Mattghg and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, both linked to Matthew Parris’s article As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.
Parris is an atheist who writes admiringly not just of the work done by Christians in Africa, but of the changes conversion brings about in people, supplanting a tribal mindset he regards as unhealthy.
Matt also links to (but rightly criticises) a response to Parris by Stephen Noll, who writes for something called Anglican Mainstream. Noll’s article makes a couple of good points and then veers off into a parody of the Daily Mail, telling Parris that he should reflect on how atheism has lead Britain into darkness, and rounding off with the threat of the UK being over-run by Islam. I’ve not really been keeping up with who’s been anathemising whom in Anglicanism lately, because it’s all a bit tedious, but I’m assuming that something called “Anglican Mainstream” is actually a fundy schismatic organisation, much like a “People’s Republic” is always a communist dictatorship.
It’s odd that Noll thinks Theodore Dalrymple supports his claims about Britain, because in the article Noll links to, Dr Dalrymple doesn’t prescribe a dose of God: he says Brits were civilised and are now being un-civilised by intellectual activity and legislation (presumably they believed in God throughout the civilisation phase), and speaks fondly of a time when Brits regarded religious enthusiasm (a term which once referred to evangelicalism) as bad form.
Strangely enough, I’ve already quoted Dalrymple in a statement which will probably get my Dawkins Club membership card confiscated, namely, that faith groups in prisons are OK if they introduce prisoners to a culture which is less broken than the one they belong to already. This pragmatism is a reflection of my devotion to the ideas of Neal Stephenson, I suppose. (Of course, the faith groups needn’t be theistic: Buddhism can do the job, too).
It’s an annoying fact that religions are better at spreading than rationality is, as Andrew Brown points out. Christianity, or at least the right sort of Christianity, certainly isn’t the worst belief system out there. If a dose of God will displace tribalism or nihilism (which, pace Noll, isn’t equivalent to atheism), it seems like the lesser of two evils, to me.
Is it inconsistent for me to say this and also write stuff about how Christianity is wrong? I don’t think so: I’d always want to help someone to become a rationalist, which is the goal of the stuff I write. But I’m trying to be realistic about the prospect of that happening to someone who’s starting from less than zero. Evangelical Christianity is infectious and can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se. We can use that 🙂
Mattghg and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, both linked to Matthew Parris’s article As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.
Alex Byrne in the Boston Review addresses the existence of God, pointing out that modern debates echo those of Hume and Paley (he of the watchmaker). Byrne talks about the Ontological, Design and Fine Tuning arguments for God.
The article is interesting because it addresses some weak responses to these arguments, from Dawkins’s The God Delusion. As gareth_rees said, the popularisation of this debate will hopefully encourage everyone to consider whether the reasons they have for their positions are good ones.
In other news, Father Christmas (who really does exist, otherwise who’s bringing all those presents, eh?) brought me Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, Bitches; and Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem (about the Problem of Evil). I expect I’ll be posting about those once I’ve read them.
Jessel, the Tri-felge Putenard, is the subject of part IV of my Bishops Gone Wild series. This means the bishops of the Catholic Church and the Church of England are now neck and neck after a promising start by the C of E: come on Anglicans, put your backs into it!
Jessel was reported as saying that saving humanity from gayness was as important as saving the rain forests. There’s no official English translation of his remarks, but a comment on Ruth Gledhill’s blog provides a translation from a papal fan-site (yes, really), and the BBC has translated some extracts.
Various postings here on LJ have been saying the media have got the wrong end of the stick, and that the speech didn’t mention gays at all. However, Reuters reports that the term “gender” in Italian is “a broad term that includes anyone who doesn’t identify entirely with their assigned sex and can include homosexuals, bisexuals, pansexuals and others.” Anyone out there know some Italian?
The rest of the talk about sex in the speech sounds like the usual natural law stuff. Humanae Vitae gets a mention, so you can read that if you want to see an example of the reasoning here, such as it is.
What with this stuff and all that substance/accidents transubstantiation stuff, the church does seem rather wedded to Aquinas and his scholastic friends (although transubstantiation is also What the Bible Says). I hope for some sort of slow reform, whereby they’d gradually change to using more modern incorrect physics: perhaps there’s mileage in the idea that prayers are transmitted via the luminiferous aether because God is the Absolute. Or something. I’m hoping to work phlogiston in there too.
andrewducker says that we shouldn’t be surprised when theists say the funniest things. Perhaps not, but inasmuch as the Pope has some influence on people’s lives, he deserves the storm he’s called up.
Dawkins has published the complete interview he did with Derren Brown for the Enemies of Reason programme: it’s available on YouTube (in several parts, but that link is to a playlist which should play them in order). It’s mostly Brown talking about the techniques used by mediums, with occasional questions from Dawkins. I’m a fan of Brown, so I enjoyed it.
Like all the best people, the inestimable Mr Brown is an ex-Christian. The final part of the video re-iterates the first chapter of Tricks of the Mind, where he describes how he turned to rationality. He learned about hypnosis, which his fellow Christians claimed would allow in demons (keen students: from the teaching on demons in Matthew 12, or otherwise, show that this is What The Bible Says [5 marks]). He got into stage magic and learned how psychic powers were a con, and that believers in it were only interested in evidence in favour of their beliefs (this is what he calls “circular belief” in the book and video), and would discount or forget the evidence against them.
The young Brown realised this circularity applied to his own Christianity as much as it did to the believers in the psychics. As Brown says, it’s hard to see a difference between these sorts of claims, other than that religious claims have a certain gravitas from having been around for a long time. After all, you could probably construct plausible reasons for the psychic “misses” or why the people who are in contact with aliens can’t provide a proof of the Goldbach conjecture, just as you can for why God is silent (in fact, variants of “it doesn’t work because of your scepticism” and “you wouldn’t believe me anyway” are already common to all of them).
These beliefs rely on rear-guard actions against those who explicitly deny them, coupled with a personal conviction that the belief must be true. There’s little positive evidence in favour. We saw this in the case of Christianity, recently, when looking at Keller’s reasons for faith, much as Brown found when he investigated his former faith for himself.
Both Brown and Dawkins seem surprised that people don’t actually want to know that psychics have been debunked. Randi debunked Peter Popoff, but Popoff is still pulling in the donations. Although I’m occasionally irritated by Andrew Brown’s “New Atheists: UR DOIN IT WRONG” stuff, I think he’s right to say that most people don’t think the way Derren and Dawkins do, whether they’re theists or atheists:
It’s not natural to suppose that our emotions should be in line with our intellectual representations of the world and consistent and coherent over time: but as an ideal it’s tremendously important. Even as an ideal it has to be transmitted by a culture: as a discipline, it needs years of education and of practice. You might call it thinking for yourself, in a rather silly clever way, if by that you meant not independence from society, but using thinking as a tool with which to build yourself. Getting to that point is just about the central task of education, moral as well as intellectual, which means that almost everyone pays lip service to it. Yet the evidence suggests that most people, certainly most believers, don’t entertain it as a serious possibility. But neither do most unbelievers.
It’s all a bit depressing really. Perhaps Plantinga is right and rationality doesn’t necessarily have a survival value.
One of my friends did that “grab the nearest book to you and post the Nth sentence on page M” meme. I grabbed the nearest book (Keller’s The Reason for God) and her sentence was the same as mine! This is clearly a sign from God that I should finish my review of the book (the first part of my review is already generating a lot of discussion in the comments). So, here goes. As in the previous part, we’re following the book’s chapters.
<lj-cut>In the Intermission between the two halves of the book, Keller talks about standards of proof. He says that the New Atheists have accepted “strong rationalism”, which he says is the view that no-one should believe anything unless it is proved so strongly, by logic or empirical evidence, that no sane person could disagree. What Keller calls strong rationalism seems to be what the rest of us know as logical positivism.
I can only think that he has not read the books he criticises, since Dawkins at least is pretty clear that he thinks belief should be proportional to evidence (hence his preference for the atheist bus sign to read “There is almost certainly no God” not “There is no God”), not that there is some threshold of evidence below which all beliefs should be rejected. Despite Keller’s claims that the New Atheists subscribe to verificationism, I doubt that the Dennett and company would reject Karl Popper’s insights on falsifiability, say. You get the impression that Keller’s an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to this philosophy stuff, eagerly on the look out for big names who at least appear to back his position.
In place of strong rationalism, Keller advocates something he calls critical rationalism. This seems to be something like abduction or inference to the best explanation: we observe a bunch of stuff (the clues that Keller will later talk about, of which more below) and that God would be an explanation for that stuff, therefore it’s reasonable to say God exists. It seems to me that Keller must do more work to avoid this becoming something like Heinlein’s objection to Occam’s Razor: that the best explanation is “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.”
I’m a bit of an amateur too, as it happens, so I’ll leave the epistemology there, and refer you to the professionals, or at least, the professionals in training: Chris Hallquist’s review concentrates specifically on the philosophical problems with Keller’s book. Let’s look at some of Keller’s specific arguments.
The Reasons for Faith
The Clues of God
This chapter deals with hints that God exists, as Keller correctly points out that this is a necessary pre-cursor to Christianity. He deals in clues, as he accepts that these arguments are not conclusive, although he thinks some of them are strong. Let’s look at Keller’s clues:
<lj-cut>The Big Bang
The Big Bang is the first clue. Some Christians (notably William Lane Craig) have identified this with creation of the universe from nothing, and ask what caused it, reasoning that the cause must be outside the universe, since the Big Bang represents the start of space and time. These Christians are over-reaching: the Bang represents a place where theories break down. Sean Carroll is a researcher at the cutting edge who argues that popular science books also over-reach here.
The second clue is fine tuning, which goes something like: Slight differences in the physical constants would make the universe inhospitable to life. It’s unlikely that the universe got hospitable by itself, therefore someone must have made it hospitable. We call that someone “God”.
I did have a whole section on the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and Linde’s eternal inflation here, but then I realised I was committing the same error as Keller, namely, drawing on a highly speculative cosmology to make my point. We just don’t know enough to argue with any certainty that fine tuning was required. For instance, perhaps those “constants” we’re treating as free parameters in a fine tuning argument aren’t so free after all.
Instead, since Keller’s argument is “this is what we would expect if there were a God”, we should respond “is there anything about which you wouldn’t say that?” (Philosophy fans, note that a disciple of the New Atheists has just abandoned “strong rationality” and backed falsificationism: I expect they’ll take away my Dawkins fan club membership card next). Why did God create a universe which is largely hostile to our sort of life, just to house the Earth in one corner, a pale blue dot? Returning to the problems with Keller’s idea of theistic evolution (which I mentioned last time), if you’re a Christian, when you speak of the cosmic implications of the Fall or the Second Coming, do you imagine they apply to the entire universe? Personally, if there were a God, I’d expect a smaller cosmos, possibly the original Christian cosmos, where ideas of a friendly universe made for us and cosmological consequences of sin make a great deal more sense.
