Bart Ehrman’s been on Unbelievable again, this time talking about the Problem of Evil: if God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world? His opposite number this time was Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher. Both of them have written books on the subject. I’ve read Ehrman’s God’s Problem but not Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.
The programme consisted of them both trying to get the arguments from their books into an hour long discussion. There’s an MP3 of the programme available on Premier’s site. If you get annoyed with people posting links to audio and video without summaries, you could read my notes, below the cut, or skip to the conclusion.
<lj-cut text=”What was said”>Free will
Ehrman mentions Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When bad things happen to good people (summarised here), in which Kushner says God is not all-powerful. Swinburne points out that being all-powerful doesn’t include being able to do something logically contradictory. His argument is that there are good states which can’t occur without allowing for the possibility of suffering. For example, you can’t give people free choice (a good thing) to people without allowing them to chose evil. Responsibility for others is a good, but we can’t really be responsible for them unless their well-being depends on our actions. God, as our creator, has the right to allow us to experience suffering if it’s ultimately for our own good.
Ehrman responds that free will doesn’t explain why many people suffer and don’t receive benefit from it. A child dies of starvation every 5 seconds, and it’s hard to argue that the child benefits from it. Christians think there will be no suffering in heaven, and yet there will, presumably, be free will in heaven. Hence there is no logical inconsistency between free will and the absence of suffering.
Justin Brierley (the presenter) mentions natural disasters. Swinburne says that if the only suffering we experienced was from other people, some of us would barely suffer at all. He thinks this would in some ways be a bad thing. Natural evils (earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts) allow us opportunities to practice being cheerful in the face of suffering, to make significant decisions, and to help others. Making good choices improves our character. Deciding the kind of person we’re to be is a good, but only serious situations allow those choices.
Ehrman is unconvinced by this. The 700 children who starved to death in the course of the programme did not have the choice to be cheerful about it, nor does it seem right to excuse the suffering of others (the starving) by saying it gives us an opportunity to make moral choices.
Swinburne talks of soldiers who die in just wars. We regard it as a good thing for them that they give up their lives for the good of others (to save their country from tyranny, say). The starving children are starving because our governments aren’t doing enough about it, and neither are we as individuals, but Swinburne seems to be arguing that the starving children or murdered Jews (he explicitly mentions the Holocaust at this point) give something good to others, just as the soldiers who die defending their country do. The good here is the opportunity for people to make decisions that matter. Swinburne realises this sounds callous, but thinks we have to step back from our emotional response to the problem.
Ehrman thinks the Swinburne’s cool detached approach to the Holocaust isn’t good enough.
What The Bible Says
The programme moves on to the Bible’s attitude to suffering. As he does in God’s problem, Ehrman says that the Bible doesn’t tend to give modern philosophically based answers, but its authors have a range of answers of their own. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible often say that suffering is punishment for Israel’s sins. In some places, suffering is caused by the actions of other people (the closest the Bible gets to the free will argument, though it doesn’t ever mention the argument explicitly). In other places, suffering is redemptive, so that people suffer to bring salvation (Jesus in the NT). Some Biblical authors attribute suffering to supernatural powers who work against God, and believe God will sort the baddies out at the end of time. Others (one of the authors of Job) think that it’s wrong to even question God about this. Finally, Ecclesiastes (summarised by scribb1e here) says that life, including suffering, just doesn’t make sense sometimes, so we may as well be happy as best we can.
Justin Brierley quotes Ehrman’s God’s Problem, where Ehrman describes sitting in a church near Cambridge (he has family locally) in a Christmas service, being moved by the intecessory prayers for God to come into the darkness. Ehrman says that the story of Jesus is that God does intervene, but looking around the world, this doesn’t seem to make a difference now.
Swinburne agrees that the Bible has a number of different answers to why people suffer, because there are number of reasons that God might allow suffering. He adds some that Ehrman hasn’t mentioned: Hebrews 12 talks suffering as character formation, John 9 talks of a man born blind so that Jesus could show something by healing him.
Ehrman thinks that some of the understandings in the Bible contradict each other, for example, the apocalyptic understanding where suffering is caused by the powers of darkness disagrees with the prophetic understanding where suffering is caused by God. Swinburne says that apocalyptic teaching says that the powers of evil are ultimately allowed by God. He talks about how God suffered himself in the person of Jesus.
Ehrman says that Swinburne’s views are not the views of the Biblical authors, but rather theological views derived from the Bible (Ehrman sounds a bit evangelical here, arguing with Swinburne’s view that the church has authority over the Bible). The earliest Christians believed that God would soon bring an end to suffering, with the return of Jesus. Jesus didn’t arrive, what arrived was the church. These days, God is inert. Swinburne doesn’t quite disagree with Ehrman’s assertion on when early Christians expected the world to end (because he’s presumably not an inerrantist), but starts to go into the standard rationalisations on this point when Brierley asks for a summing up from each of them.
Ehrman agrees with Brierley that the Bible isn’t trying to come up with a philosophical explanation of suffering, but that the authors have various answers to what God’s doing about it. Ehrman thinks the most important thing is that we should do something about it.
Swinburne says we are privileged to be allowed to do something about suffering. He says a world without suffering would be a world without resonsibility for each other. There’s a hurried digression about free will in heaven, and parable about how it’s better to suffer for the greater good than to live a live of bliss.
