Making Sense of God

As a growing number of people in our culture embrace a naturalistic worldview, many find themselves unable to account for things such as meaning, freedom, justice and hope. Tim Keller’s recent book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical speaks to this irony and argues that Christianity is more relevant now than ever. The following is an excerpt from his book.

An Awareness of Something Missing

Some years ago a woman from China was doing graduate work at Columbia University in political theory, and she began attending our church. She had come to the United States to study partially because there was a growing opinion among Chinese social scientists that the Christian idea of transcendence was the historic basis for the concepts of human rights and equality. After all, she said, science alone could not prove human equality. I expressed surprise at this, but she said this was not only something that some Chinese academics were arguing, but that some of the most respected secular thinkers in the West were saying it too. Through her help, I came to see that faith was making something of a comeback in rarefied philosophical circles where secular reason—rationality and science without any belief in a transcendent, supernatural reality—has increasingly been seen as missing things that society needs.

One of the world’s most prominent philosophers, Jürgen Habermas, was for decades a defender of the Enlightenment view that only secular reason should be used in the public square. Habermas has recently startled the philosophical establishment, however, with a changed and more positive attitude toward religious faith. He now believes that secular reason alone cannot account for what he calls “the substance of the human.” He argues that science cannot provide the means by which to judge whether its technological inventions are good or bad for human beings. To do that, we must know what a good human person is, and science cannot adjudicate morality or define such a thing. Social sciences may be able to tell us what human life is but not what it ought to be. The dream of nineteenth-century humanists had been that the decline of religion would lead to less warfare and conflict. Instead the twentieth century has been marked by even greater violence, performed by states that were ostensibly nonreligious and operating on the basis of scientific rationality. Habermas tells those who are still confident that “philosophical reason . . . is capable of determining what is true and false” to simply look at the “catastrophes of the twentieth century—religious fascist and communist states, operating on the basis of practical reason—to see that this confidence is misplaced.” Terrible deeds have been done in the name of religion, but secularism has not proven to be an improvement.

Evidence for Habermas’s thesis comes from recent research on the history of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century. Thomas C. Leonard of Princeton University shows that a century ago progressive, science-based social policies were broadly understood to entail the sterilization or internment of those persons deemed to have defective genes. In 1926 John T. Scopes was famously tried under Tennessee law for teaching evolution. Few people remember, however, that the textbook Scopes used, Civic Biology by George Hunter, taught not only evolution but also argued that science dictated we should sterilize or even kill those classes of people who weakened the human gene pool by spreading “disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country.” This was typical of scientific textbooks of the time.

It was the horrors of World War II, not science, that discredited eugenics. The link between genetic makeup and various forms of antisocial behavior has never been disproved; indeed, the opposite is true. Recent studies, for example, show that a particular receptor gene decreased boys’ likelihood to stay in school, even with compensatory support and help from teachers and parents. There are many links of heredity to disease, addictions, and other problematic behavior. Thomas Leonard argues that “eugenics and race science were not pseudosciences in the . . . Progressive Era. They were sciences.” It was perfectly logical to conclude that it would be more socially and economically cost effective if those genetically prone to nonproductive lives did not pass on their genetic code. However, the death camps aroused the moral intuition that eugenics, while perhaps scientifically efficient, is evil. Yet if you believe that it is, you must find support for your conviction in some source beyond science and the strictly rational cost-benefit analysis of practical reason. Where can you look for this support? Habermas writes: “The ideals of freedom . . . of conscience, human rights and democracy [are] the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . . To this day there is no alternative to it.”

None of this denies that science and reason are sources of enormous and irreplaceable good for human society. The point is rather that science alone cannot serve as a guide for human society.18 This was well summarized in a speech that was written for but never delivered at the Scopes “monkey trial”: “Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. . . . Science does not [and cannot] teach brotherly love.” Secular, scientific reason is a great good, but if taken as the sole basis for human life, it will be discovered that there are too many things we need that it is missing.


