Tim Keller’s The Reason for God & His Biased View of Nonbelievers

I come into this post from a fairly unique place. When I first read The Reason for God, I was an evangelical Christian yearning to find more solid arguments for defending my faith, and I wasn’t disappointed. After losing my faith, though, I returned to this book, wondering what holes I had missed. I assumed at this point that I had read the book the first time with my confirmation biases firmly in place, which wouldn’t allow me to recognize where the arguments actually fail.

To start, I think that Tim Keller has a much more honest perspective on faith and doubt than most evangelical Christians. He is under no illusion that he can simply sit and convince someone that God is real, so he leaves faith within the realm of what God can instill in a person rather than what he must accomplish through preaching and writing books. In The Reason for God, he proposes that we look at doubt in a “radically new way.” That is, believers should see it as a necessary part of coming to a true belief that wasn’t merely inherited. Overall, Tim Keller offers sound advice to those who already claim to be believers. As a pastor, I think his challenges to them show his desire for Christians to work toward an honest faith and not take anything for granted. This is a really refreshing message to hear from a pastor in a sea of “doubting=no faith” megachurch/cult ministries across our nation.

But just like every pastor I’ve ever heard, he also seems to have a pretty warped view of skeptics, believing them to have their own “unexamined blind faith.” Because those within the evangelical sphere believe that they have to be able to explain their objective purpose, they project this onto unbelievers as well. This makes them throw out this accusation that nonbelievers are clinging to their own faith (in humanism/science/themselves), when we don’t seem to be talking about the same thing when we talk about faith.

Christians who have faith that the Bible is the word of God have no actual means for testing this claim. They can build up strings of conjecture about how it is possible that God inspired Scripture, and they can make dubious scientific claims in an effort to prove events from the Bible true (because of course there was an Ark–it’s not like this follows the same archetype of other mythologies…). All of these claims would not be so alarming if they were proposed agnostically, but that is not the nature of evangelical Christianity. Christians know that these things are true, and when they are faced with a counterargument, they have their confirmation bias in place to reject that argument.

That is not at all how skeptics operate. We try to ground our beliefs in the things that can be shown, since that is the closest we can get to verifying what we’d call “Truth.” Skeptics don’t have hard-and-fast absolute beliefs pertaining to how we came into existence and why we’re here. A true skeptic leaves threads of doubts whenever necessary. We don’t “put faith in” things. We tentatively trust things. We default on the agnostic approach. More often than not, skeptics aren’t sure exactly what they believe. It’s all so fluid given our nature of limited certainty toward ideas within the branch of metaphysics, and it’s hard to purport certainty in anything without betraying your intellectual honesty.

Tim Keller has to view skeptics the way he does in order to keep his house of cards intact. To concede that skeptics actually take the intellectually honest approach with respect to every proposed idea would put him in a mighty conflicted place, as his confirmation biases have led him to believe that he is being intellectually honest as an evangelical Christian who believes that Adam and Eve were actual people. Christians believe that their healthy fear of God is what helps them maintain a humble faith, but from how I see it now on the outside, it appears that Christians really just have the same fear as anyone else. They fear uncertainty. They fear losing their anchor. It’s not really about God at all. It’s about not slipping off into the deep end.

The Reason for God is an interesting exercise in contemplating conjecture, but it is ultimately built upon the presupposition that we have to be able to explain the concepts that he’s built arguments around. Those who presuppose the same are apt to follow his lead. The rest of us can respect his integrity but are otherwise left unconvinced.


My Extimony: From Faith to Freedom

I was a PK for the first 11 years of my life when my family lived in Missouri. My parents had met at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where my dad got his PhD in Theology, and my mom dropped out to start making babies after she met my dad and got married after only 8 or 9 months. She had been planning on going into foreign missions, reportedly, but I think she was looking for her MRS degree.

