The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
The goodness of Jesus, Part 3: Was Christ Moral?


Does Christianity inhibit moral progress?
Last modified on Sun Dec 3 16:40:53 2017


This is the latest post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or they don't apply to any form of theism. The first part of Russell's essay discussed the existence of God; the second part the moral character and wisdom of Jesus. Russell concludes with a number of more general issues. The first of these is to ask why so many people do believe in Christianity. Having convinced himself that there are no good rational grounds for belief, Russell searches for some irrational grounds for belief.

I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.

So begins Russell in this section. He labels the section "The Emotional Factor." It is a slightly strange beginning to a section that is mainly about supposed moral evil committed by Christians. But before I discuss that, it is worth commenting on this short statement. I see three major errors in these two sentences. Firstly, it is a false dichotomy. There is no reason why argumentation and emotion need be opposed to each other. Christianity brings with it a great internal joy and peace, but that doesn't supplant reason. Rather, it works together with reason.

One criticism that is often, rightly, levied at people such as myself who focus on the rational basis of religion is that we make God impersonal and distant, little more than a philosophical curiosity. But the Christian God is there to be experienced. He is personal, close, and calls out in friendship. Equally, there are those who focus on the experience of God and are somewhat dubious in their rationality. In some ways, that is good; reason is always built on premises which can be disputed, while experience trumps that. But no less than those who emphasise the rationality of religion, it misses out on an important part of Christianity. Jesus satisfies our whole person, both emotion and mind, and so both approaches are needed together. Ideally, this would be done by the same person. But since we all have our own strengths and weaknesses, it is more often done as a team; one partner emphasising the rational seeds of Christianity, and another the emotional harvest.

The second problem is that this statement is an over generalisation. There is not one single reason why people become and remain Christian. Yes, there are those who were just brought up in the habit of going to Church and have simply stuck with it not really knowing why; or who go to Church just for the respectability or social life. But I also know people who came to Christ through experiences of miracles or visions; who find the evidence for the resurrection overwhelming; who are impressed by the moral change they observe in others and then experience in themselves; who are uplifted by and touched by God during Christian worship; who appreciate the clear principles of Christianity as opposed to the confusion of the secular world; who appreciate the close community and loving spirit of the churches; who are drawn to the coherence, profundity and agreement with experience of Christian doctrine; who are drawn by the standard rational arguments for God such as the cosmological argument and teleological argument; others from the authority of people they respect; and there are a host of other reasons as well (including some less wholesome ones such as lust for power, influence or to save face). For me, it is a combination of several of these. But there is one thing that all Christians have in common: they are Christians because they understand the evidence to show, or at the very least strongly suggest, that Christianity is true.

This raises a problem. Christians present that evidence to atheists, and what is overwhelming to the Christian the atheist dismisses out of hand. Why is this? It is not due to difference of intelligence; there have been some highly intelligent Christians and some highly stupid atheists (and, of course, vice versa). In part, it is due to ignorance. Not meaning lack of knowledge as such, but rather lack of some particular brands of knowledge. Most atheists (not all), for example, have only a limited grasp of theistic philosophy and thus don't understand the strongest arguments for Christianity, or how a Christian would answer their objections. Most Christians (not all) have a more limited grasp of the philosophers which atheists rely on, and thus don't understand the strongest objections to theism, or how an atheist would answer their responses. When it comes to collecting evidence, once we move out of the hard sciences, there is always room for dispute. So the secularist will draw out some research paper which supposedly proves whatever anti-Christian fashion happens to be prevalent at the time, and the Christian will point out that it uses too small a sample or the sampling method is clearly biased. The Christian will pull out their own research paper, and the atheist will claim that it was insufficiently well controlled and doesn't really address the question in hand, but only some proxy variable. In reality, of course, both studies are seriously flawed, and neither should be accepted (such is the way of the social sciences).

But the main reason is that Christians come from a theistic world-view, with its own premises and definitions, and atheists from their own world-view with a different set of premises and definitions. The arguments that Christians put forward contradict the atheist premises (and are misunderstood because for the atheists, the words have different meanings), and so the atheist finds the Christian arguments implausible and dismisses them out of hand. Equally, when the Christian encounters an atheist argument, they are usually (not always) found to be laughably bad and trivial to solve; because the issue is merely a contradiction between the understanding of terms as the atheists define them, while for the theist with their slightly different definitions and mode of reasoning, there is no difficultly at all.

