Summary: A Review Of “Why I Am Not A Christian” By Bertrand Russell
Without a doubt, Bertrand Russell stands as one of the most formidable minds of the modern era. Through his efforts with Alfred North Whitehead in “Principia Mathematica”, Russell further elaborated the relationship between mathematics and deductive logic. Russell's endeavors, however, were not confined to complex philosophical treatises having little influence outside of academic circles. Russell's work spanned the intellectual spectrum, ranging from works on the history of philosophy to international relations and political theory. Russell even produced newspaper articles for mass consumption. But despite his prolific intellectual output, Russell did not apply his mathematician's logic and objectivity to much of his non-scientific thought, especially in the area of religion as embodied by his work “Why I Am Not A Christian”.
Instead of addressing a single topic throughout the entire work, “Why I Am Not A Christian” is a collection of articles and essays addressing Russell's position on religious matters in general and issues regarding Christianity in particular. Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so he is.” Many times influential voices speaking in the opinion-molding institutions of academia and media contend that one's views on religion do not necessarily impact other areas of existence such as the political or the sociological. Scripture teaches that this popular opinion is incorrect. However, the Bible is not readily accepted by those arguing for the mentioned opinion. Even though the work argues against the traditional positions of Christianity, the power of “Why I Am Not A Christian” resides in how it links one's views regarding religion with one's beliefs about society and the world despite the author's attempt to argue otherwise.
Russell's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) found their basis in his position that the theistic proofs are not as conclusive as believers make them out to be. When asked what he would say if confronted by the Creator at his death, Russell said he would respond by saying, “God! Why did you make evidence of your existence so insufficient?”
In “Why I Am Not A Christian”, Russell proceeds to critique each of these arguments. None of them escape his scathing scrutiny. Of the argument from the First Cause, Russell remarks that, if everything must have a cause, then God cannot be the uncaused cause by those following in the intellectual lineage of Aquinas. Russell claims that this argument actually results in an endless digression of creators begetting creators much like those mythological cosmologies where the Earth rests atop an elephant resting atop a tortoise etc. etc (7).
From the outset, Russell argues from faulty notions. According to Norman Geisler in “Introduction To Philosophy: A Christian Perspective”, in a thoroughly naturalistic context something cannot come from nothing. But by its definition, a noncontingent being does not require a cause since its existence is complete in itself (289). Only finite contingent beings require a cause.
The next proofs tackled by Russell are the arguments for the existence of God from the evidence of creation. Russell argues that, in the light of Einsteinian relativity, the Newtonian system of natural law is not as binding upon the universe as originally thought. Therefore, these scientific principles cannot be used to argue for the existence of a rational creator. However, one could turn the tables on Russell and point out that the revelations of Einsteinian physics actually provide a better testimony to the existence of God than even the previous Newtonian model.
According to Russell, natural law is nothing more than statistical averages resulting from the laws of chance (Russell, 8). John Warwick Montgomery in “Faith Founded On Fact” rebuts Russell's position by pointing out that the Einsteinian and quantum paradigms actually allow for miracles while maintaining that an ordered universe exists. In those systems attempting to account for the totality of the physical universe, it is God who keeps the universe from instantaneously dissolving into the chaos of individual atoms flying off into their own paths and who can rearrange the normal operations of reality when doing so suits His greater glory such as turning water into wine and resurrecting the dead (Montgomery, 43).
Besides drawing faulty conclusions regarding the validity of the theistic proofs, Russell errs as to their purpose as well. Russell is correct in pointing out that these arguments do leave room for some doubt. Yet this can be said about any other linguistically synthetic proposition about the world as well.
If one wants to get really nit-picky about the matter, one could doubt whether Bertrand Russell himself even existed since the Analysts were not above doubting the veracity of historical knowledge. As much as it might irritate the so-called “scientific mind”, one cannot exist without exercising some degree and kind of faith.
The theistic proofs can serve as a guide pointing towards faith or as a mechanism to help rationally clarify it. They do not properly serve as a replacement for it. Norman Geisler points out that one ought not to believe in God because of the theistic proofs. Rather, the theistic proofs provide one with a basis to reasonably assert that God exists (Geisler, 269).