Bertrand Russell – Why I am not a Christian: And other essays on religion and related subjects. London: Routledge (1957, 2009)
Why I am not a Christian – the essay
Why I am not a Christian, is an essay written by Bertrand Russell, based on a talk given in 1927. As the subtitle of this publication states, it’s a collection of essays. Only this first essay really analyzes the philosophical points of discussion, and dispels them all.
Russell starts by giving a definition of what it means to be a Christian. According to him, being a Christian means at least two things, (1) “you must believe in God and immortality”, and (2) “you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men.” (p. 2) Russell continues by giving the reasons (arguments) why he does not believe in God or immortality, and why he does not think Jesus was “the best and wisest.” Of course only the first explanation carries any weight in a theological debate, because even if Jesus was the ‘best and wisest’, that wouldn’t proof anything concerning the existence of (a) god.
Now, as Russell explains, the Catholic Church previously held the existence of God to be self-evident, but after they’d encountered opposition from freethinkers who stated they had arguments proving God did not exist, they retorted that they had arguments that could proof the existence of god. Russell takes on a few of those arguments.
The argument from First cause
He starts with the First Cause argument, which is easily seen to have an internal inconsistency, as it assumes that everything has a cause, but denies the validity of that assumption for its proposed cause (a god). So, either everything, including god, has a cause, or not everything has a cause. If everything has a cause, the existence of a god can’t explain the origin of the universe; if not everything requires an explanation, why would the existence of the universe be the particular thing to need an explanation, instead of, say, god?
The Natural Law argument
The Natural Law argument is next. Russell refutes this argument by pointing out that there is a logical follow-up question, which dissolves the whole explanandum. As the Natural Law argument attempts to prove the necessity of a god by the necessity of natural laws, it leaves aside the issue of the law-abidingness of the law-giving god. Either god had good reasons for exclaiming the laws we see around us all day, or he did not. If he did have good reasons, if he was obliged, he was subject to law himself, which would make the ‘thing’ obliging him the explanation of the laws. Or, if he wasn’t obliged, the supposition that everything is subject to (a) law is obliterated, which would make it possible to say that the laws of nature we observe just are, and aren’t there for any special reason at all. Besides that, Russell also point out that the supposition that laws require a lawgiver is a confusion of natural with human laws. The argument looks similar to the Argument from Design, and it is, except for the fact that the explanandum in the Natural Law argument (where do laws come from?) is different from the explanandum of the First Cause argument (where does complexity come from?).
The Argument from design
The Argument from Design has, of course, lost all it’s power after Darwin published The origin of species. Besides that, anyone who takes a closer look at nature would have to be repelled by the idea that all that was the best ‘omnipotence and omniscience has been able to produce in millions of year.’ (p. 7)
The Moral Argument for deity
After the ontological stuff, Russell takes on the moral arguments. He starts with the Moral Argument for Deity, which basically means taking the ‘difference between good and evil’ for granted and using that to argue for the existence of an omnipotent being who acts as the lawgiver. This is slightly similar to the Natural Law argument mentioned above, and the detergent is similar too: if god ‘made’ the difference, then there is no ‘true’ difference between good and evil, besides gods arbitrary choice. The second possibility is that god based the difference on something, thus making that something the real origin of the difference between good and evil, thereby obliterating the notion of god as ‘the’ lawgiver (this refutation goes back quite a while, see e.g. Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma). Russell then gives the following line of thought, focussing on the moral aspect: if the difference between good and evil is due to god, then it is meaningless to say god is good, because for him there is no difference between good and evil. (If he himself made the difference, he can’t be subject to it.) If you want to say god is good while entertaining the previous line of reasoning, you are obliged to say good and bad have a meaning independent of god, because “God’s fiats are good and not bad independent of the mere fact that He made them.” (p. 9) And if you claim that, the difference between good and bad has to be logically anterior to the supreme being.
