On “Why I Am Not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell
“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” - Rene Descartes
I’ve questioned myself thoroughly. I lacked the degree of doubt that Rene Descartes had, however, I have questioned myself as severely. That was, in large part, due to an experiment I was doing on myself, my faith, and my logic. I took three Christian books, Mere Christianity (CS Lewis), The Reason for God (Timothy Keller), and Why I Still Believe (Joe Boot) and three skeptic\rationalist books Why I Am Not a Christian (Bertrand Russell), The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), and various essays by men like Sarte, Hume, and Nietzsche.
The objective of this experiment was, as I said, was to test my faith and logic. Why do Christians think they’re right? Why do Atheists think they’re right? Why does it seem so urgent for either side to attack the other? In this short essay, I hope to explain my thought process and cite some of the material I’ve read. Specifically, though, this is a reply to Dr. Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian.
First, I will address his essay, explaining what he wrote in it, then I will attempt give the Christian’s arguments on why it is more rational to have a theistic worldview, rather than an Atheistic one.
Before I begin, though, we should define some words that will come up frequently. As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Chaos: noun 1) complete disorder and confusion. 2) the formless matter supposed to have existed before the creation of the universe. 1
Order: noun 1) the arrangement of people or things according to a particular sequence or method. 2) a state in which everything is in its correct place. 3) a state in which the laws and rules regulating public behaviour are observed. 4) an authoritative command or direction. (There are more definitions, but they aren’t necessary for this essay.) 2
In the first part of his lecture, delivered on the sixth of March, 1927, Russell introduces his topic and outlines what it is to be a Christian in modern times. He says that, “The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.” 3 He sees, and rightly so, that formerly serious words; words that meant life or death 1900 years before, had lost their urgent meaning. He continues this, saying, “In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant.” 4 He is right in say that the meaning of being a Christian, then in the 1920s and today, was and is ambiguous.
He then goes on to attempt to explain who a Christian is. From here, he says that Christians must one, believe in God and immortality and two, that Christ was, “divine, or at the very least, the best and wisest of men.” 5 A paragraph later, he says that in order to tell you why he isn’t a Christian, he must tell you why he does not believe in these two things.
In the first paragraph of this explanation, he admits that in order to address the fullness of the existence of God, he would, “keep you all here until Kingdom Come”. He takes these arguments in a summary order, much like I will here. He closes this first explanatory section by saying, (on the Catholic church’s saying the existence of God was an unaided postulate) “…reason might urge against the existence of God, but of course they knew as a matter of faith that God did exist.” 6
The First-Cause Argument
Russell immediately dismisses the “First Causes Argument”, the one that says “Everything we see has a cause, and eventually, that cause will have a name and that name will be God.” 7 But then he asks, aided by John Stuart Mills’ autobiography, “ ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, ‘Who made God?’ “ 8 He says that that answers showed him that the First Cause Argument had not validity. That is his first reason for not believing in God.
The Natural- Law Argument
He begins this argument by saying that, in a nutshell, Sir Isaac Newton wanted a cop out by saying that “God ordained natural orders like gravity” and that when Einstein wrote his theories, that completely negated those theories held before. In a nutshell.
“We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are actually human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths of stellar space there are still three feet in a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a natural law.”9
What he comes to in the end of this section is, regardless of the regularity of these things, the things we’ve called, “natural laws for so long” are only chances.
“The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was.” 10
In an extension of the section, Russell explains the difference between natural and human laws. But he comes to the conclusion, saying, “You cannot argue that there must be somebody who told them to do that, because even supposing that there were, you are then face with the question ‘Why did God issue those natural laws and no others?’ “ 11 He also suggests that if it were, for some unknown reason, that God introduces these laws, then it must be for something greater, a reason for why the laws were introduced and that then suggests, “that God himself was subject to law and there for you do not get any advantage by introducing him as an intermediary.” 12 He closes the full section by saying that this argument, also, has lost its steam in years past thanks to science.
The Argument From Design
This argument is rather short, so I’ll cut to the chase of it. He introduces Darwin into his logical, explaining that design has come a long way since. “You all know Voltaire’s remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles.” 13 This is followed by his citing Darwin’s theories, ending it his speech with a strong, strong assumption. “There is no design about it.” 14
Russell then takes a moral stance in saying that a perfect God’s world would be no less than that; perfect. He says that “…it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all the defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it.” 15 And I somewhat agree. Why should God not be here, ending Africa’s troubles? Where is he when everything seems to go amiss?
