I’ve had this transcript of a Bertrand Russell speech saved in my favorites for a long, long time. I wanted to address it, but always got bogged down and distracted. At long last, a response.
Here is the link if you would like to read along. It’s not an enjoyable read by and large, either stylistically or for content, but it’s definitely worthwhile in that it draws on a number of arguments to support Russell’s theological stance. The title of the piece is “Why I Am Not a Christian”, and you can read it at http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html
This speech was given nearly 85 years ago. That should be taken into account in certain discussions of science.
I appreciate the Russell takes time to define terms, firstly. He defines a Christian for his purposes as someone who believes in God, immortality and believes Jesus to be fully divine or at least the “best and wisest of men”. He doesn’t think that you have to believe in hell to be considered a Christian.
Here below is a very brief response to each of the arguments Russell invokes against Christianity. Firstly, Russell addresses the typical philosophical and moral arguments used to justify the existence of God rationally.
First Cause Argument – Russell does not properly summarize the first-cause argument, which is rather unfair considering the argument has been around for over 2000 years. Properly stated, the first-cause argument says that all effects must have a cause. It does not state that all things have a cause, but rather that all things that are effects must have an original cause, and the original cause of all other things can be described as God.
Natural Law Argument – Russell attempts to argue that the existence of natural laws seem to somehow refute the existence of God, since their ubiquity would seem to indicate that God himself is bound by them and therefore not the all-powerful entity He claims to be. Russell doesn’t seem to consider that God could arbitrarily declare the existence of, say, gravity, without being bound by some sort of objective gravitational law. Basically, Russell’s argument here doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.
Argument From Design – Russell resorts to the assumption that God created the best possible world. And since we all know how awful and cruel and violent and capricious this world is, if this is the best God can do, we can hardly consider him to be all-powerful or all-knowing or all-present. Russell’s assumptions about God’s intent in creation as well as Russell’s complete ignoring of the Biblical explanation for our current state of affairs (Genesis 3) is quite unreasonable.
Moral Argument for God – Russell discounts the idea that right and wrong are definitive, objective realities that are created by God. He basically resorts to Plato’s arguments of Socrates in Euthyphro – is good good because God says it is so, or because it intrinsically is in and of itself, by it’s very nature? Russell feels that it’s unreasonable that goodness is defined by God as part of his nature, as this could mean that everything we hold to be right and wrong is, in fact, arbitrarily so. This is not a necessary conclusion however, from the idea that morality comes from God.
Argument for the Remedying of Injustice – Russell asserts that some people claim there must be a God in order to address injustice, to balance the scales that are so often out of whack in this world. This isn’t an argument I’ve heard much of – probably due to the philosophical shift that has occurred in the last 80 years. Regardless, this argument doesn’t so much disprove the existence of God as demonstrate how deeply ingrained in human beings the sense that we ourselves and the world around us are not as they are supposed to be. Frankly, I think that points towards the existence of God and a prior, perfect existence – which is exactly what we find described in Genesis 1 & 2.
Russell then throws out a few other miscellaneous arguments against Christianity:
The Character of Christ – Russell’s argument here is not actually against the character of Christ, but rather an observation on how nobody is capable of living up to the morality demanded by Christ. As a Christian, that’s hardly a surprise, since Scripture has a fair amount to say about our inability to live as we ought.
Defects in Christ’s Teaching – Russell confuses his inability to understand some of Christ’s teachings as demonstration that they are defects. Russell assumes that his interpretation of Christ’s words is authoritative and comprehensive, and that doesn’t seem to be a reasonable assumption.
The Moral Problem – Mostly a rejection of the idea of hell. Russell doesn’t see eternal punishment as reasonable. He doesn’t seem to admit of the possibility of factors he doesn’t know or understand, and he seems to assume the penitence of the condemned. These factors weaken his objections significantly in my opinion. The same applies to his brief mention of Jesus casting out demons into a herd of pigs (Matthew 8), as well as his mention of Jesus’ encounter with the fig tree in Matthew 21.
The Emotional Factor – Russell argues that faith is more of an emotional issue than an intellectual one. Unfortunately for Russell’s argument, the fact that emotions are often involved is not in and of itself disproof of God. That would only be true if emotions were relied on in contrast to our experience of reality or intellectual understanding. Russell concludes this section with an attack on Christian churches as active agents against improvement & change in the human condition, which leads to:
How the Churches Have Retarded Progress – Another philosophical argument by and large from another philosophical era, but one we still hear from time to time today. He constructs a hypothetical (but certainly not unrealistically possible) situation and decries it as unfair. He seems to forget that it is not simply in the teachings of the church that one finds unfairness, disappointment, struggle, suffering, etc. Russell opts not to discuss this topic in any actual specificity. Which makes rebuttal rather difficult and superfluous. The church as a human (as well as divine) institution has made many mistakes, continues to do so and will continue to do so until it is perfected in Christ. Once again, this does not demonstrate that God could not exist, unless of course Scriptures somewhere asserted that the Church can and must be perfect.
Fear, the Foundation of Religion – Speculation on what drives people to religion. Assuming that it can’t possibly be true, Russell hypothesizes that it’s fear of death and the unknown that drive people to religion. Again, the motivating factors in someone’s faith are not in and of themselves adequate to disprove the object of faith. Russell believes that science will eventually be the undoer of religion, an idea still popular today. As such, he assumes that science is capable of doing so – which has proven false beyond heated rhetoric.
What We Must Do – The alternative to God and religion is (and really can only be), ourselves. Russell evinces an amazing faith and trust in human nature – something that was popular in intellectual circles of his time. Prior to World War I. Pr
ior to World War II. Prior to the incredible abuses of those societies that set themselves up in opposition to and power over God and religion – the former Soviet Union, Communist China, etc.
Overall this is a very light piece that seems to trade on the assumption of an audience already familiar with and friendly to these ideas. Given that he was speaking to the National Secular Society, this makes perfect sense.