When I was 11, my parents had four daughters (I was the third), we were scraping by financially, and my dad started experiencing physical problems that were caused by his lifelong depression. My mom thought his stressful two-job lifestyle there was unhealthy for him, so we moved near my mom’s family in Virginia. My dad had self-taught himself computer programming and software development, so he found a really good job as a software developer in Williamsburg, VA. His health improved, and he was no longer preaching. My short-lived PK days were over.

My whole relationship with the church through all of this perhaps wasn’t typical for a PK. I don’t remember feeling any sort of pressure to perform or to be perfect just because I was the pastor’s kid. We had a relatively small congregation in Missouri, and the entire atmosphere was very friendly. My dad is the scholarly/intellectual type, so his sermons weren’t ever particularly fire and brimstone, though he did teach that hell is a real place.

I was saved at the age of 10 when I took it upon myself to say my own sinner’s prayer. I can distinctly remember knowing how important it was for me to make this step on my own and have it be a genuine confession. After my prayer, I felt that sort of lighter-than-air euphoria that I was told I’d feel when this time came, so I ran to my mother to tell her what had happened. She was happy for me but said that I’d have to go talk to my dad in his office at church on Sunday so that he could hear the account from me and assess whether it was a “true” conversion. I thought this was sort of silly since I lived with the man, but I went along with it. After my meeting with dad on Sunday, he proclaimed me saved, and he baptized me the following Sunday.

Throughout both middle and high school, I only remember positive experiences with church. Sure, I’d get bored during sermons. I also wasn’t very intense about evangelism and surrounding myself only with church friends. I had atheist friends as well as Christian throughout my life. Going into college, I had come to the conclusion that most Christians are hypocritical anyway, so I didn’t want to get involved with any campus ministries. It took a couple of months for me to even bother to find a church to attend when my mom started guilting me into it. I became pretty lonely and depressed that first semester, which I took as a sign of needing fellowship. That was when I decided to get “plugged in” to campus ministry and joined the Baptist Collegiate Ministries (BCM).

That started a whirlwind 3.5 years of me becoming super Christian, leading multiple Bible studies and having younger girls look up to me, taking them out for coffee so that I could pseudo-mentor them, and I even worked as a Wilderness Counselor at a PCA Christian camp after my freshman year of college. I also co-ran a church service on campus that was intended to reach out to college kids who didn’t want to make the effort to get off campus to go to church but were willing to come to our service upstairs from one of the dining areas. That was actually kind of neat, though I did meet some people through that who were part of my process out of Christianity.

Throughout college (I went to a public university), I took religion classes and became exposed to a LOT of ideas that I had been previously shielded from. As expected, this sent me spiraling into doubt off and on, and by the end of senior year my doubt had grown so intense that I sunk into a deep depression. I could barely force myself to go to class, and I could rarely refrain from crying once I got to class. It was horrible. I managed to stick it out, though the last month was hell, and about three months after graduation, I officially realized and accepted that I was no longer a Christian. It took a few more months after that for me to conclude that I was an atheist.

I think that nothing in my story was marked by feeling burned by the Church or the church because the fading away of my faith was almost completely intellectual. Previously, I thought that I had been standing in the place of humility by confessing my subservience to God and feeling like I could learn about the actual character of God, but it turns out I wasn’t in a position of intellectual humility until I confessed that I couldn’t claim to know or even believe all of the things I’d been taught in church. At the time I lost my faith, it wasn’t so much that I thought the Bible was all wrong. It was that I didn’t know how to trust that it was right, and I no longer felt like I needed to believe it in order to love and pursue truth. I could no longer understand the virtue of faith when I stepped back and saw that I was believing for all of the same reasons as a Muslim, Mormon or Jew. Maybe I was wrong just like them. Nothing in the realm of spirituality was compelling to me anymore, and it hasn’t been since.

