Argument Adjourned, Atheism and Amorality


In his book Why Be Moral, Atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen admits the position that the new, angry Atheists like Sam Harris cannot bring themselves to do, that “Pure practical reason, even with good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.” Bertrand Russell, who above all things devoted himself to attempting to live according to reason alone, admitted that he could not account for morality by this method. If reason cannot complete the equation, where are we left to turn?

In every instance of moral decision, there is an evaluation of the opposite positions of good and bad. Moral affirmation cannot be an abstraction. The person who makes a moral evaluation assumes the intrinsic worth in himself and sees that intrinsic worth in the lives of others. In a world of matter alone, there is no intrinsic worth. A moral framework is necessary for the declaration of right and wrong, one which sets the standard for good and bad.

The existence and continued affirmation of a moral framework can lead us to only one conclusion. God exists and is the provider of this moral framework. We can lay it out as:

P1 Objective moral values exist only if God exists

P2 Objective moral values do exist

C God Exists

The arguments from reason for the existence and practice of morality (without God as the lawgiver) trend along the line of humanity doing things in the interest of the community and cooperation for the good of all. The problem is circular though; with an objective source of good and bad how will the billions of sovereign creatures agree on what is good and bad? Since one life (of matter alone) is of no more value than any other life, why would a person ever do anything but in their own self interest? These questions always lead us back to the top of the page.  


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Atheism, Amorality, and an Argument Against Again

imageYesterday we left off exploring two important questions that Atheists must answer in a universe composed of nothing but matter:

– When referring to the ‘rights’ of others, where do these rights come from in a world of cellular masses?

– When talking about right and wrong, who defines the meaning of these terms?

Let’s bring another Atheist voice (cheer?) into the discussion. Sam Harris (remember his little book) makes repeated use of moral language throughout his Letter to a Christian Nation. He describes things as good and evil. God especially falls under his moral evaluation as he considers the horrors of the world—disasters, child rape, murder, various evils—and asks why, if there is a God who is presumably good, these evils exist in the world. The trouble that Harris runs into is that, in order to evaluate anything as bad/evil one must have an objectively ‘good’ exemplar. Without that good that all can agree on, who has the authority to define good and bad? Harris? Pol Pot? Stalin? Doug Henning?

This is the main problem that the Atheist runs into when proclaiming their morality and even, superior morality. In order to make such a proclamation, the Atheist must borrow from an objective moral framework in order to make a judgment. Without that framework or its admitted existence, the atheist must defer to his or her feelings to make the call. Bertrand Russell admitted as much,

In a debate with a Jesuit priest, Russell had made a failed attempt to explain the source of his ‘objective’ morality. When the priest asked him how he differentiated between good and bad, Russell answered, “I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow…I can see they are different.”

The priest noted “You distinguish between blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty.”

“By my feelings,” Russell replied.

Of course, the follow up question is obvious (but was not asked in order to save face for Russell.) The priest pointed out the corner into which Russell had backed himself by posing this dilemma. “Mr. Russell, in some cultures they love their neighbors; in other cultures they eat them. Do you have a personal preference, and if so, what is it?”

At least Russell is more honest about his agnosticism and the ambiguity of his own views on ethical values than is Mr. Harris. Sam enjoys a morality developed in his own mind but he never answers the question, from where does his intuition as to what is right and wrong come? The Atheist never provides an adequate explanation for how an intuition toward morality can develop from nothing but matter and chemistry.

So, the question we are left with today is, can morality exist apart from a Moral Lawgiver? Discuss amongst yourselves until next time.

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Why I Am Not A Christian – Four

Bertrand Russell Why I Am Not A Christian Part Three here…

IV. Having stated how much he likes the maxims previously discussed, Russell then proposes to give evidence of the deficient teaching of Jesus. He prefaces the list with a quick, derisive statement of doubt as to whether or not Jesus ever existed but given the evidence in support of His existence, I will not address that proposition here. The core charge against the wisdom of Jesus centers for Russell around the statements that Jesus made regarding the imminence of His return and the reality that it did not occur. Christians are mindful that Jesus said that no one knows the hour of future events (Matthew 24:32), including Jesus himself. Russell then demands an accuracy of Jesus which He did not demand of himself. He offers a selection of verses in which Jesus says that various events will not transpire prior to his return (Matthew 10:23; Matthew 6:34; Luke 9:27). Again, context provides us with the clear meaning of Jesus’ words and we discover, unsurprisingly that Russell again demands a literalist interpretation that favors his disdain of Christ’s wisdom. For example, in Matthew 10:23, Jesus says “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Does Jesus propose a specific deadline for His return? Certainly not in this verse as it refers to the incomplete nature of the Jewish mission, understandable in Matthew who tends to focus on the obstinacy of Israel. Perhaps Russell would have been better off to reserve his judgment of Christ’s wisdom (based on his flawed reading) in light of his earlier appreciation for Jesus’ maxims in the Sermon on the Mount.

