A Review Of “Why I Am Not A Christian” By Bertrand Russell
Without a doubt, Bertrand Russell stands as one of the most formidable minds of the modern era. Through his efforts with Alfred North Whitehead in “Principia Mathematica”, Russell further elaborated the relationship between mathematics and deductive logic. Russell's endeavors, however, were not confined to complex philosophical treatises having little influence outside of academic circles. Russell's work spanned the intellectual spectrum, ranging from works on the history of philosophy to international relations and political theory. Russell even produced newspaper articles for mass consumption. But despite his prolific intellectual output, Russell did not apply his mathematician's logic and objectivity to much of his non-scientific thought, especially in the area of religion as embodied by his work “Why I Am Not A Christian”.
Instead of addressing a single topic throughout the entire work, “Why I Am Not A Christian” is a collection of articles and essays addressing Russell's position on religious matters in general and issues regarding Christianity in particular. Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so he is.” Many times influential voices speaking in the opinion-molding institutions of academia and media contend that one's views on religion do not necessarily impact other areas of existence such as the political or the sociological. Scripture teaches that this popular opinion is incorrect. However, the Bible is not readily accepted by those arguing for the mentioned opinion. Even though the work argues against the traditional positions of Christianity, the power of “Why I Am Not A Christian” resides in how it links one's views regarding religion with one's beliefs about society and the world despite the author's attempt to argue otherwise.
Russell's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) found their basis in his position that the theistic proofs are not as conclusive as believers make them out to be. When asked what he would say if confronted by the Creator at his death, Russell said he would respond by saying, “God! Why did you make evidence of your existence so insufficient?”
In “Why I Am Not A Christian”, Russell proceeds to critique each of these arguments. None of them escape his scathing scrutiny. Of the argument from the First Cause, Russell remarks that, if everything must have a cause, then God cannot be the uncaused cause by those following in the intellectual lineage of Aquinas. Russell claims that this argument actually results in an endless digression of creators begetting creators much like those mythological cosmologies where the Earth rests atop an elephant resting atop a tortoise etc. etc (7).
From the outset, Russell argues from faulty notions. According to Norman Geisler in “Introduction To Philosophy: A Christian Perspective”, in a thoroughly naturalistic context something cannot come from nothing. But by its definition, a noncontingent being does not require a cause since its existence is complete in itself (289). Only finite contingent beings require a cause.
The next proofs tackled by Russell are the arguments for the existence of God from the evidence of creation. Russell argues that, in the light of Einsteinian relativity, the Newtonian system of natural law is not as binding upon the universe as originally thought. Therefore, these scientific principles cannot be used to argue for the existence of a rational creator. However, one could turn the tables on Russell and point out that the revelations of Einsteinian physics actually provide a better testimony to the existence of God than even the previous Newtonian model.
According to Russell, natural law is nothing more than statistical averages resulting from the laws of chance (Russell, 8). John Warwick Montgomery in “Faith Founded On Fact” rebuts Russell's position by pointing out that the Einsteinian and quantum paradigms actually allow for miracles while maintaining that an ordered universe exists. In those systems attempting to account for the totality of the physical universe, it is God who keeps the universe from instantaneously dissolving into the chaos of individual atoms flying off into their own paths and who can rearrange the normal operations of reality when doing so suits His greater glory such as turning water into wine and resurrecting the dead (Montgomery, 43).
Besides drawing faulty conclusions regarding the validity of the theistic proofs, Russell errs as to their purpose as well. Russell is correct in pointing out that these arguments do leave room for some doubt. Yet this can be said about any other linguistically synthetic proposition about the world as well.
If one wants to get really nit-picky about the matter, one could doubt whether Bertrand Russell himself even existed since the Analysts were not above doubting the veracity of historical knowledge. As much as it might irritate the so-called “scientific mind”, one cannot exist without exercising some degree and kind of faith.
The theistic proofs can serve as a guide pointing towards faith or as a mechanism to help rationally clarify it. They do not properly serve as a replacement for it. Norman Geisler points out that one ought not to believe in God because of the theistic proofs. Rather, the theistic proofs provide one with a basis to reasonably assert that God exists (Geisler, 269).
