It used to be C.S. Lewis. Then Josh McDowell. Then Lee Strobel. Now it’s Timothy Keller, whose The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (published in 2008) is the number one most read defense of Christianity. So here’s why it’s bunk.
I’ll survey Keller’s book in several parts. Here I’ll cover everything through the end of Chapter Two, which sets the ground for the rest of the book.
- A Foundation of Lies
- The Leap of Doubt
- The Secularization Thesis
- Cultural Relativism
- Secular Government
- Lying about History
Christianity Rests on a Foundation of Lies
Keller is a typical Christian apologist. Which means, he’s a liar. I’ve already refuted pretty much all his arguments in my article on Bayesian Counter-Apologetics, just by being honest: I reintroduce all the evidence he deliberately ignores and goes out of his way not to tell any of his readers about; then I re-run the math with that omitted evidence. The end result: every argument he makes for God, is actually an argument against God. I’ll point out more specific lies he tells as I proceed through the principal points of his book. But the overall tactic is simply to conceal, and in such a way that with the right evidence left out, it looks like there’s a god.
Of course, there are also plenty of fallacies. But even those are lies. Regular Christians can fallacy their way into believing all manner of false things without even realizing they are doing that. But Keller’s deployment of fallacies is sometimes so calculated, I can only conclude he knows he is manipulating his readers.
I’ll point out specific examples of that as well. But right out of the gate, Keller structures his entire book around one fallacy that is surely an intentional deception (because someone of his knowledge and experience cannot possibly not know this): in his introduction Keller launches the rhetorical device of claiming that “in fairness you must doubt your doubts,” and if you doubt your doubts, you should stop doubting. What he doesn’t tell the reader is that doubting your doubts, does not actually warrant believing anything. Because in most cases, the conclusion you reach is that you don’t know what’s true. Doubting every explanation there is, does not produce any reason to pick one to believe in. To the contrary, it warrants believing none of them.
Keller says “we will have to base our life on some answer” to the question of whether a god exists and what religion is true (p. 10), but that’s not really the case. We may have to base our life on the fact that we don’t know the answer to either question. “I don’t know, therefore I have to pick one” is illogical. Of course, though he pretends that isn’t an option, it’s only the worse that, in fact, the evidence is overwhelming that there is no god and no religion is true. But someone has to honestly examine the evidence, and thus actually know about that evidence, before they can discover that; and Keller has engineered his book to prevent that. But even by not telling the reader about the “picking nothing because you don’t know” option, Keller gets to trick the reader into picking—and since his book is actually intended for Christians and not skeptics, he knows it’s foregone which they’ll pick.
But really, Keller is never going to examine anything there is any genuine basis for “doubting your doubts” over. In other words, he will never pick something we actually should profess ignorance over, like what the underlying cause was of the inflationary Big Bang, or why there are only three dimensions of space and not ten billion, or why quarks exist and have the properties they do, or exactly which mechanism produced the first self-replicating molecules on earth. He’s going to instead pick stuff where there actually is ample evidence for doubting his explanation; and then not tell you about any of that evidence. Worse, he’s going to tell you there isn’t any. So he doesn’t just lie to you by omission; he straight up lies to you.
This is Christianity. And this alone is sufficient reason to be certain it’s a false religion. Because no true one would need any such tactics to defend it.
A really good example of this dishonest manipulation is already afforded by his own introductory example of what he supposedly means:
When Jesus confronted “doubting Thomas” he challenged him not to acquiesce in doubt (“believe!”) and yet responded to his request for more evidence. In another incident, Jesus meets a man who confesses that he is filled with doubts (Mark 9:24), who says to Jesus, “Help thou my unbelief”—help me with my doubts! In response to this honest admission, Jesus blesses him and heals his son.
What is omitted here? The fact that this never really happens. It only happens in a mythical tale written by an unknown person working from unknown sources (if even they had any). If it were sensible for Jesus to give evidence to us as he did to Thomas and a demon-possessed boy’s father in Mark, he’d be giving that evidence to us. And we’d have no need of Keller’s books. It’s precisely the fact that what happens in the Gospels never happens for anyone in real life that we know Jesus is fake.
