Revisiting the Argument for Atheism: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian

Updated 1/23/2019

Given that atheism appears to be a rising trend in the US, it’s worth taking a look back at one of the seminal arguments against the Christian faith to see how well it holds up. Besides his numerous contributions to mathematics, history and philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s contribution to the modern atheist movement is significant. Russell comes from a long line of religious skeptics which goes back to Immanuel Kant and David Hume and finds modern expression in Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris among many others. Mr. Russell may have been a gifted intellectual in many respects, but his 1927 essay, Why I Am Not A Christian, is logically inconsistent, poorly argued and uncharitable towards Christianity. Besides inculcating an orthodoxy of negation, it also reveals a contradiction at the center of the atheist worldview which, in my opinion, few atheists have acknowledged let alone sufficiently addressed.

By staking a monopoly claim on scientific rationalism, and by extension, the entire realm of scientific discovery, atheists have essentially positioned themselves as the new arbiters of morality. While atheists have busied themselves dismantling the edifice of religious morality using the tools of logic, they have simultaneously claimed that a new secular moral order can be constructed from these tools alone. Of course, there is no coherence whatsoever to today’s woke pieties. The most honest secular atheists will openly acknowledge that consistent moral principles don’t exist, but will simultaneously argue that gay marriage, taxpayer funded abortion and feminism are unassailable, ironclad truths from which no deviation is permitted.

The core conceit of Why I Am Not A Christian is that Russell presupposes the existence of the very metaphysical phenomena to which he applies his skepticism. However, Russell has an advantage that atheists have been exploiting for decades. He is mounting an attack on the Thomistic arguments for the existence of God and these arguments use classical foundationalism as a starting point. In other words, things like the laws of logic and fixed moral principles are assumed to be a priori truths. They’re an attempt to reason backwards to God from a scholastic viewpoint that posits that all of creation are effects of an absolutely simple divine substance which makes no distinction between energy and essence. Once you divorce concepts like telos, logos and ethics from their theological underpinnings, the skeptic can set the whole philosophical enterprise against itself. Subsequently, the reigning orthodoxy of our time can be summed up in a single, self-detonating contradiction. There is no truth. Just a collection of disparate individual truths vying for conquest. And this confused, nihilistic worldview is exactly what has taken root in the Western world. Think I’m exaggerating? What would you say to a young person considering a philosophy major at college? The honest ones among us would tell him that it will be viewed very favorably as he applies for work as a barista at the local Starbucks.

But this is exactly what Russell intended. Along with other Royal and Fabian Society globalist social engineers, Russell has claimed the mantle of science and rationalism for the express purpose of hastening their destruction. Russell has written extensively on morality and ethics, but no one gives a shit what he has to say. The point was erode the Christian faith. It was to inculcate a posture of radical “skepticism” that would eventually be picked up by new generations of establishment shills and catapult vacant dittoheads like Jaclyn Glenn and Matt Dillahunty to YouTube celebrity status. The punchline is that a condemnation or a “logical” refutation of faith isn’t a sufficient replacement for a system of morality and ethics that’s been conserved over centuries. Nor does it dismantle the mechanism of belief itself. Russell merely shifted the focus of faith and pointed it towards new gods called Reason and Science. And global technocrats like himself would be in a position to write and rewrite the catechism as often as they see fit.

Russell’s essay is worth reading because it represents a sort of ur-script for the contemporary skeptic and atheist scene. Fred Copleston and Bertrand Russell hashed out this argument in 1948 and atheists have been running roughshod over the argument for contingency ever since. Outside the YouTube sphere, these debates are mostly absent from the contemporary cultural discussion, and I suspect that’s exactly what the social engineers intend. The recent Sam Harris/Jordan Peterson debates don’t really count because both of them are essentially secular liberals who remain safely within the confines of post-Enlightenment acceptability. As long as the plebs don’t get too caught up in some abstract philosophical debate that argues too rigorously for Christian theology or objectivity, it’s all good, bro.

