Tag Archives: justice

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 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.

Against Relativism

Through my experience, I’ve been left with the impression that the clear majority of atheists are moral relativists. That is, the bulk of atheists believe that ethics are simply the products of socio-biological evolution, which are not a matter of any truth external to our individual and collective opinions.

In general, I’ve always disagreed on two levels. First, I see no reason why moral experience needs any more justification than sensory experience. Second, and more pertinently to this topic, I don’t see how a true embracing of this sort of relativism can be lived.

It seems fitting that moral relativism is almost completely rejected in those places in the world which are facing tremendous suffering, and popular in those cultures which are complicit in that suffering. It seems clear why wealthy and oppressive societies are much more eager to abandon belief in objective justice than impoverished people.

Perhaps, one might say, that the poor believe as they do simply as a psychological necessity, or because they are (formally) uneducated. I hope, however, that we see the imperialism implicit in this. To say that we are somehow immune to being influenced by our culture in a way that the poor are not is neither intellectually defensible nor morally conscionable.

But, what is morally conscionable? The relativist believes that one simply accepts the morals of one’s society – or choses them as a matter of preference. In any case, she asserts that her own morals are not rationally held. As such, I am left to wonder why so many of the moral relativists in my acquaintance are morally appalled at the religious affirmation of faith.

This is not to say that such people have no right to hate those acts they chose to hate. But it seems an odd thing to attempt to convince me (as many have) that the God I believe in is evil while admitting that this is simply a statement of opinion. Isn’t my opinion equally valid?

More than this, on what grounds does the relativist, if she is a materialist, argue that her worldview has more grounding in evidence than my own? Personally, I do not accept that there is no evidence for God’s existence, but this seems moot. The relativist admittedly has no evidence for her moral positions or sense of purpose in life. I don’t, therefore, see this as an improvement in terms of taking a more objective approach.

Rather, this seems to ‘subjectify’ nearly all statements. To say that ethics are not objective is not to support an evidenced-based view of life, but to deny that such a thing could ever exist.

While I personally maintain that a divine reality is needed for an ontological grounding of ethics, not all agree. And it seems to be in the materialist’s best interests to seek grounds on which she can believe in the objectivity of ethics. I see very little future in a view which cannot offer an intellectual, as well as personal, defense of ethics. Such views can neither commend themselves as evidence-based, nor survive the next great crisis to strike our society.