You can’t doubt this doubt. Because the evidence of Jesus never doing for us what he did for Thomas, is overwhelming almost to the point of outright undeniability. If Jesus flies down from outer space and lets me fondle his wounds, and shows me actual demons coming out of epileptic kids, then we can start having a conversation about what this evidence means. But there isn’t even any such evidence to discuss. Pointing to made up stories, only reminds us of the fact that the world never works like that. It only reminds us that those stories do not reflect reality. Which is why we don’t believe them. Nor ever should.
Keller tries conning his readers by skipping over all of that and making it seem like Jesus is this totally great evidence-producer, because “look!”, a mythical text says he gave someone else amazing evidence, so surely he must have actually done that. Even though we don’t get to hear this from that someone else. Or anyone who was even there. But it’s worse than that even. Because for Keller’s own logic to work, Jesus needs to give that evidence to us. Not to imaginary people in ancient fables. There are no demons possessing kids. There are no walking, talking, teleporting corpses with open wounds to fondle.
Even if we are charitable and assume Keller has lied to himself this whole way through, his whole book could honestly have been subtitled How I Avoid Thinking about All the Reasons My Beliefs Are False. Because every argument in it, is just a rationalization for ignoring the evidence someone just presented against him, rather than actually confronting it. And like all delusional belief systems, he crafts the rationalization so that it sounds like it has ended the argument. As long as you don’t question it. The moment you start asking if what he just said even makes sense, everything falls apart.
The Imaginary Leap of Doubt
This means Keller tries to counter the “leap of faith” trope by claiming doubters are just making a “leap of doubt.” Which gets the logic of evidence backwards. You don’t have to leap to doubt. Doubt is where you are already standing. Because most things are false. You don’t have to leap to where you already are. You need to leap to believe something…and even then only if you are going to believe it without, or even worse, against the evidence. If you’ve got evidence, you don’t need faith. You don’t have to leap; you get to walk, straight across a sturdy bridge of evidence. You don’t need faith as a reason to believe anything, if you commit to believing things only in proportion to the evidence for them. That’s not believing on faith. That’s believing on reason.
Ignoring that, Keller starts his con by claiming what people find the most troubling about Christianity is its exclusivity. So he then spends pages arguing that true things have to be exclusive. Which is fine. Except, that’s not what any of those people mean. He is thus refuting a fake argument he just made up, and making it look like he answered the actual argument people kept presenting him. An honest treatment of this question is in Fighting Words by Hector Avalos, who correctly adduces the “scarce resources” hypothesis of religious rhetoric: religions create a fake scarcity of resources, which people then fight over; and this leads to violence, oppression, cruelty, and injustice. This is what people find appalling about Christianity. Not the idea that only one thing can actually be true.
What are the people Keller is falsely claiming to answer really saying? That they don’t think declaring allegiance to any Christian creed is necessary to be recognized as good and just. Hence creedal schisms are ridiculous. And yet Christianity itself, is just another credeal schism—with Judaism; just as Judaism was just another schism with a primitive Canaanite storm god cult. Keller thus confuses arbitrary beliefs, with what makes a person good and worthy. If a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Humanist are honest and compassionate, good neighbors and citizens, why the fuck does Keller think they are going to hell? Why do they need Jesus at all? Religions routinely condemn good people. That’s why religions suck.
So Keller is already concealing from his readers the real reasons skeptics doubt (which tells you this book isn’t actually written for skeptics; it was written to keep Christians from doubting). And thus he doesn’t answer those actual doubts; he instead answers a fake doubt that no real skeptic actually has. I’ll be fair here and note that he’ll take a stab at the real reason later in the book. I’ll get to that in a subsequent entry in this series. But first he has to snow his readers into thinking skeptics doubt because of this “silly” notion that the truth is too exclusive and “dude, that’s just cramping our style, man!” Because that straw man is easy to tear down.
