Tag Archives: Judgment

Random Moral Pronouncements

judgenot-thumbIn his speech, “Why I’m not a Christian” Bertrand Russell rejects the idea that Christ was the greatest of moral teachers:

I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.

The most obvious question one can raise here is to request a standard by which Russell presumes to judge the great moral teachers of history. Of course, he does not say that he is doing this, but is simply stating his opinion. But if he expects anyone to accept his claim as more than an irrational quirk of his own personality, a standard would be required.

I mention this because it is so similar to the New Atheists’ modus operandi. This particular group is quick to make sweeping (and caustic) moral pronouncements while consistently refusing to give any defense of such statements. This is, of course, doubly problematic in that they so often criticize others for failing to give reasons for what they believe.

But, as for Russell, it is clear from his speech that he judges Christ to be inferior because of Christ’s commitment to justice, rather than simply gentleness and compassion.

It seems odd, then, that appreciation for gentleness and compassion is probably the largest change in moral thinking that Christ’s teaching made to the ancient world. This also reminds me of the New Atheists, who’s references to the “historical atrocities of religion” very often reveal a deep ignorance of actual history.

All this may be beside the point, however. None of this counters the argument that Christ, if he were a lunatic or a charlatan, wouldn’t have been both a great moral teacher and willing to die for that teaching.

This means that Russell’s personal ranking of moral teachers can be set aside. The classic “lord, liar, lunatic” apologetic doesn’t actually require that we begin by agreeing that Christ is undisputedly “better” a moral teacher than Buddha or Socrates (though he was). It merely requires one to accept that he was a great moral teacher (in order to scratch of the “liar” and “lunatic” options). And Russell himself affirms the greatness of Christ’s moral teaching.

So, though I thought it worth questioning Russell’s conclusion, there was no valid point being made against the truth of Christianity by comparing Christ to Socrates in the first place.

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.

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 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.

The Biases of “Them”

In the context of the religion debates, I think many of us are getting tired of the phrase “rebellion against God” and the term “indoctrination”.

These are, of course, the concepts by which Christians and atheists often explain how a group of otherwise intelligent people can disagree with them over something so “obvious”. The Christian insists that atheists would all see the evidence for God if only they could stomach the idea that they would need to submit to a higher authority. Likewise, the atheist insists that the Christian would reject God’s existence were it not for religious teaching received as a child.

The way in which these ideas are used to dismiss very important arguments on both sides destroys a great deal that we might learn from one another. At the very least, it destroys any real intellectual empathy.

This is not to say that the concepts are entirely vacuous. Personally, I expect that there is truth to both of them. People do tend to believe what we were taught as children, which (in modern culture) usually includes both the idea that God exists and that a monarch (even a divine one) is inherently a bad thing. So long as one realizes that this does nothing to prove or disprove God’s existence, these things are worth noting.

But the trouble is worse than ignorance. Rather, it seems that anyone who engages in this kind of thinking has to continually raise the stakes – to attribute more and more power to these tendencies in order to dismiss opposing arguments. Personally, I’ve seen very sophisticated philosophical positions waved away with a “that’s the power of indoctrination”, and don’t imagine that atheists have not seen the same from theists.

Where can this go, save to the point that any statement with which one disagrees is so categorized? It seems to me that the picture of humanity presented by this kind of thinking should leave one to wonder if rational faculties can be trusted at all.

Really, can those proclaiming that all arguments against God are the lies of Satan really believe that they are not themselves deceived? Can those who attribute all religious thinking to indoctrination believe that they have not been programmed in their own convictions about the nature of reality? Sociology tells us that none of us are objective – but these arguments grow out of the arrogant assumption that one’s own camp is largely immune to this fact. It is “they” who are deluded, who cannot see the “obvious” answer to the big questions of life.

It would be better, I think, to admit that our finite minds cannot claim to understand reality well enough that much of anything should be obvious. Many intelligent people can be found on all sides of this debate. This should humble us all, and make us wary.

Reality is, after all, far more mysterious than we tend to suppose. Whether you see this as the divine mystery (as I do), or imagine an incomprehensible (but still physical) material world, we should agree that glib comments cannot possibly contain an appropriate view of the matter.