The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Does Christianity inhibit moral progress (part 2)?


Is fear the foundation of religion?
Last modified on Sun Dec 3 16:41:25 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. His penultimate section claims that the basis of religious belief is fear, and then goes on to suggest that science is the answer to that fear.

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.

I don't know what religion Bertrand Russell was talking about here, but it is not any that I recognise. What evidence does he have for this claim? I know of no Christian who is motivated by fear. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are plenty of reasons why a Christian might accept the religion. The most important of them being a belief that the evidence shows Christianity to be true. I did not list fear among them, because that is not something I have encountered. Go into a church. You will not find it filled with nervous, timid people who jump back in terror at every shadow.

So let us look at my own focus, classical theism. A classical theist starts with claims such as

Demonstration can be made in two ways: One is through the cause, and is called "a priori," and this is to argue from what is prior absolutely. The other is through the effect, and is called a demonstration "a posteriori"; this is to argue from what is prior relatively only to us. When an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause. And from every effect the existence of its proper cause can be demonstrated, so long as its effects are better known to us; because since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist. Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.

So a classical theist believes in God based on logic built on a set of philosophical premises and observation. The theist accepts those premises as making better sense of observation than other. This is just reason. Fear doesn't come into it.

But not all Christians are classical theists; not all classical theists are Christians, and many who are both came to Christianity first and before they adopted the philosophy (though there are also those who accepted the philosophy and then came to Christianity as the best manifestation of it). So let us take a look at the Old Testament. One again, the question is not so much whether or not these stories are true, but that they provide an example which Christians try to follow.

Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, "The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valour." And Gideon said to him, "Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, 'Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?' But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian." And the Lord turned to him and said, "Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?" And he said to him, "Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.” And the Lord said to him, "But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man." And he said to him, "If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speaks with me. Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you." And he said, "I will stay till you return."

So Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour. The meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the terebinth and presented them. And the angel of God said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them." And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes. And fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes. And the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight.

Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord.

This might seem like a strange example for me to quote; I chose it because it is closest I can think of to what Russell was citing. Gideon was certainly afraid: he was terrified of the Midianites. But that is not why he believed. He believed on account of the story he had heard about God's actions in the past, and on the basis of the signs he personally witnessed, starting (but not ending) with this fire and vanishing of the angel. And gradually, God builds up his courage until he genuinely is a mighty man of valour. And we see the same thing throughout the Old Testament: people believed in God because they were convinced by signs and testimonies that He was true.

So what about the New Testament? Again we have signs and testimony leading the way.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, 'I saw you under the fig tree,' do you believe? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

Although there are also those in the New Testament who are persuaded by reason and debate. People are confronted by the evidence for Jesus' resurrection, attracted by Christianity's conformity to the human condition, and come to believe it. Fear is never a motivation, baring the fear that you have been wrong up to that point in your life.

What about the early Church? Christians were renowned for their lack of fear under persecution. Why did they believe? I will share a couple of examples. The first one emphasises the moral character of Christians.

If, then, we are commanded to love our enemies, as I have before shown, whom have we to hate? If, when injured, we are forbidden to return evil for evil, lest we should be like our adversaries, whom can we hurt? And on this point do you yourselves be judges. For how frequently do you use violence against the Christians, sometimes at the instigation of private malice, and sometimes according to the forms of law! How often also -- not to mention yourselves -- do the common people in their rage attack us of their own accord with stones and flames! In the furious orgies of the Bacchanalians, they spare not even the dead bodies of the Christians: they draw them forth, from the resting-place of the grave, from the asylum of death; they cut in pieces, and drag asunder, corpses which cannot be recognized, and are no longer entire. But among all those, against whom such cruelties are exercised, and who are so provoked, even to death, what instance did ye ever discover, in which the injury was retaliated? Although even one night, with the aid of a torch or two, would afford abundant means of revenge, if we were permitted to return evil for evil. But God forbid that our religion should require the fires of the incendiary to prove its divine origin, or should grieve at sufferings by which its truth is tried. For if we wished to act, not as secret avengers, but as open enemies, think you that we should lack numbers and forces? As well might you say that any one nation, such as the Mauri, the Marcomanni, the Parthians themselves, or any other tribe confined to its own territory, was more numerous than the rest of the world united. We are but of yesterday, and have already filled all your empire, your towns, islands, forts, boroughs, councils, your very camp, every tribe and quarter of the city, the palace, the senate, the forum. We leave you nothing but your temples. We can calculate the number of your armies: the Christians of one province would exceed it. Even with inferior numbers, for what war should we not be ready, and fitted, when we possess such passive courage as to submit patiently to death, if our principles did not instruct us rather to be slain than to slay?

The second the success of prophecy as evidence (and you should read the whole thing rather than just this short excerpt).

But lest any one should meet us with the question, What should prevent that He whom we call Christ, being a man born of men, performed what we call His mighty works by magical art, and by this appeared to be the Son of God? We will now offer proof, not trusting mere assertions, but being of necessity persuaded by those who prophesied [of Him] before these things came to pass, for with our own eyes we behold things that have happened and are happening just as they were predicted; and this will, we think appear even to you the strongest and truest evidence.