Example: The Secularization Thesis
Keller’s chosen lie at this point is when he declares the “secularization thesis” is “now largely discredited” (p. 6). But he never explains what that thesis was or how it has evolved over time. What he means has been discredited is the unscientific prediction that religion will disappear in modern secular nations. But that was never a scientific theory. The actual secularization thesis in the actual science of sociology states that “as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance.” Which is entirely confirmed. Everywhere. Note the emphasis I added in bold. Note how Keller’s “version” of the thesis isn’t that. Misrepresenting what you are talking about, is lying.
Religion—both popular belief, and its influence on public policy and social mores—indeed has so far always declined in proportion to the broadening of prosperity, personal liberty, and social safety nets. Basically, the more you don’t need religion (and are allowed to choose not to have one), the more people stop bothering to have one. That thesis remains solidly confirmed in the data. See Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God and Faith No More (and all the peer reviewed science I cite in The End of Christianity, p. 421, n. 10). Keller plays a shell game, pretending he is telling his readers about the scientific theory, when in fact he is talking about something mistaken for it. And so when he tries to “prove” the theory has been discredited by documenting how much religious growth there has been, all the religious growth he documents is in societies that don’t support their members with social welfare, or effectively regulate crime and corruption, or reduce income disparity. When instead we look at societies that do do those things (the only actual way to test the thesis…proving Keller is a liar, because he well knows what the thesis really is and thus where we really have to look to test it), we see the exact opposite of what he claims: religion is always declining—traditional supernaturalist religion most of all.
This is how Keller lies to his readers. He doesn’t tell them the truth, which would undermine everything he wants to trick the reader into believing. He tells them something else instead, something ridiculous, and then of course easily refutes it. Then pretends he refuted the actual thing. Oh, yes, and you may have noticed, “You should become a Christian because more people in the Third World are becoming Christians,” is an ad populum fallacy. But whatever.
Example: Cultural Relativism
In line with his reliance on straw men, Keller deals with lazy objections like “all religions are equally true” that require no reply here. Obviously that’s dumb. But what he is using this to avoid addressing, is the real objection people mean, when they say what he falsely reinvents as “all religions are equally true.” They don’t mean that. They mean, every religion has a little bit of the truth, not all of it. In other words, no one religion is entirely true. Now, even that can be questioned, but he doesn’t question it legitimately (e.g. surveying religions and asking what they got right and what they got wrong; he couldn’t, because he has no non-circular standard to do that by, since his only “standard” is his version of his religion…as opposed to, say, evidence).
Keller at least tries to dispatch that (correct) version of the argument by confusingly trying to attack the logic of it. Critiquing, in fact, the parable of the elephant and the blind men. In that parable, each blind man handles one part of the elephant and insists it’s a different thing based on which part he is handling: the one handling the trunk says it’s a snake, the one handling a leg says it’s a tree, etc. But of course all are wrong. Each has a part of the truth. But the actual truth requires putting all their information together, and discovering thereby that it’s an elephant. Christianity, critics say, are like the guy at the trunk who refuses to do that, and keeps insisting it’s a snake and everyone else is wrong. That’s a pretty apt critique. Indeed, it is exactly what I demonstrate in Bayesian Counter-Apologetics: Christianity can only be defended by ignoring evidence.
To this Keller replies, “How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?” (p. 9). This is supposed to be an “Aha!” objection. Instead, it’s just stupid. And reveals the stupidity behind all of Christian thinking. The point is that if everyone sees something different, the only possibility is the elephant. Otherwise, they are all insane. Consequently, Keller just played the lunatic: he acted like a crazy person, defending the trunk as a snake, with nothing other than a dumb excuse for ignoring all the other data everyone else collected. In actual fact, no one person has to “see” anything. When you put all the data together, you can reconstruct what it is: an elephant. That’s actually the beauty of evidential reasoning. The marvelous progress of science is based entirely on doing just that. Theology, by contrast, doesn’t.
To see how a not-insane person would use the parable of the elephant correctly in this matter, see my Bayesian analysis of the Argument from Religious Experience. This is what Keller has no rational response to. And what he suspiciously avoids ever telling the reader is the real problem.
