A friend and missionary I know from my time back in Asia send me the following article from Timothy Keller (a bit of a contemporary legend among protestants and a former hero of mine) to hear my thoughts about it.
I found it an interesting challenge to ‘debate’ Tim Keller on the topic of whether or not my “doubts” in Christianity are legitimate. So here we go!
“5 Ways to Doubt Your Doubts”
Our most rigorous rational thinking is shot through with various forms of faith. Even skeptical doubt always contains an element of belief.
I have blogged before about faith and belief, which mean different things for religious believers and for skeptics depending on the context. I am not going to repeat the arguments here, but trying to equate skeptics ‘beliefs’ with religious ‘faith’ is often a matter of semantic red herrings. But let’s see what Tim Keller has to say about it.
In his essay “The Critique of Doubt,” Michael Polanyi argues that doubt and belief are ultimately “equivalent.” Why? “The doubting of any explicit statement,” he writes, “denies [one] belief . . . in favor of other beliefs which are not doubted for the time being.” You can’t doubt belief A except on the basis of some belief B you’re believing instead at the moment.
So, for example, you cannot say, “No one can know enough to be certain about God and religion,” without assuming at that moment that you know enough about the nature of religious knowledge to be certain about that.
While this may sound reasonable from a distance, when we scratch the surface this really does not hold. Belief and doubt are the same, really?
It is telling that the example given is clearly not an expression of doubt but an expression of a belief: “No one can know enough to be certain about God and religion”. This is a statement about everyone, assuming knowledge that one cannot possibly have.
Let us correct the phrase to: “I don’t see enough evidence to be certain there is a God or that any religion is true”. Now that is a statement of doubt (or rather agnosticism) and it is hard to notice “belief” statements that are hidden in this sentence. Perhaps one could point to the belief that one is capable of judging the evidence, but that is such a basic assumption for any rational being that it can hardly be called a “belief”. That’s why I am an agnostic atheist: meaning I lack faith in God, but I’m not sure there is no God (since that would be a statement of faith I don’t want to get in to).
Doubt Your Doubts
Some years ago a man began attending our church. He had begun life with a general belief in God, but he had been assailed with doubts during his college years and had lived for decades without any religious faith. After a number of months of attending our congregation he told me that faith in God was looking much more plausible to him. When I asked how that was happening, he said a turning point had been a talk he heard me give on “doubting your doubts.” He said, “I had never realized there had to be some faith under my doubts. And when I looked at the things I did believe, I discovered I didn’t have good reasons for them. When I started to examine some of the bases for my doubts, faith in God didn’t seem so hard.”
I find it weird that someone would “doubt his doubts” if he had no faith at all. I don’t “doubt” Christianity, I just don’t believe in it. Just like we all don’t “doubt” Zeus, we just don’t believe in him. My hypothesis is this forced label of “doubt” comes from the biblical assumption that everyone knows about God (Romans 1:18-21), so basically non-believers are just ignoring the “facts” they know deep down to be true. I would suggest having a conversation with a real atheist: it would prove these verses to be false. I, for one, do not believe or secretly know God to be real; which alone is defeating what the Bible is telling on that topic. Again: imagine someone trying to convince you that deep down you secretly know Zeus is real. It just does not work that way.
What does it mean to do that? As I got to know this man and he became a friend and eventually a member of my church, I went through the series of the things that had triggered his first doubts. Later I discovered an atheist blogger who made an almost identical list:
The first cause that plants the initial seed of doubt varies from person to person. However, some of the common reasons include: meeting a real atheist and finding that they are not the immoral, unhappy misanthropes the believer has been led to expect; witnessing a good and faithful fellow believer suffer horribly seemingly for no reason; witnessing institutionalized corruption or hypocrisy in the believer’s religious hierarchy; realizing the basic unfairness of the doctrines of hell and salvation; or finding an unanswerable contradiction or error in the believer’s Scriptures of choice.
This is not necessarily my list, but it’s a start. My biggest objection is that God just isn’t acting at all according to what one would expect, or the Bible says he should do; God is acting in such a hidden way that he might not exist at all – which is highly peculiar at least. But anyway, let’s keep to the 5 points listed by Keller.
Let’s look at each of these occasions for doubt—and how my friend eventually responded.
1. Meeting a real atheist who was not an immoral, unhappy misanthrope.
This doubt is based on the implicit belief that religious people are saved by God because of their goodness and morality. If that’s the case, then atheists by definition ought to be bad and immoral. When he learned the biblical teaching that we’re saved only by undeserved grace, not by our moral character, he realized that there was no reason why an atheist might not be a far better person than a Christian. The belief under his doubt crumbled, so his doubt went away.
No, that “doubt” is based on the belief that the Holy Spirit would make you a ‘better’ person (more Christlike) and that without Gods help, we are nothing but sinners deserving the wrath of God since no one is good (Romans 6). It is a message that is constantly reinforced in church: without God we are immoral, unhappy misanthropes.
