Skip to content

Why Bertrand Russell Should Have Been a Christian

February 11, 2013

Bertrand Russell, well-known and respected for many contributions to mathematics and philosophy, is perhaps best known outside of those disciplines for his lecture/essay “Why I am Not a Christian”. Widely distributed and referenced, it has developed a reputation as a philosophical proof of the falsehood of Christianity and against the existence of God. But are its arguments truly so devastating? Is it a philosophical stronghold of atheism against which no thinking person can take issue? I’ll take on this famous philosopher in my next step in my search for wisdom

In approaching a famous work such as this, one which has likely been footnoted in thousands of scholarly works through the years, feelings of anxiety may rise in our throats and we might wonder whether a fledgling Christian worldview will be safe coming into contact with such mighty thoughts. Is this really an appropriate book for a Christian homeschool reading list? Is this really something I should be Teaching My Kids? Answer: Absolutely. There is no idea big enough to stand against God’s Truth, and in actuality as we work through the philosophical arguments of this supposed intellectual giant, we find him standing about 5’4″. Soli Deo Gloria!

In the opening section What is a Christian, Dr. Russell distinguishes between what was meant in the past by “Christian” vs. what some mean by the label today, pointing specifically to the orthodox belief in the existence of Hell, now more controversial. By using a liberal extreme position, he attempts to weaken the concept of Christianity at the outset and assumes for himself a posture of moral high ground by choosing the “more widely acceptable” definition to attack. As is often the case, posturing is the fallback tactic of someone who does not have Truth on their side.

Regarding the Existence of God, Dr. Russell claims that Christians (or at least the Catholic church) claim God’s existence can be proved by reason alone. In earlier articles I already concluded that Reason cannot find ultimate Truth on its own, but is only a tool for efficient thought once we have set our Worldview. So we understand going into this that a free-floating rational argument can be made for or against almost anything – if you wonder at this just ask any lawyer. Interestingly though for a professional philosopher, Dr. Russell’s attacks on common rationales for God’s existence actually seem very loose and weak. He leaps to conclusions without a rigorous thought progression and seems to rely more on speaking condescendingly than on careful thinking to sway his audience.

– Against the First Cause Argument, Dr. Russell begins with an incorrectly stated assumption, that “everything has a cause” (which is not at all the starting place of First Cause proponents); from there of course he “detects” a fallacy, since it follows that God must have a cause but does not. He inexplicably misses the fact that it is in solving the endless backward progression of causes that the first cause argument gains its validity. There must have been something outside of creation which set the universe in motion, from which the intricate network of causes/effects we see all around us draws its existence.

– Versus the Natural Law Argument, the eminent philosopher steps completely off the stage in stating that “a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions” or statistical patterns. We can forgive him his lack of understanding of his examples – atoms and statistics – but in the 21st century this attack is truly Nerf. Professors of Quantum Mechanics should be jumping in line ahead of Christians to take issue.

– Turning next to the Argument from Design, the Ku Klux Klan and Fascists are used as “proof” there could be no designer. Putting aside theological questions about whether God is sovereign over sin or if it results from the evil in men’s hearts, this is a weak and bizarre rock to throw against the amazing overwhelming beauty and elegant balance of the universe and the wonder of life; these examples of evil hardly prove that everything must have come about via random chance…

– Dr. Russell’s attack on the Moral Argument is even stranger. He creates a false dichotomy: either Good is defined as God’s fiats – in which case Good loses its meaning to only “what God does”, or there is a standard outside of God against which his fiats can be judged Good. Therefore, he concludes with a flourish, the universal human experience of conscience and sense of right and wrong cannot be said to prove God’s existence. We see quickly that the dichotomy is false though, and there is no inconsistency in claiming that God’s actions are always Good and that we can rightly call them Good; in fact our universal human sense of right and wrong, applied against what we know about God in the Bible, makes exactly this conclusion. Only his predetermined worldview kept Dr. Russell from reaching this simple conclusion: what we know about God and His actions align exactly with our internal sense of Good, and we know that this alignment is a result of the fact that we are created by Him and in His image. Those who want to quibble about the Flood, or massacre of the Amalekite children, for example, need only realize that we are His creations, created to glorify Him, but because of our sin and the Fall we deserving nothing but death; God was glorified in these events in history, and we can absolutely call them Good without hesitation.

