Chapter One – Isn’t Religion Going Away?

Hey Geoff,

Apologies for the lengthy hiatus as I read the first chapter. I actually read it ages ago, but then got so busy, it took me this long to finally finish writing about it.

As I read this chapter, I kept thinking that none of this matters to the question of whether or not God’s existence is a reasonable conclusion to reach from the available evidence. And in the end, Keller essentially said as much himself. But at the risk of coming across as a contrarian, I still think he oversells his point a bit by making specific claims or inferences that I feel are unjustified.

His main argument is that there are so many people that believe in God (or at least in some sort of spiritual realm) so shouldn’t we at least look into it further? I can certainly agree with that much. Religion and spirituality are things that seem to make sense to a lot of people so it’s reasonable to try to find out why. I think, in some ways, Keller isn’t really talking to me here because I’ve obviously looked into this topic quite a lot over the years. Instead, he’s probably talking to those who have dismissed religion out of hand or have never really thought about it very much, and this argument is certainly a valid one to convince those people to keep on reading. I was going to keep reading anyway, so it’s sort of moot.

Anyway, he refers to a Pew study ( that not only shows how dominant religion is across the world but also concludes that religious adherence will increase over the next several decades. He then offers two main explanations (on page 11) for this religious growth, namely that many people find secular reason to be inadequate and that they also intuitively sense a transcendent realm. While I would disagree with those conclusions, I can certainly acknowledge that those are reasons some people might use to justify their religious beliefs. Indeed, that’s partly why it’s worthy of investigating religion’s claims further. However, I think there’s another enormous reason that religion is so prevalent: the fact that the vast majority of people simply adopt their parents’ beliefs.

The authors of the Pew study disclose that their predictions are based on extrapolations from recent censuses across the world. Part of the calculation includes using current trends in retention rates of children born into each religion. It’s clear from this that most people just stick with their parents’ religion. So obviously, the higher the fertility rate of a given religion, the greater the population increase will be.

Total Fertility Rate by Religion

As you can see from the above graph, Muslims and Christians have a far higher fertility rate than other categories. As such, their populations are gaining the most. On page 24, Keller acknowledges all this, but he doesn’t follow it through to its natural conclusion. If everyone in the world was genuinely considering all their religious options before they made a choice, it would be too much of a coincidence that so many of them ended up believing the same thing as their parents. I think it’s pretty clear, then, that most people are taught to believe in their parents’ religion before they’re old enough to genuinely think about it for themselves. Then, by the time they are old enough, their religious upbringing obviously influences them deeply as they decide whether they’re going to stick with it or not.

So, back to Keller’s reasons for the projected religious growth (i.e. secularism’s inadequacies and a sense of the transcendent). While I can agree that most religious people probably believe those things, I don’t think we can assume those are the biggest reasons for becoming religious in the first place, which is what Keller is trying to imply. Instead, it seems clear that the initial trigger for most people is simply what they’ve been taught as a child. Keller’s reasons come later. Not to mention, heavily religious communities tend to be pretty insular, making dissenters feel like outcasts, so if your religious family/community is all you’ve ever known, you’re less likely to opt for the shame and loneliness of leaving them. Indeed, in some countries, it’s downright dangerous to be a heretic. As such, I don’t even think we can assume that everyone within a religious community necessarily believes in transcendence.

Keller also makes the argument, on page 26, that inherited religions (which he defines as religions linked to a person’s identity – e.g. if you’re Irish, you’re Catholic) are dying out, but when people are given a choice, they turn to the more conservative denominations. To support this, he points to evidence that evangelical Christians enjoy a much higher conversion rate in the US than the more liberal Christian denominations, which are losing numbers. He obviously didn’t take a close look at the Pew study, though, because, globally, when people change religions, they overwhelmingly move to the non-religious category (with most of them coming from Christianity).

