By Mathew Goldstein
The NY Times columnist Nicolas Kristof turned to the Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the award-winning bestseller The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, to tell us if Mr. Kristof is a Christian. An excerpt of the interview was published the day before Christmas. I could not care less who the Rev. Keller claims qualifies as Christian (he concluded Mr. Kristof appeared to be "on the outside of the boundary"). The focus here is his arguments for why we should be Christian. Let's see if the Rev. Keller's argument for why we should be Christian is compelling.
In response to Kristof saying he doubts the veracity of the Christian claim that a virgin women became pregnant and gave birth, the Rev. Keller points out that saying that climate change is a hoax is inconsistent with being a board member of Greenpeace. Similarly, he argues, any religious faith must have some boundaries for dissent that cannot be removed without destabilizing the whole thing. OK, but climate change is backed by empirical evidence, it is not a faith, and this distinction is important for the quality of any argument defending factual claims about how the universe functions. Greenpeace is properly justified in claiming that climate change is factual. We agree that boundaries are needed. Let's begin by properly setting the boundary between justified and unjustified beliefs. We know that women who become pregnant are not virgins. The Rev. Keller's response here does not succeed in arguing otherwise.
Mr. Kristof points out that the earliest accounts of the life of Jesus do not mention a virgin birth and the virgin birth story in the Book of Luke was written in a different kind of Greek that indicates it was added later. This is a reasonable, best fit with the empirical evidence, argument against the veracity of the virgin birth story. The letters of Paul, the gospels of Mark and Thomas, say nothing about a virgin birth. The Rev. Keller replies that dismissing the virgin birth "would damage the fabric of the Christian message." He then argues for the centrality of belief in the virgin belief to the Christian message. The Rev. Keller's argument here violates a basic premise of empiricism. We do not start with a conclusion and then dismiss the counter-argument on nothing more than an a-priori, circular, commitment to retain that conclusion.
Mr. Kristof then asks if the Resurrection must be taken literally. Again, the Rev. Keller mistakenly responds by citing the centrality of Christianity's historical doctrines to its ethical teachings. OK, but when people die our metabolism stops, our body disintegrates, and shortly thereafter the physical damage is too substantial for any possibility of the metabolism restarting. Gravity keeps the disintegrating body attached to the earth. The Christian message is not empirical evidence otherwise. The Rev. Keller appears to fail to recognize that historical assertions are factual conclusions, not doctrines, and that such conclusions can only be justified with supporting empirical evidence. Christian beliefs are not empirical evidence for Christian beliefs.
Mr. Kristof points out that the first gospel, Mark, is "fuzzy" about the Resurrection being an actual historical event. The Rev. Keller responds that Mark's gospel "ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us." He then makes the argument that the fact that women who had social low status were the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection implies that their Resurrection claims are true because a fictional account would have cited men as the eyewitnesses. He then cites "thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshipping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical." These are empirical evidence based arguments.
The Rev. Keller is now recognizing that empirical evidence carries weight and has a place in this argument. But he is being noticeably selective here, citing empirical evidence only when it favors his conclusion, having abandoned empiricism altogether when it was unfavorable to his conclusion. His arguments are weak and dubious. The Rev. Keller overlooks that the gospels (after Mark) all included male eyewitnesses to bolster credibility, in addition to the initial female eyewitnesses. His claim of thousands of sudden Jewish converts to Christianity is a dubious historical factual assertion. Most of the converts to Christianity were likely polytheists. Christian beliefs likely spread gradually, starting with small groups of people who came in contact with the first traveling evangelical, the originator of Christianity, Paul. Out of 1-2 million Jews, maybe 1000 were Christian at the end of the 1st century, we do not know the actual number. The Rev. Keller's claim that "most scholars" think that there is an additional final section to Mark's gospel that is missing is also dubious. Mark, the first gospel to be written, ends where it does because the resurrection eyewitness stories were first introduced in the subsequent gospels. We have no evidence otherwise. I think he is defining "most scholars" as most Christian believers with a graduate degree in religious studies. Those graduate degrees are occupational, not scholarly. Early first century historians never mention a resurrection of Jesus (Philo-Judaeus, Martial, Arrian, Appian, Theon of Smyrna, Lucanus, Aulus Gellius, Seneca, Plutarch, Apollonius, Epictetus, Silius Italicus, Ptolemy).
Mr. Kristof responds that, as a journalist, he wants eyewitnesses and evidence because without such skepticism we apply a different standard towards our own faith tradition than we do towards "Islam and Hinduism and Taoism". The Rev. Keller responds that he agrees we require evidence. He then defends the existence of a god as being best fit with the evidence, citing human consciousness, cognition, and moral values as being non-materialistic. We disagree both that those traits are unique to humanity and that those animal traits are non-materialistic in origin. I am convinced that best fit with the available empirical evidence favors the conclusion that those capabilities found in biological creatures are manifested physically. They are materialistically derived via selection of advantageous changes to DNA over multiple generations of reproducing life. Physical damage or abnormalities to particular areas of the brain, or drug induced interference with particular processes that occur in the brain, alter or undermine consciousness, cognition, and moral attitudes and behaviors. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that those are human capabilities that lack a materialistic foundation and therefore evidence supernaturalism. We now have an argument for deism. There is still a large distance to travel from supernaturalism all the way to a bible based Christianity.
The Rev. Keller then argues, citing Nietzsche for support, that human rights, concern for others, and equality have no basis in a materialistic universe, that humanistic values require a leap of faith for non-theists. I am not convinced that such goals have no logical or reasonable justifications in a materialistic universe. As temporary, fragile, dependent, materialistic beings, we do better when we cooperate together towards realizing shared goals rooted in a collective respect for our common, naturalistic, needs. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Nietzsche and the Rev. Keller are correct. Does supernaturalism avoid this leap of faith problem? How? God said so?
Furthermore, how is a difficulty in justifying justice as a goal that is worthy of expending effort to try to achieve relevant to choosing between theism versus atheism? We either live in a naturalistic or supernatural universe regardless of how easy, or difficult, it is to justify particular social goals. These are two different, distinct, questions with the question of naturalism versus supernaturalism describing the larger context within which we subsequently tackle the second question. The first, natural versus supernatural, question may have relevance to the second, justification for justice as a goal, question. But the second question has no relevance to answering the first question. The horse goes before the cart, not the other way around like Rev. Keller is trying to argue here.
Mr. Kristof responded to Rev. Keller by questioning whether holding beliefs consistent with modern science, such as supporting human rights, is analogous with beliefs "that seem inconsistent, like a virgin birth or resurrection?" The Rev. Keller denied his Christian beliefs are inconsistent with science. He cited divine miracles as the explanation for those two conclusions. He pointed out that there is no possibility of proving that miracles do not happen. OK, but we humans are not all present and all knowing (of course). Therefore, this request from Rev. Keller for proof in this context is unreasonable. Best fit with the available empirical evidence is the standard. Without reliance on empirical evidence there is no proper justification for believing in miracles. It makes no sense to claim otherwise. Possibility alone does not justify belief that the possibility is true. Certainly, science does not function that way. Science depends on empirical evidence backed probability, not mere possibilities.
The Rev. Keller then asserts: "Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause." Repeatability is a limitation. But his claim that science must always assume a natural cause is false. Science a-priori assumes nothing regarding whether a cause is natural or supernatural. Science seeks out whatever is successful with regard to methods and conclusions. The methods adopted by science are themselves conclusions derived from science. Science adopts the methods that science concludes, based on successful outcomes, work. For several hundred years science has relied exclusively on naturalistic methods and conclusions, not because science a-priori excludes supernaturalism, but because only naturalism is successful, supernaturalism always fails.
The Rev. Keller then argues that a one time miracle is beyond the reach of science. OK, we agree that science can miss one time events that occurred two thousand years ago. But where does this fact take us? Is this is justification for being a monotheist, let alone for being a Christian? We all agree that we have limitations that carry over to the human activity we refer to as science. We do not eyewitness the past or the future, for example. Our capabilities are clearly limited, particularly without the assistance of machines that are more capable in some respects than we are. But we have no business going from our limitations all the way to factual conclusions about how the universe works. Ignorance is not a proper justification for beliefs. Ignorance is a justification for not knowing, it is not a justification for knowledge. When we lose our keys at night in the dark we may not find them without a flashlight, at least not until after day break, unless the keys conveniently lay under a street lamp. Meanwhile, it is not reasonable to conclude that by a one time divine miracle the keys were transported to the far side of the moon.
Mr. Kristof then asks the Rev. Keller if it is OK to have doubts and struggle over these kinds of questions. The Rev. Keller answers yes. Quoting from the Book of Jude, he claims doubts lead to stronger faith. We disagree. Doubts about the veracity of factual claims should take us to skepticism and away from belief in those conclusions. The Rev. Keller then asserts that our choice is between faith in naturalism or faith in supernaturalism. We disagree. The only option is the best fit with the available empirical evidence conclusion. The available evidence decisively favors naturalism, the evidence is neither silent or neutral on this question. The laws of physics that best describe the functioning of our universe are mathematical equations consistent with our universe being mechanical, material, and physical. There is no astrology, or evidence for a God, in those equations. Or in biology, or anywhere in our shared modern knowledge about how the universe functions.
Mr. Kristof then questions the Christian belief that billions of people are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian countries. The Rev. Keller responds that the bible clearly asserts that "you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus". The Quran makes a similar claim that Islam is the exclusive postmortem route to a kingdom of God. Some arguments are so convoluted and parochial they can come only from the mouths of some Christians, or Jews, or Muslims. They resort to similar non-empirical, anti-empirical, and empirically weak or dubious, circular, incomplete, biased, arguments. Instead of asking Rev. Keller to judge if he is Christian, Mr. Kristof may do better to say he has no desire to be Christian.