It took several months for me to mellow out from the initial trauma of losing my faith, and then I started working through my simultaneous realization that I’m probably at least partly gay if not very gay. I’m still in process with that, but I enjoy my life right now even though I’m in the heart of the Bible belt. 

Oh, and my family is all still really Christian, and they’re very sad about my atheism. We just don’t really talk about it. :D

Christian Perceptions of “the Backslidden”

Having been a person who was, for all intents and purposes, a “True Believer,” I think it’s important that I expound a bit on the stereotypes built up by believers about those who “fall away” from the Church.

I’d often hear growing up about people who stopped going to church and “fell back into sin.” The horrible catalyst would be something like a couple getting divorced and not coming to church anymore or a person leaving and getting involved with a non-church crowd, which undoubtedly meant that person was up to every form of debauchery. We’d assume this without evidence.

Now that I’ve become one of those people I would hear about and blindly judge in my youth, I’ve experienced that a lot of the struggle with no longer believing in what the Church believes is knowing that they think these terrible things about me that aren’t true. Sure, I could choose to keep a lot of those people in my life as friends, but it’s hard to be friends with people who think you are “choosing death” just because you can’t believe in something supernatural. It’s not that I dislike them or want them out of my life, but their beliefs are really just toxic to me now and don’t help me toward bettering myself and learning to love myself in the ways that the inherently self-loathing model of sin wouldn’t let me before. It’s hard for me to shut them out of my life because I know exactly how that looks to them. They see that I’m shutting them out because I hate God. I’m shutting them out because I’m ashamed of my sin and don’t need them to help me fix it.

Where is the balance? Do I keep them as friends and hold onto the guilt of letting them down? Will they ever see that “loving” a person doesn’t involve letting them know that they’re a piece of shit without “God”? What can I do to help the image of those who lose their faith?

Guilt of Philosophizing

I feel like such an asshole when I get all wrapped up in my existentialism. People are getting into car accidents and are being shot and children are starving and natural disasters are wiping people out, and all I can handle is laying in bed, fretting about the nature of our existence.

But then this doesn’t seem so problematic when I consider that we all die. Though sometimes peacefully and naturally, we all die. In a couple of centuries, none of us in existence will have a say about anything. We won’t have thoughts or feelings about the state of the world. Our passions will be gone. No input besides our recycled molecules perpetuating the existence of…something.

Growing up, I learned that I’m not supposed to think about stuff like this. I’d talk about death so casually as a child, and my mother would quickly divert my attention to something superficial before I could get too Sylvia Plath on her.

I don’t begrudge her that. She needs to cope, too.

For the sake of honesty–and because I know I can’t be the only one–I’d like to talk about my own form of depression that I don’t think is depression at all. I get “depressed” when in these moods because I am aware of ultimate finality. I don’t walk around with a cloud over my head, and these thoughts never get so debilitating that I absolutely want to die. However, I really do just think that life is depressing. It’s a big tease. You can make a lot of money, go on a lot of exotic trips, fall in love with a lot of people, and you can reach the end of your life pleased with what you’ve done. But no matter what, it will all be over. Eternity is a possibility, but it could just as well be an illusion.

So, do we need faith? Is our desire for a purpose at all indicative of a true purpose? Not necessarily, but I can understand why it might be needed. There needs to be some indication that this is all worth it, right? Otherwise, what the hell are we doing?

New New Year

I used to blog about music more often, but now I don’t pretend to know anything about what is “Good” and “Bad” about music. I am particularly attuned to the profound power of certain songs to soothe. 2012 was my first entire calendar year as a non-believer, and I can honestly say it was the greatest year of my life. This is not just because I have a different belief system. It’s because of how new friends have arrived to help me mend and find value in parts of myself that I used to think were supposed to be hated and altered. Human relationships offer so much more than unfounded hope in the supernatural. I know that’s a huge piece of blasphemy that would make many Christians cringe, but it’s nonetheless the greatest truth I’ve discovered.

