This is  a reflection on Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian: and Other Essays on Religion and Related Topics, published by Simon and Schuster 1957.

            In all fairness, Russell could have titled the essay “Why I’m not a Certain Type of Christian”. He does speak to a very particular type of Christian that for his purposes just calls ‘Christian’. His ‘Christian’ would have the belief characteristics of 1) believing in God and an immortal soul, and 2) that Jesus was at least the ‘best and wisest of men’. 
            Thank goodness that we’ve come so far since 1957! Now there are plenty of examples of Christians and Christian movements with widespread acceptance who believe neither Russell’s first or second requirement. These Christians are non-theistic or non-supernatural and are pluralistic in the sense that Jesus is but one of the wise teachers among many. But when reading Russell, we should keep in mind that he’s speaking of a certain type of Christian believer-a type that certainly does not speak for all Christians today.
             This can lead to an interesting question, however: what is a Christian? How a person answers this, says a lot about them whether they are Christian or not. If a non-Christian and they answer something like: “A Christian is a prudish hypocrite who is backwards, ignorant, hateful, and bigoted.” They are operating under really misguided pretenses. It is also most interesting to ask Christians, I find. Getting beyond the easy answers of “Whoever has welcomed Christ into their heart.” and the sort will usually open doors to mutual understanding.

            Russell begins to examine the ‘arguments for God’s existence’ and the way that he undertakes this project (although he repeatedly states that he wishes to be short and focused and not give too much time discussing them) of course leaves something to be desired. A good mind will always reflect on the best of the counter arguments, not set up easy targets to knock down. But something must be noted, I think, that Russell does not mention about these types of arguments. They reflect a particular type of Christianity that is dying out. ‘Rational’ arguments for God’s existence or the ‘way God is or the type of God that is’ are only used by those who believe that they have the answers to religious questions and are trying to change other people’s minds. Obviously, there is no strictly “rational” argument for God or sensible and thinking people would be knocking down Church doors-they will always require and come back to “but you must have faith…open your heart and pray on it, God will show Himself to you…these arguments only show that God can be loved with your mind as well as your heart, but you must get rid of your sinful dispositions and then the arguments will fall into place.” So for a person to grab onto these in their ‘evangelistic’ efforts really are pseudo-intellectuals who are claiming to have mystic or magical knowledge that is privileged and can see the truth in a way that others cannot. These types of arguments also reflect a type of Christian who has given up on the thought of their God doing wonders and miracles. There are no miracles, and they have at least resolved to understand that and have retreated to modernist ‘thought’ to prove their God exists. Alas, there are no more Elijahs or Elishas.

A) The first cause argument. Russell decides to come back with the “But then what caused God? If you say nothing, couldn’t you have stopped with the universe being caused by nothing?” line. This works, I guess, but it still I suppose someone could say “But God is immaterial. And He is ultimately love-this is quite different than material causations being backtracked.” I must wonder how much this argument relies on a “Creation From Nothing” or creatio ex nihilo perspective. People will say “What? Do you think that everything just ‘poof’ appeared? Something came from nothing? The big bang theory is-God spoke and ‘bang’ it happened!” I think that maybe Russell and Christians alike are playing to a creatio ex nihilo thought. Why couldn’t there have always been energy in different forms, many universes in flux and change, etc. Even a reading of Genesis shows that God didn’t create the world from nothing, but from waters which he then really just gathered up to reveal the land. The earth was just ‘formless and void’-God was more of an organizer than magic maker. So that is all to say, there doesn’t need to be a ‘first cause’ from what I’ve seen. There’s no reason why there couldn’t have always been ‘change’.

B)The natural law argument. Russell does point out that this argument has fallen away with the shared space of Newtonian with Einsteinian physics. What is important in my estimation here is Russell’s distinction of ‘Human Laws’ and ‘Natural Laws’. He writes, “Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which way you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave, and being a mere description of what they in fact do….As we come to modern times they [arguments from natural law] become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.” This statement has come so terrifyingly true in a number of oppressive ways. What seems to naturally happen is that social powers try to shift their cultural understandings into the ‘natural laws’ category to create a stronghold of their own cultural power. This can be true of pseudo-sciences/bad science as well as totalitarian governments, or oppressive anti-humanistic sects. 

