Category Archives: Moral Argument

Russell XVIII: The Human Self-Destruct Button

Self-Destruct-ButtonIn his speech “Why I am not a Christian”, Russell has quite a bit to praise about Christ’s teachings. However, he asserts that belief in Hell cannot possibly be held by a great moral teacher:

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.

This is a classic, and unfortunate, misunderstanding of Christ. There are, of course, many interpretations of Hell, but any traditional teaching points out (among other things) that it is a natural consequence of separation from he who is the source of all love, life, and goodness.

In attempting to interpret the Bible for us, Russell (and, indeed, the New Atheists) seems to imagine a place in which God directly and vindictively tortures people for all eternity. I agree that this paints God in a terrible light; I merely wonder what this has to do with Christianity as it is actually understood by theologians.

If one understands the severity of the self-inflicted damage caused by separating from the source of all love, it is easy to see why “leaving God” and “hell” are two terms for the same unthinkably awful experience.

One can choose not to believe in Christianity, of course, but to say that it is morally wrong for Christ (or anyone else) to believe that it would be bad for people to reject God is not cogent. It is to say that Christ should not make judgements if they are apt to strike others as negative.

But this seems very strange. This very speech by Russell has told me that the masses aren’t capable of much in the way of rational thought, that it may well be a comfort to think that humanity will be annihilated, that even the most brilliant people are hopelessly indoctrinated, that there has been a severe degeneration in our ability to form rational beliefs, that the horrors of pain and death are natural and irrevocable, that the injustice of this world will never be corrected, and, in some strange inversion of logic, that those who disagree with these claims (i.e. theists) have far too judgmental a view of life and humanity.

Rather than follow a series of cynical statements with the accusation that one’s opponent has been too judgmental, Russell (and the New Atheists) should see what the doctrine of Hell actually teaches: that this path of judgmentalism, of demanding that everyone who disagrees with one’s position is wicked and delusional, will lead one into absolute torment if it isn’t stopped.

That is no easy task, I’ll grant. I speak from experience when I say that it is far easier to judge (and grow bitter in that judgment) than to accept the idea that someone (even God) may be a better judge than one’s self. That this is so natural for us, in fact, is exactly why Christ was morally obliged to warn us. To say that he should have let us suffer without warning is the attitude I find morally unconscionable.

Russell XI: Self-Proclaimed Moral Superiority


After repeating the Euthyphro argument in the form addressed in the last post, Russell gives a couple of suggestions as to how a theist might answer it:

You could, of course, if you liked, say that there was a superior deity who gave orders to the God that made this world, or could take up the line that some of the gnostics took up — a line which I often thought was a very plausible one — that as a matter of fact this world that we know was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking. There is a good deal to be said for that, and I am not concerned to refute it.

Of course, this leaves one wondering why, if Russell would accept that some “superior deity” is the real source of ethics, he cannot accept that the God of Christianity could be that same source.

But the New Atheists do not accept this, they assume that such a deity would suffer from the same problem. This is only a valid objection, as I’ve said, if two things can be demonstrated:

1. That God acting according to his nature can really be said to be either arbitrary or referencing an outside standard of goodness (as the Euthyphro claims), and
2. That there is a secular source of ethics that is not susceptible to the same kind of attack.

This much has been said. What is new here is that Russell, while not adopting it, speaks favorably of the idea that Satan created the world. While it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe in Satan, let alone Satan as creator, I think his willingness to praise this idea is significant.

In simplest terms, it is an argument from pure cynicism.

While it may be great rhetoric to play to a judgmental cynicism about the world Christianity praises as God’s creation, it is neither good logic, nor a way toward a more peaceful and loving society. This is doubly frustrating in that promoting reason and ridding the world of the “evils of religion” are the stated purposes of the modern atheist movement–the two things most obviously hindered by the glib judgmentalism these writers so often promote.

Rather than a logical argument, this is a kind of phariseeism: insinuating that the world doesn’t meet one’s high standards, as if one is so superior to the rest of humanity as to sit in judgment on it. I see this pattern as strongly in modern secular groups as in churches (though we have our own hypocrisies, to be sure). And I find that I don’t like listening to angry moralism better simply because “God will judge you” has been replaced with “I judge God”.

Surely, anyone who claims to be free of “the evils of religion” should act less like a pharisee than the New Atheist writers.

Why Russell was Wrong X: The All-Purpose Argument

10082300_All_purpose_Green_Though Russell does (unfairly) accuse Kant of bias, he also explains why he rejects Kant’s moral argument for God’s existence. Unfortunately, it turns out simply to be a repetition of the Euthyphro Dilemma addressed in Part IV of this series:

The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them.

