A Critique of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian

Bertrand Russell, in a lecture titled “Why I am not a Christian,” states the following:

“We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time towards a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.”

Reading Russell is always enormously fruitful, not only because of his beautiful use of language (he won the Nobel Prize in literature), but also because of the cogency of his arguments and his great influence on so many philosophers and thinkers after him (as well as popular culture). This particular essay is one of his most optimistic writings, and has provided a strong outline that has been greatly elaborated on by Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others, which I think makes it foundational in current western thought to some extent. I do not find this piece as logically strong as his Problems in Philosophy, or his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. As a side note, I must say I find it funny that he mentions how we should not look back all the time to a past that is dead, and speaks about “words uttered long ago by ignorant men,” yet he wrote an extensive History of Western Philosophy—I consider his to be one of the best ever written. His writing of that tome is evidence that he thought not all men of long ago were ignorant, nor that history was a fruitless subject of inquiry (and it even helps us progress as a society to look back to history).

Russell’s claim that the concept of God is derived from Oriental despotisms seems to me to be historically inaccurate—people all over the world and throughout all of history have believed in gods, even a supreme God, regardless of their cultural heritage, political and societal organization, or the “progress” of their civilizations—think of Amerindians or Celts who had these conceptions outside of Oriental despotism. If we push back in time to the beginning of theistic religion, we go back before written history, and if all humans everywhere had a common origin, we come to a time where (if we ignore later histories and accounts) we cannot know which came first, despotism or belief in a god. If we do not ignore later histories and accounts, belief in gods came before despotism. This thought of Russell’s seems to me to be based more on his views of the progress of humans (that we are becoming more enlightened, and thus ought to give up our outmoded beliefs from the past) than on the actual history of human civilization.

The idea of god not being a concept worthy of free men also seems to beg the question—what do we mean by “free men”? Do individuals in the classical Greek and Roman world not count as free men (and did they not by and large believe in gods)? It seems to me that if a man is free (and his intelligence is free), he is free to believe in a god or not to believe.

If by “free men” we mean people who do not have this concept of god, then Russell is perhaps not a free man (he does, after all, have the concept of god as shown by his words, so either he is doing something unworthy of a free man by having this concept, or he is not a free man). If he is a free man, but having unworthy thoughts (thoughts concerning God), he should stop having those thoughts. If the conception that is unworthy is that we are sinners and should fear god, then it is not the concept of a god that is unworthy of a free man, but that particular concept of a god (who judges sinners). But most believers in gods throughout history (including today) do not have this concept of God—Russell is concerned here primarily with monotheists in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions. But why actively disbelieve in the other gods, or in a supreme god other than the god of Jews, Christians and Muslims? More to the point, why is it more free to disbelieve?

Russell here posits what he terms “intelligence” as what is needed for progress in society, for it to be less bad, less fearful, etc. But why must intelligence be antithetical to belief in a god? Most philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, etc. have been theists of some variety—are/were they not intelligent? If there actually happens to be a god or gods, then the intelligence of these men and women would not be greater by denying it (you would think they would be more intelligent for believing in a god if he did in fact exist). “Free intelligence” does not entail lack of belief in god. Intelligence is a rhetorical device here—the thought seems to be that you either have free intelligence, or you have belief in god (but not both). Russell is not merely saying that free intelligence, free inquiry is something that we should push for, and we should include the belief in god or disbelief in god as part of that freedom, but that the two are somehow opposed to one another, so that our fear of a god will logically disallow us from free intelligence.

However, Socrates had a free intelligence (and was killed for it), yet he believed in a god (and feared him). We might make a syllogism of this:

  1. Socrates was intelligent.
  2. Socrates’ intelligence was free.
  3. Socrates believed in a god.
  4. Socrates feared the god that he believed in.

Therefore, free intelligence is possible alongside belief in a god that is to be feared.

If all of the premises above are true, then the conclusion must be true as well, and in that case, Russell’s argument is false (or I have misunderstood his argument, which is always a possibility). To overcome this problem, Russell would have to either a) not claim that free intelligence and belief in god are antithetical (as he appears to here), or b) disagree with one of the premises above. If I were to guess, if this second route were taken he might dismiss premise 2 (Socrates’ intelligence was free). But in this case, Socrates’ belief in a god caused him to be charged with atheism (because of what he believed about the supreme god, even though he seemed to still believe in the Greek gods), and thus he showed the freedom of his intelligence by believing in a god (and even by fearing him). I do not think there is a way out of the premises above, or the conclusion—free intelligence might allow for belief in a god (and even fear of that god) given the example of someone like Socrates.

One problem is that if a god exists as a fact, and someone believes that fact, they may be intelligent because they believe that fact—free intelligence is not freedom from facts. The question is whether or not such a god exists: if he does, and a person seems to be justified to believe it, their free intelligence should be allowed to lead them in that direction. If a person seems to be justified to disbelieve in a god (whether a god exists or not in fact), their free intelligence should be allowed to lead them in that direction. Free intelligence, the existence of a god and the belief in that god are not paradoxical even in the same person, and I think that they entail no logical contradictions.

But Russell seems (throughout the essay) not merely to focus on individual freedom of thought, but societal allowance of “free intelligence.” To that, I wholeheartedly agree with Russell—I think a better society would result from people allowing for divergence of belief in a god and encouraging free thought on that and other issues. We ought to question theism, just as we ought to question atheism and skepticism. We all ought to believe what we seem to be justified believing, and to disbelieve what we seem to be justified in disbelieving. At that point, we are left with the facts and our justifications—these are the rightful data which free intelligence may then work upon. Then the argument is no longer about intelligence, fear, etc., but what actually seems to be the case—what are our justifications for believing in a god (or for actively disbelieving, as does Russell, or even for passively not believing, as seems to be the case in some forms of agnosticism)?

If there is in fact a god, and if we are indeed justified to believe that, and if in fact this god is a god that should be feared and that will judge all according to their actions in this life, then free intelligence might be free to believe this and act upon it. Free intelligence might not be free from fear, it should not be free from facts, and it need not be free from belief in god.

 

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