Projected Cumulative Change Due to Religious Switching

That again makes it clear that a religion’s fertility rate is the biggest factor in its longevity. If religious people didn’t have so many children, their religions would not be growing so rapidly, not even close. Christianity, in particular, would be dying out fast. This also directly contradicts Keller’s argument that, when given a choice, people favour religion. When we look at conversion rates alone, the unaffiliated enjoy the largest gains by orders of magnitude. Like I said above, since we know the majority of people stick with their parents’ religion, this particular statistic suggests that, when people are willing to question the beliefs they were brought up with, they choose to let go of religion altogether.

I realise my criticism so far is mostly irrelevant since the fact remains that religion is most likely growing around the world, which is the main point Keller was making. I just think he misinterprets exactly why and how by insinuating that the growth is predominantly due to people turning to religion because of the two reasons he offers, when in fact, the data shows people aren’t really turning to religion at all. Most of them were already religious before they could truly understand those reasons.

I also have some criticisms of those two reasons themselves. As mentioned, I’m aware that Keller acknowledges the mere fact people believe these things is not necessarily proof of their validity, but perhaps paradoxically, he still makes the argument that those two reasons do indeed make sense so I’d like to respond to that.

First, the feeling that secularism is missing something that humans require to live.

He talks about how science can’t tell us what’s good or bad, or right or wrong. I think it’s a little unfair to paint this as such a black and white issue, though. Keller seems to be suggesting that, since secularism can’t give us an objective morality, then it provides no morality at all. But I think humans do a pretty good job at agreeing on most of the important moral questions. It doesn’t seem to matter that it’s not objective. We can philosophise and compromise and come up with acceptable ways of behaving with each other. Most countries have a legal system that represents the way of life that its citizens want. The goal is to be as fair as possible, allowing everyone an opportunity for happiness. While none of this is objective morality, nor is it always successful in its goal, I think it’s unfair to suggest that it’s worthless. I think those things can indeed fit the bill of the “something missing” that Keller talks about. It’s a frustratingly imperfect system, no question, and not everyone will agree on every moral issue, but again, I don’t think we have to just throw our arms up in the air and say, “well, it’s all useless, why bother even trying to come up with any basic rules of behaviour.”

Besides, even if there’s a source of objective morality in God, humans still have to interpret what it is. The Bible doesn’t list every possible circumstance of human interaction. And even the things it does discuss, some of those are vague enough that there are several interpretations of how to apply it to your life. Not to mention all the different religions that use different holy books with different holy laws. So in the end, the religious have just as much of a conundrum in determining what’s objectively moral as the non-religious. In other words, they’re both subjective. The level of religiousness is irrelevant to being able to agree on questions of morality.

With that said, I agree with Keller when he says, on page 13, that

science alone cannot serve as a guide for human society.

At the bottom of the same page, he adds

Secular, scientific reason is a great good, but if taken as a basis for human life, it will be discovered that there are too many things we need that it is missing.

However, I don’t actually think many atheists would say that science is their basis for life. Rather, it’s their basis for knowledge. Once you have knowledge of certain things, you can use those facts, when appropriate, to help shape your worldview. Granted, I think we still need to start with a philosophical assumption, e.g. that happiness is the ultimate goal, or that we should aim for the least amount of human suffering, etc. That part is perhaps preference, but similar to my previous point, society is fairly aligned in its thinking about that. Then from that basis, scientific knowledge can often help us work out the most appropriate actions to take in order to achieve the philosophical goal. At the very least, we can use that scientific knowledge to inform debate.

On page 14, Keller argues that science is inapplicable to certain aspects of the human experience, such as love and hope and other intangible things. He asserts that we all know these things are real yet science can’t explain them, precisely because it can’t deal in anything other than the material world. Interestingly, however, he offers a scientific explanation of love (“chemical responses in your brain”) but dismisses that explanation as not real, for some reason. He writes,

if we assert … that love, meaning, and morals do not merely feel real but are so – science cannot support that.