– His next section against “Remedying of Injustice” is a strawman if ever one was propped up. I have never heard Christians claim that a cosmic need for justice represents a proof of the existence of both God and an afterlife. The theology of such a point would be tenuous at best since true “justice” for our sins would actually send man far more misery. Nevertheless Dr. Russell spends 2 pages summarizing and then attacking this rationale.

Bertrand now turns his attention to attack Jesus Christ and his teachings. Even more clearly than in his attacks on the arguments for God’s existence, he shows here the inconsistencies of the worldview assumptions he is bringing to the question. Even more than in the first half of the essay, we are shocked here at the lazy reasoning applied by a man in his position, who in this paper is taking a stand against not only two millenia of history, but against his Creator.

– He begins by pointing to hypocrisy in Christians in the world around him, against his summary of direct commands from Christ: that believers do not often actually “turn the other cheek” as Jesus instructed, that believers do not resist judging others “lest they be judged”, that Christians often do not give to beggars who ask, and that they hardly ever “sell everything and give the money to the poor”. Putting aside the significant theological mistakes he makes in his summaries of these commands in the first place, the more serious philosophical mistake is to judge the truth of any proposition by the actions of those who profess it. This is a sideways ad hominem attack, and should have been beneath a man of Dr. Russell’s position. Consider all the mathematical mistakes made by students across the world – do they prove that math is invalid?

– After expressing doubt that Jesus ever actually lived, next Bertrand attacks Christ for claiming falsely that He would return before the death of most people who heard Him speak, using this as proof that “He was certainly not superlatively wise”. Despite the many misinterpretations of John’s Apocalypse which no doubt guided Dr. Russell’s view on the topic, a correct reading of Revelation (and Matthew 24) leaves no doubt that Christ did indeed return to deliver judgment to apostate Israel and Jerusalem in the form of the Roman invasion and final destruction of the Temple of Solomon in AD 70, only 40 years after His crucifixion.

– Next the philosopher points to a “great moral problem” with Christ’s teaching – that He believed in Hell. Rather than any kind of rational argument or logical comparison, he offers only his own personal doubt: “I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” Needless to say this kind of amateur approach achieves a negative score on the persuasiveness scale. To save space from more lengthy and convincing rebuttals, I can blunt his point with just this: “I myself feel that one can.”

– Bertrand points out that he never understood why Christ was “not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill into the sea” or His cursing of the fig tree, because after all “you really could not blame the tree”. These comments barely merit a response, although they underscore the professor’s willingness to make a judgment based on his own limited misunderstanding of what these passages mean; if Dr. Russell is aware that he does not understand them, one wonders why he chose to include them at all in his litany of attacks against Christ.

In the next section of the essay, Dr. Russell steps back from specific reasoning and instead chooses to make a broad claim that people do not “think” their way to religion but instead “accept it on emotional grounds“. Rather than backing up this statement or explaining how this view is supportive of “why he is not a Christian”, rather than explicating how beliefs arrived at in this way are proved definitely faulty (did he love his family based on thinking or emotion?), he chooses instead to draw an analogy between Christianity and a work of fiction by Samuel Butler…

He summarizes Erewhon Revisited, wherein a man returns after many years to a remote country to find a religion has grown up worshipping him based on his initial visit, after which they claim that he ascended to heaven. We see again that filling the page seems to be Bertrand’s main goal. His argument in this section boils down to this: a man once wrote a story about a false religion which is very similar to Christianity, therefore Christianity must also be false. …this from a professional philosopher. …this in a famous essay cited by millions of people as having decimated Christianity with its philosophical brilliance ?!

