I am writing this because I believe that Bertrand Russell misunderstood many of the central dogmas of the Christian faith. I understand that Bertrand Russell is much more intelligent than I am and/or ever will be. And I will not attempt to argue otherwise. It seems ever so childish of me to go on this purge of his wonderful collection of essays, Why I am Not a Christian. Might I add, not even collected by him. I have most likely not even comprehended some of his claims. Despite this, I think it is helpful to practice our commitment to free speech even if it is guided by selfish motives or a sense of arrogance that I can disagree with such a renowned philosopher. But I can.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason for the vast anti-theistic writings in the world today is because people haven’t completely understood the nature of Christianity. I was someone you could call a fundamentalist reformed evangelical up until a little over two years ago. And I think myself grounded in my atheistic beliefs, or even agnostic beliefs. I don’t believe these two to be very different from each other. And because of this I think that I have somewhat understood the teaching of the Bible.
I was Christian most of my life, fully convinced of it’s truthfulness. I identified with more Reformed teachings of the Bible, which meant that I was leaning Calvinist. And as a Calvinist I believed in the five points of the TULIP, one of them being Unconditional Love, the doctrine that the sheep of Christ may never fall away because of the fierceness of God’s love for them. Despite this I did “fall away” from “God’s love” and whole-heartedly disagree with many central dogmas of the Bible. This is one of the reasons why I picked up this book. I remember Sam Harris saying that it was very helpful for him. Which in retrospect I can’t believe he actually said. How can this book be helpful against the debate against religion? I am still trying to figure out how atheists expect me to believe that.
In Russell’s case I think that he has confused the perversion of the church with actual teachings of the Bible. One could argue that there is no such thing as “teachings of the Bible” but that all is made up by people. I would like to stress that you can not win an argument against a position without first considering it’s truthfulness. And so I consider the fact that the Bible makes truth-claims that are intrinsically distinct from people and are God-given. This helps because it starts a conversation from mutual grounds with the classic conservative evangelical/roman-catholic. It could also, however, be pointed out that not all Christians agree with this basic claim that Christianity is solely a construct of God, but that people were also authors and that God used them for this purpose. That is not the position I will be arguing from or for/against in this blog.
I will go through some of the statements that Russell makes in this blog and try to address them and my issue or agreement with them in this short blog. This short blog will be dealing with one specific area, mainly three claims that are related to faith.
“It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.” (p.47)
I wanted to begin with this one. It is very ironic and sad that Bertrand Russell would write this. We should ask the question in response: What golden age are you talking about? This statement was written in 1930 and the 2nd World War started in 1939. Nonetheless, I agree that the World Wars were not the result of Secularism. I do not want to propose this. I would like to suggest a different “golden age”. Russell did not stress that there was a philosophy of living, mainly The American Dream, that we needed to dismiss before we get to that “threshold of a golden age”. We need to come to our evolutionary roots where small communities: family and friends are of the most essence to personal well-being.
So first we need to define what the “threshold of a golden age” is. Secondly we need to discuss whether a Christian faith is harmful. Which in some mainstream Atheist circles is not believed. In comparison with Islam, Sam Harris continuously points out the obvious, that Christianity is less damaging to society, since most of it’s claims are propagating the Golden Rule. Whereas Islam propagates fear. Earlier on in the book, Russell makes the claim that Christianity also proliferates fear, “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear” (22). He does not clarify whether this is specific to Christianity or whether there are tiny distinctions between religions, one think is certain: there is a place where “the wicked” are thrown into a “blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:50); where the “fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43). Before we argue otherwise, Christianity in particular, has these vivid examples of Hell where I am going. It is deeply unsettling, because this was the prime motivator for hundreds of years for people to go to Heaven. No doubt it is a motivator today.
It must be pointed out that the Golden Rule is misdirected in practice. In theory it could nonetheless work. I agree with Russell that many of the core and seemingly essential values of the Christian faith such as love, purity, peace, gratefulness, etc. are unfortunately misdirected. They are misdirected because they are grounded in a selfishness. How often do we see Christians who hide behind this masquerade of the “fruits of the Spirit” only to be secretly either proud or sexually active or struggling with insecurity. Or bragging about their unique spiritual gifts, when in fact they just parade their pride. Christians are not content people. They can not be. Christians that are content people find contentment in “worldly things”. Understand that if you were indeed living as Jesus wanted you to, to “cut off your hand” and “gauge out your eye” when your sexual biological impulses are “tempting” you, you would be living in excruciating mental pain. And that is why Martin Luther went insane. If you take this teaching to it’s fullest realization, you will come out a completely mentally unstable person. You can not argue with this. Not in today’s world. But if you only half-heartedly believe this, you come to be happy — because you are actually secular: “[B]ecause you are luke-warm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelations 3:16).