Or we have the case of Augustine, a notable scholar, philosopher, and teacher. Abandoning his mother's Christianity as a young man, on account of what he saw as absurdities in the Holy Scriptures, he moved from one sect to another, until, finally, taking up a teaching post in Milan, he encountered a Bishop who could show how he had previously misread the Old and New Testaments, and how Christianity was in fact far more in accord with the best of the philosophers and what he had seen of human nature in his search than any other belief.

I have offered three different testimonies, and I could go on. Each of these learned Christians came to trust in God for different reasons, and yet none of them came on account of fear of death. Indeed, in those early days, and in many parts of the world today, to name yourself as a Christian was a death sentence. If you were afraid of death, then it would be the worst thing you could do. If you were afraid of defeat, then why join a movement which appeared to have the whole might of the empire against it, and did not permit its adherents to defend themselves? If you were afraid of mystery, then why join the Church instead of accepting the superficially easy but wrong beliefs of the pagans or Manicheans? It takes courage to become a Christian, and it takes courage to profess Christianity in this day.

Russell's reasons for belief just don't fit the overwhelming majority of testimonies we possess from the ancient Church to the present day.

So what was Russell's solution to this fear?

In this world we can now begin 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 that our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this a world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.

So Russell wants to replace Christian belief with science. What does he mean by "science" in this context? The findings of science? Well, certainly the the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics is very profound, but it doesn't help us address fear. Biology might be more useful in this regard, but again it doesn't answer the questions, just poses them more carefully. The best a scientist can do, if his science is done correctly, is to say "If you want this result, then you should do that." But what result should we want? Science is a method of uncovering more about the material world based on mathematical reasoning and modelling tested by empirical observations. In its scope, it is an immensely powerful tool, but there are limits to what it can do. We cannot turn science itself into a substitute for religion, because it is not as complete a system as a religion. It can only be part of a world-view, and that includes being part of a religious world-view.

Or did Russell mean the philosophy behind science? If so, he might be better placed to reach the scope that he intended. But here we run into problems as well. Which philosophy? The one behind Greek science? The one behind mechanical science? The one behind quantum physics? While all scientific philosophies share some features in common (i.e. that the experimental method is valid; that the universe is regular and can be understood; that mathematical and logical reasoning apply to the universe; and so on), there is a great deal of difference between them.

Russell had his own favoured philosophy of science, based on the mechanical principles. That didn't do him much good, because those principles have been contradicted by quantum field theory. Theists also have their favoured philosophy of science, based on the idea that God actively upholds and sustains the universe. For the theist, physics is thus a description of God's work. In this perspective, scientific explanations aren't a rival to theological explanations; scientific explanations are the theological explanations. Everything that science successfully describes is more evidence for God. From this, we can make predictions, narrowing down the possible physical theories consistent with that overall premise. And those predictions bear up very well.

So what? The atheists also have their philosophies of quantum physics, so who is to say that the theist view is correct? But that is precisely my reasoning, only taken in reverse: why should we claim that science is opposed to theism in general and Christianity in particular when there is a live option for a philosophy of science which is perfectly consistent with both.

Russell thus poses a dichotomy between science and the Church; between science and classical metaphysics. I say that we can and should have both.

So what of the other points that Russell made in this passage.

  1. If there is anybody inventing allies in the sky or imaginary friends, then they are as heretical to me as they are to Russell. In fact, they are probably closer to atheism than they are to Christianity, because such concepts arise from the same philosophical assumptions that gave us atheism (just applied in a different way). Let us leave such straw men aside if we are to come into any sort of understanding.
  2. Science has not forced its way against the Christian religion, step by step. The Church gave birth to modern science in the late middle ages. The fundamental assumptions of the scientific method were drawn from Christianity. Many subsequent developments were drawn from theistic philosophy, and many researchers were inspired by Christianity. It is only really since the start of the twentieth century when the best scientists stopped being devout Christians, which is curious because it was in the twentieth century that developments in physics contradicted the philosophical assumptions behind early twentieth century atheism. Why people still hold to that form of atheism is beyond me. That they do so while claiming to be the apostles of science is beyond absurdity.
  3. We have seen what human efforts to build a fit world to live in have led to. Stalinist Russia; Maoist China; Pol Pot's Cambodia; North Korea; Cuba; modern Venezuela. The death toll and oppression of those regimes is more than almost any other movement in history (to my knowledge only Islam is responsible for killing more political opponents; and Islam has had 1400 years, while those regimes did and are doing their damage in just a few decades). No doubt the apostles of scientism would say that "It wasn't (or isn't) done right. We can do better next time." Really? What evidence do you have that you would do better? Human nature is, at its core, corrupt. Concentrate power in the hands of a few people, as socialism demands that its followers do, and the sort of abuse of power and economic inefficiency seen in the Soviet Union is the inevitable result.

