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.
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
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?