British polymath Bertrand Russell was the Richard Dawkins of his day: a kind of freelance professional atheist. In 1952 a now defunct publication called Illustrated Magazine commissioned but did not publish an article from him called “Is There a God?”
This article is a shorter version of a well-known talk Russell gave to London’s National Secular Society in the Battersea Town Hall on March 6, 1927, published as “Why I Am Not a Christian.” As usual, Russell is lucid and casually convincing.
In the article, he makes the neglected point that “the immense majority of mankind accept the prevailing opinion of their own community” — so there, freethinkers! (Of course, Russell himself could be seen as simply riding shotgun on the opinion of his own atheist, freethinking circle of Oxbridge dandies.)
So — Why was Russell not a Christian?
He starts by asking the sensible question: “What is a Christian?” As you may have noticed, even Christians don’t agree on this one. There’s naked disagreement on this point as far back as the Gospels and Ch. 15 of the Book of Acts: the Jerusalem council shows Paul and James (Jesus’ brother) at odds over the non-trivial point of whether a Christian had to be a Jew. (Paul won: we don’t.)
Speaking in the 1920’s, Russell complains that people are “a little more vague” than they should be. He settles on three points: Christians believe in God, immortality and that the human Jesus was “the very best and wisest of men.” (In fact, Muslims and Deists believe this last point; Christians believe Jesus was both human and divine.)
He then proceeds to take on our old friend Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Theologians of the 18th century and finishes up with a 19th century-style assault on the Church. His objections are hardly new: Hume, Voltaire, Freud and Draper got there first. But he still thinks they’re right.
(1) God – Catholics, says Russell, believe that the existence of God can be proved by unaided reason. There have been many such arguments, but he thinks only one “still has weight with philosophers”: Aquinas’ first argument, known as the First Cause or Prime Mover, which he finds absurd. Why must there be an uncaused Causer? What caused Him? “The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.” (Although Russell’s imagination must have been powerful indeed: just try to imagine infinity.)
Next, he engages the argument championed by Newton and Descartes, among many others, who argue that the existence of natural laws reveals a kind of divine intelligence at work. Russell says these laws are either arbitrary, in which case God is no better than chance, or they have a cause, which is higher than God — leading to the same logical problem as the First Cause, above.
What’s more, science has moved on from Newton, and subatomic physics shows a universe whose natural laws aren’t laws at all but statistical probabilities. Our world is more like a casino than a library, and natural laws “are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance.”
In his Battersea lecture, Russell takes on the so-called “argument from design,” which is still extremely shrill. His objection is that people are not so perfect as to make him think they were created by God. People adapt to conditions, not the obverse. “It has been one of the defects of theologians at all times to over-estimate the importance of our planet.”
[to be continued …]