    So what about the society built by Christianity? What would that look like? We have one clear example: Western Europe, up until the start of the twentieth century. The most vigorous and successful society yet known. Our modern concepts of liberty and freedom are drawn from Christian principles. The command that rulers should not Lord over their subjects but rather be the slaves of their subjects is the bedrock of democracy, and individual liberty. The emphasis on virtue ethics over utilitarianism and an emphasis on so-called human rights is the only proven way to encourage community harmony.

    Sure, the historical record of Europe is far from perfect. I would say that those imperfections are because Christian principles were not exclusively followed.

    But isn't that just the same excuse that the socialists give? "It hasn't worked because it wasn't done right." There are, however, a few differences. Firstly, Christian principles are clearly documented, and we can see how they were violated. Kings claimed a divine right on the basis of a particular interpretation of Christianity, and then ignored everything the Bible says about how they should rule. The heretics were tortured by both sides of the reformation, ignoring everything the Bible says on how we should treat our enemies. Those who enslaved Africans and Native Americans ignored Paul's injunction not to kidnap people into slavery or that slave and master are fundamentally equal, and ignored more than a millennia of Christian anti-slavery activism and the repeated pronouncements of the Church. On the other hand, the problems caused by socialist societies, concentrating power into the hands of too few people, and removing the motivation and ability for people to improve themselves by forcing them to obey the commands of the government (even though they know more about their individual situation than the "experts" in government), are inherent to the philosophy. Secondly, and more importantly, the philosophy on which Christianity is based emphasises human weakness and corruption, and states that on our own we are bound to fall short no matter what we try. But it is because Christianity recognises that truth that it can put structures into place to limit what any single corrupt ruler can do. Russell, with his philosophy that we can build a society fit to live in, has no need for those safeguards. So he won't implement them. So his society will continue to fail.

    So why try to build a society based on Christian principles if we know that it will fail? If you try to climb the highest mountain and only get half way, you will still go further than someone who ascends a small hill. Even though we fail, we should still try.

  4. That brings me to the last point. Russell assumes without proof that science was on his side; that the sort of society he wanted to build was more scientific. But what if he was wrong? What if science in fact, correctly applied, leads to the sort of society that a devout Christian would build? I am not saying at this stage that it would. But I am saying that before making that sort of sweeping claim, he ought to offer evidence that his political and moral views are, in fact, supported by science.

    Let me offer an example. Russell believed that promoting human happiness was at the centre of ethics. He also strongly supported the ideas that led to the sexual revolution in the 1950s and 1960s. So are we happier now that we are sexually liberated? Sure, there is a cheap initial thrill to be had, but long term? Our divorce rate is soaring; there is no lasting contentment in relationships; our children are fatherless; aspirations are lower than ever; the gap, both financial and societal, between rich and poor is wider than ever; diseases are rampant; there is a culture of narcissism, rudeness, greed and misery. Putting aside the technological and medical advances (which were not the result of this breakdown in morality), are we any better off now than when chastity was the norm?

    We don't need to hypothesise. Those who have ignored the sexual revolution, and continued in chastity, are present among us. I would be willing to bet, based on my anecdotal experience, that the consistently chaste are, on average (there will be exceptions), happier than those who sleep around. We only have to look at society back when Christian virtues were the norm compared to society today.

    See this paper for some related research, albeit not quite the question I am interested in. Like all attempts to quantify happiness, it has its limitations (for example depending on subjective judgements of happiness), and like all studies of correlation it can't distinguish between cause and effect. Nonetheless, it shows a correlation between a monogonous relationship and happiness, as one would expect if the promises of the sexual revolution are false.

    The only study I am aware of that compares happiness to chastity this one. It comes to the unsurpising (unsurprising to me; surprising to those who adopt secular values) conclusion that delaying sexual activity until marriage improves relationship satisfaction and sexual happiness. However, this study again has its limitations. Measures of happiness are subjective; it is not truly longitudinal; the sample it uses is not randomly selected and therefore might well be biased; there might be bias and dishonesty in the answers people gave to the questions; it only addresses the issue of current status and not how one behaved leading up to marriage. Nonetheless, it remains the best research we have. We are just left with the common regret that social scientists seem to be incapable of performing good research. At the moment, then, the best research, albeit very flawed but still the best we have to go on, is consistent with the Christian view of sexual morality and inconsistent with Bertrand Russell's.

    So the science on this question isn't very good, but what there is supports the Christian (and not only Christian) contention that to live a fulfilled life one should avoid sexual intimacy until marriage, and remain faithful to that partner. Of course, there is more to it than this: both parties must be virtuous in other areas as well. It is difficult to judge cause and effect from statistical correlation. Are people happier because they are chaste and virtuous, or are happy people more likely to be chaste and virtuous.

    There are, of course good medical and philosophical reasons why promiscuity makes it harder for us to find happiness in lasting relationships.

    So while Russell was right in saying that we should build our society in part on scientific principles, he was wrong to suppose without evidence that that would necessarily lead us away from Christian principles. His history of conflict between science and the Church is well known to be an illusion. His proposed conflict between a scientific society and a Christian society may well be equally delusional.



What must we do?


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