A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part II First Cause Argument
In the last post I discussed Russell’s definition of what it means to be Christian. You can read Russell’s presentation here. In this post I will discuss Russell’s first reason for not being a Christian, the First Cause Argument. There are different variations of the argument and Russell provides yet another variation. However Russell’s understanding of the argument can be framed this way:
- Everything we see in the world has a cause
- Each cause regresses back to a first cause
- The first cause is God
Russell’s response to the argument is:
- If everything must have a cause then god must have a cause
- If god had a cause then he cannot be the first or uncaused cause
The problem that comes up is found in premise one of the response. If everything has a cause “then God must have a cause”. The First Cause Argument never articulates or alludes to by implication a God that is caused. In other forms of the argument premise one is read “everything that begins to exist has a cause”. Notice the use of the term “exist”. In classical theism “existence” is never used of God because “existence” in its classical understanding assumes contingency. Only contingent things can “exist”. God is not contingent thus He at no time ever existed. In classical theism we believe in God’s Being or reality but not His “existence” because He is not contingent. If God required a cause His Being would be contingent upon that cause and He would lose His God like quality since God cannot be contingent upon anything. In premise one of the argument Russell restricts causation to only those things seen in the world. Because of God’s non-metaphysical nature He can’t be grouped among those things that we see in the world, and therefore causation can’t be a necessary attribute of His Being. This is a categorical error that I believe to be of significant proportion.
However, to Russell’s credit, he is speaking from a naturalistic perspective. Arguments can be made that such a restricted perspective-like naturalism- does not reflect adequately on the whole reality of human experience, a discussion for another post. Suffice it to say, from his naturalistic assumption Russell is being consistent with his naturalism. If one begins his interpretation of reality with a naturalistic foundation as Russell does in his response, then all facts of his experience will be based upon that naturalistic assumption including causation when it comes to God. Notice how different Russell’s response is from the First Cause Argument he sites. The argument begins with temporal earthly “existent” or contingent things that owe their contingent existence to the “non-existent” or non-contingent universal first cause. However, Russell’s response assumes God is part of the temporal “existent” or contingent world. I think this demonstrates Russell’s inability to deal with the argument at had. His pre-commitment to naturalism cannot reflect adequately on the argument from First Cause.
For this reason I tend not to use the argument of First Cause outside of a Christian context that can make sense out of universal first causes. Even more problematic is that the First Cause Argument does not argue for a God who is triune, but rather a general first cause, what ever that might be. I think this approach misses the point. Purpose of teaching about God is not to teach an abstract form of God as a universal first cause but to teach Him as He is in His full triune Being. In any case I would say Russell’s first reason for not being a Christian is insufficiently articulated and should be reconfigured or rejected.