally orthogonal to violence and oppression. Those who seek to do harm to others will find a reason to do it. There are as many examples of those who shed blood in the name of religion as there are examples of those who shed blood in the name of politics or power. Even in the cases you mentioned where an oppressive government is explicitly secular, I wouldn't claim that secularism itself is the root cause of the violence. Would you? I would generally say the root cause is the desire for power. I think Keller is wrong to attribute violence to secularism and peace to religion. There are many counterexamples to both claims, and listing them proves nothing except that the issues are more complex than that.

nicole.diane. said...

I'm currently reading this book and so far I completely agree with what you're saying. As an atheist, I feel that he makes assumptions that we are all cut-throat intolerant jerks and that we do not have an open mind to what believers, (or anyone else for that matter) have to say. That alone turns me off to his attitude. Too much assuming going on. I do enjoy the book however, and I'm glad I picked it up. Will continue to read on. Can't wait to get to the part when he says anyone who disagrees is dishonest and lacks integrity =)

B.S. said...

Your youth is showing., Mike! If you have to use expletives to get your point across that weakens your stance..

Proof of God's existence or non-existence is not possible. It seems that nihilism is raging still---and it shows itself in your comments and in others in this blog. Sorry ,but it's not the answer.

Saganist said...

Thanks, B.S. As I said in the post, these were my personal notes, raw and uncut. I felt they were worth sharing but not worth the time it would take to clean them up. I certainly don't claim this is a well articulated stance, but I think it has some points worth considering.

By the way, neither atheism nor agnosticism implies nihilism. Neither does unwillingness to accept Timothy Keller's flawed logic. I am certainly not a nihilist.