The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism – A critique (Chapter One: A Leap of Doubt)

reason for GodUpon my admission to being an atheist my Mom gave me this book. I am responding to Timothy Keller‘s, a Manhattan Presbyterian pastor of a thriving church, book. If any offence is taken this is not my intention. However, if offended please examine why.

Chapter 1- A leap of Doubt

At the beginning of each chapter Pastor Keller quotes a few skeptics summing up what the chapter is tackling. Chapter one attempts to answer “How could there be just one faith.” and refute “Religious exclusivity is not just narrow – it’s dangerous…” (P. 3)

Pastor Tim Keller

Pastor Tim Keller

He references an invitation to a panel with a Rabbi and a Muslim and admits if Christians are right then the other two faiths fail, and if either of them are right, Jesus is not God.  He goes on to agree traditional religion’s claim to exclusivity of superiority is one of the main barriers to world peace. (P. 4)

Keller argues the secularization thesis – religion was a way for primitive and uneducated people to cope with a frightening and incomprehensible world and will fade with the introduction of science and technology – has not proven to be true. He cites the growth of Christianity in the developing world (Nigeria, Ghana, and Korea) as evidence.

While it is true when a third world region begins to improve, religion doesn’t wain and in some cases grows. While granting this, the secularization thesis applies to growth in first world areas. Keller’s argument doesn’t apply. Statistically, the likely hood of non-belief is clearly related to education and wealth, both making the world less overwhelming and dangerous. The more educated and wealthy a person is, the less likely they are to have religious beliefs.

In 2008, intelligence researcher Helmuth Nyborg examined whether IQ relates to denomination and income, using representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, which includes intelligence tests on a representative selection of white American youth, where they also replied to questions about religious belief. His results, published in the scientific journal Intelligence, demonstrated that atheists scored an average of 1.95 IQ points higher than agnostics, 3.82 points higher than liberal persuasions, and 5.89 IQ points higher than dogmatic persuasions.[8]

LynnHarveyNyborg-Atheism-IQ.svgThe relationship between countries’ belief in a god and average Intelligence Quotient, measured by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg.[9] (graph to the left)

Nyborg also co-authored a study with Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, which compared religious belief and average national IQs in 137 countries.[9] The study analyzed the issue from several viewpoints. Firstly, using data from a U.S. study of 6,825 adolescents, the authors found that atheists scored 6 IQ points higher than non-atheists.

Secondly, the authors investigated the link between religiosity and intelligence on a country level. Among the sample of 137 countries, only 23 (17%) had more than 20% of atheists, which constituted “virtually all… higher IQ countries.” The authors reported a correlation of 0.60 between atheism rates and level of intelligence, which was determined to be “highly statistically significant”.[9]

Researcher Gregory S. Paul‘s findings suggest that economic development has a closer relationship with religiosity.[14] He argues that once any “nation’s population becomes prosperous and secure, for example through economic security and universal health care, much of the population loses interest in seeking the aid and protection of supernatural entities.” Other studies have shown that increased wealth is correlated with a decline in religious beliefs.[15][16] Indeed, the majority of the nations that showed a strong relationship between low religiosity and high IQ in the 2008 study were developed nations.[9]

This information is in direct conflict with Keller’s diminutive evidence the secularization thesis is false, so I must reject the claim.

Keller goes on to say, “Religion is not just a temporary thing that helped us adapt to our environment. Rather it is a permanent and central aspect of the human condition.” (P. 6) This claim is myopic.  We are in the infancy of our evolution. As the world becomes more developed religion morphs and fades. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to look ahead 1,000 years and envision a world devoid of faith and religion as we know it. In any case to say it is permanent is hubristic at best. He simply made a claim, does not demonstrate it, and best sources contradict it, so I must reject the claim.

Pastor Keller gives hope his shortsightedness is at an end by making an excellent and honest point; the view “All major religions are equally valid one basically teach the same thing.” is problematic due to inconsistency. “It insists that doctrine is unimportant, but at the same time assumes doctrinal beliefs about the nature of God that are are at loggerheads with those if all the major faiths.” And “It (this view) holds a specific view of God which is touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of most major religions. So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid in others.” (P. 8)

He asserts the idea religious belief too historically conditioned to be “truth” is false successfully saying you could say the same about the former. (P. 10)

Keller quotes Prof. Mark Lilla “Doubt like faith, has to be learned. …Skepticism(s) adherents… have so often been proselytizers. In reading them, I’ve often wanted to ask: “Why do you care?” Their skepticism offers no good answer to that question.”