The corollary to all this is Keller’s fear of the sociological explanation of religion. That in fact, what religion someone considers to be true, is entirely a product of culturally relative conditions: where you were born and when; or who you accidentally met. The data bear this out. Christianity is mostly in Western nations. Buddhism mostly in Eastern nations. Islam mostly in nations Muslims conquered. Judaism pretty much just spreads within Jewish families. And three thousand years ago, it was none of those things, anywhere, but yet other completely different religions, everywhere. Religion is always an accident. It’s never constructed from evidence, the way science is—which for that reason, unlike religion, has become universal. Every culture adopts its conclusions. Why can’t religion do that? (Without a gun?) Because no religion is actually true. It’s just a contingent cultural product of a given time and place.
Keller doesn’t like this. Science is annoying to Christians, because it discovers things like that. So like all science deniers, he tries to deny the science is valid. He uses here the argument that this notion, the claim that all religions (and therefore Christianity) are just the product of social conditions, “itself is a comprehensive claim about everyone that is the product of social conditions—so it cannot be true, on its own terms” (p. 10). I’m being nice, and making his argument less of a straw man here. In actual fact he converted this claim, into the claim that “no belief can be held as universally true for everyone,” which is not what cultural relativism says. It’s a fake bogeyman Christians invented, because it’s easy to show that statement’s silly. But that’s not the actual statement any scientist makes. Rather than claiming “no” belief is universally true, they claim that religious beliefs are not. Because religious beliefs are grounded in localized cultural assumptions, and not universally replicable evidence.
So Keller wants to avoid this conclusion by claiming it’s circular. But it’s not. There is no logical inconsistency in saying even science is a product of social conditions, yet still is grounded in universally replicable evidence: it is in fact the local cultural conditions that determine whether we respect that fact or not. But once we do, it’s undeniable that that’s the way to get at an objective reality (it’s why science could land us on the moon; not Christianity). Which is why so many cultures get on board with this discovery, and so quickly. No religion has ever been that successful at spreading globally, without the use of bribery or coercion.
But it’s still a matter of social conditions that make it possible for people to care about access to objective evidence; the people who don’t, are culturally predetermined to avoid and deny the results of science. Like Christian fundamentalists. It took a lot of cultural change, over a thousand years of it in fact, before Christians could even accept the values necessary to a successful scientific access to reality (see The Mythical Stillbirth of Science in Ancient Greece). That doesn’t mean science is just as false as Christianity. It means cultural and social conditions are still needed to cause anyone to recognize what science can do, and to value that discovery. Which means culture and social conditions can blind you to science. Christians, take note.
The bottom line is, a vast amount of evidence makes clear that Keller’s beliefs are culturally and historically conditioned. Had he been born two thousand years ago, he would not be a Christian. Had he been born in Saudi Arabia, he would almost surely be a Muslim. That our being able to notice that fact is also culturally and historically conditioned, has no bearing on whether it’s nevertheless true, or whether we can know it’s true. Because the reason it’s true, is all that evidence, that religion, unlike scientific and other evidence-based conclusions, is solely a product of cultural conditioning. It has no other basis—as even Keller must admit for every other religion than his. Carving out an exception for Christianity? Nothing more than special pleading. Honestly. See The Outsider Test for Faith, and Chapters 1 and 4 of The Christian Delusion, and Chapter 1 of The End of Christianity.
Example: Secular Government
Keller of course has a political agenda. He needs this book to convince Christians not to explore their doubts, so he can keep them in the fold, so he can use their Christianity to manipulate their votes in controlling society. This is pretty much all Christianity is for among the wealthy elite. Thus, Keller has to attack the principle of separation of church and state…even though that actually has nothing to do with whether Christianity is true, and thus has no logical place in this book. But just as Mark 4:9-12 is the key to understanding that whole Gospel, so this digression is key to understanding the purpose behind Keller’s entire book.
