As a part of the thrilling challenge that I’ve made with creationist Mark Tetzlaff to read Richard Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth,” I agreed to read two Christian books of his choice. I put no pressure on him to decide which books. He chose ones that I assume speak to him, his intelligence, and his cause. I’m still working to complete the first book, “Evolution, the Grand Experiment” by Dr. Carl Werner. The second book, “Why I believe in God,” by Cornelius Van Til arrived Friday in the mail, and I decided I needed a little change of pace, so I went ahead and read it.
For the record, I read “Why I believe in God” out loud, word for word, in my kitchen, and read a couple pages four and five times. I read it out loud because I wanted to really digest its words, not because I’m a poor reader. I typically read fast, but I wanted to carefully examine Van Til’s message.
For a bio on Van Til, go check out his wiki. He’s Dutch by birth and moved here with his family at a young age. Everyone knows I hate Dutch people, so the book didn’t go over very well with me.
No really, after I started reading it, I had to double check that the author of the book wasn’t my dad. He grew up in Holland as well, and moved here with his family at a young age. He was born in 1895 (so was my dad). I have no idea how old Van Til was when he wrote this book. By the looks of the picture on the cover, he was 10,000 years old.
It’s a short read, just 16 pages. And if you’re wondering what it’s about, well, you’re an idiot.
No. Not really.
The book argues why Van Til believes in god, and proposes you should, too. Well, maybe not you. But he is talking to an imaginary or hypothetical person during the length of the book. Van Til kept referring to the person as “you,” as in the reader, but this guy and I have little in common. Van Til’s imaginary reader is a life-long non-believer.
Let’s name Van Til’s imaginary friend. We’ll call him, Josh.
From what I gather, Josh doesn’t believe in god. He grew up with parents who didn’t impose the Christian god (or any god) on him. By Van Til’s own admission, Josh is open-minded and a freethinker.
Van Til opens his discussion saying that scientific and philosophical developments have successfully pointed to the existence of god. Van Til’s work is done. He closes the book and has his wife bring him a cocktail and a cigar. God exists and science proves it.
Oh wait, Van Til needs to continue despite “proof”. His second paragraph on why he believes in god, Van Til says to Josh:
Have you, too, on occasion asked yourself whether death ends all? Have you recalled, perhaps, how Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, struggled with that problem the day before he drank the hemlock cup? Is there anything at all, you ask yourself, to the idea of a judgement after death? Am I quite sure, you say, that there is not? How do I know that there is no God.”
Van Til decides that the best way to proceed is to compare notes with Josh over their origins. “Perhaps you think that the only real reason I have for believing in God,” explains Van Til, “is the fact that I was taught to do so in my early days.” He assures Josh that is not true. Rest assured, Van Til has heard a “pretty full statement of the argument against belief in God, and it is after having heard that argument that I am more than ever ready to believe in God.”
He says, “I feel that the whole of history and civilization would be unintelligible to me if it were not for my belief in God. So true is this, that I propose to argue that unless God is back of everything, you cannot find meaning in anything.”
Van Til says that he can’t argue about god’s existence without taking him for granted, and that Josh can’t argue against god without taking god for granted. That makes sense, and let me show you why. Out of curiosity, I looked up the idiom “take for granted“. A lot came up. The common definition is “assumption of truth.”
For example, say you’re young and married and your spouse passes. You might say, “I took for granted that she’d always be here.” The tendency for the human mind is to assume the truth, whether it’s true or not. One definition of “take for granted” said, “take to be the case or to be true; accept without verification or proof.”
It’s clear that Van Til means “take god for granted” in this same sense, because he “assumes” throughout the rest of the argument that god exists, and never once considers his argument from the standpoint that he may not exist.
Van Til is the master of wishful thinking, but his god forgot to provide better proof.
According to Van Til, to assume that god doesn’t exist is a fallacy, and this argument relies on the very fact that he exists, whether we agree or disagree. Van Til declares himself the argument winner on the first page of the book.
In fact, explains Van Til, if you and I argue over whether or not air exists, the entire time we are arguing, we are breathing air. So if we’re talking about god, you and I are talking about something that exists whether both or one of us is convinced. That’s the early 1900s illustration he has come up with.
We know that oxygen is measurable and is a definitive resource necessary for existence. God is not measurable. He is not necessary for existence. If he were, I’d have been dead 10 years ago when I let him go.
“Or to use another illustration,” Van Til explains, “God is like the emplacement on which must stand the very guns that are supposed to shoot Him out of existence. However, if after hearing my story briefly you still think it is all a matter of heredity and environment, I shall not disagree too violently [phew!]. My whole point will be that there is perfect harmony between my belief as a child and my belief as a man, simply because God is Himself the environment by which my early life was directed and my later life made intelligible to myself.”