The regularity of nature
The third clue is the regularity of nature. Keller refers to the problem of induction, as pondered by Hume. How do you know yesterday will be like today, or that any regularity you discover will continue? Well, you don’t, but if you’re a Bayesian, I guess you’re able to count each sunrise as evidence, if not proof. It seems odd to talk about this as evidence specifically for theism, though: if you’re some sort of Platonist, you could argue that the regularities were evidence for the world of forms, if you’re a Many Worlds fan, you could argue that conscious observers can only exist and continue to exist in regular worlds, and so on.
The fourth clue is the existence of beauty. Keller’s argument is that beauty makes us feel life is significant, therefore God exists. Keller’s other argument here is that the existence of an appetite suggests the existence of the thing it is an appetite for. This all strikes me as so much wishful thinking. Applying the Rake disposes of the argument, because it is entirely composed of things we wish were true.
The Clue Killer
Keller moves on to what he calls the Clue Killer, evolution. Keller says that evolution is claimed as the killer argument against all of the previous clues, because naturalistic accounts of religion (see Pascal Boyer’s summary of these) would say that people only find the clues convincing because of cognitive bias. Keller says that naturalists are happy to believe that religious beliefs arise from cognitive biases, but what about the evolutionists’ belief in evolution? He moves into the Argument from Reason, pointing to arguments from Plantinga and others that if evolution is true, we can’t trust our reason. After all, if deception had survival value, our brains would deceive us. How can we trust anything, including the conclusions of evolutionary theory?
Keller writes: “It seems evolutionary theorists have to do one of two things. They could backtrack and admit that we can trust what our minds tell us about things, including God. If we find arguments or clues to God’s existence that seem compelling to us, well, maybe he’s really there. Or else they could go forward and admit that we can’t trust our minds about anything.”
This seems to take the argument too far in a direction that, as far as I’m aware, the professionals like Plantinga don’t take it. I’ve not seen them saying that acceptance of evolution or a naturalistic account of religion are specific examples of cognitive bias. Rather, if I’ve understood them correctly, the pros are saying that naturalism undermines the whole project of rationality, since physical things cannot be said to have justified beliefs. Keller presents a false dichotomy between accepting things which “seem compelling to us” and giving up on reason. Why not try believing in stuff we have evidence for? Keller himself said at the beginning of the chapter that the Clues were not compelling, so it doesn’t seem right to object to naturalists saying people give these clues too much weight because of a pre-disposition to believe in God.
The theistic alternative is not particularly satisfying either. If God gave us the capability to reason, then he was not completely successful, because we know about biases and we see disagreements even between reasonable people. If we follow these sorts of arguments through, as Barefoot Bum does here, we end up concluding that the theistic account doesn’t explain anything, because it ends up just making a list of how people’s minds work and saying “God wants that”, which gives no explanatory advantage over just listing how people’s minds work.
Keller goes on to talk about the “final clue”, namely, that believing in God explains all of the previous clues. Perhaps, but only if you’re prepared to regard God as basic enough to be the place where the buck stops in these explanations, without requiring an explanation for God. There are people who find that sort of explanation satisfying, but there are others, like me, who regard it as giving up. The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.
The knowledge of God
Keller argues that we already know God exists, deep down. Not, as the New Testament says, from what has been made, but, as C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament says, from our moral sense.
<lj-cut>We feel that morality should be universal, morality can only be universal if there’s a God, therefore God exists. There’s been some debate about this argument on my journal and on Rob’s recently. I think I’ve said most of what I’d like to say in one of those two places. To summarise, even without examining the questionable justification for the second premise, the Rake does away with this again, in the absence of any other reason for believing in a universal morality, because it’s just a statement of how we wish the world to be.
Keller moves on to practical arguments. If you would intervene in another culture’s treatment of women, say, then you’re implicitly believing in a universal morality, says Keller. This appears to be an argument that the alternatives are timid relativism (“We can’t tell them to stop, it’s their culture”, as the New Yorkers might say) and theism. I’d advocate Charles Napier’s approach: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
Keller speaks of the “who sez” response to moral claims. Moral claims are things we ought to do but don’t always. For them to be effective against the people who don’t do what they ought to, we need both a source of morality and an enforcer. Despite their complaints that the only alternative to theistic morality is a belief that might makes right, a lot of the Christian arguments against an atheistic morality boil down to the absence of an ultimate enforcer (otherwise we can have moral realism without God, if we’re moral Platonists, say). We have social disapproval, police and prisons, and armies for the Nazis, but they won’t always mean that the side we consider to be good wins out. This means the bad guys can win, which can’t be true. Can it?
Well, yes it can. The mere fact that we might wish it were otherwise does not make it so. To me, that’s an argument for less timid relativism. We can and should use persuasion and eventually even force. Who sez? I do, and I’d better be able to convince a whole load of other people, or I’m pissing in the wind, regardless of how right I am.
The problem of sin
Keller identifies sin as placing something other than God at the centre of our lives. Keller claims that anything other than God placed there will ultimately let us down, and the worship of these things may even lead to harming ourselves or others. Keller talks about identity, and how investing our identity in something leads us to despise people with a different identity (whether it is politics, race, or interestingly, religion).
<lj-cut>Keller’s claim that anything other than God as our cause will ultimately let us down isn’t backed by evidence other than literary quotations, alas. I’m not sure why we should believe it. After all, some people even feel let down by God.
