Why He Is Not A Christian

by MW Cook

I’ve been interested in Bertrand Russell these days. I recently found his popular lecture Why I Am Not A Christian. It would be a good idea to read it over before continuing, it’s not that long.

Let’s consider this post to be a response to Russell’s lecture. I’ll use his own headings.

What Is A Christian?
Russell defines a Christian as someone who believes in God and immortality and considers Jesus Christ at least the best and wisest of men. I agree with Russell in that finding a definition of Christian is a very difficult exercise and made much harder in the present age with the plethora of religions, sects and philosophies that are common throughout the world. However, I really think his definition is lacking. It seems that for Russell Christianity is an intellectual assent to a set of dogmas. Perhaps for some who bear the name Christian that is enough, but I still think it’s lacking. I would call a Christian someone who follows Christ, but I suppose that definition is even harder to work with. For now let’s use Russell’s definition and treat it all like an intellectual question rather than a worldview and life walk.

The First Cause Argument.
Russell is not a Christian because he does not believe God exists. He first attacks the First Cause argument which basically states that since every effect must have an independent and antecedent cause therefore God must be the prime cause of everything. Russell quotes John Stuart Mill to disarm this argument: “My father taught me that the question, who made me? Cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, Who made God?” Russell states that this sentence showed him the fallacy of the First Cause argument. I don’t think he gives the argument the treatment it deserves. It seems manifest to me that nothing can come from nothing. ex nihilo nihil fit. If there was, at any time in history, nothing in existence, then it is irrational to suppose that the nothing would suddenly and independently become something. Something, therefore, must have always been. Materialists call it matter. I call it God. Russell’s comparison to the Hindu view of the world being supported on the back of an elephant is out of place and smells like a straw man. While the First Cause argument may not specifically point to the God of the Bible, it certainly does point to something that has always been, whether mindless matter that eventually morphed into life, or a creative and powerful being that sparked the universe.

The Natural-Law Argument
I’ll grant that the idea of Laws being put in nature by God is fallacious. We use words like ‘law’ to describe things that happen in a certain way under certain conditions. Certainly these things are not laws, but rather observations on the way the universe seems to behave. The Natural-Law Argument is indeed a weak one.

The Argument From Design
Here I think Russell has put up a straw man. No self-respecting theist would claim that rabbits have white tails so that they can be shot at easier. When I consider the argument from design I think more about the higher aspects of human consciousness. Things like beauty, honor, love and joy. These things that separate us from the rest of creation and suggest a designer rather than blind fate. I wonder what is the evolutionary benefit of being able to appreciate a sunset or being emotionally moved when certain sounds and tones are produced by certain voices and instruments.

Russell makes the point that if the universe was created by an omniscient and omnipotent being it would probably be much nicer than it is. He points out all the troubles and evils that seem inherent in the world and believes it is illogical to assume a perfect being created it all. I would answer that it is difficult to judge the world from our limited vantage point. We can judge an apple because we are greater than the apple and we are independent of the apple. It’s not like that with the universe. We are inside and a part of the universe. Every sensory input we have comes from the world we live in. The universe, I think, is far to complex to allow us to point at one section or another and say ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad’. We make the same mistake Russell accuses Newton of when we try to put the universe under a microscope and judge it. It’s far too complex for us (though I’m certainly not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to understand it). A real response to this argument by Russell is going to require a detailed look at the problem of evil. I’ll save that for another post.

The Moral Arguments For Deity
Kant suggested that although man cannot prove or disprove the existence of God he should live as though he did exist. I suppose that’s a decent social restraint but Russell is right in rejecting this as a solid argument for God. I think Russell errs, however, when gives his two options for the relationship with morality and God. He asks whether objective morality (if it even exists) is due to God’s command or not. If it exists because of God’s command that must mean that God is above it and it is now meaningless to say things like ‘God is good’. If it in not from God’s decree then we must accept that it exists outside of God as a part of nature, which is an equally unstable foundation for a Christian as it supposes something that exists independent of God. I think there is a third option, though. I see natural morality as a reflection of the character of God. It’s not so much that God said such and such is right or wrong that makes it so. Rather it is God’s character that brings about morality. God delights in love, therefore love is a part of natural morality.

