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Why Bertrand Russell Was Not A Christian

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1996)

Responding to Russell on God

Russell's Arguments against God's Existence

Russell briefly explains and then refutes in order the following five arguments for the existence of God: 1) the first cause argument, 2) the natural law argument, 3) the argument from design, 4) the moral argument, 5) the argument for the remedying of injustice. As I said above, he has not chosen to refute the best forms of these arguments, but a man of Russell's ability should be able to respond effectively even to the most sophisticated presentations, for the proponents of these arguments do not usually regard them as airtight proofs. These arguments are merely said to point to the probability of God's existence or the reasonableness of faith in God.

Russell's five arguments belong to three basic types of arguments for the existence of God: cosmological, teleological, and moral. Cosmological arguments argue that the universe must have been caused and that the cause is most likely God. Teleological arguments argue that the order men observe in the world cannot be accidental and, therefore, suggests design by God. Moral arguments come in various types. Russell deals with two, one which contends that God must be the source of moral standards and the other which argues that the moral injustice of history must be rectified by a post-historical judgment.

Russell's objections to the traditional arguments are neither original nor particularly profoundly stated. Concerning the cosmological type of argument Russell states, in essence, that if Christians can believe in a God who needs no cause, he can believe in a universe that needs no cause. To the teleological arguments he answers that the world does not need a law-giver to have laws, nor is the order in the world impressive when one considers the problem of evil. Moral arguments fail too, in Russell's opinion, because there must be a standard for good and evil apart from God in order to affirm God's goodness, but if there is such a standard, then men do not need God for morality, but the standard itself. Russell could have added that even if the traditional arguments for God were accepted, they would only demonstrate the probability of the existence of some kind of a god, which is still a long way from proving the existence of the Triune Personal God of Christianity.

Finally, in a concluding argument against Christianity, Russell asserts "Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you about are not what really moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason." He adds a second reason, "the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you." Again, he writes near the end of the essay, "Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death." According to Russell, then -- and this seems to be the most important point actually -- belief in God is not a rational enterprise. People believe out of habit or fear, but they have no adequate intellectual basis for their faith.

Traditional Approach Wrong

What should a Christian say to all this? In the first place, we should admit that the traditional approach is wrong. Christians should not be attempting to prove the existence of God to unbelievers as if both Christians and non-Christians alike could address this question from a neutral perspective. In the nature of the case, intellectual discussions about God are not ethically neutral. Ironically, there is a sense in which Russell himself seems to understand this point better than some Christians. He suggests that Christians are irrational in their faith, believing, as it were, in spite of better knowledge. In Russell's view something other than the strictly intellectual issues, either fear or a desire for security, determines the Christian's faith.

But this is precisely what the Bible teaches about the unbeliever. According to the Bible, the unbeliever is not intellectually neutral and objective. He is irrational, unbelieving in spite of better knowledge. In his heart he knows that God exists, but he rejects Christianity out of fear, especially the fear of death which is ultimately a fear that God will judge his sins. For the unbeliever, eliminating God from the world is the way to obtain security. Arguments against God are motivated by the unbeliever's wish to believe that he is ethically normal and that the apparent unfriendliness of the universe, summed up in the inescapable fact of death, is not a testimony against his sins. Terrified of death, the non-Christian seeks to justify himself in the face of it, some denying that it has any special meaning, others asserting that it will be a wonderful experience. All of this manifests what the Bible is speaking of when it says that sinful man hates God (Rom. 8:7).

When, therefore, a Christian argues with an unbeliever about the existence of God, he is not engaging in a neutral discussion. From the unbeliever's perspective it is more like a personal attack. From the Christian's perspective it is seeking the salvation of a man who is blind and lost. Neither side is or can be neutral, so the traditional approach to apologetics, insofar as it assumes or recommends neutrality, cannot honestly represent the Christian position.

Indirect Approach to Answer Russell

What about Russell's denial of God's existence? Russell's arguments do not stand. It can be demonstrated that Russell's approach is fundamentally irrational, evidence that the Biblical description of the unbeliever is accurate. Russell does not reject Christianity for neutral philosophical reasons. He rejects Christianity out of fear. To demonstrate the truth of this assertion requires what might be called an indirect approach. We have to ask the question, if Christianity is untrue, and all the other religions of the world are also untrue, what is the alternative? If Russell has chosen to reject Christianity, it is presumably because he has found something better. At least he has found some substitute worldview. What was it?

We find the answer, at least in part, in another essay in the same volume entitled "A Free Man's Worship." Russell informs us that science teaches us of a purposeless world, void of meaning:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's salvation henceforth be safely built.