“I Hurt Too” by Katie Herzig

“When the lies speak the loudest
When your friends are starting to leave
When you’re broken by people like me
I hurt too, I hurt too”

“Take Your Carriage Clock and Shove It” by Belle & Sebastian

“‘Night after day after night I’ve been working
Despite of you fuckin’ us all
Now I’m gonna die I don’t care if you cry
Just please leave me alone
And spare those tears for yourself
We’ve had those till we’re sick
You should leave while you still have the chance’
The others were shocked at this shameful disgrace
At the end of an honoured career
He paused in the silence to pull down his tie
And observe the melee”

“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell

“But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all”

“The Book of Love” by Peter Gabriel

“The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb”

“The Last Snowfall” by Vienna Teng

“This is not the last snowfall
Not our last embrace
But if I were that kind of grateful
What would I try to say?”

Atheist Christmas

One year ago I moved into my first apartment all by myself. Family collected to help haul my belongings from my sister’s house, but once everything was efficiently dumped into respective locations throughout the apartment, I found myself standing there alone in a furnished but undecorated living room. Just a few weeks later, this room–my only territory–held the conversation that shifted me away from what I had been up to that time, a person defined essentially by my dependence: offspring, student, congregant…just a small, little someone molded by nature and nurture.

A few months prior, I’d experienced my a-ha moment sitting on a borrowed bed at my evangelical sister’s house. I sat up in the dim room and gazed outside when I heard the usual midnight train blowing by half a mile away like a made for TV moment when my old, crippled beliefs could hop on the train and leave me to progress in my coming of age tale. I felt washed but weary. The fight was over, and I had to pat myself down to make sure everything was still functioning right. I was no longer a Christian. So what was I?

Brief thoughts of Jekyll and Hyde, then the Monster and Frankenstein crossed my mind in realizing that who I was in that moment appeared antithetical to my former assumptions about myself. I felt like I was meeting a new person who seemed remarkably more at ease with herself than I had been for the past four years. The experience of losing my faith matched the effective symptoms of a Christian salvation. I couldn’t believe that what I had actually needed all along was to abandon the answers in order to gain freedom. Only 15 minutes after I felt this flood of relief, I called my two former roommates who were both Christians and told them what I had just experienced. I knew they’d be upset, but I had to explain to them what was really going on the last several months they were living with that depressed, lifeless lump that I was.

I haven’t talked to either of these friends since 2011.

That few months later, when my mind was a blur in anticipation of the dreaded “coming out” with my parents, I sent my mom up to my room to hang up curtains while I sat with my dad in my living room. We sat across from one another, and I gave him the more comfortable seat. Physical comfort wasn’t going to cushion the bomb I was about to drop on him, but it was all I could do to still feel like a good daughter.

“So, tell me what’s been going on?” My dad knew I’d been questioning things for a while. We share a thirst for knowledge, and I tip my hat to him for the natural height of my intellect. He was the easy parent to talk to. He gets me, and he would get what I was about to say.

“I just don’t think that I believe anymore. After several months of confusion, I don’t think I have answers. I’m skeptical.” Keep it short, simple.

As expected, he offered a calm response, “Well, what exactly are you skeptical of? What was your thought process through this?”

These were questions I wasn’t prepared to answer. I’d only just been through this and still didn’t know what happened to me.

“Well, a lot of it seems sketchy to me–the story about Jesus and how we have no way of actually testing or verifying anything in Scripture.”

Dad sat silent for a few moments and then feebly claimed that there are actually very good resources for understanding these things. I told him I just can’t believe it. There were no good answers for him at this point. None of it made sense to me, and I didn’t feel the need to force answers.

I decided to end the conversation quickly with, “I’m just skeptical. That’s all. I just don’t know what I believe, but I know I don’t believe in what is written in the Bible.”

Mom made her way downstairs at this point and sat down on the couch next to dad. She looked at me, braced herself, and asked what was going on. Immediately, I disintegrated into a mess of tears.