I agree doubt has to be learned if we have to undo faith, but left to my own devices I seriously doubt I

Steve Weinberg won the Nobel in physics in 1979

Steve Weinberg won the Nobel in physics in 1979

would have made up a deity by myself. Allowing that I would, I doubt my god would punish finite crimes with infinite torture and see killing of the innocent for the acts of the guilty as justice. Someone has addressed Prof. Liila’s question years before this book was published. Steve Wienberg (an American physicist) said, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” With this in mind try to think of anything that is moral and good a faithless person can’t do that a person of faith can. I am confident nothing will come to mind. Moreover, if religion is the only thing keeping people from being evil, what happened before god spoke to Abram? How did god assess that Abram was good enough interact with? Clearly this objection is easily put down and has been for generations.

Moving on he addresses the calls to exclude religion from debates in the public sphere on the grounds anyone of a different religion or no religion cannot engage in the conversation and the dialogue is abruptly halted. In arguing against keeping religion private to facilitate discourse all parties can engage and come to common solution he attempts to show secular convictions are conversation stoppers as much as religious convictions because “…all of our most fundamental convictions about things are nearly impossible to justify to those who do not share them.” He attempts to reinforce this point by siting “self-realization” and “autonomy” as secular discourse killers.  First, let’s look at the fundamental tenants of humanism, arguably the most common secular view.

Humanist Manifesto III Summarized

  1. Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
  2. Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
  3. Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
  4. Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
  5. Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
  6. Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

(I would personally add, “Do no harm.”)

One could argue how absolutely true these statements are, but it would be difficult to show them as not fundamentally good. Surely not conversation stoppers.

While humanism clearly does not have all the answers or a fine tuned plan to reach utopia, any other world view would be hard pressed to find issue with the basic ideology.

Let’s look at what Keller cites as conversation stoppers from the secular view. Self-realization: First, it is much more often affiliated with eastern religions. Secular types rarely attempt to support legislation or public discourse with ideals based in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. “Self-realization” has made its way into psychology currently, but most humanists admit psychology is in part a science in formation and likely wouldn’t hit the floor of the senate brandishing it as a strong right arm.

Secularists get behind autonomy as we can see from the manifesto, however the idea we are responsible for our own actions and must choose daily whether to do right or wrong is found in religions over and over and seems to be a well grounded truth no matter your religion, culture, or time.

To be fair to Pastor Keller the extreme of autonomy is Anarchism and that throws a wrench in getting anything done, but the chance of a true anarchist getting enough support to get into public discourse is slim to none. If an anarchist attempts to form a group and support system they have already betrayed precisely what they stand for and cease to be anarchists.

Keller continues on with a hypothetical back and forth about what to do with the poor between Ms. A and Ms. B. Ms. A arguing for the survival of the fittest and Ms. B arguing for the basic rights of all humans. He states, “Her public policy proposals are ultimately based on a religious stance.” Since she cannot prove her stance scientifically.

Times change and so do needs.

Times change and so do needs.

First, I’m not so sure either person wouldn’t be able to prove mathematically the cost to benefit ratio of helping the poor. We do this all the time as a society.

Secondly, just because you do not have diamond hard evidence of a social theory’s correctness doesn’t mean you cannot make an informed decision. Faith by definition is the firm belief in something for which there is no proof.  We have an enormous amount of information world-wide regarding what programs and use of resources provide the best results regarding the poor. Social scientists may differ on which one they think is best, but calling their reasons faith-based is obtuse if not idiotic.

The final section of this chapter is titled “Christianity can save the world”. To his credit Keller once again admits religions are often a threat to world peace and horrible atrocities have been committed in the name of the church. He then goes on to say the teachings of Jesus overlap the values of most cultures and religions. He attributes this fact to the doctrine of universal sinfulness that “leads Christians to expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them. So there will be plenty of ground for respectful cooperation.”

He says most religions subscribe to a “moral improvement” point of view where good works are the ticket to heaven. He points out since Christianity is based on salvation through grace (which is a common debate addressed later in the review). Christians should expect people of other faiths to be better than they are since a non-Christian’s soul constantly hang in the ratio of good to evil deeds.

