This week, I start with the first chapter of Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God, titled “Isn’t Religion Going Away?” An index to all my posts in this book study can be found HERE.
- Contrary to popular belief in the West, religion in general is NOT dying. In fact, statistically speaking, it’s growing at a steady rate. Keller sites an article in the Washington Post, “The World Is Expected to Become More Religious – Not Less,” which is based on a Pew Research Center Study in 2015. (9)
- One reason for this trend, Keller argues, is that secular scientific reason by itself is unable to explain too many important things that define humanity, like love, morality, the idea of human rights for all, and putting others before yourself. While we could define those things in strictly secular and evolutionary terms, those explanations fall short in many ways. For instance, love can be described as simply chemical reactions in the brain, but we all know it to be so much more than just that. (11-15) Keller sites prominent secular philosophers who have conceded that secular reason alone creates an incomplete narrative for humanity.
- The second reason religion continues to make sense to people is because we all seem to have some sense of the transcendent. Whether it’s in experiencing a masterful work of music or art, being awed by nature, or even having an inexplicable “spiritual” or supernatural experience, we all have a sense that there’s something beyond the here and now, that the material world is not all there is. He cites prominent figures like Steve Jobs as well as other atheist thinkers who have reluctantly admitted to experiencing a sense that “life is greater than can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations” (22) or even expressed a hope that life is ultimately not “cosmically irrelevant.” (15-23)
- Keller returns to his first point to flesh out the realities that religion is far from finished and cites a couple demographic reasons.
- First, “conservative religious bodies…have a very high retention rate of their children and they convert more than they lose.” (24)
- Second, religious people have more children. He’s not advocating overpopulation, but just makes that point that by the numbers, religious families are outpacing secular families who tend to have fewer children. (24-25)
- Interestingly, the denominations and sects that are more “moderate” or liberal without a strict adherence to set doctrines (i.e. those one would think are the most palatable) are the ones dying out in the U.S. and Europe, while the more conservative, conversion-based religions are on the rise. (25-26)
- Conclusion: “In this chapter I have not addressed whether religion is true. I have only sought to make the case that it is by no means…becoming irrelevant. I invite you to keep reading even if you’re not interested in Christianity, at least for the sake of understanding the faith of growing millions of people who are finding faith appealing.” (27)
A FEW OBSERVATIONS…
- I found the statistics about religion in the world to be so interesting! We’re so used to seeing secularism on the rise in our culture and so we think that’s what must be happening everywhere, but we forget that we are really a small slice of the world’s population. It will be interesting to see how the conflicts already playing out between the secular and religious and among various religions develop as these demographic trends continue.
- He’s far from the first to make these claims, but I thought Keller made a very compelling argument that secularism alone is an inadequate narrative and fails to answer important questions of morality, love, beauty, and transcendence. For these reasons I personally find atheism to be more puzzling than other systems of belief. It makes sense to me that there will be many ideas about who or what this transcendent reality is and how to interact with it (i.e. different religions), but to try and deny its existence altogether? (Maybe an atheist friend out there can help me better understand your beliefs.) I thought this quote was a good and insightful summation, “Actually, it is quite natural to human beings to move toward belief in God. As humanities scholar Mark Lilla has written: ‘To most humans, curiosity about higher things comes naturally, it’s indifference to them that must be learned.'” (23)
- Keller included an anecdote of atheist Barbara Ehrenreich’s encounter with a supernatural force, detailed in a memoir titled Living with a Wild God. She concludes what whatever she experienced couldn’t have been the Christian God because that God is advertised as “good,” while what she experienced was a “wild, amoral Other…whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in wonder that strikes us chill and numb.” (21-22) Keller argues that this experience actually does agree with a biblical theology of God, as the Bible describes God’s presence not only as love and light, but also as wild, utterly beyond, hurricane-like, “traumatic and lethal yet compelling and attractive.” A thought for fellow Christians, how well do we do at balancing God’s grace and love and goodness with His holiness, power, and might – either in our own minds or in how we communicate who God is?
- Main point of the chapter: In most of the world, religion is not dying, it’s thriving. And there are very compelling philosophical and existential reasons why religion will continue to make sense to people.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
1. If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you?
2. Why do you think religion in general is so important to people? Keller argues that “people believe in God not merely because they feel some emotional need, but because it makes sense of what they see and experience.” (23) Do you agree that we need some narrative to make sense of the human experience and the big questions in life? Why or why not?
3. Have you ever had a spiritual or supernatural experience you couldn’t explain? Did it influence your beliefs at all?
I always welcome any and all thoughts, comments, rebuttals, etc. See you next week for Chapter Two: Isn’t Religion Based on Faith and Secularism on Evidence?