In his final attempt to diminish the person and character of Christ, Russell turns to presenting his argument in support of a defect in the moral character of Jesus. He roots this evaluation solely in Christ’s belief in Hell. Why this was not an issue with God (the Father) earlier in the essay is not mentioned. Russell makes this interesting statement,

“I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” (pg. 17)

This belief, combined with a supposedly “vindictive fury against these people who would not listen to His preaching” combine for Russell to bring Christ’s morality into question. As evidence of this assertion, Russell points to Jesus saying “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33) This verse is yet another example of a single verse being pulled from its larger context because it has the right combination of words to make the philosopher’s point. In the whole of chapter 23, Jesus is condemning the leaders of Israel because their intransigence has led their people astray. This is not an example of Jesus being personally insulted. The leaders of Israel had been given the Law and the Prophets and in the mind of Jesus, they had no excuse for their continued disobedience other than their own stubborn hearts. Condemnation is a consequence of decision, not a capricious punishment by Jesus.

The author rehearses a further litany of disconnected instances which support Jesus’ lack of morality: putting the demons into the swine, cursing the fig tree, encouraging the amputation of the hand that steals and leads you into sin. Properly handled, none of these verses even comes within a hair of evidencing the immorality of Christ. Russell would like the reader to accept these vignettes at face value but what he ends up doing is putting his own lack of ethics on display. To have the ability to read and research the theology and biblical context of the verses that he abuses for his own ends and to not do it appears to make one purposely ignorant. To further use this mishandling of scripture to mislead others into believing a false worldview is an example of the type of leadership that led Jesus to issue such vehement epithets. Russell failed to see the irony.


Bertrand Russell is described as a fine logician and philosopher. His essay, which became the title of a collection of related pieces, Why I Am Not a Christian makes his case based on two premises:

P1 The Existence of God is Dispute

P2 Christ is not the wisest and best man

C Christianity is false and therefore I am not a Christian

Unfortunately, this essay provides supporting evidence for neither of these premises, and because of this the conclusion proposed cannot be evaluated as true. Given the minimal research that would be necessary to properly place the bible verses in their proper context and to address the supporting arguments against God’s existence, one must wonder why a more honest treatment was not given. I understand why the Atheists are so enamored with the essay. It is quotable and the gravitas of the senior philosopher lends it an air of unassailability. On the other hand, the unethical approach that omits rather than substantiates leads me to question the intention of the author. I suppose I will be able to make a better judgment after digging further into the other essays contained in this volume. More damaging than my lack of confidence is that he has established a baseline which the current Atheist writers have elected to follow in the breezy style with which they toss arguments of eternal importance around.

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Why I Am Not a Christian – Two

Bertrand Russell Why I Am Not A Christian

Part One here…

II. The Existence of God

Having created a false Christ on which to build his arguments, Russell addresses the validity of belief in his first requirement: that one must believe in the existence of God. Though he alludes to a large number of possible arguments for God’s existence, he narrows his discussion to five. He attributes these to the Catholic Church and her desire to utilize them as support for the proposition that the existence of God can be proven by reason alone. He begins by addressing the Argument from First Cause. Midway through the single paragraph he devotes to it however, he simply dismisses the concept as unworthy of consideration saying “you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity.” (pg. 6) Russell alludes to John Stuart Mills and a statement Mills made as formative of his thinking when he read ‘My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made God?’’. Russell further states,

“There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without first cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed.” (pg. 7)

I imagine, given the date of this essay in 1927, that we should not be too harsh in our assessment of Russell’s ability to confirm this statement since the science that points to the creation of the world at a specific point in time was just becoming available to him (Einstein 1916, Hubble 1927). What it should cause us to evaluate however, is his confidence in his conclusions given the possibility that additional information may come to light at some future point which affect the plausibility of his arguments? Pascal might have something to say to this.

With the preponderance of evidence pointing to a universe with a distinct beginning any proper consideration must come to a position on the first cause of this beginning. The universe cannot have been self caused as that would require something to pre-exist outside of itself prior to its creative act. To simply state that “there is no reason why the world could not have come into being without first cause” without defending this assertion is an inadequate argument against the notion of the Prime Mover. As I consider the careless foundation upon which Russell begins to build the remainder of his arguments I’m hesitant to place any confidence in a construction this rickety.

The Atheist will point to this argument as an example of ad-hoc reasoning as the question of who created God creates an apparent dilemma for the first cause discussion. The nuance of the Law of Causality that is often overlooked by the atheistic contingent in proposing this ‘chicken and egg’ question is that the principle states that everything that comes to be needs a cause. God does not come to be nor was He created. He is and always was – an eternal being. Is this a ‘just so’ story that cannot be supported? In examining the requirements that scientists would demand of a Prime Mover, we find this brief schedule:

· The First Cause must be self-existent, eternal, and immaterial (because He/It creates time, space, and material and the First Cause must be outside of time, space, and matter.)