The Argument For The Remedying Of Injustice
Here Russell is right. This argument is weak and useless. I’ll also agree that many people believe in God for weak reasons like upbringing and comfort. This abuse, however, does not weaken any argument for God as far as I see.

The Character Of Christ
Russell is on the ball when he points out the good sayings of Christ and how Christians don’t obey them.

Defects In Christ’s Teaching
The texts he quotes here are certainly troublesome to many people. Again I think I should justify his points with a fuller post in the (hopefully) near future.

The Moral Problem
Russell criticizes Christ on his anger and abuse to the people who ‘did not like his preaching’. I think he’s over simplified things here. Christ did not use his harsh words for people who didn’t accept what he said. He used his harsh words for those who led people astray, devoured widow’s houses for a pretense and made a total mockery of the noble system they claimed to follow. He wasn’t dealing with critics. He was dealing with shepherds claiming to love sheep while selling them to the wolves.

And then there’s Hell. Indeed it sounds disgustingly severe that a loving God could ever send people to exist forever in a state of pain and misery. If we in any way trust the Biblical documents we have to concede that Christ believed in hell. But what is hell? I don’t think the picture Dante paints in accurate, nor do I think he really meant it to be taken literally any more than Lewis did in The Great Divorce. For a long time the doctrine of Hell was a huge stumbling block for me. As I sit here I view hell in this way: I reject the idea that hell is a place of physical fire. I believe that Christ presented the idea of fiery judgment so that his listeners would pay attention and realize the awfully high stakes. I believe that the state of existence for those who have died are too hard for us flesh-bound critters to understand. I’m not trying to make hell sound tolerable, mind you. In fact, I would think that if Jesus was using metaphors to describe hell it would actually turn out to be worse that his better, rather than better. I apply the same thing to heaven. When Revelation talks of streets paved with gold I don’t actually think about the idea of walking atop gold when I go down the street. Again I think that God gives us a metaphor to help us understand. The basic idea he is trying to get across is this: Hell is very, very bad. Heaven is very, very good.

But I’m almost off topic. What about hell? How can a loving God send people to this place so that they suffer for eternity? Especially when most people in the world haven’t seen a true picture of the Christian faith and are living difficult lives as it is. I think the main problem with humankind is depravity. I think that deep down inside we are all focused on possessing things and bettering ourselves. Humans do not naturally think about better others or striving for holiness or things like that. We want stuff. If this taint is not cured in us before we leave this world heaven will be of no interest to us. Lewis points out that in the end there will be two kinds of people. Those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says ‘Thy will be done.’ I believe that those who are wrapped up in themselves and possessions (be they physical or intellectual) will not have the ability to appreciate heaven. Indeed, if the glory of heaven is to see God with unveiled faces then hell might even be preferable for them. I think that the only way we can be free of the taint within us and the disease that makes our heart sick and suicidal is through Christ. Otherwise our heart will continue to pull us toward that which kills us, even after we are dead.

I also don’t think that Russell is right to say that belief in hell is a moral defect. Believing that hell exists is not a moral choice, but an intellectual one. If we concede that belief in hell is a moral fault then I think belief in any bad thing must also be a moral fault.

The Emotional Factor
Russell argues here that Christianity is not a moral restraint on society. I suppose he may be right, because many horrible injustices have been committed in the name of Christianity. It’s true that the established, mainstream church has frequently stood in the way of science and philosophy and progress. Russell also points out that the people who are extremely religious are usually also extremely wicked. He implies, I think, that Christianity has damaged these people. I think his argument is a little off base. While no one can deny the truth of what he’s saying I think it’s a poor argument to reject a system of belief because of the bad attitudes of those who subscribe to it. Remember at the beginning of the lecture Russell defined a Christian as someone who believes in God and immortality and who considers Christ to be the best and wisest of all men. If this is all it is to be a Christian then his argument doesn’t work because being a Christian is not a question or morals, but of intellect and belief.