“What is religion then?” Keller asks rhetorically. “It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing” (p. 17). Actually, religion tends to be a belief in the supernatural, or in some collection of unquestionable dictates. Once you have an alterable, evidence-based worldview, those two features disappear. And what you have left, is rarely called a religion. Sure, for legal purposes it is, since civil rights must protect the religious liberty of the atheist as much as the believer, because protecting the freedom to believe cannot prejudge what’s acceptable to believe. As such, philosophy is my religion. But Keller isn’t talking about philosophy. He’s talking about Christianity.
But by defining religion so broadly as to even include godless, un-dogmatic worldviews, Keller gets to play a trick. He gets to claim, now, that “insisting that religious reasoning be excluded from the public square is itself a controversial ‘sectarian’ point of view” (p. 17). As if he has forgotten the hundreds of years of blood and horror that led the Founding Fathers to invent the concept of a secular government in the first place. Not wanting bloodshed, tyranny, and oppression is not “controversial” or “sectarian.” It’s Common Sense. See my chapter on the real reason we purged religion from democracy in Christianity Is Not Great (Chapter 9). But as a précis, you can start with That Christian Nation Nonsense.
Hiding all that from his readers, Keller acts like there was never any reason to do that, and that undoing what the Founding Fathers did is surely a great and sensible idea. Because, you know. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Keller is again confusing what we can prove with evidence—such as that civil societies that separate church and state, and thereby guarantee religious freedom and neutrality, work better than any scale of theocracy (they experience less oppression, less violence, less tyranny, less poverty)—with just “any belief whatever” about what governments should do. Beliefs without evidence, or contrary to the evidence, are not “equally as good” as evidence-based beliefs. That’s why religion is bad. It takes beliefs based on no evidence, and uses the power of the state to force or cajole the populace to adhere to them. That’s theocracy. And two thousand years of history proves it never leads to anything good. That’s why we got rid of it.
Keller is also confusing private morality—such as whether we should eat pork or marry a gay couple or swat a mosquito because bugs might contain a human soul—with public law—such as outlawing anyone eating pork or marrying gay couples or swatting mosquitoes. This is the evil horror that lurks inside Keller’s politicized Christianity. And it’s why political Christianity is the enemy of the human race. Christians should never have the right or the power to force non-Christians to obey specifically Christian morals or doctrines. For exactly the same reason Muslims never should. Or Jains. Or Hindus. Or any other faith-based construct.
Only evidence-based reasoning should be allowed to dictate state policy. Religious beliefs have exactly zero business there. You are free to not have abortions or not eat bacon or not swat mosquitoes if your chosen religion says so. You are not free to compel anyone else to obey those rules. Nor are you free to take the law into your own hands and punish them for not obeying them.
Example: Lying about History
Christians like to pretend they invented everything. Keller is no exception. In dealing with the objection that Christians are statistically just as awful as the members of every other religion and none—and therefore the evidence shows Christianity has no effect on making people better (so what use is it?)—Keller bites the bullet and admits that we “should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than” Christians are, because “Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf” (p. 19). Which is clever rigmarole. But doesn’t really address the point. If Christianity has no observable effect, what do we need it for?
This is a problem. So Keller tries to lie his way out of it.
Keller’s tactic now is to claim Christianity did have this great and wonderful effect—on civilization as a whole, you see. So even atheists are benefiting from the things Christianity did for human morals and whatnot. The problem, of course, is that this simply isn’t true. “The early Christians mixed people from different races and classes in ways that seemed scandalous to those around them,” Keller says (p. 20). Except, that idea had already been invented by the pagans before that, and was in fact borrowed by the Christians. The notion of cosmopolitanism, uniting all classes and races (and often even genders) in new fictive kinship groups, was a defining feature of the Mystery Religions, of which Christianity was a derivation. In fact it was a late-comer, the result of the Jews finally coming around and inventing their own Mystery Cult, just as the Egyptians and Syrians and Persians and Thracians had done before them (see On the Historicity of Jesus, Element 11, pp. 96-108).
Similarly, Keller falsely claims Christians made the West more charitable and generous. Nope. Even his claim that “Christians cared for the sick and dying” more than pagans did (p. 20) is unsupported by any usable evidence. Only Christian apologists claimed this, and they were notorious liars. No independent evidence those claims are true has ever materialized.