To say that this doubt is based upon the belief that religious people are saved because of their goodness is completely missing the point. I have never heard an evangelical say that people are saved because of their character. It is indeed one of the central points of Protestantism: we are saved by grace and not by works! To say this false statement is the underlying belief is an unwarranted assumption that is completely missing in the doubt statement itself.
2. Witnessing a good and faithful believer suffer horribly for no good reason
This doubt stems from a belief that if we human beings can’t discern a sufficient reason for an act of God, then there can’t be any. My friend came to realize this assumed that, if there was an infinite God, a finite mind should be able to evaluate his motives and plans. He asked himself how reasonable it was to believe that, to have such confidence in his own insight, and the doubt began to erode.
The big old “God is smarter than you so who do you think you are” card. I have blogged about this before. It is condescending and basically makes people unable to evaluate ANY religion. Imagine if you talked to a Hindu and they found out that their religion is full of contradictions, but they just say: “Oh well, Shiva knows better than me, so I just keep trusting Shiva”?
I know for myself this is a really strong card as long as you are “in” the system of belief. God can get away with anything (Slavery? Genocide? Misogyny? You name it). Once outside it, one realises how much this was a force that kept you in while all the contradictions and injustices are staring you right in the eyes. A good doubter should always evaluate whether this “God” presented to him does not flat out contradict logic and his own promises. Like Tim Keller would no doubt be very critical if someone presented another god to him. Why not scrutinize your own (idea of) “God”?
3. Witnessing corruption or hypocrisy in a religious institution.
This might be the most warranted basis for doubting the truth of a particular faith. But my friend realized the moral standards he was using to judge hypocritical believers came mainly from Christianity itself. “The worst thing I could say about Christians was that they weren’t being Christian enough. But why should they be, if Christianity wasn’t true at all?”
He is saying it just right: Christians aren’t Christian enough because Christianity isn’t true at all. He just used obscure language, but this is what it boils down to. I fail to see how this would doubt the doubt.
4. Realizing the basic unfairness of the doctrines of hell and salvation.
This doubt, my friend said, largely came from the underlying beliefs of his culture. He had a Chinese friend who didn’t believe in God but who said that, if he existed, God certainly would have a right to judge people as he saw fit. He then realized his doubt about hell was based on a white, Western, democratic, individualistic mindset that most other people in the world don’t share. “To insist that the universe be run like a Western democracy was actually a very ethnocentric point of view,” he told me.
If God exists, he is probably not a white, Western democrat; I will agree with Tim Keller on that. But sure as hell (pun intended) he should not be a brutal unjust dictator who throws people into eternal (infinite) suffering, over finite sin. So my problem with such brutality comes from my white/Western/educated/democratic background? Is Timothy Keller trying to white-shame me into questioning the immense injustice that is the doctrine of hell? Since when are Chinese people (who have communist dictators like Mao as examples) the authority on the morality of hell?
5. Finding an unanswerable contradiction or error in the Scripture.
This doubt, my friend said, was based on a belief that all religious believers had a naive, uncritical trust in the Bible. “Since coming to your church I realize there have been a thousand PhD dissertations written on every single verse, and for every contention that one verse contradicts another or is an error, there are ten cogent counterpoints.” He rightly lost his faith that he could ever find a difficulty in the Bible that was “unanswerable.”
So just because PhD dissertations have been written about verses it means they are true? This could just as well be said about Islam, or Hinduism or pick any major religion. There are tons of verses that are unanswerable if you do not give the Bible an enormous benefit of the doubt (pun intended). Just one example: Jesus promises plain and clearly that he will be back within one generation. Sure, there are PhD “answers” to that, but I have yet to see a satisfying anwer, unless you are determined to believe the Bible is true no matter what.
Polanyi is convincing that both pure objectivism and pure subjectivism are self-defeating and ultimately impossible to hold. The objectivists can’t account for the host of values they unavoidably know but that can’t be proved. And the subjectivists make their own assertions meaningless and contradictory. Where do they get the certainty of knowledge necessary to say that no one has the right to be certain?
I find this criticism weak. I am obviously siding on the side of subjectivists. My facebook profile picture read for a long time: “Question everything”. It had a little side-question to it: “why?”. I think that is the key. Even the questioning should be questionable, but that does not make the whole exercise pointless or contradictory. It is a stance, a position of I don’t know unless I see clear evidence or good reasoning. It is not a position of “knowing” that this stance is even the good one, it is just something that I think is wise. And the wisdom of subjectivity may obviously be questioned as well.
Contemporary secularity, then, is not the absence of faith, but is instead based on a whole set of beliefs, including a number of highly contestable assumptions about the nature of proof and rationality itself.
It would be helpful if this article actually unearthed beliefs in contemporary society that are questionable. I love to discuss those. But I have not seen any…
Personal note: It’s been forever (well over three years) since I wrote my last blog article. Basically, I came to a phase where I processed my deconversion enough that I did not feel the need to write much more about it. People started to accept that this once-missionary is now an atheist and discussion started to bleed away. But now I was asked to write some comments on a Christian article and I couldn’t resist adding an article to my own blog. Also, it was stimulating to debate Tim Keller indirectly, since he used to be my hero.