Lying in the Name of Reason

blind-to-truthIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian“, the philosopher Bertrand Russell is completely willing to state wild fiction as if it were sober truth:

You find as you look around the world that 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 colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world.

If this were true, historians would report that the nineteenth century deists led the abolitionist movement, rather than Christians. We’d find that charities in our present time would be overwhelmingly secular, rather than overwhelmingly religious. We’d find that the early Christians were less, rather than more, open to racial mixing than the pagans. We’d also find that no real social progress was made until secularism became a notable force in society, rather than finding otherwise.

That such a blatantly, factually false statement can be made (and continues to be made) by persons who claim to base their positions on facts and reason is something of a scandal. As much as cultural stereotypes lend enough rhetorical plausibility to this claim, no one doing so can be relying on science or following the evidence where it leads.

But, even granting the highly dubious claim that churches are inherently resistant to change in the moral consensus (which seems to be Russell’s position), three issues remain:

First is the question of whether “opposition” can be assumed even when it is a tiny minority of churches. That seems to be Russell’s basis for making this claim, but this would definitely open him up to accusations based on the behavior of a tiny minority of atheists.

Second is the fact that Russell offers no standard of “progress”. He needs to explain why his view of progress is superior to the view of the churches he criticizes. He does not do so here, and I’ve not heard an answer to this problem from the New Atheists.

And third is the simple point that there is no logical way to get from “churches have impeded progress” to “Christianity is false”. If anger at the wrongs of churches is truly a reason why Russell rejected Christianity, then he is simply admitting to a certain amount of irrationality. Christ is not judged by the actions of the church. Rather, we are judged by him.

7 responses to “Lying in the Name of Reason

  • jmrgrs9

    Great post. Russell’s slavery to his presuppositions are pretty blatant aren’t they? Yes, we are all circular reasonists more than we care to admit. But when you will not even allow the facts to have their day in court…

    God deliver us INTO right thinking. Even if we do not care or realize what’s going on around us.

    • Debilis

      I’m with you on that.
      In fact, I’ve been increasingly of the opinion that our being on the right track with figuring reality out is so implausible that it should be considered evidence of a miracle.

  • Alexander

    I must point out that there’s a flaw in your argument, though. Russell specifically talks about “organised churches of the world”, and hence do not talk about any person with religious belief, or even individual or smaller groups of churches. His argument were specifically aimed at those organised churches that were in lieu with the governance who, either for political reasons or because they were indeed in lieu with the view of the governance, didn’t or couldn’t (depending on views) drive the better moral ground forward (with slavery as a concrete example).

    His argument is against the catholic church and the Anglican church (and similar large global organisations of churches) as drivers for moral progressiveness through history. And he’s absolutely right on that. He’s saying these organisations are not there because of their superior moral teachings, but for other reasons, mostly around power, politics and belonging (although I’m veering into speculation at this point).

    As an aside, most big-scale charities even today are not run by organised churches at all (the exception seems to be Salvation Army, although they are not a collection of churches rather than one large entity), so why you’re bringing that up as against Russell is a bit vague to me. Want to elaborate?

    “explain why his view of progress is superior to the view of the churches he criticizes”

    The context from which you only quote a tiny bit is a long speech he held in which he indeed talks about what progress is, so you’re playing a straw-man here. But even in the tiny quote he mentions the abolishment of slavery quite explicitly. Let’s start there; did or didn’t the large organised churches – anglican or catholic definitely, but feel free to give other examples – play a major role in abolishing it? If they didn’t, then Russell is indeed correct.

    • Debilis

      With regard to your opening, you make a good point. I had a similar thought myself, actually. Still, I think Russell is far overstating his case. He makes no qualification, and definitely leaves me with the impression that he’s speaking about all churches.

      In fact, if he were not doing this, then this is not an argument against Christianity, but merely against those particular church organizations, and therefore does nothing to explain why he’s not a Christian. It is undeniable that particular churches can be found supporting some deeply immoral things, but this isn’t really pertinent to the question “is Christianity true?”. It seems disingenuous of Russell to close his speech on an irrelevant point that, therefore, serves only for rhetorical effect.

      But I don’t claim to know what is the norm for big-scale charities. I meant to speak about charities in general, and only claimed that they were religious, not run by church organizations.

      It may be that we are getting our wires crossed over definitions. I tend to define a church as a group of Christians, rather than as an officially registered institution. I don’t claim to know how Russell meant the term, but only that the actions of groups of Christians are a valid response to his statement.

      As to the issue of Russell’s concept of progress, I agree that he does offer some indications as to what he sees as progress. It was not my intent to imply otherwise (in fact, there will be more on that in a later post). Rather, what I wanted from him was a reason why he can claim that what he sees as progress is superior to his opponents’ views. Or, to put it in more technical terms, he needs to provide ontological support for his moral theory.

      Without that, the matter is simply one opinion against another, and Russell hasn’t raised a logical objection, but merely a rhetorical one.

