The Reason For God - Chapter One Review

The criticism of Christianity being refuted in chapter one is, "There Can't Be Just Be One True Religion." Keller better clarifies this position by stating, "To insist that one faith has a better grasp of the Truth than others is intolerant." He does concede that this works against peace in our world. Once a religion can claim sole truth, it is easy to 'stereotype and caricature other ones'. He also concedes that this will most likely lead to violence. Keller then proceeds to list out three common reactions to this problem.

First reaction to the problem of religious exclusiveness, outlaw religion.
I would agree with him this would never work, and is counterproductive. I would concede that maybe every society needs some sort of fairy tale or narrative to function. I think it's interesting that when Keller talks about the explosive growth of religion, he fails to point out that it's in predominantly poor and uneducated countries. The fact is that the U.S. is an anomaly among wealthy nations in its belief system. This has more to do with its history of anti intellectualism than any sort of benefit of religious belief. I wonder what he thinks of the evidence that religious belief tends to leave a society worse off.

Second reaction to the problem of religious exclusiveness, condemn religion.
He claims that condemning religion leads to the following statements:
"All major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing". Who would say this! The fact that someone would raise this as an objection makes me despair about the type of skeptics who actually challenge Keller.
The next statement that condemning religion might lead to is, "Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth." He then uses the classic blind men feeling an elephant analogy to parable this stance. His reaction to this is, "How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed none of the religions have." PZ Myers has an excellent retort to this kind of thinking. It's long, so I have posted it at the bottom.
The statement to follow that is, "Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be 'truth'". He goes to use the classic argument against relativism. I don't really see how this defeats the relativism of religion. If you were taught something from a young age by everyone you trusted and loved, you would believe that. This is why there are always fights over what gets taught in school. Belief in Santa is relative, and not discoverable outside of it's cultural context. Once everyone stops believing in Santa, he's "dead". How is religion different? I don't care if he argues against relativism, I want to know how religion is not relative? I can see how math is not relative, everyone can discover its principles. The language around math may be a construct, but the principles remain the same. How does one discover non-relative religious principles? Are there any? This is making me feel like Keller would prefer to engage in 'straw-man' arguments.
That last statement that Keller says might result from condemning religion is, "It is arrogant to insist your religion is right and to convert others to it". I don't dispute that certain beliefs might have more validity than others, but something Keller asks is: why do the skeptics care what other people believe? He offers no answer, but I will. What others do with their beliefs affects my life. Notice I said what people do with their beliefs. Unlike the g0d depicted in much of the Bible, I don't believe in thought crime. A line of morality could be, 'What kind of society do you want to live in.' Then behaviours of others resulting from belief would matter. I would also say that evidence gives credence, or as Hitchens puts it, "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." When you claim exclusivity, but yet can't show any evidence on how you are exclusive, why should we not consider that arrogant? In fact, why should you not be laughed at? Again, I feel as if he skipped over the meat of this issue and answered the easy critics.

Third reaction to the problem of religious exclusiveness, keep religion private.
He says that it's not possible, that everyone brings their beliefs and spirituality to the public sphere. Keller says everything is morally relative, unless people bring their belief in g0d around with them. He does a nice little straw man caricature of a 'anything goes' morality. The problem is, when believers make claims in the public realm, they bring a giant 'g0d' stamp: "I'm right because g0d says so!" He conveniently ignores that this is one of the reasons why religion and state mixture is deplorable. He also says we have to have religion so we know what kind of society to build. He touches on a post modern idea of dialogue and constructing a society, then completely misses the point. *sigh*

