Tag Archives: human-rights

Russell XXI: Mercy Without Justice?

33-justice-for-allThere is quite a bit of talk of Hell in Russell’s speech. By my estimation, he includes nearly as much as is in the entirety of the Bible. It is a bit odd, then, that he criticizes the Bible for going on too much about Hell.

Then [Jesus Christ] says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty.

I’ve already discussed the idea that Hell is a natural consequence of abandoning the source of all goodness. Still, I think something should be said for punishment.

As much as I commend Russell’s commitment to compassion, the scorn he casts on the idea of Hell seems to cross the line into a disrespect for justice. The New Atheist writers tend to do the same (with far more ease). And it strikes me that most people in history have had a very high view of justice. Though we from the modern west have lived more comfortable lives than the overwhelming majority of people in history, I think we can empathize with the idea that the unfairness of this world should be set right.

That is why I find it more than a little distasteful that a privileged white male from a rich nation would scorn the idea that oppressive people should be punished.

Those people groups who are complicit in oppression are always less likely to value justice than those who live under the boot of it. And, much to my dismay, I’ve run across many that confidently declare that it is simply a lack of education that keeps the poor from embracing moral relativism–apparently oblivious to their own cultural lenses.

To the end that one hears cries for justice with sympathy, I think, one begins to see the genius of the Bible. It acknowledges the world’s desperate need for justice, while simultaneously pointing out the need for mercy–that none of us could endure true judgement. If God doesn’t care about justice, what hope is there for correcting the oppression in the world? But, if God does seek justice, what hope is there for us?

A philosophy that can endure across time and cultures must, of necessity, be one that can offer powerful resources to cope with suffering, unfairness, and loss as well as success, power, and comfort. This is one of the great strengths of Christianity and, I think, one of the great weaknesses of the worldview put forward by the New Atheist writers.

Where the Christian Gospel builds up the weak with the idea that one is a forgiven child of God, New Atheism tends to embitter the strong with the idea that one is an innocent victim of fools in an unjust world.


Why Russell was Wrong VIII: Russell was Right if you Don’t Think Too Much

ignorant_xlargeAfter suggesting that all life is ultimately doomed to extinction (as if that were a point in favor of the atheist), Russell mentions a possible objection to his case. He doesn’t address the logical issues raised in the last post. Rather, he responds to those who complain of the bleakness of his view, suggesting that they are simply being disingenuous:

I am told that this sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence.

Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.

To seriously suggest that it may be a “consolation” to believe that the human race is dying out is to take the position that human life is all but worthless. Anyone who engages in this kind of talk abdicates all right to accuse religion of encouraging judgmental or negative views. Which, as we shall see, Russell does.

If it is a thoughtless, and indeed cold, approach to the death of our species to suggest that concern for our future is simply “bad digestion”, his primary suggestion isn’t much better. He proposes that we ignore the problem.

Russell, like the New Atheists, has accused theists of pretending at beliefs. I don’t accept this, but I fail to see how, even were it so, belief in God could be any less honest than pretending that major questions on the meaning and fate of life simply aren’t important. Yet, this is exactly what Russell is advocating.

None of us can really look at such a dark fate, or at the evil within us, and accept it without some source of hope equal to the task. Here, Russell recommends that we simply not look. We can and should go through our lives, he says, by distracting ourselves from the really tough issues. Apparently, the bliss of ignorance is comforting and, if Russell is correct, how honest we are with ourselves won’t matter in the end.

Christianity offers something much different: a hope of infinite perfection, of redemption to equal the size of the calamity set before us. Though I think otherwise, there’s always the chance that Russell is right to say it’s all false comfort. Still, it is not demonstrably so in the way that Russell’s willful turning away from the question is.