But isn't atheist philosophy built on science but theistic philosophy built on pre-scientific superstition? I would strongly disagree. From what I can see, it the classical philosophy behind theism, built on the fundamental principles of change and constancy, which is far more closely aligned with quantum physics than the various modern philosophies which arose from either Newtonian physics or out of date ideas about epistemology which bear little relation to how today's scientists actually proceed.

How we view the evidence depends on the assumptions we bring to it. It is easy to say that we should let the evidence -- the whole evidence -- judge our assumptions than the other way round, but much harder to do. If you look at the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus with the philosophical prejudice that miracles are impossible (ultimately arising from a set of premises that can and ought to be disputed), then you will dismiss it before you start. If you come with an open and inquiring mind, then you might well be swayed. Of course, the purpose of an open mind is that you can close it again around the truth.

Russell continues:

One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.

I would also strongly disagree that religion makes men virtuous. Certain religions are well known for leading people away from virtue. The Aztecs practised human sacrifice; the Molech worshippers sacrificed even their own children to placate their God. The warlord son of Abdullah raised followers to his religion by promising them the wealth of the tribes he conquered and their women to divide among themselves for their pleasure. We are far better off without such religions. Even if we restrict ourselves to those religions which (when honestly proclaimed) are built on good moral values, even here I would dispute that those religious rituals make the followers virtuous. That is not what Christianity teaches. Righteousness is the gift of God, and no amount of religion can help us become what we need. Good education in the virtues helps; the Holy Spirit helps more.

This means, of course, that we should not expect anyone to be virtuous just because they are prominent in some Church or another. There have been times when the Church has held great political power. And here, as in all political organisations, we should expect the scum to rise to the top. Rather, it is those who are not noticed, who do what Jesus asked and give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, aid to the sick and those in prison; they are the ones closest to Christ, not those in robes, with sticks, hats and palaces.

Russell could point to many Churchmen who were vile people. A hundred years later, and we can point to many more. I need not list examples; they are well enough known already. But it is not being men and women of the Church that makes them vile; it is that they are men and women. It is common to humanity. I can equally cite plenty of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists and agnostics who were and are utterly evil; but what does that prove? Put people in power, and they invariably abuse it in one way or another, no matter what creed they profess. It doesn't matter if that power is in parliament, the universities, or the Church.

But doesn't Christianity promise to make people better? Not quite. It promises to make those who genuinely repent, hold to the true faith (true to within the precision allowed by reasonable Biblical interpretation in matters relating to salvation), and seek to humble themselves in agape love, better. One can profess oneself as a Christian while not repenting.

But isn't this just the no true Scotsman fallacy? Then again, the Spanish Inquisition weren't, as far as I am aware, true Scotsmen. It is not Christians on trial, but Christianity. The question is whether such actions conformed with the teaching and example of Jesus. If they did, then Christianity can certainly be criticized. If not, then how can such deeds be attributed to Christianity rather than the common evil of humanity? All it would demonstrate would be that Christianity is impotent in some cases if badly practised, not that it is untrue.

But doesn't Christianity divide people into factions, and thus lead to this sort of violence? Again, people don't need Christianity as an excuse for division. The older racists divided people into racial groups, and pit one against another. The modern anti-racists do the same (one thing I notice about the anti-racist movement is that they start from mostly the same flawed assumptions as the racists; they just run with them in a different direction). Marxists divide people into classes, and imagine an eternal class war. Villages divide themselves into tribes, and wage a genuine tribal war. Politicians divide themselves into parties, and hate each other solely based on their preferred colour of rosette (certainly I see no other difference of note between Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameroon and Theresa May). People naturally divide themselves into groups. And yet, when I walk into a Church, whether catholic or evangelical, of whatever denomination, where the congregation live by solid Biblical principles and moral code, none of these things matter. They are simply not relevant.

So yes, there are divisions in the Church. But there are divisions everywhere. There are evil people in the church. But there are vile perverts everywhere. Should not the Church be better than society? But I would contend that it is better, at least once you ignore the headline-makers and go down into the local congregations. Certainly, if I visit another Church, I will respect their traditions, and only participate in the service as far as my and their consciences will permit. Such differences are important but there are also similarities which are more important. Sure, I will debate endlessly with my Roman brother about justification by faith and the veneration of the saints, but then we will go together to preach good news to the poor. The days of burning each other at the stake are long gone, and good riddance to them.