A Sense of the Transcendent

A second reason why, even in our secular age, religion continues to make sense to people is more existential than intellectual. Harvard professor James Wood, in a New Yorker article “Is That All There Is?” tells of a friend, an analytic philosopher and a convinced atheist, who sometimes wakes in the middle of the night haunted by a visceral angst:

How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?

Wood, who is a secular man himself, admits that “as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night.”

What is this “incomprehension” that can suddenly grip even secular persons? Wood’s friend’s questions reveal more an intuition than a line of reasoning. It is the sense that we are more and life is more than what we can see in the material world. Steve Jobs, when contemplating his own death, confessed that he felt that “it’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience . . . and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.” It seemed to Jobs untrue to reality that, for something as significant as the human self, death would be just an “off switch,” so it is merely “Click! And you’re gone.”

Lisa Chase, the widow of the prominent journalist Peter Kaplan, also rejects the closed, totally secular view of the world. She believes her departed husband is still alive in spirit. At the end of her essay in Elle she quotes her grieving son, who says, “I wish we lived in a magic world [rather than one] where science wasn’t the answer to everything.” Chase, though living in the heart of sophisticated, progressive Manhattan, concludes that her son’s description of a “magic world” is closer to the truth than the secular one. Her intuitions about the reality of the transcendent beyond the natural became too strong.

Sometimes this intuition triggers a protest against the way secularism seems to flatten and reduce life so that “all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death.” Other times it is a more positive apprehension of realities that our objective reason tells us can’t really be there. Julian Barnes, for example, finds himself moved deeply by certain works of art that he realizes should not really do so. Mozart’s Requiem relies on the Christian understanding of death, judgment, and afterlife for its stunning grandeur. With his objective reason Barnes rejects these ideas. He believes there is nothing after death but extinction. Nevertheless, the Requiem moves him—and not merely the sounds but the words. “It is one of the haunting hypotheticals for the nonbeliever,” he writes. “What would it be like ‘if [the Requiem] were true’[?]”

Philosopher Charles Taylor asks if people like Barnes can explain why such art affects them so deeply. There are times when we are “hit” with such experiences of overwhelming beauty that we feel forced to use the term “spiritual” to explain our reaction. Consistently secular thinkers such as Harvard scientist Steven Pinker teach that the origin of our aesthetic sense must be, like everything else about us, something that helped our forebears stay alive and then came down to us through our genes.

Reductive explanations such as Pinker’s, however, actually make Taylor’s case. Most people, and not just nonreligious ones, will protest “No!”—that beauty cannot be only that. “Here the challenge is to the unbeliever,” Taylor writes, “to find a non-theistic register in which to respond to [great works of art] without impoverishment.” I believe Taylor means something like this. 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 that helped your ancestors find food and escape predators, 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. It is difficult to get “very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion.” Leonard Bernstein famously admitted that when he heard great music and great beauty he sensed “Heaven,” some order behind things. “[Beethoven] has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.”

Is it possible, then, that art will continue to provoke in people the inescapable intuition that there is more to life than scientific secularism can account for?

Why It Is So Natural to Wonder

The limits of secular reason, the ordinary experience of transcendence in the arts, and the extraordinary experiences that rend the secular frames even of hardened atheists—all of these explain why religious belief keeps reasserting itself even in the heart of the secular West.

Actually, it is quite natural to human beings to move toward belief in God. As humanities scholar Mark Lilla has written: “To most humans, curiosity about higher things comes naturally, it’s indifference to them that must be learned.” Strict secularism holds that people are only physical entities without souls, that when loved ones die they simply cease to exist, that sensations of love and beauty are just neurological-chemical events, that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds determine and choose. Those positions are at the very least deeply counterintuitive for nearly all people, and large swaths of humanity will continue to simply reject them as impossible to believe.

Many ask: Why do people feel they need religion? Perhaps now we see that the way this question is phrased doesn’t explain the persistence of faith. People believe in God not merely because they feel some emotional need, but because it makes sense of what they see and experience. Indeed, we have seen that many thoughtful people are drawn toward belief somewhat unwillingly. They embrace religion because they think it is more fully true to the facts of human existence than secularism is.