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Why Bertrand Russell Was Not a Christian

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 15, 2023, ported here on January 6, 2024

So Ayaan Hirsi Ali now is a Christian. Given that she initially became an atheist largely because of the famous essay by Bertrand Russell, "Why I Am Not a Christian" (1927), I thought this would be a good time to reread that piece.

Defining Christianity

First, what is a Christian?

[T]here are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature—namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. . . . [Also] you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men.

[W]hen I tell you why I am not a Christian I have to tell you two different things; first, why I do not believe in God and in immortality; and, secondly, why I do not think that Christ was the best and wisest of men, although I grant Him a very high degree of moral goodness.

I would say that to be a "Christian proper" one must believe in the divinity of Christ, for otherwise the notion of salvation by grace owing to Christ's crucifixion makes no sense. (It makes no sense anyway, but if you don't believe in Christ's divinity it doesn't even make sense in terms of Christian doctrine.) But if you want to say that a Christian can be someone who believes that God used a non-divine man Jesus to accomplish God's plans, I guess whatever.

Then Russell says a belief in hell is not essential to Christianity. Certainly such a belief still animates most Christians.

Proofs for God's Existence

Russell points out that "the Catholic Church has laid it down as a dogma that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason." So Russell quickly dispatches the usual proofs for God's existence.

On the First Cause argument, Russell writes:

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. . . . There is no reason to suppose that the world [we should say the universe] had a beginning at all.

On what he calls the Natural Law argument, Russell writes:

[T]he whole idea that natural laws imply a law-giver is due to a confusion between natural and human laws. Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which way you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave.

Russell points out that, if God just makes up "natural law" "from His own good pleasure," then the law is not natural at all.

Regarding the Argument from Design in the biological world, Russell of course points to Darwin. Russell also points out that believing that an all-powerful and benevolent God would create our world, "with all its defects," is rather silly.

Russell attributes the Moral Argument for God, the idea that "there would be no right or wrong unless God existed," to Kant. Russell points out that either God recognized as right what was already right, or else God declared what is "right" by fiat. In the first case, right and wrong are independent of God; in the second, they are merely an expression of God's subjective preferences.

Russell next writes, "Then there is another very curious form of moral argument, which is this: they say that the existence of God is required in order to bring justice into the world." But that's not really an argument; it's more of a wish. Russell attributes such beliefs to a "wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people's desire for a belief in God."

Russell on Christ

Russell points out that many Christians do not take literally Christ's admonishment to turn the other cheek, nor to give everything they have to the poor. But, I note, those are obviously terrible bits of advice, and Russell offers no argument in their favor, despite admiring them.

Russell then indicates that the Jesus of the Bible seems to have been a rather daft person, wrongly predicting he'd come back "before the death of all the people who were living at that time," claims that modern Christians explain away.

Then Russell writes:

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.

As Wes Morriston pointed out some years ago during a public lecture at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a benevolent God would not subject anyone to eternal torture. So I think Russell is right on this point.

Russell also is not happy that Jesus "was not very kind to the pigs [of a certain story] to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill to the sea."

Fantasy and Meanness

Russell recounts the tale of Samuel Butler's Erewhon Revisited, in which a man who escapes a remote country by balloon after a time makes it back to that country, only to find he is worshipped as a God who had "ascended into Heaven." This man threatens to expose the truth, but he is told by some local leaders, "You must not do that, because all the morals of this country are bound round this myth, and if they once know that you did not ascend into heaven they will all become wicked." (Note: Orville has a version of this in the episode "Mad Idolatry.")

But there's good reason to think that morals based on fantasy lead to nothing good. "[T]he Church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering," writes Russell. He mentions the church's anti-divorce stance. I'd definitely include its stance against birth control. I'd add that many Christians say that even a girl impregnated through rape should not be able to get an abortion. Religion Versus Meaning

Religion is based on fear, Russell writes:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion has gone hand-in-hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.

I think there's something to this, but a huge draw of religion is that people want to experience transcendence, awe, and a sense of mission. But we do not need religion to find such values.

A life of reason offers a better alternative:

In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the Churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look round for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.

Russell continues in this vein:

When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time towards a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.

On Death

Hirsi Ali suggests that Russell concludes "Why I am Not a Christian" by announcing, "When I die, I shall rot." Here is the complete line, from Russell's What I Believe:

Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad. I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.

I rather like my own comments on death, from my book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God:

Do not say, "I will die someday," without also saying, "That means I am alive today." Think about all the wonderful things you are able to do while you are alive: commune with friends, pursue interesting work, read novels and philosophy, watch your child develop (if you have a child), reach out to others with aid or kindness, rekindle a romance, wonder at the trees and the clouds and the stars, contribute in some small way to humanity's betterment. . . .

We face death because we are alive. We know that we will die because we are conceptual beings capable of contemplating the wonders of the universe and of the life in it. Almost none of the vast stuff of the universe partakes of life or of consciousness. We do, and this is an extraordinary privilege. If death is the price we pay for life, then purchase a full share.

See also my previous posts, "Ayaan Hirsi Ali Finds Jesus," "Roundup on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion," and "Cowen on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion," as well as my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God.

See also my previous posts, "Ayaan Hirsi Ali Finds Jesus," "Roundup on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion," and "Cowen on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion," as well as my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God.

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