Having taken on the first person of the triune Godhead, Russell turns his sites onto the second, the Lord Jesus Christ. To his perverse credit in a perverse sort way, Russell does not hind behind the phony religiosity of the liberal and the modernist which states, “Jesus was a good teacher, but...”
Russell openly wonders whether or not Christ even existed. And even if He did, Russell asserts, Jesus is far from being the greatest among human teachers as asserted by the likes of the Unitarians and the New Age movement. At best, according to Russell's scorecard, Jesus comes in at a distant third behind Socrates and Buddha (16). According to Russell, Christ's greatest flaw was His belief in the reality of Hell and His condemnation of those who would not heed the Messiah's call. Socrates provides a superior moral example since Socrates did not verbally castigate his detractors (Russell, 17).
Russell's disdain for those believing in the reality of Hell exposes his own bias rather than prove his dedication to the ideas of truth that he invokes elsewhere to undermine the claims of religious faith. In appraising the idea of Hell, Russell does not give much consideration to the realm of eternal damnation, instead dismissing the concept as a cruel idea (18). But if Hell is real, is not Christ doing the proper thing in warning how such a terrible fate might be avoided? Employing Russell's line of reasoning, it becomes cruel to chastise someone standing under a tall tree with a piece of sheet metal during a thunderstorm since such an exhortation also warns of the dire consequences likely to result from such foolish behavior.
But while Russell questions the historicity of Jesus Christ, he readily accepts that of Buddha even though Christ is perhaps the best documented figure of ancient history. The first accounts of Buddha appear nearly 500 years after the death of that particular religious figure. Those regarding Jesus appear within the first several decades following the Crucifixion.
Allegedly having removed God from His thrown as sovereign of the universe, Russell proceeds to lay out what he does believe primarily in the chapter titled “What I Believe”. Replacing religion as the tool by which man approaches the world, Russell would have man utilize science to determine meaning, reducing the totality of reality to that of mere physics (50). To Russell, even thought is nothing more than the chemical components and electrical impulses arising from the brain's physical composition.
Yet despite believing the material world to be ultimate, Russell saw no problem with making pronouncements regarding the areas of life transcending the material base such as ethics and social organization. Russell boldly states in italicized print for all to read, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge (56).” However, elsewhere in the very same chapter, Russell says, “...nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad (55).”
If humanity is nothing more than the sum of the physical composition of the species, it is then inappropriate to elaborate a theory of morality. Morality poured into such a naturalistic crucible becomes nothing more than individual personal preferences, which do seem to serve as Russell's source of moral reasoning. According to Russell, traditional morality is based upon cruelty and ignorance. However, according to John Frame in “Apologetics To The Glory Of God”, to invoke the values of love and knowledge (even when done so to undermine traditional conceptions of virtue) is to inadvertently defend the divinely established order of creation traditional moral values rests upon in the first place since such values are only desirable if a divinely created hierarchy exists (93-102).
Ultimately, one cannot craft a system of ethics solely based on science legitimately defined as science. At best, science can only assess and clarify the situations to which moral principles must be applied. To say that science is the source of moral values is to argue for a scientism or a naturalism as loaded with as many conceptual presuppositions as any theistic creed.
One can base one's ethical beliefs on the record of Scripture, which II Timothy 3:16 says is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for corrections, and for instruction in righteousness. Or, one can operate under man's own unaided reason, which is finite, corruptible, and known to change every five to ten years subject to FDA approval. History reveals which has the far better track record.
Unlike many Christians who do not take their worldview outside the church sanctuary or seminary classroom, Bertrand Russell was not one content to keep his philosophy and ideology confined to the level of an academic exercise. In terms of political activism, this was manifested by his vocal opposition to the nuclear diplomacy engaged in by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the tensest days of the Cold War.