“I can’t tell you. You’ll just get angry at me, and I don’t want you to be mad at me. Dad can tell you.”

Dad carefully tried to convey the message I’d given him, and I filled in the holes when necessary. Mom watched him with a furrowed brow but refused to look in my direction the whole time. By the time he finished, she looked at me, her eyes loaded cannons.

“I hope that something really awful happens in your life that forces you on your knees before the Lord. He will cause you to submit, even if those means are necessary.”

To this day, there has never been a more poignant moment when I knew I had left a toxic system. Up until this point, I didn’t think Christianity was bad. I just didn’t think it was right. This was my introduction to the true face of evangelical Christianity and its twisted conceptions of love, truth and grace. From that moment on, I encountered the putrid stench of Christian apologetics from the “enemy’s” side. I heard the gay bashing. I saw the martyr complex. I wept at it all, and I hated that this culture bore me into the world. I hated that I could still be that person, and I hated that I have to tolerate those people because they are still my family and best friends.

And so my disdain for Christianity kicked off at the same time as the Christmas season. Christmas was on a Sunday, and I somewhat nervously agreed to go to church with my family. I sat there in the front row during the sermon, feeling all stares sinking into the back of my head from fellow congregants I’d known since I was in elementary school. Everyone knew. I was on the prayer list. The sermon preached that day was not in honor of Christ’s birth. The sermon was meant as a last ditch effort for my soul. However, I was and am too far gone. After the sermon, I received a lot of hugs from people who normally don’t talk to me. It was like attending my own funeral.

Later that evening, I sat alone up in the room where young Christian me grew up. I felt very much like I was still me in that room, and yet my beliefs were so different. I wondered how much, then, they truly defined me. After having listened to Christmas hymns incessantly for days, I got on my laptop and searched for “The Atheist Christmas Carol” on YouTube. I played it over and over and let it heal my morning and that conversation in the living room and those years I spent in doubting turmoil before losing my faith. I played it until I felt so comforted by my aloneness that I was sure I’d never find a greater joy than myself.

An explanation of apathy?

What does it mean to me when my president acknowledges and respects my lack of belief in God? What does it mean to me when my president supports and wants to legalize my potential marriage to a woman?

At face value, those things mean a lot, but when I really sit on those questions for a while I start to wonder when acknowledgement can overcome the dissension. No matter how much one man respects what I believe and how I love, one man can’t assure me that I’ll gain what I feel like I deserve.

I sat reading tweets by my former pastor tonight and glanced over social pages of Christians from my past. They’ve all but forgotten who I am at this point. They shout words that would be daggers to my heart if I truly cared about their opinions anymore. According to them, their words are Truth–even further–Truth in love. These people don’t know love. That’s not to say that I do, but after having set up camp on both sides of this fence, I think I have a little better perspective.

I’m not sure how much faith I have in Obama’s administration. I like that he wants equality. That’s what I want, too. But I get antsy in waiting and discouraged by the power of religious indoctrination to completely skew a person’s understanding of love. I want a better future, and I want to help build it. But when do our “HOPE” and “CHANGE” banners peel from their 2D form and take a three-dimensional lead into our future? What is this world we live in that makes people on all sides look at others as though their ideas are poison?

Though I’m no longer a conservative Christian, I don’t like feeling like I’m now at the other extreme. I didn’t leave so that I could fight. I left so that I could figure out who I am and what is important to me. With that comes a lot of expectations still. How dare I not vote in this election. How dare I post opinions on the internet that upset people. How dare I be passive about anything that should be important to me. I’m sorry, everyone, but I am perpetually shellshocked. I’m too stunned by my empathy for all sides to really charge forth with my pitchfork. For all my inactive apathy and for all my contradictory opinions, the truth is that it’s all too much. And I care too much about everyone. I wish things could all work out the best for everyone, but I don’t actually believe that’s an option.