The default assumption amongst atheists is that Christians are knuckle dragging, anti-science mouth breathers who have neither a willingness or ability to engage in formal debate. The latter may be true, but the former assumption is ironically thoroughly acceptable despite their own admonitions to police unconscious bias. Since the argument has already been fought by the likes of Russell, atheists generally take it as given that the debate is over, and engagement with these arguments is unnecessary. Conversely, Christians have largely retreated, been ignored, or simply failed in the intellectual arena against the likes of charismatic and intelligent atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. But the irony is that the Transcendental argument for the existence of God using Orthodox theology is a more powerful argument to which I’ve yet to hear a compelling refutation from an atheist. Regardless, let’s examine a few elements of Russell’s case to show how radical skepticism creates illusory certainty about reality and inculcates a religious belief in negation for its own sake.

The First Cause Argument

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity.

Yeah, man! Who needs a First Cause, amirite? When divorced from revelation, nature is reduced to a descralized, impersonal set of forces which only appear to have order, meaning and purpose. Subsequently, there’s no reason for a secular atheist to accept that God is the First Cause. Russell’s denial of the necessity of a First Cause is fine in an impersonal, mechanistic universe of flux and chaos, but it does little to provide a sense of certainty about how we began as a species. Subsequently, the secular scientific priesthood dangle the promise of ever expanding scientific knowledge to eventually answer the Big Questions of Existence. Maybe it’s an oscillating universe and we’re enjoying this tiny blip of cosmic expansion in an endless cycle of creation and destruction. Maybe we’re one universe among an infinite number of universes. Once the geniuses at CERN open up that transdimensional portal, we’ll finally climb the Great Cosmic Pyramid and meet the engineers we saw in Prometheus!

Who knows for sure? More specifically, who really fucking cares anyway? These questions are too deep for your puny minds anyway so just retweet this Neil deGrasse Tyson meme and pass the bong in the meantime. All you need to know is that all matter and energy in the universe was compressed into a single point at time zero and then BOOM! The universe just started organizing itself into increasingly complex material and biological forms over the course of billions of years! Everything just arose from nothing! It’s #SCIENCE man! Not that silly ass religion shit!

Coincidentally, what came to be known as the Big Bang Theory was introduced the same year he made this speech. Russell’s argument against First Cause was simply replaced with its scientific equivalent: the causeless cause.

The Big Bang Theory lends itself to the First Cause argument, but in a world of chaos and flux, why wouldn’t a skeptic argue that this also poses a problem of infinite regression? Who caused God, bro? Betcha never heard THAT ONE before! After all, God is at best an unknowable, impersonal force that’s subject to the same material forces we observe. It’s a reductio ad absurdum that’s deployed to this day.

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

Even if you concede that God is the First Mover, who’s to say it’s the Christian God? Maybe it’s Xenu. Maybe it’s Allah. Maybe it’s Satan. Maybe it’s Isis and Osiris. Maybe it’s the Flying Spaghetti Monster. There’s no reason a skeptic would arrive at Christian theology using this line of argumentation.

Thus far, the scientific community has nothing definitive to say about what preceded the Big Bang. And it doesn’t need to. It’s a cosmology that reinforces Darwinian evolution and keeps the grant money flowing into the coffers of CERN and other scientific institutions determined to unlock the ultimate secrets of the universe. And to everyone who considers it a given that science and faith are incompatible, just remember that the most significant and widely accepted scientific theory explaining the origins of the universe came from a Catholic priest. Theories of cosmological origins can’t be observed, but it’s little surprise that Mr. Lemaître’s conception of the beginning of time mirror the metaphysic espoused by Aquinas. An absolutely simple, undivided monad and everything that proceeds from it are the created effects.

The Natural Law Argument

Russell’s argument here is essentially that it is too simplistic to say that the phenomena of the natural world or the cosmos can be explained away by saying Goddidit. He expands by citing how Newtonian laws of gravitation were overturned by Einstein’s more complete theory of General Relativity. “Natural laws are really human convention” he says.

How can you have a worldview which simultaneously produces ironclad scientific knowledge built from fixed principles while also being subject to the vagaries of ever evolving human caprice?