C) The argument from design. Russell quotes Voltaire’s parody of this argument by his pointing to the nose as being designed to hold up one’s eyeglasses. This is not the worst of it. I have personally seen an evangelical tract that listed the banana’s “design” as being made by God to be easily opened by the human hand. When I read this, I wondered how orange’s whose peels are nearly impossible to remove and have almost ripped by fingernails off in the process of peeling figured into this God’s design. The problem with this thought is that in our time when humanity must realize a less hubristic stance in the world, some design thought is so anthropocentric. Things and indeed the entire world is designed for us-look at it! Ray Comfort is the master of this third grade reasoning. “Look at that building!” he’ll say. “Did someone make it?…….Well look at the beautiful rainbow, waterfall, kitten, and puppy. Do you think they happened by accident?” You’ll hear people say, “If you found a watch on the beach-do you think that it was an accident, or was there a ‘watchmaker’?…..What about a tornado blowing metal together to make a 747 jet? Hmmmm?” What I would wonder is why doesn’t Ray Comfort just point at dust on the ground and ask “Did someone make that?” because that’s really his argument. He begins with a building because building have use, meaning, they are cultural artifacts that make sense to us. He then makes the jump to other ‘naturally’ occurring things that we know and understand (kittens, etc.) and conflates the two types of things. What Comfort is really saying is ‘anything that exists has design-it has been designed by an intelligence that is in the market of creating things for us.” So he should just say it, instead of trying to trap people in a shell-game like parlor room trick only interesting enough to capture the imaginations of those who’ve already come to the same conclusions smugly. 
             So we’ve seen a rise in the ruse of ‘intelligent design’. Isn’t this a tautology? What is ‘design’ but that which has a purpose and is constructed? So if they were honest, they’d just say “Designed universe for humans”. What there really is, which we can be pretty sure about is ‘Stuff’. Matter and energy which we have given meaning to: ‘lifeforms-good’. ‘Rainbows-pretty’.
And they’ll say: “Do you know the chances of life occurring? Infinitesimal! Earth was made for life!” Well, out of a vast universe (which could be one of many) that life occurs on at least one planet (verdict still out on Mars) is not too surprising. And as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, Earth was built well for death. Any nominal understanding of the fossil record shows that Earth’s history is a slaughterhouse of failures at life.

D) Moral argument for God. Russell comes from the line of “do the moral laws precede God? Or did God arbitrarily choose that murder in cold blood is bad?” This is a fine way of coming at it, but I think that it is instructive also to see how humanity’s ideas of what is acceptable, “moral”, ethical, or the best for our species and the world have changed so drastically. Just a look at Christian expectations of ‘correct behavior’ and “morals” in America over the past 50 years will show a great variance and transformation. This reveals that “morals” are really just social creations that are trying to articulate values that they understand as being the best for their specific cultural context. Its no mistake that these also often are power moves of cultural hegemonies-heteronormative, patriarchal, classist. What I feel this can be an inroad to is to look to how our religious traditions have changed and be proud of the progress we have made.  

E) Argument from ‘justice’. Russell writes that a popular reason for believing in God is “the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you.” Its interesting that this ‘justice’ argument has in the past played out to picture a God who will rectify injustices with ‘heaven or hell’. This argument, the ‘need for justice’ in the universe is more a statement about the interest and character of God than the existence of God.

 

These arguments as portrayed by Russell were possibly appropriate for their time (1957) and his response was culturally contextual also. That was 1957. We can put these petty arguments and ‘counter arguments’ aside. I’m sorry that I had to comment on them, and I’ll be the first to admit that I had to resort to caricaturing the voices of not very compelling argumentations. That’s the nature of that kind of discourse and why we need to put them behind us.

              We can look to the Argument For the Remedying of Injustice to reflect on Liberation Theology and how Christians, faith people, and atheists are becoming integrated in communities of social action to create justice on Earth today. We can see the heart of what created this argument in the first place: the desire to see the oppressed and marginalized brought to full wholeness in their human dignity and availed the same privileges and rights. It is now not an Argument for Remedying Injustice to Prove That God Exists that Christians and non-Christians are talking about. Its “Here’s How We Can Work For Justice Together-For All Creation.”
              Instead of moral arguments, can find shared values. The empty moralizing discourses that occur around us everyday are often “Rah Rah” cheers for our own cultural understandings. When we stop to look at the values underlying those, we can see that we share a lot in common with many we’d previously seen as “other”.
               Christians of all stripes and non-Christians and especially atheists can now save their breath arguing and debating with each other. Its really uninteresting. We know that in our world today, we see that actions matter. The values that guide those actions can be widely understood and don’t need to be reduced to divisive and condescending language. We can move forward much better as a nation and world the more that we stop trying to be right and begin understanding and putting humble inclusive solutions to work.

                 What kind of God do you want? One who requires you to dominate others with your keen arguments and prideful (and 96% wrong) understandings of the mysteries of life?
                 What kind of Christian do you want to be? What kind of person of faith-Muslim, Sikh, Wiccan, do you want to be? What kind of atheist do you want to be? If your answer is ‘one who is right and can convince others of their wrongness’, I’m sorry to hear that. If its: ‘One who makes justice, expands love and service, and with vulnerability and compassion nurtures universal community’, count me among you.

      In part two of my response to Russell, I’ll speak to his critique of Jesus.

 

 

Ryan McGivern

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