So, again, the challenge is: “Is something good because God commands it (then the command is arbitrary), or does God command it because it is good (then God’s command isn’t the source of goodness)?”

I often wonder what the modern campaign against religion would do without the Euthyphro. It seems to be the stock response to any moral issue raised by the theist, and many seem at liberty to wildly misapply it.

In fact Russell does so here. But, rather than simply repeat the refutation I made earlier, I’d like to describe what is becoming my main issue: the fact that Russell offers no alternative vision of morality. If he did, it would been obvious that the Euthyphro can be used to “refute” any moral system, including his own.

There is no basis of morality, of which I cannot ask “Is a thing good because it fits that basis (then one’s choice of that basis is arbitrary), or is that basis good for some outside reason (then it is not the basis)?”. And this seems to be the fastest way to discredit the Euthyphro. If it applies equally well to every possible approach to ethics, it can’t possibly be a reason to choose secular ethics over theistic ones.

And this illustrates the problem with simply playing the critic – picking at others’ positions while offering no alternative for consideration. It quickly tempts one to grossly unrealistic demands.

The divine nature is actually the best answer (religious or secular) to the Euthyphro I’ve ever encountered. Because, within Christian tradition, the source of goodness something that is the greatest possible being by definition. Since, in Christianity, describing goodness turns out to be describing God, the dilemma simply doesn’t apply.

This is why this attack is much less effective against Christianity than it was in the polytheistic society in which Plato advanced it. This is why, in spite of what the New Atheists seem to think, the real issue raised by the Euthyphro is something much closer to an argument in favor of Christianity than one opposed to it.

Why Russell was Wrong IV: The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Relative

moralContinuing on in my discussion of Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, we now get to an argument from morality. This is of particular interest in considering Russell as the intellectual grandfather of the New Atheists, in that it is a group of such strong moral pretensions.

As to the issue of morality, theists have often said that, while belief in God is not required to behave morally, the existence of God is required to explain how any objective morality could exist.

Russell’s response is, essentially, a version of what is typically called the Euthyphro Dilemma:

[B]ecause even supposing that there were [objective morality], you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those laws and not others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary.

So, is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because its good? Proponents of this argument would say that this shows that either God’s morality is arbitrary or God is irrelevant to what is moral. This seems a very good argument, so long as one does not consider it too closely.

I, of course, intend to do just that:

Monotheists have never maintained that God selects moral law the way a shopper selects a box of cereal in a grocery store. The first option can easily be set aside.

The second option can likewise be set aside, at least unless the atheist can give some argument in its favor (which Russell has not). Theists have no more maintained that there is some ethical standard, somehow existing above God, than that God arbitrarily decides on morality.

In fact, I have no idea where Russell gets this idea that most orthodox theologians claim that God’s morality is based in creating the best possible world. There is simply no standard of “best” until we already have a basis of moral law. Theologians, ancient and modern, understood this point–which is why none of them, so far as I can tell, ever took this position.

Rather, what Christian theism has always claimed is that the moral law flows from God’s nature. It is neither a whim nor something external to him, but God himself that is the standard of goodness. To ask whether something is good because God wills it or God wills something because it is good is completely wrong-headed. God wills the good because he is goodness itself.

In other circumstances, we understand this point. No one would ever ask if you look like your reflection because you had altered it to look like you (arbitrary) or because you had plastic surgery to look like it (you are subject to the reflection). Here, it is perfectly obvious that you look like your reflection because it is an image of your physical nature. Likewise, morality is a reflection of God’s ethical nature.

This also answers the question as to why God didn’t will some completely different set of morals. Any “God” who can will any set of morals has no set moral nature and, therefore, is not the God Christians actually believe in.

It is also very significant that proponents of this dilemma so rarely offer a foundation for morality of their own. On the contrary, I get a lot of claims of moral relativism, or simply refusals to take a position on morality, from those who claim to be morally indignant at God. This, of course, begs the question “why should those of us who don’t accept your relativistic (or unnamed), anti-theistic morals be concerned?”.

This is why Russell (like the New Atheists) needs to do more than criticize theistic moral systems; he needs (and they need) to present and defend a system as superior to theistic morality–that we might see if it is immune to the criticisms leveled here.

Russell closes the point with this:

The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.

Of course, I don’t think he’s shown anything like a definite fallacy in the traditional arguments. Really, this description reminds me of nothing so much as the New Atheists themselves. In this case, actual arguments have very quickly given way to political activism.

After all the bombastic claims of intellectual superiority, the scorn, the ridicule, and, yes, the blatant moral posturing, it’s become clear that the group is far more interested in which slogan is persuasive in a freshman dorm room than what is logically defensible.

In the form of the New Atheists, a devoutly secular form of Pharisee has come to roost in our culture. And I feel that Russell shares part of the blame for this.