However, the application of Russell's worldview did not always lead him to pursue admirable yet perhaps naive goals such as world peace. In fact, Presbyterian minister D.James Kennedy suggests in “Character & Destiny: A Nation In Search Of Its Soul” that Russell may have formulated his philosophical position regarding religious matters as a justification for his erotic proclivities, the lanky intellectual having actually had numerous adulterous relationships including philanderous escapades with the daughters of friends and colleagues (173). In fact, Russell social views derived from his foundational assumptions sparked considerable controversy. After all, it was not his “Principia Mathematica” that cost him a professorship at the City College of New York but rather his views regarding marriage and personal morality.
Seeing man soley as the product of natural processes and merely as a highly evolved animal, Russell's views regarding human intimacy and procreation reflect this sentiment. According to Russell, much of traditional morality --- especially that dealing with sexual ethics --- is based upon superstition. In fact, Russell believes that it would be beneficial for society and family life if the traditional understanding of monogamous, life-long, God-ordained marriage was openly violated. In these matters, Russell sounds much like a contemporary Planned Parenthood operative or public school sex educator. For example, Russell argues for no-fault divorce, unhampered sexual promiscuity provided children do not result from such illicit unions, and for temporary trial marriages not unlike the phenomena of cohabitation (Russell, 168-178).
Despite his attempts to expand human freedom and happiness in regards to these matters, Russell's proposals are in reality prescriptions for heartache and disaster. The segment of society sustaining the highest number of casualties in the sexual revolution are the young that Russell had hoped to liberate. According to syndicated columnist Cal Thomas in “The Death Of Ethics In America”, by the age of twenty-one 81% of unmarried males and 60% of unmarried females have had sexual intercourse. However, such carnal stimulation is not necessarily the fulfilling personal growth opportunity Russell claimed it would be.
Venereal diseases rank as the number one form of communicable illness in the United States. And the varieties of this pestilence prevalent today do not always react as well to penicillin as those ravaging the morally deviant of Professor Russell's day (Thomas, 92). Those engaging in Dr. Russell's trial marriages --- what use to be referred to as living in sin --- fare little better. Those participating in such arrangements on average go on to experience higher levels of marital discord and incidents of divorce.
God did not establish the regulations regarding human intimacy in order to rain on everybody's parade. These rules were promulgated in order to bring about the maximum degree of individual well-being and personal happiness. Matthew 19:5 says, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. Hebrews 13:4 adds, “Marriage is honorable in all and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”
To his credit and the shame of the church, Russell does note how women have over the course of history often endured oppressive marriages many times under the sanction and justification of misunderstood interpretations regarding marital submission. However, any cruelty justified under this command is a misinterpretation of the passage's true intent. In Ephesians 5:25, just two verses away from the famous Scripture misused as an excuse for all manner of masculine cruelty, the Bible clearly reads, “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the church.” This love is to be a sacrificial and gentle love; not the decree of a tyrant even though the husband is the king of the house. Studies indicate that, in reality, marriage is far safer for women than the live-in arrangements advocated by Russell under the euphemism of temporary marriage.
Having dismissed the traditional family and religion (both organized and otherwise) as impediments to humanity's progress, Russell puts his hope for the betterment of mankind in the state. Rather than punish individuals committing sins so heinous that they infringe upon the well-being of society, the state is to manipulate human behavior in order to bring about desired outcomes beneficial to the greater community. In fact, according to Russell, sin defined as an action committed by an individual in defiance of the universal moral order as established by an omnipotent creator does not exist. Sin is merely that which is disliked by those controlling education (159).
Even those committing the most heinous deeds are not beyond the pale of psychological reprogramming or pity much like that lavished upon a wayward dog that cannot help scratching up the furniture. To bring about his scientific utopia, the state would be granted expansive powers in even those most private aspects of existence. For example, Russell's state would go so far as to decree that children must be confiscated from their parents and raised by trained statist experts (Russell, 163).
Russell also suffers from the same paradox afflicting Marx and other socialists in that Russell desires to shrink the power of the state while at the same time dramatically increasing it. While wanting to put economic power into the hands of workers through a system of guilds and syndicates, Russell also sought to establish a world state having a monopoly on the use of force as well as establish guaranteed incomes and the human breeding restrictions mentioned earlier.
