A Quick Review of Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God”

I recently came across Timothy Keller’s book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. I haven’t really read Christian apologetic books in a long time (which is no doubt due to my belief that the apologetics industry is bankrupt), yet I decided to give this book a whirl.

The first half of the book, comprised of seven chapters, is a polemic against skepticism, with the next seven chapters being apologetics for Christianity. The following quote is from the introduction and gave me an initial hope that this book was maybe going to be pretty decent. After all, a Pastor who encourages Christians to acknowledge and engage their doubts is already off to a good start, right?

A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.  Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts – not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs because you inherited them.

Unfortunately, my initial hope for this book was short lived as I continued reading. You see, the underlying problem with this book is that it isn’t actually aimed at skeptics or their arguments. While I am a Christian, I have enjoyed many conversations with self-identified atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers, and read a fair amount of literature produced by atheists. Some of these authors have been interesting to read, others were entertaining to read but poorly researched (e.g. God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens), and others are some of the most appalling tripe I have read (Why I Am Not a Christian by Richard Carrier). I bring this up because I feel like I am somewhat well-versed in the reasoning and arguments used by many atheists and skeptics when it comes to the question of God and Christianity. While Keller says the skeptic arguments he presents here are “a distillation of the many conversations I’ve had with doubters over the years”, a lot of what I saw was red herrings, strawman arguments, and ad hoc rationalizations, making this book not a worthwhile read for the skeptic. Keller either needs to broaden the scope of the skeptics he talks to or he has a very strong selection bias in his memory of the one’s he has talked to over the years. I seriously think one would be hard-pressed to find a skeptic who would be convinced to start believing in a god or in Christianity by this book. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism is essentially 2% interaction with actual skeptic arguments and 98% of “Hey Christians, lets have a grand old circlejerk about how there is no legit reason to doubt Christianity!”

In the first chapter, titled There Can’t Be Just One True Religion, Keller deals with what he claims is the biggest objection to Christianity that skeptics have. What is the biggest objection to Christianity? From my own reading of atheistic literature, I would say that the biggest objection is the lack of evidence for the existence of a deity, as well as a lack of legit evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Following close behind this is the objection of theodicy – if there is a good god then why is there so much suffering and evil? The objection Keller deals with in this chapter is neither of those. Instead, the objection he claims is the biggest protestation against Christianity is one of exclusivity; Christianity can not be true because there can’t be just one way to God. Yes, I was a bit stunned as well to see that he thinks this is the biggest objection against Christianity.

At one point in this chapter, Keller discusses the argument that all religions are the same, and counters it by arguing that all religions can not be true or can not be at least equally true. Yet he neglects to discuss the other, much more pertinent, alternative that most skeptics and atheists actually believe. What is this alternative? That all religions are simply flat out wrong. Instead of discussing that possibility, Keller instead opts to focus on three socio-political approaches that he says world leaders are using to address the divisiveness of religion: (1) outlaw religion; (2) condemn religion; and (3) privatize religion. Strangely, he uses Nazi Germany as a historical example of an attempt to outlaw religion, despite the fact that Nazi Germany did not outlaw religion; it used religion, Christianity in particular, as a tool to further Nazism and manipulate the people.

Another point that Keller discusses in this chapter is the skeptic argument that the majority of people pick their religion based solely upon the culture they were born into. In other words, if you were born in India then you would be a Hindu, or if you were born in Morocco then you would be a Muslim, etc. What is Keller’s response?

You can’t say, “All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I am making right now.” If you insist that no one can determine which beliefs are right and wrong, why should we believe what you are saying?

He has craftily changed the skeptic’s argument (by adding “except the one I am making right now”) in an attempt to prove it self-refuting, which makes me think that he has written it merely for the Christian reader and not for the inquiring skeptic. Also, note how the actual argument of the skeptic (that religion is largely inherited based on one’s location of birth) is not actually answered.

The strangest thing in this chapter, in my opinion, is that Keller winds up lapsing into some sort of solipsistic-esque argumentation. He says:

…all of our most fundamental convictions about things are beliefs that are nearly impossible to justify to those who don’t share them. Secular concepts such as “self-realization” and “autonomy” are impossible to prove and are “conversation stoppers” just as much as appeals to the Bible.

In other words: we all have bogus reasons for believing what we believe, therefore Christianity is just as legit of a worldview as secularism.

At another point in this chapter he says that, “Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true.” But from my experience this just isn’t what skeptics argue. They actually argue that there is no legit methodology available that can be used to determine the veracity of claims concerning knowledge of spiritual reality, regardless of whether said claims are “exclusive” or not.

The second chapter is How Could A Good God Allow Suffering. It is in this chapter we find his answer to the theodicy question:

Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. …

With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them.

Somehow, I don’t think this answer is going to be sufficient for the many skeptics who see the problem of evil as a serious problem to the plausibility of the existence of a benevolent deity.

Keller tries to assert in this chapter that an objective moral standard has to be established in order for anyone to legitimately be able to define things as bad and good. Why does he argue this? Because he says that if you succeed in doing so, you have just proved God. This is coupled together with a quote from the venerable C.S. Lewis (who is quoted a few other times in this book if I recall correctly). The gist of Keller’s argument seems to be that if there is no God to provide the objective moral standards, then everything is arbitrary. Yet this is wrongly assuming that subjective moral standards necessarily equate to arbitrary moral standards. But morality can in fact be subjective and change depending on the situation, yet this does not mean it is arbitrary. I was hoping that Keller would engage with serious attempts that have been put forward by atheists regarding morality (e.g. Sam Harris) in this chapter, but unfortunately he didn’t.