“God and immortality, the central dogmas of the Christian faith, find no support in science.” (p.50)
Christianity is not observable and so it is hard to question it. If something is hard to question it must mean that we must accept it by faith. I begin with what I agree with in this statement (the quotation). Faith-based religion has to be wrong. There is no possible way that God does not desire the rationale yet desires the heart only. Was it not Jesus himself who said that we should love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37)? Was it not Solomon that devoted thousands of proverbs to wisdom, and he was supposedly the most intelligent, or “wise”, man that ever lived up until Jesus came. What an overstatement. Just this one claim proves how out-dated the Bible must be. How naive would we have to believe that a man living before they discovered basic mathematic principles (such as the Pythagoreans), or basic laws of logic and politics (such as Aristotle and Plato), or basic concepts of well-being (such as the Stoics and Confucius), or an understanding of the physics of the world (Newton), or a grasp of expository preaching (such as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Luther) — that this man would be more intelligent than these men alone? What would we have to say about the current workers on Artificial Intelligence at Google or Facebook? Are they less intelligent than Solomon? And what is there to prove his intelligence? Little to no historical background.
To get back to my main point, I ask, if men such as Bertrand Russell can not observe the proof that religion, in this case Christianity, offers, then why should I agree with such an ideology. It is however possible that Russell has preconceived bias against Christianity. I personally do not believe that I possess such bias, but that also could be hidden bias. I must say that my bias is that I prefer to not be a Christian and I have many logical reasons why. However, many of my Christian friends and social circles are better people than my atheist ones. I do from time to time prefer to be with more sensitive people. Who knows if this correlation between faith and character is a coincidence. There has been research conducted on this and I could get into this in later blogs.
Now let me start with what I disagree with in this statement. I do not find it necessary for God to be proved by science. What science? In my limited understanding, and I am not a scientist, but if I were to ask a scientist what science is, they would no doubt answer that it is a system that observes physics, biology, chemistry. It is an observation of the physical — not the meta-physical. Now the problem is that both God and immortality are separate from time and space and hence it is arguable that he is unobservable. Which comes back to our initial dilemma: Is belief alone required for a saving, Christian faith? And if so, then what is the point of discussing any apologetics? If you can not persuade someone of religion, then why argue for it in the first place?
But in the end, the fact that science does not prove that God or immortality are real doesn’t very much negate the reality of the Christian faith. And it wouldn’t be a strong argument against a Christian to be honest. Science is the observation of the natural not the super natural. The bigger question is whether it is possible to persuade a soul of the existence of God. And the Bible presupposes that everyone has a belief in the unseen God pre-saving faith (Romans 3), which couldn’t be further from the truth in today’s world.
“And everybody who has ever to do with children knows that a suitable diet does more to make them virtuous than the most eloquent preaching in the world.” (p.40)
It’s as if Russell believes in this classic misunderstanding that preaching makes someone virtuous. This is NOT the teaching of the New Testament and most certainly not the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 13:13). You wouldn’t be able to argue this stand point from the Old Testament itself. Isaiah says: “You hear with your ears, but you don’t really listen” (Isaiah 42:20).
In the classic understanding of scripture the human is the one that sows and God is the one that plants the seed. And we come to our main paradox: what is the point of preaching, then? That is the ultimate dilemma. And Paul wrestles with that quite a lot in Romans. Especially in Romans 9. It’s an interesting read, yet also extremely perplexing. I want to write a blog on my issues with the Christian concept of Hell and I will want to get into Romans 9 in that. But for now let us summarize it briefly.
Theologians from John MacArthur, John Piper, to Martin Luther and John Calvin have discussed this topic and no one can come up with an answer to whether God is unfair in his giving of saving faith. It is a mystery. I believe this to be unacceptable. There shouldn’t be a mystery this large and central to the core teaching of an ideology: salvation is by faith through grace alone.
I will continue with some other claims in later responses.
I mainly wanted to deal with these three claims because they are all interconnected, there were some more that were related to this. But I chose to keep this one short.