Of course his answer to the problem of exclusive religion claims is, "Christianity can save the World". These are his reasons why:
Biblical doctrine of people being created in the image of 'g0d' leads to respect for others. Other people will recognize Christians as 'good' because of Jesus' teachings.
The Christian gospel should make people feel humble in light of their 'salvation', and therefore treat others with respect.
Christians in the first two centuries were so nice, gave people more rights, in comparison with the culture around them.
He then proceeds to say that, "We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians' most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?"
He just did skip lightly, and it annoyed me, though I suspect he tries to answer the injustices later in the book. As to his claims on how Christianity will save the world, there are natural explanations for all of them. Not really a whiff of anything supernatural in them. An example off the top of my head would be: if Christians were bad asses, persecuting people, in an empire with a big, well trained army, it is not a religion that will get off the ground. He seems to assume early Christianity was a cohesive belief system, which would imply he knows very little about the early church. Christianity has changed many times over, and it will continue to do so. I really enjoy how he calls Jesus' teachings good, but uses the classical argument later on that he was a bad moral teacher, which helps prove he was g0d.
To sum up, I would agree that there could be one true religion, but Keller in no way shows that it has to be Protestant Christianity. For me this book is off to a rough start. One too many straw men. I am also left with the feeling that there are tougher problems within this one chapter that Keller has chosen to ignore. I remember feeling annoyed at the weakness of the first chapter on my first run through the book, but I think it gets a little better.

Once upon a time, four blind men were walking in the forest, and they bumped into an elephant.

Moe was in front, and found himself holding the trunk. "It has a tentacle," he said. "I think we have found a giant squid!"

Larry bumped into the side of the elephant. "It's a wall," he said, "A big, bristly wall."

Curly, at the back, touched the tail. "It's nothing to worry about, nothing but a piece of rope dangling in the trail."

Eagletosh saw the interruption as an opportunity to sit in the shade beneath a tree and relax. "It is my considered opinion," he said, "that whatever it is has feathers. Beautiful iridescent feathers of many hues."

The first three, being of a scientifical bent, quickly collaborated and changed places, and confirmed each other's observations; they agreed that each had been correct in the results of their investigations, except that there wasn't a hint of feathers anywhere about, but clearly their interpretations required correction and more data. So they explored further, reporting to each other what they were finding, in order to establish a more complete picture of the obstacle in the path.

"Tracing the tentacle back, I find that it is attached to a large head with eyes, fan-shaped ears, and a mouth bearing tusks. It is not a squid, alas, but seems to be a large mammal of some sort," said Moe.

"Quite right, Moe — I have found four thick limbs. Definitely a large tetrapod," said Larry.

Curly seems distressed. "It's a bit complicated and delicate back here, guys, but I have probed an interesting orifice. Since this is a children's story, I will defer on reporting the details."

Eagletosh yawns and stretches in the shade of a tree. "It has wings, large wings, that it may ascend into the heavens and inspire humanity. There could be no purpose to such an animal without an ability to loft a metaphor and give us something to which we might aspire."

The other three ignore the idling philosopher, because exciting things are happening with their elephant!

"I can feel its trunk grasping the vegetation, uprooting it, and stuffing it into its mouth! It's prehensile! Amazing!", said Moe.

Larry presses his ear against the animal's flank. "I can hear rumbling noises as its digestive system processes the food! It's very loud and large."

There is a squishy plop from the back end. "Oh, no," says Curly, "I can smell that, and I think I should go take a bath."

"You are all completely missing the beauty of its unfurled wings," sneers Eagletosh, "While you tinker with pedestrian trivialities and muck about in earthy debasement, I contemplate the transcendant qualities of this noble creature. 'Tis an angel made manifest, a symbol of the deeper meaning of life."

"No wings, knucklehead, and no feathers, either," says Moe.

"Philistine," says Eagletosh. "Perhaps they are invisible, or tucked inside clever hidden pockets on the flank of the elephant, or better yet, I suspect they are quantum. You can't prove they aren't quantum."

The investigations continue, in meticulous detail by the three, and in ever broader strokes of metaphorical speculation by the one. Many years later, they have accomplished much.

Moe has studied the elephant and its behavior for years, figuring out how to communicate with it and other members of the herd, working out their diet, their diseases and health, and how to get them to work alongside people. He has profited, using elephants as heavy labor in construction work, and he has also used them, unfortunately, in war. He has not figured out how to use them as an air force, however…but he is a master of elephant biology and industry.

Larry studied the elephant, but has also used his knowledge of the animal to study the other beasts in the region: giraffes and hippos and lions and even people. He is an expert in comparative anatomy and physiology, and also has come up with an interesting theory to explain the similarities and differences between these animals. He is a famous scholar of the living world.

