A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part II First Cause Argument

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:

  1. Everything we see in the world has a cause
  2. Each cause regresses back to a first cause
  3. The first cause is God

Russell’s response to the argument is:

  1. If everything must have a cause then god must have a cause
  2. 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.

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell

Russell’s paper might be a little dated (presented in 1927) but its arguments are still being circulated today even among those in “New Atheism”. You can judge for yourself as you read along. Having recently read through Russell’s paper I found plenty of discussion topics to comment on. The first one being Russell’s explanation of what a Christian is.

WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?

What is interesting about the answer he gives is that it tells us quite a bit about how the Church portrayed itself and the way in which the Church was understood by the culture around the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century. He begins by saying, “It is used in these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds”. In spite of the fact that I disagree with Russell on almost anything and everything, I will agree with him on this point, if Christianity is the cultivation of moral behavior, there would be many outside the church who would be regarded as Christian since there are many who attempt to live a good life. I would say from the Christian perspective there is an aspect of moral living which we call sanctification, but it isn’t as central to Christianity as justification typically holds that place.

Just a few years prior to Russell presenting this paper across the pond another intellectual J Gresham Machen, who is a Christian and was President of Westminster Theological Seminary before his death. Machen wrote a very important book that is still being sold and read today, Christianity And Liberalism. Here Machen writes, “Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time (that is true of this present time as well); there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.”[1] Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life.” So while Russell struggles to find a definition of Christianity based on what he has experienced, Machen is calling for for precision in our teaching for the reason that a Christianity without it results in a faith that “will never stand amid the shocks of life.”

I think we can probably spend a great deal of time unpacking just this quote of Machen’s alone. However the review is on Russell so I will attempt to stay focused. Machen was speaking specifically of theological liberalism or modernism of his day. Early in modernity some decided to practice the “if you can’t beat em, join em” school of ecumenism (Church unity). The end result was a re-configuring of Biblical teaching that was for the most part gutted of true Biblical content. One of the first teachings to go was the atonement. Once that was out the cross of Christ was no longer the means by which our sin was atoned for. Rather, modernists looked at the crucifixion as an act of love one that we ought to emulate. When all was said and done Christianity amounted to what Russell referred to as ” a person who attempts to live a good life”.

It isn’t as if Russell was ignorant about this matter. Moreover, this isn’t a case of an atheist with an axe to grind. Later he wrote in this discussion, “I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full‐blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions”. Notice the distinction between what Russell observed in his day compared to how he describes Christians in the pre-modern era. Moreover, here we are in the 21st century and there isn’t too much that is different from Machen and Russell’s era.

Returning to Russell, he has this to say about defining Christianity, “Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anyone calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature ‐‐namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ.” He begins by saying these days are not like the past where people were self conscious of their Christian beliefs. He says that now there is more ambiguity as to what one believes about Christianity. So he offers up 3 things that one must believe which are belief in God, immortality, and some kind of belief about Christ. Interesting choice of words; he is attempting to encompass all that go by the name Christian which is quite ambiguous. Obviously there is more to it than just that. Such a description still falls into the dilemma stated earlier of encompassing those who are not Christian. However, that is the definition that Russell goes by.

At this point I feel that I have bitten off a little more than I can chew for one post so I will have to continue with Russell in a second installment.

Theistic Atheists? Atheistic Theists?

These are strange time we’re living in. Apparently recent studies show that 21% of atheist believe in God. Not sure what to think of this. My first thought is we might be a little unclear on the definition of the term “atheist.” Traditionally an atheist is someone without a belief in God.

“Pew Forum surveys, with sample sizes of more than 35,000, found 4% self-identifying as atheist or agnostic in 2007, and 7% in 2014. Pew gets consistently higher numbers than ARIS on this question; there may be a real increase over time in willingness to claim these labels and also some difference in how Pew asks the question. Pew in 2014 found another 15.8% who said their religion is “nothing in particular,” for a total of 22.8% reporting no religion, and only 0.6% who did not know or refused to answer. . . .

Some of the no-religion people report rather conventional religious beliefs. In the 2014 Pew survey, nearly half the “nothing in particulars” and a majority of the atheists and agnostics also said that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives.

More remarkably, in the 2007 Pew survey, 21% of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 10% of atheists said they pray at least weekly. You cannot assume that survey respondents all understand the questions the same way you do.

These answers suggest believers with no religious identity. But other Americans report a religious identity without having much in the way of belief.

When ARIS asked about the existence of God, 12.3% said “There is no such thing,” “There is no way to know,” or “I’m not sure.” These are the atheist and agnostic answers, and they appeared nearly eight times as often as people who labeled themselves atheist or agnostic.

Another 6.1% refused to answer. It seems unlikely that belief in God is an important part of the lives of those who refuse to answer the question. Another 12.1% said, “There is a higher power but no personal God.” That leaves 69.5% who said “There is definitely a personal God.”. . .

And of course, not everyone who tells a pollster he believes in God is actually religious. The religiously indifferent who rarely think about it much may report belief in God when asked. They may also live their daily lives on a thoroughly secular worldview, with belief in God rising to consciousness only when someone asks.”

Read the whole article here.

Do We Need Philosophy of Religion Anymore?

There has been some blogging recently about whether philosophy of religion should still be taught. The recent discussion appears to have been sparked by an interview that a blogger known as the Godless Skeptic conducted with Graham Oppy (Monash) about his recent book, Reinventing Philosophy of Religion, in which he objects to the homogeneity of the field, which is composed mainly of Christian theists, and dominated by questions relevant to Christianity (see Helen De Cruz’s study here, which, I would guess, under reports the prevalence of Christianity in the field as a whole).  Atheist author John Loftus then responded to the interview, “calling for an end of the philosophy of religion as a discipline in secular universities.” To this, Matt DeStefano, a PhD student at Arizona, disagreed, arguing that philosophy of religion should not be eliminated, but improved, basing his suggestions on the very interesting article, “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion,” by Paul Draper (Purdue) and Ryan Nichols (CSU Fullerton), that appeared in The Monist last year. They write:

Do We Need Philosophy of Religion Anymore?.

Garry Gutting: On Dawkin’s Atheism

Garry Gutting wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on Dawkins Atheism found here. I thought Gutting was very generous with his critique and admitted that Dawkin’s book The God Delusion was “stimulating, informative and often right on target”. A significant point that Gutting brings up is Dawkins argument which can be understood as:

1. If God exists, he must be both the intelligent designer of the universe and a being that explains the universe but is not itself in need of explanation.

2. An intelligent designer of the universe would be a highly complex being.

3. A highly complex being would itself require explanation.

4. Therefore, God cannot be both the intelligent designer of the universe and the ultimate explanation of the universe.

5. Therefore, God does not exist.

Gutting places special emphasis on premise (2) explaining that it is somewhat simplified. We would have to understand what Dawkins means by “complex”. It’s a valid point we can often run the risk of creating a categorical error when making comparisons of God. Moreover, depending on the level of complexity it could be the case that an inteligent designer’s complexity greatly exceeds that of finite people.

At any rate Gutting’s post is located here. Id be interested in your thoughts on Gutting.