Clearly, Van Til is clearly being clear. One of my favorite songs my brother wrote is called “Certainly Uncertain.” Maybe he based the song off of reading this book.
Van Til briefly says that Josh may have heard of the “accident of birth.” He says that since we can agree that Josh was born in America, which is a “Christian Civilization,” we all have a clear idea of the Christian god we’re speaking about.
Here’s where your indignation may be righteous. We live in a country where people are free to worship or not worship whatever they like, and Cornelius Van Til assumes that being bon in America means we can say the word god and know quite definitely what or to whom we are all referring.
He assumes also that if he were talking about being born in Afghanistan, that I would immediately know who Allah was based on my knowledge of the Muslim God.
He says (note: I broke up the following sentences with Jeremy commentary in brackets), “So much then we have gained. [have we?] We at least know in general what sort of God we are going to make the subject for our conversation. [do we?] If now we can come to a similar preliminary agreement as to the standard or test by which to prove or disprove God’s existence, we can proceed.”
This is where my whistle was whetted. He’s going to prove the existence of god!
Van Til says, “You, of course, do not expect me to bring God into the room here so that you may see Him. If I were able to do that, He would not be the God of Christianity.”
To be clear, Josh is a non-believer talking to Van Til. Josh knows that the Christian god cannot be ushered into the room for proof, because Josh already knows this is impossible based on his preconceptions of the god of the “Christian Civilization.”
Van Til is really good at taking things for granted.
Van Til explains that he believes in god and therefore believes he is god’s creature. Josh does not believe, but that still makes Josh god’s creature. No matter how Josh looks at it, god exists. Josh can’t escape god, a being who Van Til hasn’t really explained yet.
Josh could throw a complete temper tantrum and scream, “I am NOT GOD’S CREATURE!!!” But that wouldn’t be sufficient. Josh is god’s creature no matter what.
What do we know at this point? Van Til learned about god when he was a toddler, and now he still believes in him. Americans believe in this being too. In fact, if you’re American, you probably have an idea of who this god is. He’s not a physical being that can be led into a room. That’s not the Christian god. He’s as real as air, or he is the pedestal that we shoot at. Oh, and Van Til takes him for granted and so should you.
Van Til uses an eighth of his book to bore us with is background
Yawner time, Van Til describes his youth. He went to a parochial school. He and his buddies fought with the public schoolers. He describes being taught about Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit. He says god was the kind of thing his parents talked about from time to time. He says that one time he slept outside in a servant’s quarters by a cow barn, and that his mind played tricks on him all night. He said that his knowledge of Jesus let him dispel any ideas that ghosts or bad people existed that might harm him, because Jesus died on the cross and saved him.
Van Til says that he was conditioned to believe in God, because his environment was a Christian one, and influences conditioned his mind. How could he not believe. He was conditioned after all.
I can’t figure out how arguing for the existence of god based on conditioning is a positive thing.
He says that Josh may have been raised by his parents to be a freethinker, and they read to him from the bible of the world. Van Til says that Josh was conditioned not to believe, and therefore views life through non-belief-tinted glasses. Is this really a bad thing?
Van Til blathers about his youth some more. You’d think he would do more convincing of god’s existence, but there isn’t any of that here. He compares his upbringing more with Josh’s. He says that Josh must have gone to a “neutral” school.
He argues that having a “neutral” bias just means Josh has an anti-Christian bias. Van Til says, “At least it ought to be plain that he who is not for the God of Christianity is against him.”
Wait, did George Bush write under the surname of Cornelius Van Til?
Van Til says that the whole world belongs to god. He says, Josh belongs to god too. He said that it is a failure to not “own” up to the reality of god. Here’s where things get creepy and why I chose to name the imaginary person to whom Van Til is speaking.
“You dare not manipulate God’s world, and least of all yourself as His image-bearer, for your own final purposes. When Eve in the garden of Eden became neutral as between God and the Devil, weigh in the contentions of each as though they were equal value, she was already on the side of the devil,” says Van Til.
Then he says, “I see you don’t care for this turn of our conversation. Still, you are open-minded and neutral, are you not? You have learned to think any hypothoesis has, as a theory of life, an equal right to be heard with any other, have you not? After all, I am only asking you to see what is involved in the Christian conception of God. If the God of Christianity exists, the evidence for His existence is abundant and plain so that it is both unscientific and sinful not to believe in him.”