I fail to see why the scientific explanation is not real, though. What definition of “real” is he using here? Aren’t feelings real? Aren’t emotions real? Certainly chemical reactions in the brain are real. I suppose he’s suggesting that feelings of love, etc. are more than just chemical responses, but his only argument for that is that he just simply knows it to be true. He’s relying solely on his own intuition about it, which, as I mentioned in a prior post, is where our main difference is going to lie throughout this entire discussion. My position is that intuition is unreliable as a source of knowledge. If we don’t have corroborating evidence to verify an intuitive claim, it’s not reasonable to accept it as true, no matter how strong the feeling.

This segues neatly into the second of Keller’s reasons for global religious growth – the sense of the transcendent.

Keller continues to argue that intangible things have a greater meaning than their scientific explanations and he does so with the same sole premise, namely that we all just feel there’s something more. On page 17, he writes,

If you are being swept up in joy and wonder by a work of art, it will impoverish you to remind yourself that this feeling is simply a chemical reaction … and nothing more. You will need to shield yourself, then, from your own secular view of things in order to get the most out of the experience.

I’m not sure I really understand why this needs to be the case. The joyous feeling is what it is. When I feel joy, I’m joyous, even if I understand it’s just neurons firing in my brain. I’m not less joyous because I recognise it as a chemical reaction. If Keller wants to claim joy and other emotions are something other than chemical reactions, then he needs to provide evidence for that and not just assert a mere feeling.

On the next page, he relates how some people who experience a sense of fullness about the world

know unavoidably that there is infinitely more to life than personal health, wealth and freedom.

People who genuinely think they can know something “unavoidably” based solely on a feeling before any attempt at verification are destined to believe all sorts of untrue things. All these senses, feelings, “the whoosh”, are being interpreted to mean something, but all that is actually experienced is a feeling or a thought. To determine whether the content of that feeling is real, we need to look beyond the feeling itself and corroborate it with something more tangible. Otherwise, how can we distinguish between feelings that reflect reality and ones that don’t?

Then, on page 23, he suggests that, when considering secularist arguments, most people will

simply reject them as impossible to believe

which seems antithetical to Keller’s request in the preface to keep an open mind about this issue. I can’t prove that the natural world is all there is but dismissing that idea as not even a possibility based solely on your intuition is the definition of closed-mindedness.

Again, intuition is simply not trustworthy enough to be making such bold conclusions about such important issues. I offered an analogy in the comments section of my first post to illustrate this point. Imagine you asked 100 strangers to guess your height using three different methods. First, they have to make a wild guess before they even see you. Second, they meet you in person and can base their estimate on what they see. Third, they can use a tape measure. Sure, maybe a handful of people might guess it right using the first method and probably a great deal more people would get close on the second, but it’s clear that the third method is going to result in the most accurate answers. It’s obvious in this admittedly unimportant scenario that intuition is not reliable, so surely we should be even more dubious of intuition when it comes to the important stuff, especially stuff that we have a vested interest in.

I could continue commenting on other points in this chapter that I disagree with – Keller’s take on eugenics, for instance, is particularly ill-informed – but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself with all my responses so far. I realise Keller may just have been pointing out a lot of these things simply to illustrate how prolific religious thought is in society rather than actually presenting these reasons as legitimate arguments for religion. He’s using this chapter to persuade the reader that religion is not a trivial thing that can be dismissed as irrelevant in modern and future society. As such, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this chapter was not technically directed at me anyway, since I’m already engaged enough in the discussion and I don’t dismiss religion in that way. Ironically, though, Keller’s line of reasoning here would probably not have persuaded me to enter the discussion if I wasn’t already interested in it.

Nonetheless, interested I am, and I fully comprehend that the next chapter will be new material, so I’m certainly not suggesting that his reasoning in this chapter invalidates any arguments that follow. I’d still like to hear why he thinks it makes sense to believe in God, so I’m looking forward to getting into more of the nitty-gritty, keeping as open a mind as possible.

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