Similarly, Keller falsely claims that “Christianity afforded women much greater security and equality than had previously existed in the ancient classical world” (p. 20). There is no evidence of that, either. To the contrary, as a class, women lost a lot of their rights and independence in the Medieval social system. Canonical Christianity taught that women are forbidden to teach, preach, or have authority over a man (1 Timothy 9:2-15). Let’s not forget. There is a reason Hypatia was murdered. By Christians.
Under Christian tenure, women were regarded as inferior to and subordinate to men. Christians taught nothing like the legal and social liberation of women voiced by their pagan predecessors. Women also certainly lost all their available sexual freedom. But women also could no longer be priests. Divorce became far more difficult. Access to education was greatly curtailed. Positions of authority and intellectual achievement were far less accessible. Their jobs became limited to domestic and “approved” occupations, and “having babies” was almost the only appropriate role imagined for them. Under the guise of “protecting” women, they were placed under the authority of men and restricted in their life options and kept in inferior positions. This is not an improvement over how things were in the Roman period. It took a lot of fighting against Christianity to ever get women real civil and political rights. And no Biblical or Doctrinal arguments supported either venture. Only evidence-based reasoning eventually succeeded. Sans any real help from religion.
He doesn’t stop there with his astonishing falsehoods. Appallingly, Keller outrageously claims the introduction of Christianity “meant [people] could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents” (p. 21). As if all the endless sectarian horrors and wars and hideous punishments for petty crimes perpetrated by Medieval Christendom never happened. The one thing Christianity has never done, is make people nice. It has never once convinced any significant population of its adherents to abstain from “violence and oppression toward their opponents.” Never.
As a theory for organizing society, the whole concept of Christianity fails. Keller is just full on lying to claim otherwise. That Christianity would have the effect he claims has been disproved in practice, again and again, for hundreds and hundreds of years, across all the traveled seas and inhabited continents of the earth. Not only by the Dark Ages. Not only by such atrocities as the Hundred Years War or the Crusades or the Witchhunts or the Inquisition or the Holocaust or the worldwide genocide of indigenous peoples or the most brutal slave system ever invented by man. But everywhere else, everywhen else.
Texas still executes the mentally disabled. Christian America is still led into countless wars by entirely Christian politicians with the full endorsement of Christian leaders. And several top American Evangelicals just recently persuaded the Ugandan government to implement the state murder of gay people—because those American Christian leaders couldn’t get their kill-the-gays laws passed in the U.S., so they went there to murder gay people instead.
The complete and utter social failure of Christian moralities is thoroughly established. See my summary and references in The End of Christianity, pp. 338-39. As surely as the equally utopian claims of Marxists have been disproved by Cuba, China, and the USSR, so goes the same nonsense from the likes of Keller. Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry really nail the point in their Intelligence Squared Debate: citing the relatively token examples of Christian charity does not negate the vast evils that always come with it. The one does not excuse the other. Not at all. That fig leaf is the same sham guise used by Hamas.
“But not all Christians,” you’ll protest. Sure. There are just as many nice Christians as nice atheists. Which is precisely my point. Christianity has exactly no effect. And only by lying about history, only by concealing vast realms of facts, can Keller pretend otherwise—pretend, that is, to what I can only assume are the most gullible of readers.
We should doubt our doubts? Not when our doubts are well founded, in extensive evidence. We doubt Christianity does any good for reforming people or society, because its entire history proves it doesn’t. We doubt Christianity should play any role in deciding our laws and policy, because its entire history proves it shouldn’t. We doubt Christianity is on the rise in free socialist democracies, because it plainly isn’t. We doubt that Christianity is any more likely to be true than any other religion on earth, because we plainly observe that Christians have no better evidence for it than anyone has for any other religion on earth. In the face of evidence-based reasoning, Christianity crumbles. To avoid exposing this, Keller has to lie. And he lies by omitting all the evidence against him, or by stating outright falsehoods. Sometimes both.
Next I’ll discuss how Keller tries to escape the Argument from Evil. That’s in Chapter 2 (that link will go live in early June).