The solution, of course, is to not divide people into groups. Each person is their own individual, with their own beliefs, skills and weaknesses. Rather than artificially claiming equality, acknowledge each person and family as they are. Unity is built around recognising differences and using them to work together for a common purpose; not about pretending that people and beliefs which aren't equal are equal. The Church opposes the modern dogma of equality. But it is the Church which has its feet planted in reality; and modern society which is spinning of into fantasy. For example, society claims that men and women are interchangeable, and that there are no intrinsic differences between male and female except for the obvious biological differences. That men dominate the top reaches of the mathematical sciences and computing, and women dominate other fields such as the social sciences and education, is an anathema to such people because it conflicts with that assumption. Now, I am not saying that we should assume that there are intrinsic differences, only that we should let the evidence speak for itself. There are brilliant female software engineers and mathematicians (many better than I am). There are brilliant male nurses and nursery school teachers. But the evidence strongly seems to suggest that there are profound differences between men on average and women on average. The majority of women (not all) have skills and characters which would lead them in one direction, and the majority of men (not all) skills and characters which would lead them in another. Why should we compel women to become software developers if more of them have the talent and desire to be nurses (I am just using these as hypothetical examples)? And why compel men to be nurses when more of them have the talent and desire to be software developers? Why try to force people to go in directions they don't want to, and then proclaim discrimination the moment they don't do what you think they ought to, just in the name of some unjustified and unjustifiable concept of equality? Why not just choose the best people for each job and let nature run its course, rather than try to force it into some fantasy land?

True equality is to acknowledge that each individual man and woman is their own person, with different strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately of complementary talents which are of equal worth to society and equally needed by society. That's why I am not a feminist. Modern feminists hate the idea of a woman; they refuse to accept that a woman is worth anything unless they are judged in the same society and by the same measure as men. Equally, they hate the concept of masculinity; and try to judge men according to standards best applied to women. The Church surely gets this right: valuing men and women as different, with complimentary roles in the family, Church and business, and neither more or less important or valued than the other but each respected for what they are and the vital roles they play.

Christianity teaches that we are like a body, each a different part but working together. It recognises both of differences in gifts, abilities and calling but unity in society. Is that not better than the modern secular view, which sees us as equal in abilities, but divides us into societal groups, demanding quotas based on race and sex, but not ability and aptitude for the role in question?

That is the idea - that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic faith, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burnt as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practised upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

Really? Millions of women burnt? Most of the people holding to Christianity extremely wicked? One senses a touch of exaggeration. So let us look at his examples. The Inquisition and witch burnings were products of the Renaissance (the time when the Christian medieval tradition was neglected in favour of the more brutal pagan pre-Christian Roman tradition); which is curious because that was when the Roman Church was at its least Christian. One can only look at the abundant greed, immorality, and superstition of the medieval popes to recognise that they defied almost every aspect of Christian teaching. Why then should we be surprised that they also ignored the command to love our enemies? Of course if one were to look for the evil people of post Roman and pre-twentieth century Europe, one would find that the majority of them claimed to be Christian, simply because it was nearly impossible in that society to not claim oneself as a Christian. But judge those men by the standards of Christianity, not Christianity by the standards of those men.

Or one could cite the various attacks led by the Church; the persecution of the Arians in the fifth century, for example, or the crusades. But the persecution of the Arians was led by the state, which desired religious unity. When the Arians held the power of the Empire, the Christians were persecuted; when the Emperor professed Trinitarian Christianity, then the Arians were persecuted; before this the Empire persecuted anyone who denied the state pagan religion. It was imperial power, not Christianity, which led to the assaults.

The crusades are more complex. Ultimately, they were a belated response to four hundred years of Islamic oppression and attacks on Christendom. There were constant raids on the coasts of Europe to feed the slave markets of Tripoli. Rome itself was sacked by one raid. Christians in North Africa, Spain, Mesopotamia and the Holy Land were reduced to an inferior class and sometimes brutally persecuted, merely meant to be grateful that, unlike the Hindus and Buddhists of India, they were spared immediate execution. Now the Christian heartland of Asia Minor had just been overrun by the Turk, amidst much torture and slaughter of the native population. The Eastern Empire sent a desperate request for aid. And, after about six hundred years, Western Europe was finally strong enough to respond. The newly converted Norsemen still hungered for their traditions of war and battle.