Scientific law gets called law because it explains phenomena that are constant, immutable and unchanging. A more comprehensive theory that fits the observations more completely doesn’t nullify the existence of invariant natural phenomena. Nor does it nullify the invariant and unchanging nature of the various numerical systems by which these phenomena are measured. There isn’t a single scientific law that has been invalidated or overturned since the time Russell wrote this piece. Whether we’re talking about the Laws of Thermodynamics or Newton’s Laws of Motion, scientific law gets called a law because it reveals the machinery of the natural world expressed as a mathematical equation and can be reproduced under controlled conditions. Except for climate scientists on government payrolls, scientists who study the natural world proceed into the scientific enterprise operating from a set of assumptions about how the universe is ordered. In an honest scientific endeavor free from pressures of political conformity, hypotheses extend from the limits and boundaries of what is already known and are subsequently tested for their validity. These form the foundations of a body of scientific knowledge from which technological innovation arises. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Needless to say, Russell’s malleable view of natural law is entirely consistent with the politicized state of the sciences which we currently face. Of course we’re going to have gene edited babies. Of course there are more than two genders. What are you, some transphobic dinosaur or something? All that crap about sexual dimorphism is just bourgeois patriarchal nonsense. Why do you object to hormone treatments for dysphoric children, you bigot? Why are you questioning climate change, you backwards Trumptard? Do you want to kill Mother Earth?

The Argument From Design

Russell takes a dim view of the Teleological Argument because if he accepted it, he would have to affirm that there is inherent goodness in creation. As long as it remains random, arbitrary, indifferent or hostile, it is easier to promote the promise of a scientific utopia that will provide an ultimate conquest over this abortion of a world. It’s a gnostic conception of the universe and he even suggests his sympathies for that view later in the piece.

Russell goes completely off the rails and starts sounding like a proto-SJW in the remainder of this section. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why did we get the KKK or the Nazis? Oh snap! You just got #PWND, theists! The obvious rebuttal is that humanity is in a fallen state but was given free will. Evil is the privation of the good. It is entirely up to us to distinguish right from wrong and choose accordingly. That is the challenge of being alive. In his gnostic, scientistic conception of the world, there is no good to affirm in the first place.

The Moral Arguments For Deity

This is the core failure of Russell’s argument, and by extension, the entire atheist enterprise in my opinion.

I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question.

The atheist argument poses a deep conundrum because it is either implicitly or explicitly a call for a secular moral order. The irony is that there is nothing in the empirical framework of the pure observation of the natural world which offers any moral prescription whatsoever. Yet the atheist, by and large, most definitely presumes the existence of right and wrong as some self-evident truth. Not only would any atheist seek punishment for the murderer, rapist and thief, atheists mostly busy themselves lambasting the evils of religion. If the atheist attacks a religious moral tenet in favor of a secular moral advancement, he is positioning himself as an arbiter of morality. If the atheist rejects the idea that faith is the foundation for moral realism, then you have consigned the entire realm of morality to the relativistic world of political ideology, or worse, scientism and utilitarianism. The atheist that claims a belief in science is somehow superior to religious faith is peddling a ridiculous fallacy. Good science does not require belief in the first place and he is glossing over the larger issues of morality and ethics. How can you claim there is individual moral rectitude or ethical virtue in a world of materialism and perpetual flux? One cannot have sound science without sound ethics, and I would contend that it is a precondition for any serious quest for scientific knowledge. The sciences of the natural world are neutral on morality and ethics. Few people would embrace it today, but eugenics were once considered cutting-edge science. On the other hand, the modern social sciences make no effort to hide the fact that they are both normative and subjective, but affect a pretense of being the engines of modern moral progression simply because they live under the broad banner of science. Gender studies, critical race theory, and climate change “science” now form a de facto secular moral order from which any dissent is met with censure and opprobrium. Committing violence in service of the advancement of political goals and being a self-appointed judge of who deserves to be punched for having the wrong political opinions are not only explicitly sanctioned by the progressive political class, academics and celebrities, but they are evidence of moral virtue.

