When I first read Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian“, I was surprised that his arguments bore so much similarity to the New Atheists’. Of course, he doesn’t fall into most of the more obvious fallacies one will spot in books like “The God Delusion”. Still, he makes the same fundamental error:
He doesn’t understand the thing he’s criticizing.
That is not to say that he doesn’t understand some particular denomination’s theology, or that he doesn’t address my personal interpretation of specific scripture. That is to say that he fundamentally misses the point of any talk at all about God and religion.
Russell, like the New Atheists, seems to think that religion is some sort of pre-science. Most obviously, he thinks scientific theories, rather than secular philosophies, are the alternatives to theological beliefs. That is, he never seems to realize which questions religion is meant to answer. In rebuking Christianity, he never tries to offer a source of morality, explain spirituality, address the possibility of an afterlife, consider the need for grace, discuss transcendence, or ponder the meaning of life.
Rather, he spends several pages explaining to us that anachronistic readings of the Bible make for terrible scientific theory, then falsely asserts that religious belief causes harm to society. He rips apart notions of an “ally in the sky” that no Christian thinker has ever endorsed, dutifully informs us that Christianity would be silly if it were to teach that God were a created being, reinterprets Jesus’ teachings in strange ways to make insulting him easier, and insists both that we are too good to need saving and that people are too evil to for Christianity to be true.
All of this is less like hunting down the real animal than putting on a blindfold and whacking at a piñata.
Not that there aren’t interesting points in the speech (mostly in the first half). But, as glad as I am to have gone through it, I am left at the end with a very simple question:
When will he get around to talking about Christianity?