In the last section, I praised Russell for avoiding the trap I’ve seen other atheists fall into: the idea that dealing with Paley’s “Watchmaker” argument for God is the central or only argument for theism.
If he succeeds there, however, he falls into another trap that is common to the New Atheists (most notably, Christopher Hitchens): The idea that a divine creator would have done a better job of designing the universe. Russell writes:
When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?
First, I’m left wondering why Russell seems to assume that God is concerned with efficiency. Without limitation in time or resources, why should he be concerned to develop life faster than he has?
But, to take his more visceral comment, the quip about hate groups is far from alien to New Atheist writings, and one wonders what they mean. Is the fact that people are often evil evidence against God? The Biblical authors seemed well aware of what they called “the sinfulness of mankind”, and hardly took it as a reason to doubt God’s existence. Rather, theists have always taken it as a reason to believe in free will–and our poor use of it.
I hear these kinds of remarks often, and they undoubtedly cross the line from an awareness of evil to blunt cynicism–seeing only the evils of the world as if that is the totality, or at least the essence, of life.
Surely, Russell does not literally mean to suggest that there is nothing in this world better than the Nazis. But, if not, why does he speak as if they are the standard by which all creation should be judged? How does Russell know that God wouldn’t allow these groups the same freedom of will he allows the rest of us?
And, perhaps more to the point, what standard is he using for the goodness of all creation, if not God? As many have shown, it is difficult to even say that a thing is evil unless there exists a transcendent source of goodness (i.e. God). Evil, then, comes closer to proving God’s existence than disproving it.
A more robust theory of life will acknowledge the good as well as the bad. And it should be noted that Christian theism has done exactly that. It seems completely incredible that so many can criticize “religion” (by which they seem to mean “Christianity as its opponents understand it”) for failing to see the problems in this thing called “life”, while simultaneously complaining about the negativity of the doctrine of the falleness of creation.
And this seems to be exactly what Russell is doing: citing hate groups (sin) as evidence against Christianity while (elsewhere) maintaining that people can be good without God. This is trying to have it both ways; people can’t simultaneously be too good to need God and too evil for the atonement to redeem creation, which is what would have to be true for Russell’s attack on Christianity to have validity.