Some of my readers may remember someone named “Prophet Lady” whom I had to ban. She was a complete loony toon, and I found out that she was praying for the death of a terminally ill person. Well, she told me over and over that I should believe in god, because she spoke in tongues and understood it when others did it. She told me that I should believe in prophecy, because she has prophesied.
Anyone can make a HUGE claim, and say, “Believe me, it happened.” That’s the way you convince a child. You can’t pull that shit with me.
Van Til argues more about having tinted glasses that prevent belief, because of conditioning. He says that he is going to change Josh’s perspective by breaking down preconceived notions that are dirtying his belief in god. And he repeats that he’s heard different arguments for the case against god, but he doesn’t tell Josh (or us) what those arguments are. You can look them up for yourselves apparently.
It’s becoming more and more obvious that when Mark Tetzlaff’s influences of scholarship are this lousy, that he would think that Van Til’s and Dr. Werner’s forms of scholarship are admirable. It’s like riding in a horse-driven carriage and thinking it’s the best, fastest, most comfortable way to travel, but when it comes down to it, there are better, faster, more comfortable, more advanced and definitely more exciting ways to get from point A to point B. When your standards are low, the rosy-tinted glasses you wear view crap like this as legitimate.
Van Til address the four principles for belief are creation, providence, prophecy and miracles. He says out of politesse toward non-believers, Christians have backed off from being too pushy, and their arguments aren’t nearly as compelling. They’ve turned to “testimony”. He says, “After all, God is not found at the end of an argument. He is found in our hearts.”
Van Til also says that we should believe because experiential recommendations. If you say, “I’m cold, shut the windows and put on the heat.” I would have to believe you just as much as if you said, “I was praying and I felt the hand of god.”
“If I have offended you,” says Van Til, “it has been because I dare not, even in the interest of winning you, offend my God. And if I haven’t offended you, I have not spoken of my God.” He then says if you aren’t offended, it’s because the atheist has determined himself to be god.
Yawn. When are Christians going to stop using this stupid line? Van Til hasn’t accurately defined what god is, and yet he’s saying that his readers think they are gods. I don’t think of myself as god. My wife doesn’t think of herself as god.
He says that of course he doesn’t think you’d create an elephant or a tree (like god). Josh is accused of the color-tinted glasses again.
Instead of owning up to failure, Van Til gets more and more childish. He says, “Deep down in your heart you know very well that what I have said is true. You know there is no unity in your life. You want no God who by his counsel provides for the unity you need.”
Desperate much? He is unable to convince with his juvenile stories of all-powerful conditioning, so he resorts to the juvenile and hypnotic, “Deep down you know I’m right. Come on, honey baby. It’s great. Everyone’s doing it. Without god, you won’t be unified. Come on baby, take a hit.”
Van Til says, “So I readily grant that there are some ‘difficulties’ with respect to belief in God and his revelation in nature and Scripture that I cannot solve,” says Van Til. He explains that there is mystery in god, but without god is chaos. Chaos. Chaos. Chaos.
“So you see when I was young I was conditioned on every side. I could not help believing in God. Now that I am older, I still cannot help believing in God. I believe in God now because unless I have Him as the All Conditioner, life is chaos.”
Van Til finally wraps up his little book about why he believes saying that it’s not that there aren’t other beliefs that are better, or more or less probable than Christianity, it’s that if you don’t believe in god, you can believe in nothing else. He says that science, psychology, logicians and bible critics could authoritatively give Christianity a hard time, but he says that everything always comes full circle back to god.
So there you have it, if you don’t believe, fine. Just know that if you don’t, you weren’t conditioned to have tinted-glasses of anti-Christianity (it’s your fault). Also, you have fallen prey to science, logic, bible critics and psychologists. Without god, your life will be chaos and you won’t have anything to believe in.
A better title for Van Til’s book should be, “The more I whine and talk disdainfully, the better chance I’ll have at making you believe too.”
I feel like a gigantic douche. I didn’t decide to take a look for a printing online until yesterday. I found one. By all means, feel free to read it for yourselves and let me know how my review would differ from yours. By all means, show me how I missed Van Til’s excellent arguments.
My rosy-tinted glasses forced me to see this book as a gigantic disservice to Christianity. If this is a go-to argument, I’m surprised anyone would ever say they believe in god. There’s nothing except random appeals to emotion, grand assumptions and empty threats.
A tribal shaman could make a better case for gods than Van Til.
Van Til didn’t write this book for me. He wrote it for someone who grew up conditioned by non-belief. I grew up solid in godly beliefs and let go of god through questioning and research. Not that it matters. His arguments are piss poor and makes no case to any non-believer and believers alike.