From this Dr. Russell pivots back to another ad hominem attack to begin the conclusion of the essay, claiming that “the people who have held to [the Christian religion] have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs”. He cites the Inquisition and witch burnings as powerful proofs of this, and claims that religion has opposed every improvement in the state of man on earth through the centuries: “the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world”. As his primary example, he points to the church’s resistance to birth control even in cases where the husband has syphilis which can pass to the baby. Putting aside here the philosophical weakness of the ad hominem attack in principle, let’s examine the facts about the improvements in the human condition delivered vs. opposed by Christianity…

– We are commanded by Christ to care for the weak, helpless, widows, orphans, sick and imprisoned. We are commanded to love our neighbors (even our enemies) as we love ourselves.

– The Inquisition was indeed tragic, leading to the unjust deaths of some 4,000 people from the 15th-18th centuries. An atheist counterpoint: 30,000 were killed in the French Revolution (20,000 in street fights).

– Witch burnings and hangings were also very tragic, with 33 people being murdered in Salem, MA and possibly 50 in other incidents in the U.S. and Europe in the 17th century. An atheist counterpoint: 1,000,000 Tutsis were killed in Rwanda by members of the Hutus tribe in the 1990’s.

– Sadly we also have these major atheist massacres and genocides to counter-balance the “powerful” examples Dr. Russell raises: Saddam Hussein killed around 1,000,000 innocents in Iraq, Iran and Kuwait. 3,000,000 people died under the tyranny of the atheist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970’s. 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated by the German Nazi party in WWII. 6,000,000 people died in the “ethnic cleansing” in eastern Europe in the 1990’s. Stalin killed 20,000,000 innocent people, mostly in his home country of Russia. 50,000,000 unborn innocents have been killed in the U.S. via abortion since the 1970’s. 330,000,000 unborn and newborn babies have been killed in China due to that atheist government’s “One Child Policy”. And there are many many more examples. Where God is denied, murder is just a political choice…

– Christians were the primary driving forces behind workplace reforms, child labor laws, orphanage reforms, adoption laws, homeless care, healthcare improvements (including a cure for syphilis, which was discovered by a Prussian Christian 17 years before Dr. Russell penned his essay), third world outreach, the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. On balance it is completely ludicrous to claim that Christianity has brought more harm than healing into this world, or that “progress” without God can ever benefit mankind.

As his Coup de Grâce to complete his supposed victory against Christianity, Dr. Russell chooses to launch an accusation of fear-mongering. “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear… the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes… Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations… Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it… The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men… A good world needs… hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.” Eloquent hyperbole, to be sure, encouraging us to leave behind religion just as the world has left behind “craven fear” and “Oriental despotisms”.

I dealt with this secular tactic of connecting Progress with Atheism (which many learned from Bertrand Russell) in an earlier article, but for now let’s look at the structure of his actual argument: Religion is old, and lots of other old social norms have been abandoned; also it involves frightening concepts about the afterlife – therefore it too should be abandoned. Viewed in clear light boiled down from its elevated language this argument falls to dust. Being old is not a reason to abandon something; Love is an extremely old concept in all its forms – should it therefore be abandoned? And of course Christianity deals with fearful concepts and life-changing questions – but not as manipulation; it deals with these things because they are real!; and therefore it is rightly said that the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Christianity deals with these truths and this fear in the contexts both of God’s righteousness and His love, which leads to salvation.

…Dr. Russell admitted that he felt the pull of God throughout his life. Tragically, rather than considering that God might exist, Bertrand chose instead to pour contempt on Him and on all those who seek and believe in Him.

The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain – a curious wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite, the beatific vision – God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found, but the love of it is my life … it fills every passion I have. It is the actual spring of life in me. — Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

Christians, there is NO idea big enough to stand against God’s truth! As we’ve studied this famous tirade against the Christian faith (and against Jesus), we have seen how weak are his arguments and how loose his reasoning; this is hardly a proof of anything but the arrogance of its author. We can feel confidence in our worldview and in our God, but let us show humility and compassion to those still under the sway of weak secular reasoning like Dr. Russell’s.


From → Worldview

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: