Category Archives: Christianity Throughout History

Religion, Naturally

Beauty-of-nature-random-4884759-1280-800As with his previous comment on the histories of religion, I largely agree with Mackie when he turns to the question of what the origin of religion says about the truth of theism.

His answer: It says very little.

He rightly sees, as many in our current culture do not, that explaining the appearance of an idea does not tell us whether or not that idea is true. This is the classic genetic fallacy, after all. It may or may not be true that “you only believe in x because of your personal motivations”, but that tells us nothing about whether or not “x” is true. Mackie sees this, and dismisses the idea that natural histories of religion are, in themselves, reasons to reject the truth of theism.

He goes on, however, to argue that these can be used as a counter to the idea that the existence of religion cannot be explained apart from supernatural intervention.

Again, I agree with him, though I’m left wondering who it is that Mackie thinks has given this argument. He does not tell us, and even goes so far as to complain that theists often point out a fact that runs counter to it: that humans have a natural psychological desire for God.

Of course we do. And this should have signaled Mackie that theists, with very few exceptions, have never argued that the natural desire for God is itself in need of a supernatural explanation.

Mackie seems to think otherwise, and Daniel Denett dutifully informs us that the natural desire for God is a desire for God that is natural–as if that were a revolutionary concept.

In this, and many other places, it seems that those who argue against the truth of theism tend to have a very weak understanding of what theists are actually claiming.


Never Mind How Many Died Last Time, Try it Again

thAtheist philosopher Bertrand Russell ends his speech “Why I’m not a Christian” with some glib, and rather offensive, distortions of Christianity. But, as I think I’ve already addressed any real point being made by them in earlier posts, I’ll skip to his closing remarks about what secularism can create:

We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage … 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.

This is a bold claim in the wake of the Reign of Terror and the First World War, and the best response to it, I think, is to ask how that project has gone since. Around the time of this speech, the world’s largest and greatest experiment at creating a purely secular society filled with intelligence, courage, and brotherhood was begun in earnest. That experiment was known as Communism.

And, a decade later, the advances of science were placed in the hands of a group obsessed with the highly respected theory of eugenics: the Nazis.

Now almost a century on, there is no evidence at all that a more secular world will result in any of the virtues that Russell names here. In fact, passionate anti-theists tend to be reduced to assuming, rather than showing, that secularism will help at all in fostering such virtues. Any dispassionate historian should be astonished to run across anyone insisting today that secularism is clearly what the world needs.

But still we hear exactly this kind of rhetoric. Many are trying desperately to revive the corpse of the Enlightenment without any heed given to what killed it in the first place, and without any contrition over the atrocities it aided. Indeed, the New Atheists tend to cast scorn on those who suggest that we all need to repent of something. They seem to take glibly dismissing past mistakes as a sign of strength.

For all the demands for evidence made by such a group, then, I think it is only fair that they produce some evidence that secularism is nearly so good for the world as they claim before expecting others to believe it.


The Naturalist’s Fairy Tale

don-quixoteBertrand Russell, like the New Atheists, supports much of his attack on Christianity with an almost total ignorance of the history of science:

In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts.

It seems that it can’t be pointed out often enough that science and theology are different subjects. At least, the New Atheists seem to have so much confidence in the idea that science is theology (and metaphysics) that they feel no need to give any reason for the strange conclusion that science answers questions about God’s existence.

But it’s not only theology of which such people are ignorant. Any real respect for history would at least acknowledge the facts of past as it actually occurred. Far from forcing itself onto Christianity, the earliest science was developed by Christians, and sponsored by the Church.

Almost no culture has believed that the universe would have regular patterns which could be observed by the kinds of experiments science uses as its stock and trade. The west is so saturated in science that we never think to question this fact, and, therefore, never notice that most of us can offer no reason why reality would be this way.

Naturalists, for instance, can give no explanation as to why the universe should have this surprising consistency. David Hume famously pointed out that belief in science, as far as the naturalist can see, is based on a logical fallacy.

It was Christians, and other monotheists, who invested the effort in developing modern science because they held the conviction that a rational creator would make an ordered universe.

For Russell to claim, four-hundred years after the fact, that the Christians who invented, supported, and sponsored science somehow have a less scientific worldview than those atheists who blindly trust this inexplicable Christian invention is simply astonishing.

None of this precludes the idea that naturalists can be great scientists; the tools of science can be used by anyone. But to say that the success of science somehow refutes the belief that predicted it would work strikes me as deeply irrational thinking.


Only the Most Fashionable Myths Allowed

greekgoddessFailing to make a case that religion is bad for people in the present, the New Atheists often turn to (their version of) history. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell does the same:

You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs.

The mention of this complete falsehood makes it all but required that theists point out the mass slaughter committed by officially atheist governments. Richard Dawkins, however, waves the atrocities of Communism off as “old hat” (apparently much “older” than the Crusades, which he cites against religion).

Others try to claim that the gulags were “a breakdown in rationality”, which is not nearly so true as they think. The Communists were being rational, assuming one grants the lack of a God and the absolute power of the state. But, even if one accepts the “breakdown of rationality” theory, all this shows is that secularism does not automatically encourage rationality (which directly contradicts the New Atheist platform).

There are still others (such as Christopher Hitchens) who claim that these governments were religions unto themselves. But, if one can call Stalin’s governing religious, one can certainly call the New Atheist movement a religion in the same sense.

And, of course, Russell has conspicuously overlooked the Reign of Terror in his own warped version of history.

In fact, the idea that periods of great belief in God were somehow particularly cruel rests much more heavily on the Enlightenment era propaganda that helped to fuel the Reign of Terror than actual historical fact. The idea that the peoples of the middle ages, for instance, were simply barbaric makes for excellent movies, but doesn’t reflect reality.

By my reading, the historian finds the New Atheists as exasperating as the theologian and the philosopher. Once one understands more than the glib caricatures popular culture gives to various historical periods, it becomes obvious that their view is a secular myth, rather than reality.

The New Atheists’ version of history, then, affirms their beliefs, but doesn’t fit the facts. For a group that is constantly (and wrongly) accusing others of venerating myths, this is a deep problem with their platform.


“Reject This Idea, Because I can Make Unfair Accusations About It.”

Handling-the-Stress-of-RejectionIn arguing against religion, Bertrand Russell turns to the claim that religion should be supported on the grounds that it encourages good behavior.

Initially, I found myself ready to agree with Russell, as I thought he’d make the perfectly valid point that a belief system isn’t true simply because it gets people to behave. Instead, he said this:

One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.

That is the idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked.

While I’d quickly agree with anyone who claimed that religious people are not nearly so good as we know we should be, studies on the effects of religion have not turned up anything like what Russell and others claim. Quite the contrary, it has more often been a positive influence on believers and communities.

This is especially problematic for the New Atheists, who tend to put such stress on trusting and respecting science. The fact that the findings of the relevant sciences run counter to their arguments here does not seem to have phased them. In fact, many of them seem to have developed a selective deafness on this point.

But, of course, none of this addresses the question of whether God exists.

Saying that we should reject God’s existence on the grounds that Russell (or anyone else) can make the unsupported claim that religion makes people bad should not make anyone question religious belief. In my view, there is only one interesting thing about this idea: that it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone that it is a worthless argument.


Russell XV: Judging Christ

judgeThe next section we’ll examine in Russell’s speech, “Why I’m Not a Christian” deals with the teachings of Christ:

Then there is another point which I consider excellent. You will remember that Christ said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries.

Of course, the idea that what Christ meant by “judge” is the same thing as is done in court is questionable at best. Personally, I’m more inclined to think that it is obviously untrue.

Still that is not Russell’s biggest mistake. It goes without saying that no Christian follows Christ’s teachings as she should. The apologist could completely agree to every accusation of hypocrisy leveled by the atheist and it wouldn’t advance us one step toward rejecting either God’s existence or his goodness. At most, it would show us why people need God’s grace so badly.

This has been a consistent mistake among the New Atheists. Reading their published work, it is legitimate to wonder if they understand that “Does God exist?”, “Is God good?”, and “Is religion socially healthy?” are different questions. They (and, much more, their fans) seem to think that answering any one of these questions in the negative settles the others in the same way.

Nor do they understand that none of these questions have been decided in the negative, we are much closer to the opposite with all three of them.

For his part, Russell at least admits that the same charge of hypocrisy could be leveled against himself and, presumably, any other atheist:

All these, I think, are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then, after all, it is not quite the same thing as for a Christian.

Why it is different for Christians, he does not say. But it is difficult not to think it is because Russell believes Christians claim to have been granted some kind of supernatural power for perfect behavior, rather than what we do claim to have: forgiveness for our failure to live up to these high standards.