Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism was a random find. I’d returned a handful of books to the library and was looking for something to listen to in the car. The title of this book caught my eye and, at only five CDs in length, I decided to give it a try.
The introduction is intriguing. Keller, a Methodist minister in New York City, sets himself the mission of breeding doubt for both the skeptic and the believer. As he rightly points out, even when doubt doesn’t lead to a renunciation of one’s position, wrestling with it — and understanding the arguments for it — will make that position stronger and more nuanced. In other words, you can often learn more about your own views by reading those who disagree with you.
Unfortunately, Keller’s book, both when he seeks to undermine skeptical arguments and when he tries to buoy Christianity, are thin. No atheist even moderately well versed in the philosophical basis for non-belief will find anything convincing, or even troubling, inThe Reason for God.
For example, Keller begins by tackling the objection that the evidence for Christianity (or God — Keller doesn’t often distinguish the two) is lacking and that the burden is on the Christian to prove his claim. Keller’s response is that all statements about what is true are predicated upon underlying assumptions. Thus, the skeptic is as “faithful” in his beliefs as the Christian. It’s just that what they have faith in differs. Keller extends this by defining religion so broadly (it’s any system of belief about how we ought to live our lives) that he can therefore label the skeptic’s views religious. Once the atheist is seen as just another religious believer, how is he to say his religion is better than the Christian’s?
The trouble is, Keller’s radical epistemological move opens him up to “true” meaning anything anyone wants it to. Clearly, as a Christian and as a believer in the infallibility of the Bible, this is unacceptable to him. His escape is to fall into a trap common to liberal Christians: he turns to C.S. Lewis. In arguing against the problem of evil, for instance, Keller quotes Lewis’s claim that, because we seem to have a universal moral sense, there must be a God who gave it to us. This tactic only works — and arguably still doesn’t — when there are no alternative explanations for human morality outside of God. But the mere fact that I can respond, “Nope, it wasn’t God, but evolution that gave us our moral sense,” means Lewis (and, therefore, Keller) fail. The burden is again shifted to Keller to demonstrate why his, and not my, explanation is the legitimate one.
Throughout the book, one gets the sense of Keller as a man who can’t really understand why anyone would reject his belief system. Thus the reasons he gives for such rejection are presented as obviously shallow because, if they had depth, they would mean genuine trouble for his Christian faith. Keller was born into a Christian family, was raised in the Christian faith, and never really deviated from it. Christianity is all he knows, and it is clear he can’t see how that faith looks to the legitimate outsider.
There are stronger arguments for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity than Keller presents. The Reason for God, then, is at best a friendly book for Christians who want to feel a little better about holding their faith. At worst, it is an example of why American Christianity is so defensive against the weight of the emergent atheist movement.