However, if there is more to Christianity than dogma, perhaps Russell might have a point. If Christianity is, as I suggested, the act and being of following Christ then a bad person who truly emulates Christ would seem to prove the entire system wrong. This is where the modern system of cheap grace has shot the Church in the foot. When we claim that following Jesus means praying a prayer and signing a card we turn the faith of Christ into a ridiculous laughingstock. In fact, if that is Christianity I would also be willing to write a lecture with the same title as Russell’s. But if Christianity is the act and being of following Jesus then we must concede one of two things. Either the Christian faith is as useless and damaging as Russell suggests, or there is something seriously wrong and false in the life of a man who professes to follow Christ and yet follows his passions instead.

Russell makes the serious accusation that “the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” I agree that the organized church has committed horrible atrocities in the name of Christ, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she actually did it on his behalf. While the organization we call church has, historically, been a major enemy to moral progress individual Christians have been a great help. I think of people like Wilberforce who helped remove slavery from England and Carmichael who exposed the religious child-prostitution in India. There are many who followed Jesus who have changed the world in good ways. Their faith certainly did not damage them. On the contrary, it gave them the drive they needed to change things for the better.

How The Churches Have Retarded Progress
Russell points out that the church generally considers obscure moral codes to be of more importance than happiness. I only wish to make the point that the Bible seems to suggest that holiness (true holiness) is the happiest state a man can be in. The Christian life does not consist in following a set of rules and dogmas (though morality and doctrine certainly are a big part of it as they lead to the next step); rather it is concerned with personal holiness and the pursuit of a living God. God commands us not to murder for two reasons. The obvious one is that murder does harm (duh). The other reason is that when I murder I do something that is against the character of God and that drives me away from him and sears my conscience and severely hinders my progress in finding God. This is why Christ was able to say that the law and prophets can be summed up in the two greatest commands. Because every command is designed to protect or help our fellow man and facilitate our progress toward knowing God.

Fear, The Foundation Of Religion
Again, Russell makes a true point but draws a shaky conclusion from it. It is true that religion is often based on fear. But even if popular religion is fear-founded it doesn’t follow that all religion and religious ventures are based on fear. Russell claims that science and our own hearts can be our teachers. But what can they teach us? Science can teach us how to make nuclear power, but it cannot teach us how to use it properly. Our hearts tell us what we want, but they can’t tell us if what we want is right or wrong because they seem sick. I agree that science and conscience are teachers, and useful teachers at that. But they are not absolute teachers because they can only tell us what they know. Science observes. The heart feels. But neither truly knows justice and holiness.

What We Must Do
If Russell is right, then his conclusion is sound. If he is wrong and Christianity is a viable, living worldview with power for man today, then his conclusion is arrogant. Man cannot conquer the world. If science has taught us anything over the past five hundred years it has taught us that that natural order of things cannot be tamed or perfectly harnessed because it is far too big, complex and violent. Humans don’t rule the world, we survive on it. Weather is a good example of this. For a thousand years we have been trying to predict the weather and we have made very little progress because the system of weather is so incredibly complicated. The idea of humans going forth and conquering the world is about as silly as a flea trying to run and manage the various life processes of the cat they live on.

Russell presents a witty, easy-to-understand attack on Christian theism. I’ve not read much of Russell’s works but what I have read I mostly like. I think he is a little too hasty in his dismissal of theism and the Christian faith. I also notice that this lecture is only responsive. I don’t think we should assume any burden of proof on either party in the argument on the existence of God because it is a question that is practically impossible to prove either way. Russell stays very passive in his arguments and has a tendency to simplify complex things. We see this in his definition of a Christian and the way he glosses over the supposed moral defects in Christ.


PS – Pakistan seems to be in some trouble these days. We’re fine, but pray for this nation.