He ends by admitting that, while gloomy, the view that all life will die out is the most logical one because, why do we have any reason to believe that life will go on? What indications in this life are there that there is a God who will take us into his own and allow us to live forever? Where are the clues and, if there are any, what are they? And how are they clues?
The Moral Arguments for Deity
“Now we reach one stage further in what I shall the intellectual descent that the Theists have made in their argumentations, and we come to what are called the moral arguments for the existence of God.” 16
What he calls an intellectual descent is the moral argument for a God. In this section, Russell introduces one question:
“The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are in this situation: Is that due to God’s fiat or not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no right or wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, then you must say that right and wrong have some meaning that is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them.” 17
The Argument for the Remedying of Injustice
What Russell appeals to in this section of his delivery is that Christian doctrine says that God must exist for justice to exist. He asks the classical question, “If God is good, and exacts justice, why is there so much suffering?” 18 This is another ones of those “one and done” sections. And he doesn’t really have to ask any other questions. This one powerful question suffices and, for me, tripped me up in a most devastating way earlier in my life. Ask yourself, "Where is God in a dire time?" Is he camping out and unable to be reached or does he just not care? Is he an all-knowing benevolent God? If he is, but he allows suffering, then he isn't benevolent and loving. However, if he isn't benevolent and loving, he isn't God.
Character of Christ
On this, he moves to his second subject; the deity of Christ. In this section, he says, as he said before, that Christ was a good moral teacher and a wise person. However, “…He said, ‘Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-tse and Buddah some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle that matter of fact Christians accept.” 19 Russell goes over the basic Christian morals, agreeing with most of them and then, very observantly, adding that most Christians do not follow these. I agree with him. Christians do a horrible job of following their own rules. And it’s a crying shame. However, prematurely to the constraints of this essay, I ask him this: Do people who are well go to a hospital to be fixed? And what happens to the terminally ill who never go to a hospital?
Defects in Christs’ Teachings\ The Moral Problem
To Russell, Jesus has a moral defect. That one is that Hell exists. “I do not myself feel that any person who is really humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” 20 What he is really doing here is making Jesus out to be a vengeful spirit who wants all those who do not love and believe in him to burn in hell for eternity. He appeals to the story of Jesus casting out the demons from the man and sending them to the pigs. Russell calls this “inhumane” and “cruel”.
The Emotional Factor, How Churches Have Retarded Progress, and Fear, the Foundation of Religion
For these last three sections, I will simply get the three questions out of each and leave them be. They are simple enough, given the context of the earlier sections, that only the questions should suffice.
“Christianity is the principle enemy of moral progress in the world.” 21
“ ‘Supposing that in this world that we live in today, an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church says, “This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must endure celibacy or stay together. And if you stay together, you cannot use birth control to prevent the birth of syphilitic children.’ Nobody whose natural sympathies have not been warped by dogma, or whose moral nature was not absolutely dead to all sense of suffering, could maintain that it is right and proper that that state of things should continue.” 22
“Fear is the basis of the whole thing [religion]- fear of the mysterious, dear of defeat, dear of death. Fear is the parents of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder is cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.” 23
Informal Bibliography for Part One
3-23: Bertrand Russell- Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
On "Why I Am Not a Christian" by Bertrand Russell
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” - Sherlock Holmes
As I said in the first part, I’m going to attempt to show that the religious worldview, specifically Christianity, is the most logically sound and the least depressing. I am, of course expanding on my initial objective. I’m not looking to “convert” anyone, as I believe that no argument can do that. No one comes out of a debate on their knees, shouting the praises of the almighty. A wise man once told me that if you can be argued into it, you can be argued out of it. I wholeheartedly believe that. I’ve experienced it.
Remember the initial definitions of order and chaos. They will still be important in the following text.
Russell is right in saying that Christianity has lost its meaning, in the sense of a word, and that it means not what it used to. However, Atheism has also taken this directive. More and more, you hear the word “Agnostic” –that is, one who is not sure there is or isn’t anything; “we can’t know”. If I weren’t a religious type, I’d be Agnostic. Atheism implies that that person has all the answers, which anyone should rightly admit that they don’t. No one can know infinitely, except the infinite and so underlying the statement that "God absolutely does not exist" is a contradiction: "I infinitely know that infinite knowledge doesn't exist."
According to Timothy Keller, “Atheist author Sam Harris and Religious Right Leader Pat Robertson should each admit the fact that his particular tribe is strong and increasing in influence.”1 Let’s face it. Religion is exploding in places like Africa and China. And skepticism, rationalism, and flat-out Atheism are exploding in western lands. This sense that religion or Atheism are in danger of being extinct is foolish and causes unneeded fighting, rather than productive and friendly debate.
I’ll start this section like Joe Boot does in “Why I Still Believe”. Most everything I say is not original. It has been spoken by great like C.S. Lewis, Blaise Pascal, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Ravi Zacharias. I only hope to “put it in a new way”; to redress it so that perhaps someone knowledged in these subjects can get something fresh from reading.
So, where do we start on this task? On a firm foundation, I suppose.
Remember the definitions for chaos and order? Let’s apply them here. First, the Atheist will be quick to say that everything is the product of a series of astronomically random chances that happened. The infinitesimal chance that something in nothingness happened; a huge explosion happened, creating a rough draft of everything we see today. Furthermore, they say that we are all products of some rogue genetics that evolved and evolved (again, taking advantage of these small chances) into human beings. From there, we’ve adapted and adapted into what we see today. I’m technically writing this very paper on a product of evolutionary adaptation!
But we should ask some questions of this, since it is right and fair for the burden of proof to also be on the skeptic, as well as the religious. The chances of one of these events happening is almost impossible. The chances of all of them are even more so. Ravi Zacharias quotes biologist George Beadle, in his book The Real Face of Atheism as asking a skeptic,"Whence came the hydrogen?" 2 Beadle then added, "Is it any less awe-inspiring to conceive of a universe created of hydrogen with the capacity to evolve into man, than it is to accept the Creation of man as man?" 3 Zacharias follows this up by saying,"The turning of hydrogen into thinking and purposive beings is scientifically undemonstrated and philosophically devoid of merit." 4
Russell uses a neat metaphor in his essay to explain away natural law and statistics by using dice. He said that there is a 1:36 chance a pair of die will roll double-sixes and if they landed on all double sixes, there should be reason to admit a divine plan. 5 Applying this metaphor to this scenario, as he would have to, I’d say he’s right. The divine did intervene to make all of these chances happen!
Basing a world view on this, though, is dangerous. Here is why? Without some sort of “divine being” to oversee this willy-nilly creation, there would be no order; no reason. There would be no regularity or any reason to believe anything that would ever be said. Language and math would not even be stable! And that's only the beginning. Physical and biological laws would no longer be valid. They would be physical and biological hopes. Without a god, designing everything, why would there be any kind of natural order? Russell points out that natural law doesn’t exist, except by chance. Why would I believe that gravity will be the same in the coming seconds? In that world, I would have no reason to. I propose this: that without a creative being interacting with the world it had made, no order would exist. We could literally take nothing for granted. Language would be a nightmare; as would math, and general understanding. There would be no honesty, but there would also be no dishonesty; with everything changing so rapidly how could there be?
Let me put it another way. Taking an Atheistic point of view means that I would believe that our beginnings lie in chaos. Since the beginning is in chaos, subsequent times would also have to be rooted in chaos. That would mean nothing could make sense. Chaos is defined, as we saw earlier, as complete disorder and confusion.
How do we know that what you're reading makes sense, then? Because we expect, demand, order. The sun will rise tomorrow because it rose yesterday and the day before. Mark your calendars because Christmas is on the 25th of December. The number Pi will always help us figure out circles. The Fibonacci Sequence will always continue and 440hz will always be what we define as the note A, not because we call it A, but because that frequency will always be matched with that pitch; even if we were to call it B, D, or Z.
Ironically, an Atheistic worldview uses a logic that only a Theistic view can hold. In short, Atheists cannot use their own logic to defend their view. They have to draw from the order of Theistic views to defend their chaotic beliefs.
Onto natural law, Russell is quick to note that there are still three feet to a yard in the remotest depths of space. He points out that this is a human convention, rather than a natural law. This is in the same quarter as the note I described earlier. A yard will always be three feet, or thirty-six inches. The names of the measurements are human convention. If the distance traveled between two lines on a football field were “five candles” away from one another, it would still be the same distance. His assumption of Newton and Einstein might also be right. Newton stopped short of Einstein’s theories. Perhaps Einstein went too far. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes says something to Watson, as he is drawing a theory about a new case they are about study for the king of Bohemia.
“This is indeed a mystery,” I remarked. “What do you imagine that it means?”
“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” 6
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Einstein is wrong; I don’t know enough about his theories to have a proper opinion. But what if Newton was like Holmes in his approach? What if he simply didn’t have his data and didn’t want to fit a fact to suit his initial theory that apples control gravity? (joke)
But why did God issue laws? Russell also appeals to this question and ends up saying that if there was a standard; God would also have to be subject to it. What if, however, we assume that God made everything and he is how the Christians say he is? Would it not make sense for a benevolent God to issue laws that are for the good of his people? He did, after all, form the human body. The architect knows what is best for the building he is designing; where the central balance will be, where everything should be at. How much less is it to wonder that God knows what is best for his creation, humanity?
An objection could be that some laws are dated or unnecessary. What about tattoos? What about drinking? I answer with this: A child wants candy for every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Is this good for the child? Certainly not! But, are they good in moderate amounts? Heck yes! We, as children don’t know what is best for our own bodies. But our parent, God, does. He made us. He, if anyone could, would know better.
On moral law, I appeal to one man. C.S. Lewis who, in his work Mere Christianity, asks the reader one question: “Where did our morality come from?” In the first part of his book, Lewis appeals to the sense of a universal right and a universal wrong as a key to knowing of God.
“Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to- whether is was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you like.” 7
Going backward in this book, Lewis also appeals to mankind as a whole, in regards to fairness.
“Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.” 8
How many times have kids yelled, “That’s not fair!!!” It’s one of the first things we learn! What do babies do when they wants things? Cry (annoy us older folk). Now, it would seem I’m going on a moral rabbit trail. However, where do we get this sense of right and wrong? It cannot be instinct, because that then begs the question, “What chooses between our instincts?” It couldn’t be general consensus or social convention. I mentioned earlier that math is also not a human convention. The symbols we have for it are, however, the math itself has always been there. Lewis proposes that moral law is the same way. It can be refined in school, and some people will know more about it than others, but everyone does know it. 9 Lewis puts it beautifully.
“Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which [instinct] should be encouraged, cannot be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tell you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys. “ 10
Russell appeals to a God that doesn’t seem to care what happens. Timothy Keller also says something on this subject in his book, The Reason for God. Talking about his college days and his struggles of faith, Keller says:
“…there was something radically wrong with both of them. The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world.” 11
My question isn’t, “Why doesn’t God use his power to do something?” Mine is, “Why aren’t we doing something?”
My mentor told our discussion group about a dialogue in a comic strip that went like this.
“I’m mad at God.”
All of this injustice in the world, all of this oppression. Why doesn’t he do something?”
“I don’t know. You should ask him.”
“I’m afraid to.”
“I’m scared he’ll ask me the same thing.”
Why should we ask why God should do something? Why shouldn’t the richest in the land do something about it? For the problems we see in the third world, I beg the question, “Why not us?”
On his pieces on Jesus, Russell says that he agrees with Jesus on a level but can’t follow him “all the way”; particularly on the subject of hell. Why would a loving God throw people in hell? It seems almost evil that he would send someone to a place eternal torment and misery, someone who God loves.
However, Lewis sees it another way.
In his book The Great Divorce, Lewis illustrates a bus of people on the outskirts of heaven. They’re simply asked to leave their sins behind. However, they don’t.
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will be hell unless it is nipped in the bud.” 12
What Lewis is saying is that we grow so irritable, so contrary, and eventually, so evil, we are already in Hell. In not giving these urges and sins over to God, we have ignored and started to hate him. We only want ourselves in our own fullness. We will be miserable, but we are miserable by ourselves.
“There are only two kinds of people- those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.’ 13
All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self- choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will miss it.” 14
Lewis basically says no one is in hell who doesn’t want to be there. It is a choice that ends in the person saying either "Your will be done" or "My way or the highway".
The last three questions that Russell points out are very legitimate and need to be answered. Christianity has done some awful things, from crusades to inquisitions. Witch-hunts. Slavery. But to say that religion has retarded our moral progress is to assume that Christians have done nothing good. I can’t answer for the wars and hunts and corruption, other than that those people were humans; confused humans. However, I can answer for slavery.
Old Testament slavery was very different from the Anglo slave trade. In those days, the slaves were paid for their work and they could purchase themselves out of the slavery they were in. Some forms of slavery were only set for a time, like an indentured servant. The American slave trade was different. Africans were kidnapped or sold by rival tribes, transported in a very inhumane fashion, and then brutalized when they reached the colonies or England. That is, until a man named William Wilberforce.
He was an Englishman who pushed for the abolition of slavery in England. Not only did he push for it, he succeeded. Wilberforce was a Christian and he was deeply convicted by the Bible and in no small way was this a miracle. Soon, almost all other countries abolished the trade. I could name other famous Christians that helped deep-seated moral dilemmas: Martin Luther, of Germany, who fought Catholic Church oppression in the 1500s, Martin Luther King Jr, who fought for civil rights in the US South in the 1960s, Abraham Lincoln, who signed legislation to free American slaves during the civil war. Christianity’s main goal is to fight oppression, and although often we fail horribly, we have succeeded many important times.
The second question involves the Catholic Church’s doctrines on divorce and birth control. The question, though, isn’t on God’s hand? Why did man allow this happen? Why are we so indoctrinated in religion, that we've lost sight of what God wants for us; the best? Personally, I'm not a huge fan of liturgical rules, though I believe they are necessary. Some seem petty and old fashioned and most of them have made "religion" a dirty word in collegiate settings.
Is Christianity based on fear? I think that some people have made it to where that hell-fire is a good detour against dancing too close or smoking. Some people take it to a "turn or burn" scenario when they are evangelizing their faith; another huge step back for Christianity.
But, a religion based on fear? I should think not! Ravi Zacharias has something to say about this, calling Russell out by name on this tenant of his philosophy.
"Bertand Russell's assertion, in his conceptual critique of Christianity, that all religion is born out of fear, is a weak and unthinking criticism of the subject.It is no more true than if one were to say that all irreligion is born out of fearlessness. Caricatures such as this make for a poor philosophical starting point, and end up in false psychological theories." 15
The biggest misconception is that if we make one false move, God will smite us. That isn’t it. God created us; you think he knows we’ll screw up? You’d better believe it. The Christian God is one of love. Now, you may think me crazy. However, I think of it the same way that Timothy Keller does; like a dance.
The triune God has lived eternally and been in perfect relationship with himself eternally, between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally relational, eternally loving. Keller calls this “The Dance of God.” 16 Sort of like a love triangle, except without the things that make daytime television interesting. There is perfect unity in this dance. Now, imagine the person you love most. Imagine losing that person. Imagine the pain of loss. It would be the worst pain ever felt. Now, imagine how the eternal God felt sacrificing his Son, who he’s loved eternally, on the cross for humanity. You cannot even properly fathom that eternal pain. No other religion teaches that. No other religion has a god who came down to earth in flesh and died for his creation. No other. It is the ultimate sign of love that God would sacrifice himself for his creations. In John 17, Jesus says to God, “I have given them the glory you have given me.” With Jesus’ Death, God has invited us to be a part of this eternal love. Not only was this a loving act; it was a selfless act. And as I’ve said before, no other religion has a god like that. Christianity, at it’s very essence, is a religion of love.
I can only hope that I have adequately explained all of this in a concise way. I sincerely hope that you gain something by reading this text; whether it’s more reasons to not believe, to continue believing, or to start, I hope you’ve gained something.
Informal Bibliography For Part Two
Timothy Keller- The Reason for God 1, 11,16
Ravi Zacharias- The Real Face of Atheism 2,3,4,15
Bertrand Russell - Why I Am Not A Christian 5
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Scandal in Bohemia First quote, 6
C.S. Lewis - Mere Christianity 7,8,9,10
C.S. Lewis - The Great Divorce 12,13,14