Tag Archives: pharisee

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 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.