      • Alexander

        Thanks for your nice and well-rounded reply, and I think we’re mostly in agreement. I won’t pick too many nits here (there aren’t many), but I now get the feeling that the title of your post don’t match the content and discussion of it, which, admittedly, was the reason I commented in the first place; the accusation of lying. I think it’s fair to say he didn’t, and I think you’d agree that definitions differ and that the accusation is somewhat misleading (if not outright wrong)?

        “I tend to define a church as a group of Christians”

        And I suspect Russell did the same, although even that sentiment can sometimes be misleading (some churches are *mostly* Christian, no doubt, but some agnostics and secret atheist and hidden dualist unilateralist, like my church). But he didn’t really talk about any such thing, only “the organized churches of the world”.

        However, we can dig into the concept of churches as well. Most of them follow some denominational standard of sorts, and church as cultures have a given set of teachings they follow, even when there are individual differences and opinions on such matters.

        There’s no doubt the Catholic churches of the world oppose contraception, for example, and in countries who struggle wildly with AIDS, are condoms good or bad? The argument has gone way past the fornication stage and well into established marriages with the proper sanctimonies. No sex, condom sex, or AIDS-giving sex between husband or wife? We know the church’s stand on this, even though I think it’s easy to point to moral failings in that sentiment.

        Of course, that was easy pickings. But if we go through the history of, say, the abolishment of slavery, the little churches follow the political standpoint of their regions, while the larger they get, the more political their preaching is more than taking the biblical stance on slavery. I consider this a dark blemish on the church history, just like WWII and the catholic church, not to mention all the other easily bad moral teachings of the church through history which, little by little, has been discarded over the years.

        I don’t think this (or Russell’s) argument is against Christians, nor churches as gatherings of Christians in general, but of the organised churches who reach a size where they got political and power clout, and *where*this* influences what moral teachings they are prepared to alter (unless your argument is that the moral teachings of Biblical times are the correct one?).

      • Alexander

        I failed to address perhaps your main point, I think ;

        “but this isn’t really pertinent to the question ‘is Christianity true?’.”

        Well, again, his talk wasn’t “Is Christianity true?” but “Why I’m not a Christian”, in which there’s plenty of stuff he can bring up to explain why he wasn’t. And the culture in which Christianity lives has, to him, some rather negative slants he as a moral thinker can’t embrace.

        If you find the ideology of Communism good, should you therefore embrace and join a Bolshevik brutal one-state party? No, of course not, and nor should you. This is a mistake commonly made through history, in all cultures, in all religions, in all countries. Russell points this out, not just in this speech, in lots of his other writings (which, to some degree, also is contextual here).

        The church as a gathering of Christians are fine, and the teachings of the Bible and the doctrine of the church isn’t so much in question here as moral progress towards common ideals in a democracy are. Of course, that’s taking us far off the path of discussion since a democratic model and state is somewhat far removed from the biblical ideals, and is a very different discussion, but it’s worth noting that Christian ideals aren’t necessarily compatible with modern democracies and a multi-cultural global community of people as Russell certainly was. And perhaps therein lies the crux.

        “I meant to speak about charities in general, and only claimed that they were religious”

        Well, again, many aren’t. And, many still, aren’t the religion in question. Charity is a human common, not one started by, limited to, and only endorsed by, churches, and I find your statement that in present day charities are “overwhelmingly religious” to be outright false. I’ve worked for many of them, none of the religious in any way or form (Amnesty International, Doctors without borders, SOS Children’s Villages) and there are plenty others who have mixed models.

        One can make a statement for missionary-based charities, but I find that somewhat misleading as the charity part is more often bibles than food. I’m not wanting to undermine a heck of a lot good work done by Christian charities, just pointing out that for your argument to work you need to be careful what charities you’re talking about.

        • Debilis

          I do agree with a lot of what you’ve written–and on most all of the key points.

          I’ve already written up something on the Catholic teaching of on sex (as Russell mentions it in this speech). I’ll have to put that up next. But, for the sake of keeping this response short, I’ll skip to the fact that I agree that there is quite a bit of bad that could be said about churches throughout history. So long as one isn’t making the argument that this is specifically because these groups are Christian, rather than them simply being full of humans, then I’d only agree with comments there.

          Where I would hesitate, however, is that the idea that the Church is full of fallible human beings is somehow a reason to not be Christian. I can empathize with the example of Communism vs a Bolshevik party, for certain. But I’m not yet convinced that the Churches of Russell’s day were comparable to a bloody regime. More importantly, I’m not convinced that is (in itself) a reason to not be a communist, but simply a reason to not be a Bolshevik. So, if the speech had been titled “Why I’m not a Catholic”, I’d be much more empathetic toward Russell’s point here.

          I also take your point about charities. And do apologize if there was any implication that non-theists are less compassionate than Christians. I do not believe that, and did not mean to imply it. I really only meant to counter what I saw as Russell’s implication that the church has failed to bring any good to the world.

          Lastly, and most importantly, I’m pleased for the thoughtfulness of the response. It definitely made me think.
          Thank you for that.

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