We’re in chapter two of Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God this week. An index of all my posts in this series can be found HERE.
- The common perception is something like this: the secular worldview = facts, religious worldview = faith. Facts > faith, and therefore secularism is more logical and rational than religion, right?
- Keller argues in this chapter that secularism actually involves “a set of faith beliefs,” or “highly contestable assumptions about the nature of proof and rationality itself.” He explores two main ideas to support his point:
- The limits of science and reason: Science can tell us a great many things and is hugely important, but we cannot scientifically prove things like ethics or the basic dignity of every human being. We believe those ideas not as a scientific reality but “on a combination of rational, experiential, and social grounds.” (34) Science, by definition, will also never be able to “prove” the supernatural because its “baseline methodology is to always assume a natural cause for every phenomenon. There is no experiment that could prove or disprove that there is something beyond this material world.” (35) Furthermore, even reason and “reality” are not as reliable as we think. For example, “reason depends on the faith that our cognitive senses – our eyes and ears, our minds and memories – are not tricking us. Yet there is no noncircular way to establish that…Consider the movie The Matrix. Can you prove that you aren’t actually in a vat somewhere…We cannot, then prove these fundamental premises for the operation of reasoning. We take them on faith…” (35)
- The influence of background beliefs: There is a grid of assumptions behind all our beliefs that we take for granted as true, but what if they are just cultural constructs? For example, people today look at the problem of evil and suffering and use it as evidence against the existence of God. But philosopher Charles Taylor argues that “culturally, our belief and confidence in the powers of our own intellect have changed. Ancient people did not assume that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgment on how an infinite God was disposing of things. It is only in modern times that we get ‘the certainty that we have all the elements we need to carry out a trial of God.’ Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God.” (37) Therefore reason has not replaced faith, instead, it is “a new kind of faith, one in the power of human reason and ability to comprehend the depths of things…” (37)
- Keller goes on to make the case that our ideas of inherent human rights and our positive views of the body and of emotions all came from Judeo-Christian theology, not secular philosophy. He then cites Nietzche, who argues that it’s inconsistent for secular people to reject God yet hold on to these Christian ideals, and that these moral ideas can’t just be separated and utilized apart of Christianity. Why? Because without the comprehensive Christian theology of God and mankind, there is no standard to keep morality in a fixed place, and it will eventually become “a problem.” The ideas will just be used to wield power when it’s convenient. (47-48)
- Conclusion: It may seem that Keller is saying that if science and reason are not as reliable as we think, then truth is unknowable and there’s no way to “weigh and evaluate such philosophical religious statements.” (53) But to the contrary, his point is “only that using demanding, demonstrable, unquestionable proof for them is inappropriate…Rather than unfairly asking only religious people to prove their views, we need to compare and contrast religious beliefs and their evidences with secular beliefs and theirs.” In other words, whether secular or religious, we all have beliefs that can’t be scientifically proven either way and that are taken in a measure of faith. So instead of saying one has to prove their beliefs without a shadow of doubt, which is impossible, we should take the evidence we do have and see how it lines up with various belief systems.
Phew! These chapters are intense! It’s been pretty difficult to synthesize all the info down and keep these posts to a reasonably easy-to-consume length. Definitely let me know if you want anything clarified. There’s more in each chapter to flesh out Keller’s ideas but obviously I can’t put everything here.
One thing that’s really resonated with me through these two chapters is Keller’s general encouragement to just think more deeply about the views we all hold. I’ve mentioned before how in our modern, Western culture we take so little time to just think. Not only do we live very distracted lives in general, but in our Twitter age, we’re in a place where knee-jerk emotional vents and 140-character summaries of complex issues are about all we have the time or patience for. Case in point, we all suffered through this past election cycle, where it became glaringly obvious how we distill things down too far, throw nuance out the window, and turn every issue into us vs. them. We usually do the same thing when it comes to religion.
I appreciate that through this book, Keller is encouraging us to stop making reductionist statements ourselves and to also see what’s underneath the reductionist statements of others. In chapter one, he’s fighting the reductionist view that religion is worthless and that only idiots believe it. Religion is indeed very compelling for a number of reasons and it’s growing, so one should at least give it the time of day and try to understand it. In this chapter, he’s pushing back against the idea that scientific fact and rock-solid reason are all there is to a secular worldview. There’s actually a significant number of ideas secularists take on faith and that can’t be scientifically proven.
And his challenge is the same to Christians. In indirect ways throughout both chapters, he has challenged believers not to make reductionist statements and to look deeper past our background beliefs. He challenges views such as all atheists are terrible, “immoral, unhappy misanthropes.” (I had to look up misanthrope in the dictionary.) Unfortunately a lot of Christians hold this view, at least functionally, but it’s not only untrue experientially, it’s inaccurate according to the biblical ideas of common grace and original sin. Or he calls attention to popular but completely unbiblical views among many Christians, such as “If I’m a Christian and God loves me, there’s a limit to how badly life can go for me.” God never promises in the Bible that we will escape suffering and have success and comfort all our lives. Instead, He promises to faithfully walk with us in our pain and to use it to make us more loving toward others and more trusting in Him.
Next week, we start part II of the book, where Keller will explore some specific aspects of life and how religion and Christianity speak to those issues. Chapter three, “A Meaning That Suffering Can’t Take From You,” is coming up next week!
- If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you?
- What do you think of Keller’s provocative thesis that one can’t truly have a solely scientific, rational, and secular worldview because there’s a fair amount of “faith” that’s required? Do you think the “burden of proof” falls more on one side or another?
- Keller encourages us to go through the process of “doubting your doubts.” Like the example explained above in the chapter summary with the problem of evil and suffering, can you isolate a doubt you have and dig deeper to what assumptions are underneath?
Questions? Comments? Clarification? Rebuttal? I welcome it all!