I’m finally getting round to reading the text of a lecture by Bertrand Russell, titled “Why I Am Not A Christian.” I was sent the link a while ago by a friend, but I guess now that it’s Christmas, and the shops are filled with brussel sprouts and the sound of Cliff Richards’ voice (look here for a song that’s not by Cliff Richards), I feel compelled to find some sanity.
To summarise very briefly, here are his main points. First, he covers some arguments often used for the existence of God:
- The First-cause Argument. Everything we see in this world has a cause, and if you go back in the chain of causes, eventually you must come to a First Cause, and we call that First Cause "God". Russell points out that this is circular; the question "Who made me?" cannot be answered , since it immediately suggests the next question "Who made God?" If everything has a cause, then God must have a cause. So this argument doesn't really help.
- The Natural-law Argument. I don't think this argument is used very much anymore, but it used to be held that because there is a natural order to everything in the universe, it must have been God that made it that way. In other words God, the Lawgiver, laid down natural laws for His universe. This is a confusion of the difference between human and natural laws. Human laws are created to control the behaviour of humans; natural laws simply describe the behaviour how things work. Most of those so-called natural laws have since been shown to be chance.
- The Argument from Design. Russell was speaking in 1927, and so didn't have all the latest arguments that we have today, but his gist is that the world merely *looks* designed because that is the natural result of Darwinian evolution. He also remarks that, if this world really is the best that an omnipotent, omniscient Creator can come up with, then it's astonishing.
- The Moral Arguments for Deity. Immanuel Kant's moral argument for the existence of God, at least in one of its forms, is this: There would be no right or wrong unless God existed. Russell says he is not concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, but rather, if you are quite sure that there is a difference, is that due to God's decree? If it is, then for God Himself there is no difference, and it doesn't mean anything to say that God is good. In order to say that, you would need an independent means of deciding goodness, outside of God, which again takes you on a circular path. I would add that it's doubtful whether morality came from religion at all, given the often violent history of religion, and the fact that all across the world there is a general consensus on morality that spans religions, and many other reasons too.
- The Argument for the Remedying of Injustice. Since there is great injustice in the world, and the good suffer and wicked prosper, if you are going to have justice in the universe as a whole you have to suppose a future life to redress the balance of life here on earth (so the argument goes). Therefore there must be a God, and a Heaven and Hell. But if you take this world as a statistical sample, and that's pretty much all we humans can do, then you'd have to suppose that the universe as a whole is unjust.
So far, these arguments have been intellectual, and of course most people are not moved by intellect. Some believe because they have been taught from infancy to do so, and some believe because they need to feel that they have a sort of big brother looking out for them.
Then Russell discusses the character of Christ. Christ said
"Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
Lao-tse and Budda said the same thing some 500 or 600 years before Christ. In Russell’s opinion, Christians today do not actually follow this, for the most part. My own opinion, as the son of believing parents, is that some Christians really do follow this, although certainly not all. Either way, Christ was certainly not alone in these kind of moral exhortations.
Another of Christ’s sayings does not appear to be popular in the law courts of any country:
"Judge not lest ye be judged."
Russell says he is not so concerned with the historical question - Christ may or may not have existed; if He did we don’t know anything about Him. So, taking the Gospel narrative on its own merit, there are some things that do not seem very wise. For example, Jesus clearly believed that His second coming would occur within the lifetimes of those living at that time:
"Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come." "There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom."
These do not seem superlatively wise things to say, given that as near as we can tell, we’re still here.
Then Russell covers the vindictive nature of Christ’s response to those who did not like to His preaching:
"Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell."
It’s perhaps not the best tone, and some of Christ’s other remarks (“Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come”) have caused untold misery to people who believed they commited that sin and would never be forgiven.
Jesus repeats again and again that hell-fire is a punishment for sin: this sounds like a doctrine of cruelty. In fact, some of the actual quotations have been taken and (mis-)used to cause literal cruel torture.
Now we come to the emotional argument: people would not be virtuous without religion; we would all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian faith. As Russell points out, the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe 100% of the Christian faith, there was the Inquisition; millions of women were burned as witches; every kind of cruelty was practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.
Here Russell makes a strong statement and I’d like to reproduce it here verbatim:
"Every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."
I have little choice but to offer a hearty “Amen brother!” Since Russell’s time the churches of the world have perhaps mellowed, and do not offer the obstruction to progress that they once did. But between their arguments about whether women should be “allowed” (how patronising!) to be priests, or whether gay men can get above a certain rank in the clergy, it doesn’t seem to me that they have helped much, either.
I’ll finish with a wonderful quote from, of course, Bertrand Russell:
"A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It 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."
You can read the lecture text yourself here.
Sorry for the lengthy post!