Curly's experiences lead him to explore the environment of the elephant, from the dung beetles that scurry after them to the leafy branches they strip from the trees. He learns how the elephant is dependent on its surroundings, and how its actions change the forest and the plains. He becomes an ecologist and conservationist, and works to protect the herds and the other elements of thebiome.

Eagletosh writes books. Very influential books. Soon, many of the people who have never encountered an elephant are convinced that they all have wings. Those who have seen photos are at least persuaded that elephants have quantum wings, which just happened to be vibrating invisibly when the picture was snapped. He convinces many people that the true virtue of the elephant lies in its splendid wings — to the point that anyone who disagrees and claims that they are only terrestrial animals is betraying the beauty of the elephant.

Exasperated, Larry takes a break from writing technical treatises about mammalian anatomy, and writes a book for the lay public, The Elephant Has No Wings. While quite popular, theEagletoshians are outraged. How dare he denigrate the volant proboscidian ? Does he think it a mere mechanical mammal, mired in mud, never soaring among the stars? Has he no appreciation for the scholarship of the experts in elephant wings? Doesn't he realize that he can't possibly disprove the existence of wings on elephants, especially when they can be tucked so neatly into the quantum? (The question of how the original prophets ofwingedness came by their information never seems to come up, or is never considered very deeply.) It was offensive to cripple the poor elephants, rendering them earthbound.

When that book was quickly followed by Moe's The Elephant Walks and Curly's Land of the Elephant, the elephant wing scholars were in a panic — they were being attacked by experts in elephants, who seemed to know far more about elephants than they did! Fortunately, the scientists knew little about elephant's wings — surprising, that — and the public was steeped in favorable certainty that elephants, far away, were flapping gallantly through the sky. They also had the benefit of vast sums of money. Wealth was rarely associated with competence in matters elephantine, and tycoons were pouring cash into efforts to reconcile the virtuouswingedness of elephants with the uncomfortable reality of anatomy. Even a few scientists who ought to know better were swayed over to the side of the winged; to their credit, it was rarely because of profit, but more because they were sentimentally attached to the idea of wings. They couldn't deny the evidence, however, and were usually observed to squirm as they invoked the mystic power of the quantum, or of fleeting, invisible wings that only appeared when no one was looking.

And there the battle stands, an ongoing argument between the blind who struggle to explore the world as it is around them, and the blind who prefer to conjure phantoms in the spaces within their skulls. I have to disappoint you, because I have no ending and no resolution, only a question.

Where do you find meaning and joy and richness and beauty, O Reader? In elephants, or elephants' wings?


  1. Post Script - My wife felt I was too combative and that I should say more positive things. With that in mind, I liked the Authors clear language, his concise layout in chapter one, and his readability. I am not trying to be that combative, but realise in some cases it probably can't be helped.

  2. Ha, that's funny scott, my wife says the same when I write reviews for school…

    "How does one discover non-relative religious principles?".... Ironically, Cogito ergo sum was such an attempt...

  3. Ha, I totally forgot that. Is it a religious principle though?

  4. Descartes thought so. He reworked a version of the ontological argument for God around a form of " the cogito". Much of the history of philosophy was wrestling with belief in God; Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Hume, Leibniz, even Hegel to name a few. Only recently has the concern for, as you put it, religious "principles" been divorced from philosophy (and there are interesting reasons for this).
    Here's a question: what do you mean by 'principles'?

  5. or another: what do you mean by "religious"?

  6. I would say by principle I mean underlying thought or idea...and by religious I guess I mean relation to a set standard of beliefs. Would not part of the separation be the same reason we don't say every natural explanation must have supernatural origin?

  7. Interesting. Do you think your definition of religion is affected by your own culture perspective and experience?

    And no, not same reason,rather that would be a result as well. (and who is this "we"?)

  8. It's the royal we of course!
    Why would'nt my of religion be affected by culture and religion? My use of the word is also affected by the english language and dictionary definitions.

  9. hmm. Do you think that could bias you toward emphasizing "beliefs" in your definition? Under one definition Websters includes attitudes and practices with beliefs, although I would argue that even this is probably euro-centric. Do you think that it is possible to come up with a universal definition of religion?