The third chapter was more of the same. Keller says:

One of the most frequent statements I heard was that “Every person has to define right and wrong for him- or herself”

I would like to know who Keller has been talking to because that is just not something I have ever read or heard a skeptic or atheist ever say.

The fourth chapter was an attempt to answer the skeptic argument that the Christian church has caused so much injustice and suffering itself. Keller’s response? Nothing but an exercise in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. He points to the good things that Christians have done, such as German Christians in the Confessing Church standing against the Nazis. What about all those German Christians who supported the Nazi regime?  I guess they weren’t really Christians? I also enjoyed Keller giving Christians the credit for ending human slavery. Heck, it only took us nearly two thousand years to go from the Apostle Paul legitimizing slavery to us advocating for its end. I guess that’s not too bad! Right?

Chapter five is on the question of how a loving God can send people to hell. What does the author have to say about this?

Today many of the skeptics I talk to say, as I once did, they can’t believe in the God of the Bible, who punishes and judges people, because they “believe in a God of Love.”

Uh, wait, is he addressing skeptics or theists? Now it all makes sense, the “skeptics” that Keller refers to in this book are in fact just doubting theists/Christians.

The sixth chapter was an answer to the skeptic argument that science has answered Christianity. My favorite part in this chapter was the following snippet:

Only after drawing conclusions about the person of Christ, the resurrection, and the central tenets of the Christian message should [the skeptical inquirer] think through the various options with regard to creation and evolution.

Uhhh, yeah… right.

There was also this sly jab at evolutionary theory:

Evolutionary science assumes that more complex life-forms evolved from less complex forms through a process of natural selection.

I think what Keller actually means is, “Evolutionary science, by drawing conclusions using a gigantic amount of data from a multitude of scientific disciplines, has come to the conclusion that more complex life-forms evolved from less complex forms through a process of natural selection.”

The seventh chapter, called “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally”, was utterly horrendous and betrays Keller’s lack of knowledge on biblical scholarship. All I can say in response to this chapter is that no, The Da Vinci Code does not represent the pinnacle of ‘liberal’ scholarship. Neither is it an example of of “biblical skepticism” or “historical revisionism”. Why was The Da Vinci Code even mentioned? It is a novel. A crap one at that.

I’ll skip writing summaries of the remaining chapters as this review is already much longer than I intended. I will briefly mention the one I was most interested in reading, which was called The Reality of the Resurrection. Not surprisingly, Keller in large part relies upon N.T. Wright in this chapter. And also not surprisingly, I found this chapter to be very deficient in its argumentation. Hopefully I will write up a separate blog post on this chapter in the future sometime soon.

One of my favorite snippets from this book is found on page 116:

What is Christianity? For our purposes, I’ll define Christianity as the body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds.

The creeds he is talking about were listed in the previous paragraph as being the Apostle’s, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. So if you don’t subscribe to everything in those creeds, then I guess you are not part of Christianity!? That counts me out I guess! And probably the majority of church going Christians who wouldn’t know the Athanasian creed from an Archie comic.

Speaking as a Christian, I would like to say that this book was good but it wasn’t. It was terrible. It masquerades as a book written to answer the objections of skeptics, but it wasn’t. It was written as a safety blanket for Christians who want to have their own beliefs reaffirmed without having to read a fair and balanced presentation of the arguments of skeptics.

4 responses

  1. Thanks for taking the time to review the book. It’s one I
    was considering reading, but it looks like you have saved me the
    time. What would be a couple of the *strongest* books for someone
    who is balancing the claims of Christianity (or theism) with the
    best arguments of skepticism?

    • Mike, I know you didn’t ask me personally but I thought I’d
      chime in with a book recommendation. Probably the best and
      strongest book I’ve read that balances the two is The Last
      Superstition by Edward Feser. I highly recommend it.

    • Sorry for the late reply. I’m not too sure that I could recommend what are the strongest pro-Christian books as I generally refrain from reading anything that is Christian apologetics. Though if you are looking for a book in regards to the question of the historicity of the resurrection, I read one a while ago by Michael Licona called The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A New Historiographical Approach.

  2. I think you missed widely in this review. While Keller claims to be writing to skeptics, he doesn’t claim to be entering the fray of the professional skeptic. He is a pastor at heart and the disciples of the professional atheists are rarely as well versed in the orthodoxy of atheism or agnosticism as it’s vocal charismatic leaders. Therefore their questions and objections may be different. Keller speaks only to those objections that he has encountered as a pastor in New York.

    His pastoral approach is to take on what have been the major objections in his own experience. Keller doesn’t debate atheists. He doesn’t take to the stage like William Lane Craig or Daniel Dennet in opposition to another point of view. He hops up on the stage alone and attempts to answer the questions he is asked. And, in my opinion, he does so artfully.

    He attempts to move people -normal, everyday people in New York- to move from doubt to faith. So, if he fails in his attempt to strike down the well honed arguments against deity of the atheistic illuminati (That is just an expression for effect… I’m not a conspiracy theorist), then it is because he never attempted to do that in the first place.

    I do appreciate your thoughtful review. I just think that Keller’s stated goal needs to be the stick against which his book his judged.

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