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Why Bertrand Russell Was Not A Christian

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1996)


At the Battersea Town Hall on March 27, 1927, sponsored by the National Secular Society, Bertrand Russell delivered the famous lecture entitled "Why I Am Not a Christian." Together with other lectures about religion, it was published in a book of the same title in 1957 with a preface by Russell assuring his readers that he had not changed his opinions. He believes that Christianity, along with every other religion, is both untrue and harmful. Furthermore, in Russell's opinion the teaching of religion to children inhibits their ability to think clearly and to cooperate with others whose beliefs differ from theirs. Far from being the source of great contributions to the civilizations of the world, religion has done nothing more than help fix the calendar and provoke Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses. In Russell's words, "These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others." In short, Russell took as dim a view of religion as one can take and he claimed to have good philosophical reasons for doing so.

It should be pointed out in passing that Russell's pontifications about history have all the characteristics of the dogmatic religious narrowness and bigoted ignorance that he professed to loathe. No historian, Christian or non-Christian, would ever make the kind of simplistic assertions that Russell made. Nor should any well-read high school student be without the knowledge to refute them. How can a man of Russell's intellectual stature and education express such utter nonsense? The answer may be that Russell is to some atheists what the fundamentalist preacher is to uneducated Christians. What he provides for his followers in the National Secular Society is not enlightenment, but emotional support, a goal that, in cases where factual and logical proof are insufficient or not understood, can best be achieved by extreme rhetoric.

Russell's Approach

Setting aside Russell's remarkable views on history, we return to his reasons for rejecting Christianity. First, Russell tells us that we must define what it means to be a Christian. He is surely correct in asserting that it used to be very clear what a Christian believes, but that Christianity nowadays is rather vague. He apparently assumed that his audience would be more likely to run into the modern murky mentality and therefore chose to refute the less vigorous form of Christianity. Having defined what he means by Christianity, next Russell offers two main arguments against Christianity. First, he contends that the traditional Catholic arguments for the existence of God are inadequate. Second, he maintains that Christ was not the best and wisest of men. Either argument, if established, refutes Christianity. If God does not exist, or if Christ is inferior to, say, Socrates or the Buddha, then Christianity is not true.

As I will explain, a Christian may, in one sense, grant Russell's argument about the existence of God. Traditional Catholic arguments for the existence of God are deficient. Though the reader of his lecture may not be able to escape the impression that Russell is rather too cavalier in his dismissal of arguments that have occupied the greatest minds in Western history, the points that he makes are cogent enough, at least against the weak form of the theistic arguments he presents. Even more carefully stated presentations of the traditional arguments suffer from defects similar to those that Russell mentions.

As to Christ, Russell should have stated his case with much more vigor. If indeed Christ was mistaken on all of the matters Russell claims he was mistaken, then he was no great man at all. He was just another ancient religious quack whose name is better forgotten, whose sound ideas may be found in countless other thinkers.

But, as we will demonstrate, Russell's arguments fail. In the final analysis Russell gives us nothing more than an expression of his own irrational bias, an idea about the world which, if it were true, would obviate the very possibility of knowledge and ethics. I argue that without the Christianity he hates, Russell cannot formulate an argument for or against anything.

[ Table of Contents | Preface | Introduction | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Conclusion ]

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