This is a bleak image, but, as he hinted in the pregnant words "soul's salvation," Russell finds hope, and in so doing betrays a Christian hangover. In the paragraph immediately following the above quotation, unyielding despair yields:

A strange mystery it is that nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother. In spite of death, the mark and seal of the parental control, man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticize, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.

Having rejected God and posited a blind, omnipotent mother-nature, Russell blithely assumes that he can somehow from this "firm foundation of unyielding despair" infer knowledge, morality, and freedom. Readers must assume that the adjective "omnipotent" is used here by way of hyperbole, since he has not demonstrated that nature must be all-powerful. But one cannot simply allow him to speak of "nature." What actually does he mean by "nature"? The answer would seem to be brute forces. But brute forces could be the forces of an utterly irrational universe of chance, or the forces of a deterministic system.

How did Russell conceive of it? In the essay "What I Believe," written in 1925, Russell wrote "Man is part of nature, not something contrasted with nature. His thoughts and his bodily movements follow the same laws that describe the motions of stars and atoms."

Mother nature appears to be Mama machine. If that is the case, the one thing that neither man nor any other being has is freedom. Mechanical necessity rules all. Not having freedom, man's so-called knowledge would be nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain, inevitable as the "laws that describe the motions of stars and atoms" and devoid of meaning. Good and evil would be words that men use because something in their brains has triggered them to think and speak in such terms, but ethical words could have no real content.

Russell gives us, in other words, a world that is not only without God, but one which logically excludes the possibility of rational knowledge, ethics, and freedom, a world in which "nature" itself obviates the existence of the kind of free man he wishes to believe in. The bare assertion that knowledge, ethics, and freedom exist cannot bring them into being, except in Russell's fervid imagination. Mama machine can only give birth to baby machines.

If, to escape this problem, one should seek to find comfort in a world of chance, another view of the world suggested by Russell, he is not actually helped at all. Chance knows nothing of reason, ethics, or freedom. Randomness -- the "liberty" of spastic convulsion -- is the closest a world of chance can possibly come to the idea of freedom, but randomness is inexplicable by definition. It precludes reason. And in a world without logic or reason, good and evil cannot exist.

Thus, whether Russell chooses a deterministic mechanical view of the universe or a chance view of the universe, he has no right to proceed beyond the foundation of despair to find salvation in a free man's worship. His vision of the free man is a religious delusion, a desperate dream to comfort those not brave enough to face real despair. His confession of faith, then, is the epitome of fanaticism:

[T]o worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

The sum of the matter is, then, that Russell rejects the Christian view of the world and offers in its place an irrational view of his own making that is no less religious than Christianity. Assuming his existence to be meaningless, momentary and under the sway of the irresistible forces of either the empire of chance or that of mechanical necessity, he maintains that he is "a weary but unyielding Atlas." But there is not the least basis for this faith in all his metaphysics, which, if he followed with full seriousness, would lead him to a total denial of the possibility of meaningful knowledge. Russell, however, chooses not to be consistent with his view of the world. Though his metaphysics logically debars the human dignity Russell craves, he fervently believes anyway.


We must conclude that Russell's view of the world is irrational. A world that is ultimately ruled either by chance or deterministic law is a world in which the idea of knowledge is unintelligible. It is clear, then, as we asserted above, that Russell does not hold on to this faith for intellectual reasons. It has been suggested, and will be argued further in the next chapter, that Russell's real motivation is fear of God's judgment.

Concerning the philosophical argument against Christianity, it must be admitted that on Russell's presuppositions Christianity is untrue. This is not a particular problem, however, because on his presuppositions, his own philosophy is also untrue. If Russell's presuppositions reduce his own philosophy to absurdity, they cannot be used to deny Christianity.

What our indirect approach has demonstrated is that Russell makes demands on Christianity that cannot be fulfilled by his own alternative either. What he does is typical of non-Christian philosophy in general. The unbeliever demands that God meet his impossible conditions -- impossible due to limitations in man and impossible because they contradict the nature of God and reality -- and then has the audacity to claim that God fails. But his own inability to provide a rational alternative resoundingly speaks the hidden truth that Russell is a rebel, that his pretended intellectual neutrality is a sham, that his reasoning is controlled by a perverse self interest. This, the real reason that Russell was not a Christian, does not argue against Christianity. Just the opposite -- the facts that Russell in attempting to philosophically disprove Christianity is unable to provide a logical alternative, and that he actually conforms to the Christian description of man, serve, rather, as an indirect argument for the truth of Christianity.

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

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