The Argument for the remedying of injustice
Another argument is the Argument for the remedying of injustice, (i.e. god’s existence is required to bring justice). God is supposed to keep us in line by offering us an earthly choice between an afterlife in either ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’. Russell undermines this line of thought by pointing out that, scientifically speaking, it would be weird to suppose that there exists a place where everything is good, to counterbalance the earthly injustices. Because the spreading of justice and injustice would then be too imbalanced as to be unbelievable. He illustrates this argument with a nice example:
“Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue: ‘The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance.'” (p. 10)
The character of Christ
In the next part of the essay, Russell adresses The Character of Christ. At first he points out that there are a lot of differences between ancient and modern-day christians, if you look at the ‘standards’ Jesus set: “I have no doubt that the present prime minister, for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on the cheek.” Christ is also presumed to have said something like “Judge not lest ye be judged,” which is slightly opposed to earlier and present courts of justice. On the moral character of the teachings and actions of Christ and all christians after him, Russell concisely states:
(…) every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world. (p.17)
Has religion made any useful contributions to civilisation?
In the next essay, appropriately titled Has religion made any useful contributions to civilisation?, Russell conducts a further investigation of the question that the last sentence implicates. As you should expect, the answer is negative. Advancing on the discrepancy between teachings and actions, Russell writes:
Christ taught that you should give your goods to the poor, that you should not fight, that you should not go to church, and that you should not punish adultery. Neither Catholics nor Protestants have shown any strong desire to follow His teachings in any of those respects. (p. 21)
In these and the following essays, Russell uses clear logic and scientific understanding to evaluate a whole lot of different questions (Do we survive death? What’s the difference between Catholic and Protestant scepticism? What happened to Thomas Pain? How nice are Christians? Can religion cure our troubles?) which are sometimes barely related to the question of the existence of god(-s), which I presumed to be the central philosophical investigation of the book. The title of the book is misleading in that respect. The only other chapter devoted to that question is the transcription of a discussion between Russell and Father F.C. Copleston.
Russell versus Copleston
During the discussion between Russell and Copleston, Russell propounds a few important (logical) distinctions, which can come in very handy during debates with believers. The Father uses a Leibnizian line of thought to proof the existence of god. This train of thought relies heavily on a certain meaning of the concepts ‘necessity’ and ‘contingency’ which Russell dislikes. Copleston uses a variation of the First Cause argument discussed above. He states that there is nothing in our earthly world which depends on itself for existing (my existence depends on that of my father and mother, and so on…). So we need a being which “contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, which cannot not-exist.” (i.e. all earthly beings’ existence is contingent, whereas gods existence is necessary.) (p. 127) Russell states that the word ‘neccesary’ can only be applied to analytic propositions: “The word ‘necessary’, it seems to me, is a useless word, except as applied to analytic propositions, not to things.” (p. 129)
Further on in the debate, Russell presses Copleston to the following statement:
If you add up chocolates you get chocolates after all and not a sheep. If you add up chocolates to infinity, you presumably get an infinite number of chocolates. So if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get contingent beings, not a necessary being. An infinite series of contingent beings will be, to my way of thinking, as unable to cause itself as one contingent being. However, you say, I think, that it is illigitimate to raise the question of what will explain the existence of any particular object?
To which Russell replies (in a genius way I must say):
(…) The whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things; I see no reason whatsoever to suppose that the total has any cause whatsoever. (…) it doesn’t need to be its own cause, what I’m saying is that the concept of cause is not applicable to the total (…) I should say that the universe just is there, and that’s all. (p. 133-134)
This kind of thinking is being used in modern cosmology. As the backcover of Stenger (2000) states: “(…) reality (…) had no beginning, and was not created. It was nor will be. It just is.”
All in all, it has to be said that Russells writings as collected in this book, are very, very excellent, as is almost always the case. If there was a Gold Medal to be handed out for clear and logical thinking, written down with passion, Russell should have gotten it.
A short note on the quality of Routledge books
The edition of Why I am not a Christian currently standing on my shelf, was part of the Routledge Classics series, printed by Routledge (Taylor and Francis Group). It’s sad to say, but their methods of binding leave much to be wished for. I needed to re-glue a couple of pages because they let loose. Unfortunately (for Routledge) I know someone else who has got a book from the same serie, who encountered exactly the same problem. So I couldn’t advise one to buy this specific edition of the aforementioned book. On the other hand, my edition of D.C. Dennett’s (1999) Content and Consciousness, belonging to Routledge’s International Library of Philosophy series was fine, which means that they know how to make good books. My advise to them would be to continue the old path!
Stenger, Victor J. (2000) Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity and Multiple Universes. Amherst: Prometheus Books. (See also: Stenger, Victor J. (2007) God: The failed hypothesis. Amherst: Prometheus Books. Chapters 4: “Cosmic evidence” & 5: “The uncongenial universe”.)