Monday, October 17, 2011

The leap of doubt (Keller)

I'm finally getting around to reading The Reason for God by Tim Keller. Being a pastor for twenty years in one of the most secular and skeptical corners of the globe -- Manhattan NYC -- must have been good preparation for writing this book. I figured it would be a good read, but so far it's exceeded my expectations.

Keller introduces the book by presenting a paradox. On the one hand a sizeable segment of Western society is alarmed by a rise of robust religious belief. These "secular liberals" fear this will lead to intolerance and a "turn back the clock" mentality. On the other side are religious believers -- especially of the Judeo-Christian variety -- spooked by the rise of secularism and disbelief, which these "traditional conservatives" fear will lead to moral relativism and permissiveness. So which is it? Is our society, and the world, becoming more or less religious? The answer is yes. Both religious belief and secular skepticism are on the rise. The author counsels secularists to let go of the cherished 20th century idea that scientific advance has made the demise of religion inevitable -- and he urges believers not to dismiss skepticism out-of-hand and to wrestle seriously with the doubts of our nonbelieving neighbors. Both sides need to stop the name-calling and seek to reason with each other. It's this new way forward that animates the book.

Keller proposes that each side look at doubt in a new way -- an approach he says has been fruitful in talking to skeptical New Yorkers over the years. What does this mean for believers?

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. . . . Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. (p. xvii)

I really appreciate this point that faith doesn't mean the absence of doubt. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is unbelief. In my experience Christian communities that discourage the asking of hard questions aren't very successful in keeping the next generation once they go out into the wider world.

What does Keller's approach mean for skeptics?

. . . skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because "There can't be just one true religion," you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. . . . The reason you doubt Christianity's Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith. (p. xviii)

This same principle holds true with other common objections too -- like the person who can't accept the existence of moral absolutes because he or she believes morality is determined by each individual. Again, that person is making a statement based on a deep-seated personal belief that can't be proven. Or the person who simply sees no need to investigate the existence of God. That person is taking a leap of faith that "no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn't feel the need for him." Keller's thesis can be summed up by the phrase doubt your doubts.

The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it. How do you know your belief is true? It would be inconsistent to require more justification for Christian belief than you do for your own, but that is frequently what happens. In fairness you must doubt your doubts. (p. xviii-xix)

Keller suggests that by taking doubt seriously both believers and nonbelievers will find greater clarity and humility in their respective positions, and will find mutual understanding and respect where it didn't exist before. As followers of Jesus this is something to be desired (1 Peter 3:15).

Quotes from this edition of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism


redeyespy said...

Excellent points, here. I need to read this. It seems I've been (divinely appointed?) to encounter many aggressively skeptic folks the past few years.

Stephen Ley said...

If you were only going to read one book that addresses these issues I think this should be the one. It's scholarly but accessible to the average reader.