The issues raised by Russell's political opinions still possess relevance today with much of contemporary civic discourse an ongoing debate regarding the very kinds of policies advocated by Russell and his leftwing associates. F.A. Hayek noted in “The Road To Serfdom” that, while liberals might have naive but benevolent intentions behind their social engineering proposals, these ultimately require more bloodthirsty totalitarians or others of a similar vain lacking concern for innate human freedoms and constitutional liberties. Even Russell admits that much of human liberty is the result of the interplay between church and state (185). What then would result should the influence be nullified as Russell proposes?
Reflecting upon Russell's proposal of state-run childcare, it is highly doubtful whether or not such a program could be implemented without a great deal of bloodshed or a massive multi-generational conspiracy such as Hillary Clinton's it takes a village mentality and the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of The Child. Programs and policy outlooks such as these seek to alter the fundamental nature of the family primarily through bureaucratic stealth and covert legislative manipulation. Realizing that the proclivities towards marriage and family ran so deeply in the human psyche, even the Soviets had to back off their plank to so openly undermine the oldest of human institutions as part of their diabolical agenda.
And while the wars plaguing mankind are deplorable, the geopolitical landscape allowing them to arise is still preferable to the global tyranny and persecution that would result from a planetary regime that would impose its iron will on any portion of the world refusing to heed its edicts and decrees. At least under the current world order, a small percentage of humanity is able to enjoy some measure of freedom until the Lord's Second Coming.
Contrary to what even the National Rifle Association claims, America's Founding Fathers did not draft the Second Amendment to protect skeet shooting and squirrel hunting. Instead, this constitutional provision established a sense of liberty by creating tension between freemen and the operatives of the state by implying violence could result should government authorities over step the confines of their legitimate powers. Something similar is true with a system of nation-states competing with one another, none of which can tyrannize all of mankind at one time.
By reading “Why I Am Not A Christian”, one is reminded that the current culture war besieging America did not begin with either the inaugurations of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. It is in fact decades and even centuries old. While setting out an agenda and its ideological justification, Russell's “Why I Am Not A Christian” also provides a glimpse into the cultural disputes of another era.
The final chapter of the book consists of an appendix detailing the court case that ultimately prevented Russell from obtaining a professorship of mathematical and scientific philosophy. Whether or not Russell's critics should have acted so vehemently is open to debate as (to utilize a phrase just employed) there is some virtue to settling things through “open debate” with each side detailing their merits and revealing the weaknesses in the arguments of their opponents. However, history has shown that the concerns raised by those opposed to Russell's appointment were based in legitimate fears.
Though Russell cannot bear sole guilt as much of that must also go to his colleagues sharing in his worldview of loose sex and paternalistic government, this philosophy has gained such prominence in social institutions such as education, entertainment, and even religion. Regard for the family and human life has deteriorated to such a degree that is has become regular to hear in news reports of former mailmen mowing down with machine guns their fellow employees (the act itself now referred to as “going postal”) or of prom queens killing their newborns between dances. The world has never been perfect since the expulsion from Eden, but seldom in history has there been times where such outright evil is openly justified by those in authority such as certain psychologists, elected officials, and media personalities.
Bertrand Russell's “Why I Am Not A Christian” will not stand as a classic regarding what is explicitly written upon the pages. For the highest rational principle appealed to is that the world should enshrine the thoughts and preferences of Bertrand Russell simply because they are the thoughts and utterances of Bertrand Russell. However, the message it propounds between the lines of each man serving as his own god ranks among the central apologetic challenges of this or any other era. The clear style and detectable fallacies found within the pages of Russell's “Why I Am Not A Christian” will prepare Christians to take on more sophisticated versions of these arguments wherever they might appear.
Frederick Meekins is an independent theologian and social critic. Frederick holds a BS in Political Science/History, a MA in Apologetics/Christian Philosophy from Trinity Theological Seminary, and a PhD. in Christian Apologetics from Newburgh Theological Seminary.