Of course, I can't condone or excuse everything that the crusaders did; the superstition that spurred them on; the way their purpose was perverted from helping the East to pillaging it; the assaults on the Jews. But the excesses of the crusaders was opposed by the Church. The evil done at that time by the crusaders was again human, just as the evil done by the Saracens and many others before and since. It is easy for us to sit in our armchairs and condemn the crusaders. Would we have done the same after the assault they had received? Of course, once we stop ignoring the motivations of those responsible, and start trying to understand the reasoning behind their atrocities, I suspect that our modern post-Christian society would do worse.

If you want to look at the Church when it was most Christian, look back to the earliest time; the first three hundred years. Look at the persecuted Church rather than the persecuting church; the Church following the example suffering set by Jesus rather than the church following the example of torture set by Nero. You will struggle then to find any examples of inquisition or witch burning, at least committed by the Christians.

You will find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards 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 of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its Churches, has been and still is the principle enemy of moral progress in the world.

I rarely annotate the margins of my books, but the first time I read this, I did. My comment was simply, "Is he mad?" For I would say the opposite; that for close to two thousand years the Church has led moral progress (at least in the West), and that when the Church has been at its weakest, then that is when society has morally regressed, not least in the last fifty or sixty years.

Of course, what one means by moral progress depends on your view of ethics. Many people would say that the changes in society in recent years are good. But that depends on what you think makes something good. If, like the modern world, you have no objective standard of goodness, then the statement becomes irrational. To often debates in the modern world say "We must have progress," without establishing whether the change in question is progress or regress.

So let us look at a few of the examples cited (I don't have the space to discuss them all).

  1. Slavery. We should not think that our modern world is typical. Almost every civilisation in history has regarded slavery as part of the natural order. It took a lot of effort and imagination to overcome that; a lot of societal and economic inertia had to be repelled; and there are frequent temptations trying to make society revert back to that state or something similar to it. Many people desire power over others, and logical culmination of such power is to own another as a slave. Feed that desire, or neglect to actively starve it, and it will grow strong again.

    There has been no institution more persevering in its opposition to chattel slavery than the Christian church. As soon as they gained power Christians led campaigns to free and improve the conditions of slaves in the classical world. That work was undone following the barbarian invasions, but once the barbarians had been converted and settled down, the Church began again, and effectively outlawed slavery in the middle ages. In the renaissance period (when the Church was at its least Christian), there was a brief lapse, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade began. The African tribal leaders were used to selling their captives to the Muslims across the Sahara as barter; now they offered them to the newly arrived Spanish and Portuguese in their boats. The need for cheap manpower to make the New world colonies profitable (with opinion at home turning against the enslavement and treatment of the native peoples) made it a too tempting offer. But then the Church once again revived and got back to work, and repeated proclamations by the Roman Church in 1537, 1591, 1639, 1741, 1839, 1890 and so on effectively ended the slave trade in Catholic Southern Europe. In Northern Europe, the slave trade and then slavery itself was defeated by a coalition of Anglicans and Quakers, while Russell's predecessors who drifted towards secular philosophy generally sat on their hands and did nothing. It was then the colonial Empires and the might of the nineteenth century European navies which forced abolition on the wider world. Only in North America can the secularists claim some justification for Russell's claim, but even here Christian principles played a leading role in abolition. Secular philosophy always adapts to the latest fashion, and now the fashion globally (thanks to Christianity) was for abolition.

  2. War. Since when has the Church opposed efforts to prevent war? Certainly there have been church-led wars, the crusades being the obvious example, and wars fought over for religious principles, the thirty years war being again only the most obvious example. But war has been a part of human history since our earliest records. Look at the history of warfare of my own country. How many of those were caused by religion? There are a few: the crusades, the wars of the reformation, the Bishop's wars. But the overwhelming majority (and even these to a certain extent) were over grabs for land and resources, or disputes over political succession; same as in the non-Christian parts of the world. (There have, of course, been wars started to promote an atheistic ideology; the Russian revolution and consequent civil war, or Chinese civil war, or Korean war being the obvious examples).