At its core, the atheist argument is nothing more than a negation of belief. It’s a religious belief in the perpetual embrace of non-belief. It also falsely asserts that faith and reason are mutually exclusive faculties, and the existence of one automatically short circuits and precludes the exercise of the other. If this doesn’t lead to a state of pure nihilism, it creates an inherent cognitive dissonance with respect to positive engagement with humanity itself. By and large, humans generally strive towards a very general notion of Doing the Right Thing and Making a Difference. Happiness, love, friendship, loyalty, forgiveness and charity are all abstractions which cannot be quantified, and yet, these abstractions are the mythical sky wizards that every atheist presumably chases in his own life under the guise of “science” or “reason”. Every act performed which carries an expectation of positive good, whether it’s money donated to a soup kitchen or a vote cast for a politician, is its own act of faith. If an atheist truly has any hope for humanity, he must, at some level, have belief in humanity’s capacity for good. This all by itself is an act of faith. It is the Golden Rule in practice. Cynicism and nihilism are easy. Finding reasons to be hopeful about humanity is a far deeper challenge which pretty much requires some level of faith.

The yearning for justice and righteousness; more specifically, the desire to do right by for our fellow man and leave a positive legacy for posterity is hardwired into the human consciousness at some level. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that any given human will make choices that will expand and spread virtue, and it is entirely possible that many will be actively constrained and thwarted in their ability to exercise it.

As Thomas Sowell argued, the world is roughly divided between those who subscribed to a “constrained” vision of humanity which posits that human nature is fixed and unchanging or an “unconstrained” vision which asserts that humans can be molded by social forces and institutions. Atheists mostly belong to the latter camp. Sadly, no one gives a shit about “a rational proof for secular ethics” or any other lofty philosophical disquisition on morality and ethics. Bertrand Russell wrote a bunch of stuff, but who reads it except for philosophy nerds and academics? The study of neuroscience in hopes of uncovering the “moral landscape” as Sam Harris describes it seems like little more than a recipe for pharmacological and technological micromanagement of the human will. The yearning for justice appeals to human emotion, and subsequently, humans tend to respond more positively to narrative and allegory when it comes to formulating notions of morality and justice. This is why mythology and pop culture have been far more effective vehicles for the transmission of moral lessons than philosophical dialectic.

I further contend that it’s far easier to denigrate the Christian faith and morality than it is to proffer a positive alternative. There are no consequences to proclaiming yourself an atheist. It takes no courage to heap scorn and ridicule on Christians as the enemies of Real Social Progress© and scientific discovery. According to the contemporary progressive orthodoxy, the only real moral transgressions are “bigotry”, white on black police brutality, climate change “denial”, the absence of consent in sexual relations for white, middle-class female college students, saying anything negative about Islam, and pretty much anything uttered by a conservative, libertarian or Christian. But the outrage is strictly confined to the narrative as it’s defined within the walls of academia and the media echo chamber which dutifully parrots every bit of brainless tripe dispensed from the social justice priesthood. And by and large, this is where the yellow brick road of atheism has lead: to the sanctuary of the Church of Progressivism. Few atheists would admit it, but political rhetoric and social “science” have replaced the priest’s sermon.

Atheism has become a new orthodoxy which has largely ceded moral authority and agency to the leftist political class, their agenda and apparatchiks in academia. There are exceptions, but this is the trend. It seems like little more than a license to condescend to Christians, denigrate Christianity as the font of subservience and totalitarianism, and generally be miserable, nihilistic curmudgeons. Like all progressive thought, it’s not edgy, contrarian or new. With few exceptions, it’s just a standard accompaniment to a predetermined list of progressive political goals.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about making this argument since I grew up mostly secular and generally considered atheists the cool kids in the class. But if this is the quality of the argument from one of atheism’s greatest thinkers, color me unimpressed.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Revisiting the Argument for Atheism: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian

  1. larryzb says:

    Russell may have been better at being a social critic than a philosopher. We have read some of his books and letters and these were often incisive, insightful and even entertaining.

    Like

  2. […] Wesley Mouch desperately wants him “to believe” in their cause. Like Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell, she perpetuates a false dichotomy between faith and reason by asserting that the exercise of one […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: