Bertand Russell was one of the best philosophers of the early twentieth century. He made outstanding contributions in the fields of the philosophy of mathematics and logic, and also wrote one of the best histories of philosophy. He was also a firm atheist, and remains very influential in modern atheism.
This is a introduction to a series of posts criticising Russell's essay `Why I am not a Christian', based on a lecture he gave in 1927. Russell was a pre-eminent enlightenment philosopher whose world-view was formed during the last days before the quantum revolution in physics. He was particularly disdainful of Aristotle's philosophy and theism.
In short, in his views on religion, the philosophy of science, and ethics, he stood for everything I oppose. In these posts, I intend to show why he was wrong.
Christianity is not only about belief, but there nonetheless are some beliefs which are central, distinctive and essential to Christianity. We wish to discuss whether Christianity is true. Since only propositions can be true in this sense of the word, the question reduces to whether these central doctrines of Christianity are true. But before we can ask that question, we have to first identify what those central doctrines are. This task is made harder because there are so many contradictory definitions of Christian belief held by different people who claim to be Christian, both today and in the past.
In previous posts, I have suggested that the best way of defining core Christian beliefs, indeed the core beliefs of any religion or other movement which is defined in part by belief, is to go back to what the founders of that movement believed, and believed to be essential to their religion. If anyone can rightly claim to be Christian, it is those people, so their voice carries more weight than those who followed them.
In this post, I expand on this means of definition, and respond to a few objections.
I discuss Bertrand Russell's introduction to the arguments he discusses which have been put forward for the existence of God.
I discuss Bertrand Russell's presentation of the cosmological argument, and the responses he offers against it.
I start by outlining a summary of Aristotle's version of the argument, as a backdrop to seeing whether Russell's responses are adequate against it. This leads me into a discussion of causality. One of Russell's objections is that causality is not all it used to be after scientists and philosophers got their hands on it. I list various forms of causality proposed down the century, and conclude that only Aristotle's version survives and is demanded by a comparison against modern physics. Thus Russell's seemingly most potent objection to Aristotle's particular version of the argument fails.
I then run through the rest of the objections that Russell mentions, such as the what caused God? argument to the maybe its turtles all the way down objection.
I discuss Bertrand Russell's presentation of the argument based on the idea that the laws of physics imply a divine lawgiver to give them the required order.
I begin by presenting the old argument that Russell was referring to as I understand it. Next I look at Russell's objections to this argument, and see how well Russell's objections stand against the modern forms of the argument.
I discuss Bertrand Russell's presentation of the design argument for God. I define the argument, and discuss its strengths and weaknesses, including a discussion of the usual arguments posed against it, and a few less usual ones. I also discuss what the design argument is not.
I discuss Bertrand Russell's presentation of the moral argument for God. This argument states
- An objective ethical system is only possible if God exists;
- We all agree that there are moral values;
- If moral values are to mean anything they have to be universal and objective (i.e. not decided by the subjective whims of individuals or mobs but follow from reason and knowledge of the nature of beings);
- Therefore God exists.
I outline a defence of this argument, and then consider how Russell attacks it.
The last part of Bertrand Russell's discussion of the reasons people put forward for the existence of God is the argument for the remedying of injustice. The argument runs as follows.
- The universe is ultimately fair and just.
- Our own lives and experiences are often unjust, evil people do well, while the good suffer.
- There therefore must be some means by which this is reversed after we die.
- Therefore God.
I quite agree with Russell that this argument, as I have presented it here, or as he presents it himself is not the soundest ever conceived. I disagree with him about the relevance of this point, since it is not an argument that (as far as I am aware) any major Christian apologists has used. Thus this is just a straw man erected by Russell to poke fun at various naive Christians.
However, at the end of this section, Russell includes a few paragraphs on why he thinks that Christians believe in Christianity. Those paragraphs are worth discussion.
Russell listed several arguments for the existence of God, but missed some of the most important ones. Here I list what I consider the most important arguments.
Russell listed several arguments for the existence of God, but missed some of the most important ones. Here I discuss in detail the argument from miracles, and why some of the most well-cited objections to this argument fail.
Russell defined Christianity in terms of two core beliefs: that God exists, and that Jesus was a uniquely good person. Having discussed the arguments for God's existence, and found his misrepresentations of those arguments unconvincing, Russell now turns to the Character of Christ. His first salvo was to praise Jesus for various moral attributes, and complain that Christians don't live up to those standards.
Russell defined Christianity in terms of two core beliefs: that God exists, and that Jesus was a uniquely morally good and wise person. Having discussed the arguments for God's existence, and found his misrepresentations of those arguments unconvincing, Russell now turns to the Character of Christ. The second part of this was to discuss supposed errors in Christ's teaching.
Russell defined Christianity in terms of two core beliefs: that God exists, and that Jesus was a uniquely morally good and wise person. Having discussed the arguments for God's existence, and found his misrepresentations of those arguments unconvincing, Russell now turns to the Character of Christ. The third and final part of this discussion was about whether Jesus' beliefs and attitude were indeed moral.
Bertrand Russell's next argument against Christianity was that the organised Churches opposed all moral progress that had been attempted in the world. I argue instead that the Churches, when faithful and succumbed to follow the patterns of the world, have been the continual enemies of moral regress, just as they are today.
Bertrand Russell continues his argument that the Churches oppose moral progress. In this section, he discusses two aspects of Church teaching with which he disagrees: the Church's opposition to divorce, and the Church's denial that human happiness is the basis for morality.
Bertrand Russell tries to find a reason why people are religious. His answer is that it is fear of the mysterious and death.
Bertrand Russell concludes his essay by saying that we should proceed with an unfettered and free mind, ignoring the ignorance of past thinkers. I ponder what that means.