Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

Russell XIX: Sticking Up for the Pharisees

PhariseeAfter misrepresenting the doctrine of Hell, Russell goes on to misrepresent Christ’s reasons for teaching on it:

Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence.

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching.

Russell seems confident that he knows exactly how to interpret Christ’s motivations. This dubious assumption seems to be at the heart of so much of New Atheist thinking. In fact, most theists agree that we’d consider Christianity to be false if the straw man presented by the New Atheists was much at all like actual teachings of Christ.

In attempting to criticize religion, Russell opposes Christ for criticizing the religion of his day. Russell is so confident that Christ uses the phrase “generation of vipers” simply out of anger at those who don’t accept his teaching that he fails to notice that Christ reserves this kind of talk for corrupt religious leaders. He is consistently gentle with those who aren’t smugly self-righteous.

Anyone who is deeply angry at corrupt religious practices, as Russell and the New Atheists claim to be, ought to love these words of Christ. He made it clear, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of judgmental religious attitudes. And, yet, the bombastic, anti-religious writings of the New Atheists have complained that Christ should have been gentler toward the self-righteous religious bullies of his day.

Unintended though it is, I think it is fitting that Russell and the New Atheists end up attempting to defend the Pharisees from Christ, in that they act so much like Pharisees themselves. To me, they stand as an excellent reminder to constantly turn the finger of accusation inward. Failing to do so, on a long enough timeline, will allow self-righteousness to fester and, indeed, drive us away from the love and truth of Christ–Hell by another name.


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 XVII: The Joy of (Mis)Reading

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Now turning to what he finds objectionable about Christ’s teachings, Russell starts with what he considers to be an obvious inaccuracy:

For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that.

This is an old debate. As far as I know, it centers mostly around whether or not the word “come” in one particular verse describes Christ’s final return before the end of the world, or the coming of the spirit at the Pentecost. It takes very little study, however, to see that “great many” and “prove” are clearly overstatements.

I’ll not add more, because choosing between the resolutions of this issue seems a minor point for those who accept Christianity as true. It is not a major objection to Christ’s teachings as a whole.

What is more relevant is that Russell uses the following as one of his main supports for the point:

When [Christ] said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count.

One wonders how Russell knows this is why Christ said these things. Surely, as a sage, it is not out of the question that he felt people were too worried about personal daily affairs? Is the idea that he thought the world was ending when he said “tomorrow will worry about itself” really the only possible explanation?

Russell seems to think so. In fact, he adds this:

The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent.

I don’t know where Russell has gotten the idea that the early Christians refrained from planting trees, nor am I sure why he feels he can extrapolate from this that Christ had committed himself to a specific time-frame.

This is yet another point at which I am reminded of the New Atheists, who often demand, without support, that their own strange interpretations of the Bible are correct. Of course, if one simply takes full license to completely re-interpret a view, it is easy to “refute” it, but I doubt that the New Atheists would submit to others taking this approach to their own writings.


Russell XVI: Evidence has Left the Building

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Before getting into some complaints about Christ’s teachings, Russell pauses to question the reliability of the New Testament documents themselves:

Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him

In fairness to Russell, this was cutting-edge (if biased) scholarship in his day. But, if that (somewhat) excuses him, it does not excuse those who, almost a century later, seem completely unaware of what has happened in scholarship since.

This is probably the place at which the New Atheists most blatantly refuse to submit to their own demand that we “follow the evidence where it leads”. I’ve encountered many people who, in the name of reason, quickly accept demonstrably false deconstruction theories about the Bible (such as references to Mithras) while rejecting the good scholarship in defense of it.

The fact that these kinds of conspiracy theories are still being presented on the internet (and television) as powerful evidence against Christianity, when even atheist historians agree that the basic facts of Christ’s life are historically reliable, shows that many are refusing to “follow the evidence where it leads”.

Less obviously false, but no less a contradiction of the aforementioned maxim, is the position that, in reaction to the fact that every non-Christian explanation of the New Testament has been thoroughly discredited, we should simply avoid answering the question “what explanation of the data is most reasonable?”. It is hard not to wonder whether this has anything to do with the fact that the answer would lead one to accept Christianity as true.

There are, in fact, some formidable arguments for Christianity based on the accepted facts of scholarship. These have yet to be answered, even by much more thoughtful people than the New Atheist writers; it is not at all likely that their position would be able to deal with being open-minded here.

