Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian was originally a lecture given to the National Secular Society in 1927. It was published as part of a collection of essays of the same title in 1956. That should immediately warn the reader about the works limitations. It is not possible in a single lecture to give an in-depth discussion of the numerous points that Russell wants to skim over, or be as rigorous as one would expect in an academic paper. Secondly, he was speaking to a friendly audience, and thus perhaps a little more jovial in style than he would have been had he been defending his position to a congregation of Jesuits. But, nonetheless, he was still one of the best minds of his era, and his arguments form a cogent summary of views which he could have fleshed out in more detail had he desired. We should expect his work to be a broadly accurate representation of what he believed, albeit lacking in many of the finer points of detail.
Russell's views on religion at first glance seem to be ambiguous. He said that in public he was an atheist, and in academia an agnostic. What he meant was that he did not believe that he could completely disprove the existence of God through reason. An analogy might be the cosmologist who might accept in private that general relativity could be experimentally disproved -- it is always possible that some future experiment might deviate from theory by a smidgen well below our current precision -- but in public would not air these doubts, and say that general relativity is correct until scales where quantum effects become important, since the degree of uncertainty is so small that it makes no practical difference to anyone. People would be far more likely to be mislead if Russell said he was an agnostic in public than if he claimed to be an atheist, since his position was far closer to atheism than the popular conception of agnosticism as someone who feels that both sides have roughly equal weight.
Russell was born in 1872, and studied mathematics and philosophy in Cambridge from the 1890s. He shot to worldwide renown for his work on the foundations of mathematics, which he began in the late 1890s, and culminated in his 1903 Principles of Mathematics, and his Principia Mathematica published with Alfred Whitehead from 1910 to 1913. In these works, Russell developed the symbolic expression of logic (mimicking mathematical notation) that continues to dominate analytical philosophy. He also critiqued the older Aristotelian logic. He was appointed a lecturer at Cambridge in 1910, although he lost it briefly due to his conscientious objection during the first world war. After a period of travelling in Russia and China (where he was one of the first to observe the problems with the communist government in Moscow), he returned to Cambridge, where he began to work on the philosophy of science. And that is the point we find him when he gave this lecture.
Why I am not a Christian is divided into fifteen sections, each lasting about a page of text. After an introduction, he defines what he means by a Christian, and then spends a little time on the major arguments proposed for the existence of God: the first cause argument, the natural law argument, the argument from design, and arguments from morality and justice. He then turns to the person of Christ, first using the teachings of which he approved to label Christians as hypocrites, and then to discuss aspects of Christian belief which he found to be profoundly immoral. He then turned to what he felt the real reason why people professed belief in Christianity as an emotional crutch and how religion was founded on fear, and followed up by proclaiming how Christianity has retarded progress. Finally, he urged his followers to replace Christianity with intelligent (by which he meant materialistic) thought.
Now it should be obvious from this brief summary that these are the same talking points we see from today's popular atheists. Russell's work remains hugely influential. Certainly, the arguments are fleshed out more by modern writers, as they would be: a book will always contain more detail than a twenty page essay. But on the other hand, Russell is to be commended for his ability to keep things concise (a skill I regret I don't have), explaining in a short essay what modern writers take an entire book over.
I will not be anything like as concise. My intention in this series of posts is to go over Russell's essay section by section, and use that as a springboard to introduce various aspects of my own philosophy and beliefs. Russell's essay is good because he asks many of the right questions. It is bad because he gives mainly wrong answers.
So, in the next article, I will begin by discussing the definition of Christianity.
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