Stiff upper lips
Swinburne’s theodicy is that of the public school games master, telling the boys that cross-country runs, cold showers and being made to play rugby against the masters will build character, however unpleasant these things are at the time. By contrast, in God’s problem, Ehrman tells us he has his students read Elie Wiesel’s Night. Ehrman’s book quotes Primo Levi’s Auschwitz Report, as well as the memoirs of Rudolf Hoss, written shortly before he was hanged by the Poles near the crematorium of the death camp over which he presided. In the face of sort of thing, Swinburne sounds like Pangloss (5 points to anyone who can write an “Objection: What about Nazis?” verse expounding Swinburnism: the lyrics to the existing ones about snakes and war are here, so you can get the metre).
Still, we ought to be careful of using the Holocaust as a sort of trump card in these debates, because it seems disrespectful of the dead, and also because it can be used as a tactic to imply that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically a bad person, which is the sort of thing that Christians might do, dammit (holding to a doctrine of total depravity is a big help with that sort of thing). So, what of Swinburne’s argument?
Why is this blog called “GCU Dancer on the Midway”, anyway?
I’ve mostly been ignoring Saunt Eliezer’s recent stuff on Fun Theory over at Overcoming Bias because it triggers my (badly evidenced and probably irrational) “transhumanism: phooey” reaction, but as he says, “if you can’t say how God could have better created the world without sliding into an antiseptic Wellsian Utopia, you can’t carry Epicurus’s argument“.
Luckily, I’ve had this argument before, and chose the Culture over my present existence. I think Swinburne is partly right, in that eliminating all possible causes of suffering actually does more harm than good. After all, one of those causes is other people making their choices, and other people who can make their own choices are interesting, even if the choices can lead to us ending up wearing the diaper (scroll down) from time to time. But why allow those choices to actually kill and maim people? Why aren’t there angels acting as slap drones? (Saunt Eliezer thinks there are problems with the Culture, but they also apply to Christianity. I’m sure he’ll tell us the right answer soon 🙂
There’s not much point getting angry with a fictional character, but on the off-chance we encounter God on judgement day, we ought to say that he could have done better.
Bart Ehrman’s been on Unbelievable again, this time talking about the Problem of Evil: if God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world? His opposite number this time was Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher. Both of them have written books on the subject. I’ve read Ehrman’s God’s Problem but not Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.
Bart Ehrman recently turned up on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking to Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House. You can listen to the programme on Premier’s site.
The subject of the programme was Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus (which, confusingly, is also available in the UK as Whose Word Is It?), a book which we’ve discussed here before. Williams has written about the book over at Bethinking.org (scroll to the bottom for more, including Williams interviewing Ehrman).
Ehrman the evangelical
What’s perhaps surprising is how much Williams and Ehrman agree on matters of fact, but disagree on interpretation. Williams describes himself as a “glass half full” person when it comes to the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. His most convincing argument is that an Ehrman-approved NT translation would differ very little from the ones used by most Christians, and, says Williams, would still be sufficient for God’s purposes. Ehrman himself says on the programme that, while some variants do alter the meaning of passages, he wouldn’t expect a theologian to change their mind as a result of those variants.
When robhu mentioned Ehrman a while back, we ended up concluding that Ehrman’s knowledge of the manuscript evidence is not so very different from that of evangelical scholars (see Article X and section E of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example). But Ehrman couldn’t carry on being an evangelical knowing what he did. So what’s going on here?
Obligatory dig at CICCU
At least part of it it seems to be bad communication from the evangelical scholars to evangelical flocks, as Williams says on his blog. Perhaps one of the evangelical churches or colleges Ehrman attended was unwise enough to ask him to assent to doctrinal statement which asserted “the divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given”, for example. Perhaps they were even silly enough to speak of verbal, plenary, inspiration, rather than of Williams’s ideas of the “immaterial text” which is encoded in the manuscripts as genes are in DNA (clearly one can’t say the word “meme” on a religious blog).
Making inerrancy pay rent
Ehrman questions just what Christians are claiming is inerrant, and how it got that way. He expected assertions of inerrancy to mean something definite about the Bible he was actually reading, both in terms of how it got into his hands and what it says. Manuscript errors and internal contradictions bothered him because they seem to cast doubt on the text in his hand, but the Section III, C of the Chicago Statement makes it clear that errors aren’t errors if they’re not things God meant to get right anyway, and any contradictions aren’t. Well, I’m convinced.
OK, so I’m taking the mickey, but there are some interesting bits of psychology in something like the Chicago Statement. According to this interesting article on the philosophy of science as it pertains to inerrancy (no, really), there’s a logical way to maintain any belief whatever evidence comes in. Simply calling inerrantists illogical or deluded won’t cut it, however tempting it may be. So, let’s say that Ehrman’s commitment was to a version of inerrancy which couldn’t fit in his web of belief alongside the problems he knew about. Williams’s version can fit, but is far less clear. Williams’s version pays less rent, that is, it’s closer to, if not the same as, saying nothing more than “The Bible has an attribute called ‘inerrancy'” (like saying “Wulky Wilkinsen is actually a ‘post-utopian'” in Eliezer’s example)
Next week on the programme, Ehrman is talking to Richard Swinburne about the Problem of Evil. I hope he’s learned something about Bayes Theorem by now, after the unfortunate events of his debate with William Lane Craig.
Reading my archive of Usenet posts from my misspent youth, I came across reference to Myers-Briggs tests for Christian ministers (this was presumably at the point where the bits of the church in the UK had decided that personality tests would help work out what gifts people had, or something).
But what if you’re a vicar and find yourself with the wrong sort of personality for your role or congregation? Luckily, Myers-Briggs corrective pills have the answer. Possibly only funny if you can work out who George C. of South London and Sandy M. of London are (or were in the early years of this century).
Some of the archive might be fun too: I liked Were you the Dalai Lama?, Clerical Vacancies, The Decayed of Evangelism and the outcome of the same.
One useful thing one can take from a Christian past is the ability to get the in-jokes.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.