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Pulse
17 April 2023

On March 13, 2023, The Independent reported that Ho Ching, the wife of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had posted on social media excerpts from the book by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell which was published ninety-six years ago entitled Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian.

The reason or reasons why she posted an excerpt from Russell’s work need not detain us. What I hope to do in this article is to revisit and examine the anti-Christianity rhetoric that this book contains.

But first let me say a few words about its author.

Bertrand Russell was the famous student of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His work Principia Mathematica published in 1910 established him as one of the most important philosophers of the last century. A prolific writer and outspoken public intellectual, Russell had rejected all religions, including Christianity, throughout his life.

Yet, it would be inaccurate to describe him as an atheist, as some scholars have done. Russell declared himself an agnostic in his radio debate in 1948 with the great Thomist philosopher Frederick Copleston. He said:

My position is agnostic … I’m not contending in a dogmatic way that there is not a God. What I’m contending is that we don’t know that there is.

However, Russell’s agnosticism does not make him in any way open to religion. Instead, he categorically rejects all religion, insisting that all religious beliefs are at once ‘untrue and harmful’.

‘I think all the great religions of the world’, he writes, ‘… [are] both untrue and harmful … I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue’. I will return to this assertion which is reprised by the new atheists from Richard Dawkins to Christopher Hitchens later in this article.

Russell believes that religion is generally the result of a deep-seated fear in human beings. He provides the most unsophisticated and jejune reason for the existence of religion when he writes: ‘Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly … the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes’.

But his (in)famous 1927 book is focussed on attacking the Christian religion. Russell wastes no time in informing his readers why he thinks that the Christian religion is untrue (and therefore harmful), and why he is not a Christian. In the first few pages of the book, he writes:

Therefore, I take it that when I tell you why I am not a Christian I have to tell you two 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.

It is impossible in this brief article to examine every single argument advanced by Russell in his book. In what follows, I will examine two of its central themes and expose some serious flaws in Russell’s understanding of Christianity.

EXISTENCE OF GOD

One of the reasons why Russell rejects Christianity is because he does not believe in the existence of God. ‘You know, of course, that the Catholic Church has laid it down as dogma that the existence of God can be proved by unaided reason,’ he writes.

Here Russell is referring to ‘The Five Ways’ of the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas. The purpose of these five arguments is to show that it is not unreasonable to believe that God exists. I shall describe these five arguments very briefly – and hopefully, with sufficient clarity.

The first argument is from motion. Since everything that moves is moved by another, Aquinas argues, there must exist an Unmoved Mover – God.

The second argument is based on the theory of causality. Every effect has a cause. Nothing comes into existence on its own. However, this series of causes cannot extend backwards infinitely (ad infinitum). There has to be an Uncaused Cause from which everything else proceeds – God.

The third is the argument to necessary being. Everything that exists is contingent in that their existence is not a necessity. This means that everything that exists can also cease to exist. Since this contingent world continues to exist, there must be a necessary being that holds it in existence. That necessary being is God.

Next, we have the argument from gradation. There are different degrees of goodness in the things in this world. However, there must be a standard by which we judge goodness, truth and beauty. That perfect standard is God.

The fifth and final argument is based on design. An intelligent design can be discerned in the way the world is organised and the way in which it functions. This points to an Intelligent Designer – God.

Russell categorically rejects these arguments because he is of the view that they are deeply flawed, and that they do not prove convincingly that God exists.

However, Russell’s rejection of the Thomist Five Ways is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are about and what they are purposed to do. He works with a reductionistic understanding of reason and a narrow definition of proof as ‘scientific proof’.

However, the celebrated agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny explains that ‘Aquinas’ Five Ways are not proofs in the sense of logically compelling demonstrations, but rather are attempts to show that the existence of God is a reasonable hypothesis to explain certain features of the world’.

Brian Davies, the eminent Thomist theologian, concurs. ‘Aquinas’ five ways’, he writes, ‘are not meant to be proofs in the sense of mathematical demonstrations; rather, they are meant to provide rational arguments for the existence of God that are grounded in the natural world.’

‘The five ways’, Davies adds, ‘are not intended to replace faith or revelation, but to provide a rational foundation for them’.

Russell’s unfortunate misunderstanding of the purpose of these arguments has proved detrimental to his attitude towards Christianity. Be that as it may, as Arnold Daniel Weigel has pointed out, ‘In opposing the traditional rational proofs of God’s existence, Russell is destroying a straw man, not the Christian position.’

ATTACKING CHRISTIANITY

We turn now to Russell’s dim view of Christianity as the enemy of progress. Consider this vitriolic attack on Christianity and the Church by Russell which Ho Ching posted on Facebook:

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches around 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 (Italics mine).

This is a truly remarkable passage from a philosopher as erudite as Bertrand Russell! It is a passage which reveals not so much his ignorance, but his disdain for Christianity and the Church which runs so deep that he has chosen to totally ignore the facts of history.

Far from being the enemy of progress, Christianity and the Church have contributed immensely and enduringly to the shaping of Western society and culture. Think of Christianity’s influence in literature, architecture and the arts. Think also of Christianity’s role in the development of modern science – a branch of human knowledge and inquiry which Russell prizes so highly.

Christianity also has a long and complex relationship to law. Christian doctrine has contributed significantly to and shaped Western legal theory and state law. It has shaped the discourse about the relationship between the church (or religious institution) and the state, and also the debates on jurisprudence concerning economic, social and political life.

In the area of human sociality, Christianity has contributed to such powerful ideas and values such as human dignity, equality, freedom and rights. Christianity was the inspiration behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated in 1948, both because that milestone document was broadly shaped by Christian principles and values, and because one of the chief architects of that milestone document is the Christian philosopher, Jacques Maritain.

In a similar vein, Christianity has made immense contributions to education and healthcare. Christians have also played an active role in history as peace-makers, in their endeavour to embody the Beatitudes in their lives (Matthew 5:9). As the great church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette describes it:

Moved by their faith, Christians devised new methods and programme for the education of the masses. They brought into being hundreds of colleges and universities … Christians also were the initiators and supporters of measures and movements to reduce the sufferings attendant on wars and to eliminate war by devising and operating institutions and measures for the peaceful adjustments of friction between nations and for international co-operation for the welfare of mankind.

Thus, it is quite ludicrous for Russell to assert that Christianity is an enemy of progress and an impediment to human flourishing. (It is perhaps even more preposterous that all these great achievements of Christianity stem from some primordial fear!).

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Some authors have concluded that Bertrand Russell must be a nihilist. Nihilists believe that the values, principles and ideas about the world are in the final analysis baseless, and that life itself is without real meaning, purpose or intrinsic value.

Russell cannot be described as a nihilist as such because although he does not believe in God, he does recognise the beauty that pervades our world. Furthermore, as a rationalistic philosopher and mathematician who believes in the omnicompetence of science, Russell believes that it is possible for human beings to create their own meaning through knowledge.

However, can his scientific naturalism equip him with the appropriate ‘senses’ (sensorium) to penetrate the contradictions and ambiguities of human life and to discover its true meaning and purpose? Or does it lead him to the edge of the precipice and before the deep and dark abyss of nihilism? Can his materialism save him from descending into absolute despair?

Consider the pathos of these remarkable words from his book, Mysticism and Logic published in the same year as Why I Am Not a Christian:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving: that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but an outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe of ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundations of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built …

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day … proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.