He goes on to mention the Biblical account of the cosmic consequences of sin. Given his earlier acceptance of (guided) evolution and modern cosmology, it’s not clear what this means. Is the Earth broken? Or the whole universe? As I mentioned when talking about theistic evolution, was there a Fall which introduced death (and how did stuff evolve before that)? He admittedly does describe this cosmic effect as mysterious, but this seems a fairly big hole in this cosmology.
Keller’s theories about identity are another repetition of that evangelical common-place, the idea that everyone worships something. Keller previously asserted this worship is the cause of people going to Hell if that something is not God. As I said to apdraper2000 I don’t believe the common-place is true. Some people don’t really have a cause, they just drift along, and the word “worship” seems to imply a passion that’s lacking in those people. Most people have a variety of stuff they like, but I’d be hard pressed to say they worshipped it.
For people that do have a passion, a cause, I think the important thing is to realise its faults, and avoid the Happy Death Spiral. If slights to the Big Idea are slights to yourself or worse, if your gut reaction to arguments against it is anger and arguments for it is a hit of joy, if everyone who disagrees with you is automatically an idiot, then you’re heading off the deep end. There is a time for anger (if someone wants to hurt people who hold your idea, say), but sometimes such reactions are a danger sign. Either you’re too tired of people who disagree with you and need a rest from engaging with them, or you’re entering the Death Spiral. I see no evidence that Christianity is a sure-fire way to avoid that problem, quite the reverse in fact.
It seems odd to put this chapter in the section of the book about reasons and evidence for God, because it doesn’t seem to contain either, it’s just a re-iteration of what C.S. Lewis thinks about sin.
Religion and the Gospel
Keller says that Christianity is not a religion. What he means is that Christianity says you’re not saved by doing the right thing and earning merit with God. The nice thing about this chapter is that Keller speaks to people who’ve experienced what he calls Pharisaiac Christianity (recall that in the New Testament, the Pharisees are the self-righteous hypocrites, possibly because they were engaged in founding modern Judaism to the exclusion of Christians at the time the gospels were written).
<lj-cut>Religion, says Keller, is about what you’ve done. If you’re doing well by your religion’s standards, you look down on others (he neatly points out that this can either mean calling them bigots if you’re liberal, or immoral if you’re conservative). If you’re doing badly, you’re overcome with guilt. Keller says the right motivation for religion (sorry, Christianity) is gratitude to God rather than guilt or fear.
I can’t actually see anything wrong with this chapter as a presentation of what Christianity should be like. The problem is that most evangelical churches aren’t preaching Keller’s Christianity when they’re not explicitly doing their gospel presentations (read The Post Evangelical for stories of how people found evangelicalism stultifying in the UK, and bradhicks‘s Christians in the Hands of an Angry God for how a lot of evangelicals are in league with Satan in the USA). That, and, you know, there isn’t a God. Apart from that, this stuff is how a good religion would be. If he’s managing to get that across at his church in New York, it’s no wonder it’s doing so well.
Still, there’s not an awful lot of evidence that Christianity is true in this chapter, either.
Keller says that the Resurrection is pretty much the only explanation for the beginnings of Christianity. Drawing on N.T. Wright’s work, he argues that people in the 1st century weren’t simpletons who believed in any old nonsense, that the resurrection of the body of a single person was something neither Jews or Pagans believed could happen, that nothing else can account for the sudden change of the disciples from a frightened rabble into bold preachers.
Finally, we’ve found a chapter about evidence, but it’s not evidence most of us are qualified to judge. Convincing people that the Resurrection happened is a popular apologetic technique among evangelicals, yet according to the Christians who commented on the first part of this review, God doesn’t require us to become experts in ancient literature. But how else can someone judge this evidence? We can look to other experts rather than becoming experts ourselves, I suppose, but they disagree, so I don’t think the evidence can be as clear cut as Keller says. gjm11 tells a parable which points out the problems with Keller’s argument which are apparent even to non-experts.
And the rest
I’m afraid I got bored at this point. The rest of the book is an explanation of orthodox Christian doctrines without much evidence in, er, evidence, followed by an altar call. So, Jesus’s death on the Cross is necessary for forgiveness because we all recognise that forgiveness costs the forgiver; the Trinity makes the statement that God is love meaningful, and never mind that the Bible is equivocal on it and it’s impossible to talk about without committing some heresy or other. Finally, if you want to know more, why not go to church?
The second half of the book is mostly a statement of what Keller considers Christianity is, without much evidence that it’s true. Elsewhere, robhu said that he thought that, though rational arguments have a role, the main way that people come to Christianity was to hear the good news about Jesus (what Christians call the “gospel”) and respond to it, so that his main evangelistic method as a Christian was to present the gospel.
The gospel as evangelicals understand it is composed of factual claims. A bare presentation of the gospel (which is quite similar to Keller’s book, since it turns out that he spends most of the second half of his book saying what Christianity is) asks people to accept those factual claims based not on good evidence, but on an inner conviction, a feeling that the claims are right. To the extent that someone does this, they’ve abandoned even the everyday rationality which we use to judge other claims (that Daz washes whiter, or that the used car had one careful owner). Clearly this works on some people (including me, at one point), but I suspect it’s because rationality is a discipline that most people don’t learn, or even see the value of applying to religion. As far as I’m concerned, Keller fails to offer good reasons for God.
Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a successful church in New York. He’s written a book, The Reason For God, which he says is for people doubting Christianity, and for Christians wanting to answer questions from their non-Christian friends. nlj21 lent me the book, and I read it while on holiday recently. If you’d like to see Keller in action, you can watch his talk at Google, which rehearses some of the arguments from the book.
The success of Keller’s church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller’s style, I can see why he’s successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there’s no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.
Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn’t completely crazy. That’s certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.
That said, since the book is better than most Christian attempts at evangelism I’ve read or seen lately, I thought I’d do a couple of posts on it, of which this is the first.
Arguments against God
The book is divided into two parts: one dealing with the arguments against God, which Keller wants to show are faulty; and one dealing with the arguments for God. We’ll look at his responses to objections, using the chapter headings from the book.
There can’t be just one true religion
<lj-cut>There’s no logical basis for such an argument, as Keller rightly says, because there might actually be one true religion.
What people voicing this objection really seem to be worrying about is the danger that thinking you have the Truth will make you arrogant or even violent towards those who don’t agree. Keller says that the bad stuff done by Christians was against the teachings of Christianity, that is, that those people weren’t True Scotsmen.
Someone like Keller wouldn’t have gone on a Crusade and wouldn’t shoot abortionists, so those things are certainly against Keller’s sort of Christianity. However, Keller’s assertion rests on his interpretation of Christianity being the True Christianity (or at least, Truer), a view which wasn’t shared by Crusaders. As God is silent, how can Keller persuade Crusaders of his rightness? A general caution against arrogance when you think you know the absolute truth sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try believing things to the extent that we have evidence for them, for example?
How could a good God allow suffering?
<lj-cut>Keller argues that modern philosophers don’t accept that evil can be used to disprove God. God might have reasons for doing stuff which we don’t currently understand, and in fact, if he’s much cleverer than us, reasons we may be unable to understand.
This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it. To use Gareth’s analogy, if we’re told someone is a chess grandmaster, yet is is apparently playing very badly, we might at first think that he is adopting some strategy we don’t understand, but as the game goes on, as his opponent hoovers up his pieces without apparent effort, we might begin to suspect we’ve been misinformed about this so-called grandmaster.
Some Christians might respond that a dramatic reversal is on the way, but their evidence for that is poor. Even by the late New Testament period, teaching about the Second Coming is being shored up by suspicious pre-emptive excuses for why it hasn’t happened. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.
Keller goes on to say that atheists have no moral basis for calling something evil, re-iterating the moral argument discussed in a previous entry. He’s wrong, of course: the basis is our dislike of our own suffering, and our empathy for others, two things which are basic experiences in most people. Someone without these might not have a moral basis for expecting God to do something about suffering, but if you don’t like suffering and aren’t a sociopath, you’ve got a basis for worrying about theodicy.
Christianity is a straitjacket
<lj-cut>The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of “The Man is keeping you down, Man” statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller’s church in New York. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.
The Church is responsible for so much injustice
<lj-cut>Along with C.S. Lewis, whose works Keller treats as a sort of New New Testament, Keller argues that you shouldn’t judge Christianity by Christians, because the church attracts strange and damaged people (like me, for example) and when you meet someone, you don’t know what they’ve been through in their past.
The assumption here is that there’s a good reason for changes brought about by God to take a long time. It’s odd that it does for some people and not others, though, isn’t it? If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you’d’ve thought he wouldn’t have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.
The rest of the chapter is the religion vs secularism murder drinking game (drink if the theist mentions Pol Pot or Stalin, drink if the atheist mentions the Crusades or 911, down your glass if anyone mentions Hitler). This can be fun and can motivate your side, but I’m not sure it moves the theist/atheist debate anywhere, so while I have engaged in it in the past, I now think is pretty pointless. I don’t see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn’t seem a good one. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.
How can a loving God send people to Hell?
<lj-cut>Keller says that our problem with judgement is cultural, and that other cultures exposed to Christianity like the judgement stuff but don’t like the turning the other cheek stuff. He says he asked one person who objected to Hell whether she would say that her culture was superior to non-Western ones. The right answer to this is “Well, I think my personal morality is, otherwise what the Hell am I doing?” or possibly “Well, maybe not in general, but I’m fairly sure eternal torture is a bad thing”. Keller’s politically correct one-up-manship is a good way to make woolly relativists back down, so presumably works against the liberals who turn up at his New York church.
Keller then moves on to argue that God doesn’t send people to Hell, as such. His view of judgement owes more to the bowdlerisation of Hell in C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament than it does to the New Testament. Lewis and Keller think that Hell is a continuation of the soul’s trajectory at death, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, that Hell is ultimately God saying “have it your way”. Lewis says “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud”.
To support Lewis’s ideas, Keller quotes Romans 1:24-26, a passage about God “giving people over” to their sins. This passage is actually about red-hot girl-on-girl action, not the fires of Hell. The New Testament is a bit less reticent about God’s role in sending people to Hell than Keller. Reading it, you’ll find that God has appointed a day, and a judge who will condemn people to the fire. It’s hard to fit this positive action from God into Keller’s scheme.
So where did Keller’s ideas come from? Lewis’s (and hence Keller’s) Hell is the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts realm, but without the possibility of rebirth. People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction.
Alas, you’ll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment). Keller quotes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in support of the Hungry Ghost Hell. His exposition of the passage talks about how the Rich Man is self-centred in that he still expects Lazarus to fetch water for him, but unfortunately ignores the fact that this is because the Rich Man is being tortured by fire.
Since Keller’s Hell is the Hungry Ghosts realm, I wondered what his response would be to people attempting to avoid self-centredness by other means. Keller says that “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy”. This claim is asserted without evidence.
Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible’s actual view is less palatable than Lewis’s, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God’s express command. If you believe in the Bible’s version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one. It’s no wonder that most evangelicals (with some notable exceptions) believe they should believe in Hell, but don’t actually believe in it.
Science has disproved Christianity
<lj-cut>Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone’s arguing there can’t be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they’re assuming their conclusion. I wouldn’t disagree here.
Keller goes into an extensive digression about how many scientists believe in God. Like the murder drinking game, we need to be a bit careful here, both when reading Dawkins and when reading Keller. What counts as evidence for God’s activity (or lack of it) is the opinion of domain experts in areas where God is said to have acted (like, say, the opinion of biologists and geologists on creationism, or the opinion of psychologists and anthropologists on religious experiences). The rest is pretty much irrelevant: there’s nothing so stupid that you can’t find someone with a PhD who believes it.
He talks a lot about evolution, probably because creationism is an embarrassment to Christianity for scientifically educated people who turn up at his church. He says he accepts some form of evolution, but, unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t accept evolution as a worldview. The argument is quite confused at this point, and it’s not clear what he means by “evolution as a worldview”. Quotable quote: “When evolution is turned into an all-encompassing theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel and do as the product of natural selection, then we were not in the arena of science, but of philosophy”. Keller appears to have mixed up Dawkins’s views on evolution with Dawkins’s general belief in naturalism, since I doubt Dawkins supports the quoted position.
Keller says he himself believes that God guided some kind of process of natural selection (making it a process of supernatural selection, I suppose). Keller has effectively retrofitted Genesis to modern scientific theories. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn’t mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.
Keller tells his readers not to worry about all this disagreement among Christians about evolution. Look at the core claims of Christianity, he says, not at this side issue. Unfortunately, some of those core claims conflict with evolution. For example, there’s the claim that, just as death entered the world through Adam’s sin, Jesus’s death for humanity’s sins conquered sin and hence death, as demonstrated by the Resurrection. Does Keller think that the Fall was an event in history, and is he arguing that nothing died before the Fall? If Keller has answers to those sorts of objections (which usually come from other Christians, namely the creationists), he doesn’t tell us what they are and how he knows they’re right.
He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can’t be used to show that theistic evolution didn’t happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he’s responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It’s a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn’t really prove anything. Perhaps a more interesting objection to claims of God’s activity in the world would be to say that God is inert and ask someone like Keller to show why anyone would believe otherwise.
You can’t take the Bible literally
<lj-cut>Keller limits himself to talking about the Gospels. He says that they were written too soon after Jesus’s life to be fictionalised accounts, because their first readers could have checked up on their accuracy; their content isn’t what we’d expect of legends composed by the early church (the female witnesses to the Resurrection, Peter’s denial of Jesus when Peter went on to head the church); and that the gospels have the literary form of eye-witness accounts, but the modern novel had not been invented yet, so they are intended as reportage.
I’m no historian, so I’m not really able to check these claims out. I’d be interested to know what my readers think, and I’ll probably be looking into this stuff at some point in the future. My meta-problem with this stuff is having to rely on ancient written accounts of stuff I give very low credence to by default. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.
Keller then addresses cultural, rather than historical, objections to the Bible, arguing, along with New New Testament author C.S. Lewis, that such objections may be assuming that older societies were “primitive”, but that our grandchildren may find some of our beliefs equally primitive. Imagine Anglo-Saxons and modern Brits reading two stories, Jesus’s claim that he will judge the world, and Peter’s denial of Jesus and later restoration. The responses to the two stories will be quite different, Keller argues, so who are we to say that judgement is bad and wrong but Jesus’s forgiveness of Peter is right.
So, Keller argues, rather than saying “bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament and New New Testament, which hadn’t been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.
Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily. In other cases (theodicy and Hell), his method is to argue that there’s still a chance that Christianity is true, so the objections aren’t completely conclusive. I don’t find this that impressive, because the sensible objector isn’t claiming that their objections are conclusive, merely that they’re strong evidence. To defeat that, one must produce stronger evidence, which as we’ll see in the next part, Keller fails to do.
There’s a popular evangelical Christian argument against atheism which involves morality somehow.
In the unsophisticated form it’s that atheism leads to immorality (like the caller on a radio talk show Dawkins was on in the US, who said that if he thought there wasn’t a God he probably would murder his neighbour). This isn’t really worth engaging with, because it’s not an argument that atheism is false.
In the more sophisticated form the argument is that atheism, if true, necessarily means that morality is an arbitrary personal opinion. But we strongly feel that some things are just wrong regardless of anyone’s opinion (in this argument, rape and the Nazis are the canonical examples of things that are just wrong). This contradicts atheism, so atheism must be false.
The latter form of the argument came up recently in an interview that Premier Christian Radio’s Justin Brierley did with Richard Dawkins after a debate Dawkins was in. Brierley wrote a piece about it on the UCCF‘s BeThinking.org site. robhu has posted about it on his journal, and has a poll on what people think about the morality of very bad things. Some lively discussion has ensued there.
Edit: but unfortunately Rob deleted his LiveJournal a while back. Here’s what I said:
Although this “OMG you atheists can’t claim Hilter/rape is wrong” argument seems popular among evangelicals at the moment, I’m not sure what the argument against atheism actually is.
Most atheists demonstrably do claim that Hilter and rape are wrong, so the argument seems to be that such claims aren’t well-founded if atheism is true, so that atheism is inconsistent.
There are atheists who are moral realists, although I’ve not checked whether their arguments are any good. Still, there are some serious names in that Wikipedia article (and Ayn Rand), so I’d be reluctant to conclude that they’re inconsistent without looking into it.
Even if atheism is inconsistent with the existence of moral absolutes (note: I originally wrote “moral realism” here, but that’s not the topic), in the absence of evidence that there is such a thing as objective morality, this sort of argument does not seem to demonstrate that atheism is false, merely that if atheism is true, the universe is not as we’d like it to be (in the sense that we’d like it if there were moral absolutes). The objection to atheism on these grounds seems to be wishful thinking.
Personally, while I think there could be beings who thought that rape and Hitler were not wrong, most of us are not such beings and (crucially) do not want ourselves or others to become such beings. That is, arguments that these things are wrong can be recognised by most humans, but aren’t guaranteed by the universe/God/whatever.
I also responded to one of Rob’s objections:
You suggest that it’s wishful thinking if our deepest sense of what is true does not match up with your criteria for objective proof of that sense. Which I take to be a position where you say you have some strong inner sense that say the holocaust is wrong (even if everyone who disagrees is exterminated or brainwashed to believe otherwise), but because that doesn’t match with the worldview you have (that is there is no God, and so no objective morality) you say that it’s just wishful thinking. For those of us have the worldview that God is real, it makes a great of deal of sense.
So, if I understand what you’re saying, “our” is moral absolutists, “your” is me, right? So you’re saying I, pw201, have a strong sense that Bad Stuff is wrong (which is true), further, that I think it’ll be wrong even if everyone else disagrees (which is true). But I also think such a position (i.e. my own) is wishful thinking, which means I look a bit silly.
But in fact what I think is wishful thinking is the objection to atheism on the grounds that it would mean there are no moral absolutes, because the only grounds for that objection I’m aware of at the moment is that the objector would like it if there were moral absolutes, not that there actually are moral absolutes.
You might be saying that what I’ve said about Bad Stuff two paragraphs ago means I do accept that there are moral absolutes, but in fact all I’ve said is what I think, not that God/the Platonic Form of Moralty agrees with me.
Portrait of the artist as a young man
I was bright and incredibly geeky at secondary school (that’s school for 11 to 16 year olds). I went to St Bede’s, a church school. This wasn’t because my family are particularly religious, but because I was ill at around age 11 and they wanted me to go somewhere with a good reputation for pastoral care, and wanted a school which was smaller than the local comprehensive. St Bede’s didn’t have a Sixth Form (that’s the optional bit of school for 16 to 18 year olds, which is sometimes provided by the same place that does 11-16, sometimes not), but after some to-ing and fro-ing, I got a place at Hills Road Sixth Form College.
At the time, Hills Road had a reputation for being one of the more academic schools in Cambridge. In retrospect, the environment was a bridge to university: the pupils had chosen to be there and were pretty bright, there was no school uniform or, thank God, compulsory Physical Education lessons, and a lot of the lessons were fairly traditional chalk-and-talk affairs, a bit like lectures.
I loved the place. I took A levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and an AS level in Further Maths. The lessons were taught by university graduates in the subjects, often with PhDs. I enjoyed my subjects (although I started to get a bit bored of Chemistry later on) and responded to the enthusiasm of the teachers. In particular, Dr M, the physics teacher, had a great way of explaining stuff and made the subject enjoyable. I began to consider studying physics at university.
Hills Road had a good library, and I spent a lot of time reading books, stuff like Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid and Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, as well as the print version of the New Hacker’s Dictionary. The latter introduced me to the idea that there were other people who found doing stuff with computers fun, and in fact, there was a whole culture associated with it. It wasn’t quite enough to sway me from physics, but it did show me I wasn’t alone.
Wondering where to go
I suppose I started to consider Cambridge after my teachers saw my results from the mock exams we did at the end of the first year and told me I should 🙂 For a state school, Hills Road sent a lot of people to Oxbridge, and they were well set up to provide the coaching for the entrance exams. Being fundamentally lazy (one of the virtues of a programmer), I thought I’d like to continue to study in Cambridge (we didn’t live in Cambridge, so I wouldn’t be on my parents’ doorstep), and that I didn’t really want to do any more exams than I had to. There was the business of picking a college, but Churchill seemed like a good idea: it was modern (so undergraduates could walk on the grass and didn’t wear gowns for meals), it focused on science and engineering (so there’d be lots of people to talk to about that, I thought), it was close to the Cavendish, and it didn’t use the STEP exam, only A Level results and interviews, to offer places.
I went to open days for other places, which occasionally involved a chat with the faculty, but it wasn’t much like an interview. Southampton gave me a two E offer (lots of universities would do that to Oxbridge applicants, hoping to catch someone good if they missed their A level grades), but I liked the look of York, so that was my second choice after Cambridge. I have vague memories of an open day at Churchill, but stronger ones of the interview, later.
Oxford and Cambridge were, and are, two of the few universities in the UK which interview applicants, rather than reading their personal statements on the centralised application form. Like everything else about Oxbridge, there were legends about the interview: the rugby ball thrown from behind the door, the interviewer who looked over his newspaper and said “Do something interesting” (the candidate set light to it), the quirky questions, slightly crazy dons, and so on. I was a little bit nervous.
There were two interviews in the course of the day, as well as lunch with actual students. The first interview was for your subject, the second was more of what, if it were a job interview, would have been the HR interview. I don’t recall much about lunch with the other candidates: as I was reasonably local I didn’t stay in college, so I didn’t meet many of them.