    Christianity, at least as it developed in the Western Churches (there is a case for saying that until Constantine, Christianity was pacifist in both theory and practice), is not wholly pacifist. It sees war as an great evil, but not always the greatest evil. There are, I think, only two circumstances when wars might justly be waged: defence, either of oneself or an ally, or to intervene to prevent or at least halt a slaughter of his own people by a tyrant (something similar to the holocaust or the Rwandan genocide). Even the crusades were originally intended as a defence of the Eastern Christians against Islamic attacks (as in Asia Minor) or assaults (as in the Holy Land). There are additionally various rules to ensure that the evils of war are limited as much as possible. Admittedly, these rules are rarely followed (especially in the crusades).

    It is difficult to think of any war in history that has met the Christian just war criteria (even in the second world war, allied treatment of German and Japanese civilian populations went too far). War has existed in every culture and every part of human history. The work of the Churches in that time has been to try to ameliorate and lessen its effects. There has not been a vigorous anti-war movement (as existed since the nineteenth century, albeit with many Christian members and supporters), largely because the Church has recognised the limitations of human nature. Today's pure pacifist is tomorrow's victim of invasion and then genocide. The Christian position is surely wiser: be ready to defend yourself and others, but never be ready to attack. The Church's only failing in this regard is that its never had enough influence over the Kings and Princes and Popes of Europe to have this teaching followed.

  3. Moral progress. We have seen what Russell thought of as "progress" has led to. We no longer teach the virtues, and are surprised when people turn out to be greedy, selfish and vicious. We teach boys and girls that sex is solely for pleasure and consequence free, and are surprised when men treat women as disposable items; surprised when there are weekly sexual scandals; surprised when sexual diseases are rampant. We teach people to experiment before marriage, and are surprised when there is nobody capable of providing the stability that a family needs. We teach people that they are worth it, and are surprised that nobody is able to perform the self-sacrifice needed to live in a harmonious family. We allow divorce on a whim, and are surprised when there are single parent families trapped in welfare and child poverty and underachievement. We promote contraception, and are surprised when people's habit of promiscuity makes them unable to form stable relationships, and the birthrate drops to a suicidal level. We teach people to demand their rights above all; and are surprised when they neglect their responsibilities. We teach children that they shouldn't be bound by traditional rules and don't need to graft to achieve in life, and are surprised when they disrupt classes and ruin their own education. We teach people that to be ethical is to seek consequences which maximise the greater good, and are surprised when individual needs are ignored and there is a culture of rudeness, viciousness and bureaucratic box ticking. We teach people that the government is more important than family, and are surprised when society grinds to a halt under callous inefficiency and attempts to force individual local needs into globalised boxes. We teach people that one's worth is measured by what one owns (rather than the goodness of one's character), and are surprised when there is rampant greed and corruption. We teach people not to challenge other cultures and hate our own, and are surprised when thousands of young girls are raped and assaulted in our cities while the authorities stand back and do nothing to protect them for fear of being labelled as racist. We teach people that they have the right to do what they will with their bodies (rather than the responsibility to do good for their bodies and their children), and that they should live free of responsibilities and are not surprised when millions of innocents are murdered by the abortion industry (there is more blood on this generation than there was on Hitler). We teach people to experiment sexually, and that all types of relationships are the same, and are surprised when children are assaulted and same sex attracted individuals suffer numerous physical and mental health problems, and our parliament even hates them so much that it would legislate to deny them the counselling and support they need most.

    If this is progress, then I am glad that the faithful remnant of the Church has had no part in it. Of course it is not progress, but an undoing of eighteen centuries of genuine moral progress and reversion to pre-Christian chaos and moral anarchy. I just pray that Western civilisation turns around and comes back to sound moral principles before it collapses completely.

    And what have the Christians been doing in this time while academia and governments have been trying to force their moral regression on the world? Building schools, educating, tending the sick, supporting the poor, going out onto the streets to comfort the drunk and lonely. Not just talking about how to make the world worse, but genuinely making people's lives that bit better.

Russell's claim that the organised Church has inhibited moral progress is either historically inaccurate or begging the question. As shown in the previous post, Russell himself can rationally have no objective standards of morality. He is therefore in a poor position to judge which changes amount to moral progress and which to moral regress. There is only one means to an objective morality accessible through reason and observation, and that is the natural law ethics championed by the Church. Where Russell has genuinely identified moral progress, the Church has supported it. Where he has identified something the Church has opposed, that is not moral progress but moral regress.



Does Christianity inhibit moral progress (part 2)?


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