He also claims a superior goodness found in early christians because what they did socially for women and the poor during the Greco-Roman period.

There are several issues with this reasoning. Firstly the teachings of Christ were not collected and canonized until 325 CE when emperor Constantine I, who became emperor by leading a bloody campaign through out the region after having a vision of the cross and a voice said, “In this sign thou shalt conquer.”  At this point the symbol of Christianity changed from a fish or lamb to a torture device. Constantine was famous as the first Christian Emperor and having two brother-in-laws of his murdered, as well as the son of Licinius, his own illegitimate son Crispus, and even his allegedly adulterous wife Fausta (who was found to be innocent afterwards).

Early Christians did not have any of the gospels and even if they had they would have been largely illiterate. For at least the first 70 or so years, most followed the teachings of apostles like Paul, formally Saul of Tarsus, who had never met Jesus. To assert the early benefits yielded from Christianity were due to the teachings of Christ is patently false. At best they could be attributed to the apostles that clearly did not work for gender equality as Keller claims. (P. 20) (read 1 Cor 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12)

Secondly, the reason for the overlap is because the Bible introduces ideas as the Jewish people came in contact with other faiths. For instance, Hell is not part of Jewish texts or religion. Jews to this day do not believe in Hell or Heaven but rather have a place called Sheol. Hell doesn’t enter the Talmud until the Jews come in contact with Zoroastrianism, the first known faith with the concept of Hell. Additionally many of the teachings of the Old and New Testaments touted as great wisdom are plagiarized from other faiths and philosophies.

The Ten Commandments are clearly from the 125th spell of the Egyptian book of the dead. Instead of “thou shalt not” it uses the form of negative confession “I have not”.

Spell 125

“Hail to thee, great God, Lord of the Two Truths. I have come unto thee, my Lord, that thou mayest bring me to see thy beauty. I know thee, I know thy name, I know the names of the 42 Gods who are with thee in this broad hall of the Two Truths . . . Behold, I am come unto thee. I have brought thee truth; I have done away with sin for thee. I have not sinned against anyone. I have not mistreated people. I have not done evil instead of righteousness . . .

I have not reviled the God.
I have not laid violent hands on an orphan.
I have not done what the God abominates . . .
I have not killed; I have not turned anyone over to a killer.
I have not caused anyone’s suffering . . . I have not copulated (illicitly); I have not been unchaste.
I have not increased nor diminished the measure, I have not diminished the palm; I have not encroached upon the fields.
I have not added to the balance weights; I have not tempered with the plumb bob of the balance.
I have not taken milk from a child’s mouth; I have not driven small cattle from their herbage . . .
I have not stopped (the flow of) water in its seasons; I have not built a dam against flowing water.
I have not quenched a fire in its time . . .
I have not kept cattle away from the God’s property. I have not blocked the God at his processions.

In the New Testament the highly prized “golden rule” credited to the Sermon on the Mount

“And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

-Luke 6:31

Here is a list of the different ways this idea has been said, some long before the time of Christ.

1. The HINDU religion taught: This is the sum of duty: do naught to others, which if done to thee would cause thee pain. -The Mahabharata

2. The BUDDHIST religion taught: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. -Udana-Varga

3. The JEWISH traditions taught: What is hateful to you; do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. -The Talmud

4. The MUSLIM religion taught: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. -Hadith

5. The BAHA’I faith teaches: He should not wish for others that which he doth not wish for himself, nor promise that which he doth not fulfill. -The Book of Certitude

6. Do not do unto others what angers you if done to you by others. -Isocrates 436-338 BCE

7. “Tzu-kung asked, ‘Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘It is perhaps the word “shu”.

8. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire’“ -Analects, 15.24

There is overlap because the Bible is a politically assembled book over hundreds of years, not because

Ever play telephone?

Ever play telephone?

of an original or superior ideology.

Christianity doesn’t bring much to freshen table of benevolence and altruism. In fact the most original part of the faith at the time of its formation was the idea of eternal torture and a monotheistic triune god, which is simultaneously the most important and contradictory part of the faith. In light of that I cannot see how it is humanity’s best hope of saving the world.

In the first chapter Timothy Keller takes on some incredibly difficult questions and falls short of mark. At times he seems frightfully ignorant of human and religious history. I did appreciate his honesty.

Drive fast. Take chances. Thanks for reading.



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