Dr G did the subject interview, which I actually recall enjoying. There were some questions on orbits and gravity, which went OK. Then he pulled out a Crookes radiometer and asked me whether I’d seen it before (which I hadn’t). So he shone a light on it and asked how it worked. Better than that, he asked me to ask him about it, as part of working it out. So I asked whether it works if the bulb is completely evacuated and he said “no”, so it’s not light pressure (which is actually far too small an effect, it turns out), and I noticed the vanes are dark on one side and light on the other, and so it went, until I got to the standard, not quite right, explanation. We talked about the Penrose book a bit, too.
I remember nothing of the other interview, with the college’s admissions tutor, other than that he asked what I’d say to convince him of my enthusiasm for physics, and didn’t seem that impressed that I’d read a few books. He can’t have been completely unimpressed, I suppose.
A little later a letter turned up informing me a had a place at Churchill, conditional on three grade A’s at A level. When the A Level results came out that summer, I knew I was off to Cambridge. I remember having some misgivings about it. Like many of the big transitions which for which we get some prior warning, I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like on the other side. Still, I was hardly going to back out now.
Tired because the programme for first year Natural Sciences students was punishing: lectures typically started at 9 am (including Saturdays), and they’d be followed in the afternoon by laboratory teaching. Supervisions and doing problem sheets in preparation for them fitted in around this, maybe a spare afternoon or evening. Lectures weren’t compulsory, but unlike the arts subjects, in Natural Sciences they more or less covered the exam syllabus for that year, so they seemed like the best way of learning the material.
Lost because for the first time I was a small fish in a big pond. I wasn’t the best by a long shot, sometimes I felt I was struggling to keep up. Most of my friends had been to state schools, but some people on the course had done more maths than me (vital for physicists), and some had further tuition from their private schools.
Most of my reasons for choosing Churchill turned out to be mistaken. Being near to the Cavendish wasn’t helpful, as the lectures were in the centre of Cambridge that year (it came into its own in the third year, where the lectures were at the lab). Few people at Churchill wanted to talk shop in the precious moments when we weren’t actively engaged in our courses. In my group of friends, we’d start an earnest parody of a customer/shopkeeper conversation if one of our number started doing it: “Hello Sir, What Can I Do For You?” “I’d Like A Pound Of Apples Please” “Certainly, Sir” etc. (this sort of thing partly explained why we found it so hard to meet girls, I suspect, the more important reason being that there weren’t that many of them at Churchill, a side effect of the science/engineering bias I’d not considered). I did like the informality of the place, but I envied the sheer Hogwartsness of the older colleges in the summer, as we punted by them on the river. Still, at least at Churchill we didn’t have to go across a freezing quad to go to the loo.
Things started looking better in the Christmas vacation (Cambridge, like America, refers to time away as a vacation). We’d been given past exam papers to do, and to my surprise, I discovered that with enough sleep and free from the stress of the NatSci schedule, I could do them. I returned with renewed confidence that they probably were right to let me in after all.
The improving weather lifted my mood and made Churchill’s overwhelmingly brown architecture look less grim. At these times, even Christians find their thoughts turning to women in floral print dresses. Previously, we’d tended to socialise in a largely male group of Churchillians, going to the Union Society (where I first heard Richard Dawkins speak) or to my friend PJR’s room, as he tended to accumulate the latest and greatest music and video (I remember a couple of examples: my envy that he had a laser disc player that took discs the size of LPs; and my initial scepticism when he said he was a fan of Kylie Minogue, as I’d not realised that she’d just re-invented herself). One day, though, my friend APW recommended ballroom dancing in no uncertain terms: “You get to hold women”, he said. The rest is history.
Summing up and application
For me, getting in to Cambridge was an illustration of what the very best of the UK’s state school system can do for you. Hills Road was so good that I knew people who’d come there out of the private school livredor went to, their parents presumably calculating that there was no point paying for something they might get for free. I was also lucky in having parents who could help financially. This was in the era after grants, when you needed a loan to live on (I left in debt, but not as much as I would have otherwise).
I was aware of people there who matched the upper-class twit stereotype, but as a scientist in an out-of-town, brown-brick college, they didn’t have much to do with me. I met a mix of people. I was lectured by some people I’d heard of. Most importantly, I found a niche outside of my college and subject, which is an important trick for staying sane (a couple of niches, in fact, the Christian Union and the dancers). Cambridge is huge and full of bright people, some a little shy or strange, trying to make a place where they fit. I am sure there are people who don’t find a such a place, but from my experience, you’d have to try quite hard.
or Bishops Gone Wild III (the first two parts being the statement that gays cause floods and Rowan Williams’s unexpected advocacy of the ideas of Heinlein).
According to the Torygraph, Patrick O’Donoghue, the Catholic Bishop of Lancaster, has said that educated Catholics have let the side down. It seems influential graduate Catholics in politics and the media have been tainted by the dark side of university education, which he helpfully lists as “radical scepticism, positivism, utilitarianism and relativism” (dialectical materialism’s good enough for meeeee).
The Bishop has produced a report aiming to make Catholics “better-equipped to challenge the erroneous thinking of their contemporaries”. I’d suggest a series of informational films, starting with Catholics, Know Your Limits, which would be a bit like this classic, but adapted for the problem at hand, so:
|VOICEOVER: Look at this wretched unfortunate. He went to university. Hard to believe he’s under 25. Yes, over-education leads to ugliness, radical scepticism, positivism, utilitarianism, relativism and people mistakenly thinking they can live happy and productive lives without God.
UNFORTUNATE: Feck! Girls! Drink! etc.