The complexities of historical research are far too great for a single post, and there is no absolute proof of anything in this life. Still, as things stand with regard to New Testament scholarship, evidence has definitely left the atheist building where it was once assumed to dwell. Following the evidence where it leads means accepting that the resurrection of Christ is the most coherent explanation of the known facts.


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.


Russell XIV: Bats Don’t Believe in Rainbows

rainbowIn addition to indoctrination, Russell offers one more reason why people might believe in God:

Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people’s desire for a belief in God.

I’ll skip over the inherent jugmentalism in this. I can’t, however, resist pointing out Russell’s lack of understanding of the subject of God. In telling religious people what we find attractive about our own belief, he is completely blind to such issues as spiritual experience, mortality, and the meaning of life.

In fact, Russell (like the New Atheists) never touches on any of most common reasons theists say they believe, even to disagree with those reasons. This strikes one as less like a rebuttal than a simple failure to address the topic.

If the most obvious problem with the New Atheists is their inability to present scientific data, the second (and more significant) issue is their inability to understand which questions Christianity is meant to answer. Listening to the New Atheists speak on religion, in fact, sounds more like how one might imagine a bat would describe a rainbow than anything like a real engagement with the concept of the divine.

It’s no wonder, then, that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in the God he argues against. I don’t believe in that God either, and I don’t know anyone who does.


Russell XIII: Indoctrination Envy

brainwashAfter (not) giving an argument against the idea that justice will prevail, Russell touches on a tangent about why people believe in God:

Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you about are not what really moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason.

This is the oft repeated argument from indoctrination. A favorite argument among the New Atheists has been the idea that people believe in God for no other reason than that they were told this in childhood.

At this point, I think it has become clear that this argument is so beloved of those that use it because it allows them to explain why clearly intelligent people disagree with their position without admitting to the fact that there are good arguments on the theist’s side.

My main trouble with this isn’t that it is almost entirely fictitious (though it is), nor that it completely overlooks the very large end to which these same people have been indoctrinated into their own beliefs (though it does), but that “you’re indoctrinated” has become a common excuse to avoid seriously engaging with theists’ questions.

In fact, Richard Dawkins seems to have abandoned arguing with adults altogether. He refuses to debate not only William Lane Craig, but presumably anyone else described by the long list of reasons he gave for not debating Craig. Instead, he’s written a book promoting materialism to children. The American Humanist Association, likewise, has launched a website designed to inculcate children in an atheistic worldview.

When these same people are recommending that we use ridicule, sarcasm, and other playground tactics to “promote reason”, this sounds less like disgust with the idea that children are being indoctrinated and more like outrage that they are not the ones doing the indoctrinating.

Looking at their behavior, it is hard not to conclude that “the champions of reason” are interested in any means of promoting their agenda – save logical engagement with the relevant questions.


Russell XII: Shouting “Science” isn’t Evidence

funny-science-news-experiments-memes-dog-science-fuzzy-logic1Continuing on with our examination of Russell’s “Why I’m not a Christian”, we get to an argument from justice.

Roughly stated, the argument claims that, if one believes that there will ultimately be justice, then one needs to believe in an afterlife because there is so much gross injustice in this life.

Personally, I have my reservations about making this argument, not the least of which is that it is highly unlikely to persuade anyone who doesn’t already believe in an afterlife. It struck me as odd, then, that Russell’s response is equally unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already reject an afterlife:

If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, “After all, I only know this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also.

This simply ignores the entire premise of the argument: that justice will eventually be served. Russell is free to reject that premise, but he isn’t making a case until he gives us a reason why he rejects it. As it is, he raises the idea only to avoid answering it.

More significantly for the current debate over atheism, Russell is arguing that his disbelief in justice is more “scientific”. As a lover of science, nearly as much as a believer in God, I find myself offended that science is so often being misappropriated for anti-theistic philosophies that aren’t in the least bit scientific. The New Atheists, in fact, seem to have trouble getting through a page of text without making this error.

Science is silent on metaphysical questions. That is part of its strength, actually. To say that the next life will be like this one, because this is all we know, is no more “scientific” than a British child deciding that Chinese breakfasts consist of oatmeal, toast, and jam because that is all she knows. It is pure assumption, nothing more.

Far too many have no ethical misgivings whatsoever about co-opting science in order to bolster what are actually philosophical assumptions. As much as many Christians need to be reminded not to put words in the mouth of God, it seems that the New Atheists require the same with respect to science.

If science is silent on an issue, one shouldn’t claim to speak for it.


Russell XI: Self-Proclaimed Moral Superiority

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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.