· The First Cause must be powerful beyond comprehension to be able to create ex nihilo.

· The First Cause must possess extraordinary intelligence in order to design a universe with such precision and complexity.

· The First Cause must be personal in order to make the choice (impersonal forces such as the wind do not make choices) to create the universe out of nothing.

Such a First Cause precisely matches the characteristics that Christians attribute to God. Shall we follow Russell’s lead and simply dismiss this as coincidence?

The next two arguments that Russell wants to dispense with are the Natural Law argument and the Argument from Design. In addressing both of these, the philosopher takes a similar approach along the lines of this, things are the way they are because that’s the way they are. Well then, it’s settled isn’t it? I don’t think that Russell is intentionally so casually dismissive of these positions but that’s the tone that his words convey. I will credit the brevity of his approach to the fact that this essay is sourced from a lecture that Russell delivered to an audience (The National Secular Society) that was favorably predisposed to his positions and his assumption may have been that they were already familiar with arguments and quite possibly in agreement with them.

While I am willing to overlook the paucity of evidence in support of his positions, I am unwilling to so easily dismiss the false dilemma that he creates in order to put aside God’s omnipotence and omniscience and their role in the Argument from Design. Russell issues the belittling challenge to believers in Design by saying “it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years.” (pg 10) In an attempt to drive the stake further into the heart of the Design argument, Russell asks that we assumes the role of Creator and asks if you, given the same twin powers, would create a world that contains nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists. The answer that a person would give will depend on whom you ask. The free-will racist will certainly answer yes to the creation of the Klan while I would personally answer no. Why does he resort to such an outlandish argument when his own reason should have been sufficient to put the proposition of a Designer to rest? Russell’s failure to address the theological at all (a very common tactic as we shall see) is troubling. He fails to offer and dispute the idea that the original creation was in a state of perfection and then filled with creatures in possession of free will. That the created choose for ill instead of good is the risk that an omnipotent and omniscient God was willing to take in order for love to be present rather than simply basking in the worship of a planet full of automatons.

Part three here…

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Why I Am Not a Christian – One

imageA Critical Response to Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian is a popular touch-point for the community of Atheist writers and thinkers. It is a source of quotations as well as offering a comforting substantiation of their shared beliefs. Some portray the writing as definitive in nature while others comment happily on the enjoyment they find in rereading it from time to time. Lord Russell’s life and philosophy are extolled for the commitment to reason that they exhibit and there is little doubt that one is expected to read this volume [of the same name] of essays in this light; that this is as well-reasoned commentary on the deceitful and harmful nature of religious belief and activity that is almost beyond the reach of contrary argument.

Having not read Russell in any form since my undergraduate days, I endeavored to read Why I Am Not from a neutral perspective. As a Christian and a theologically lettered man, this was not an easy view to take since it was obviously quite contrary to my worldview. As I read I took copious notes so that the structure of the philosopher’s arguments could take shape and I would be able to determine if, from the evidence that he would present in favor of his positions, his conclusions were true or subject to challenge. If one were to summarize the main conclusion that Russell is arguing in favor of, it is this: people believe in religion and God strictly out of emotion rather than reason. As a further subtext, the pre-eminent emotion that Lord Russell makes accountable for this belief is fear. Perhaps as closing statement meant to encourage the reader to similarly proclaim themselves to be free thinkers prepared to stare down the reality of the world around us, Russell issues this challenge in the final paragraph,

“We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.” (pg 23)

What is a Christian?

Russell begins his essay by stressing the importance of defining terms and by declaring what he means by a Christian. There are two standards which must be met in order for him to refer to a person as a follower of Christ. One, that person must have a belief in God and in immortality and on this point, he is quite adamant. I concur, Christianity without God and the notion of eternal life is something else altogether beyond even ecumenical charity and must be given some other label. Second, Russell states that a person must have some kind of belief about Jesus Christ (emphasis mine.) It is here that the careful reader begins to see that the unassailable arguments that they have been led to expect may be more couched and nuanced than originally thought. If one must have some thought about Christ, what is the spectrum of permissible thought? Can one accept some essential doctrinal point but not others? What is couched in this adjective?

Russell answers these questions with this requirement, “you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men.” (pg. 4) Immediately, the reader should pull up short and demand correction of this proposal for the minimum standard of membership. The divinity of Christ in all sects and doctrinal statements is non-negotiable. One cannot simply accept Jesus as just ‘the best and brightest’ minus his essential nature as God. As C.S. Lewis cleverly argued, this is not an option that has been left to you. We must conclude then that the logician has spoken his categorization to life and that he is not going to successfully argue against Christianity but rather, against his personal notion of Christianity. In other words, Russell is not basing his denial of Christianity on the God and Jesus Christ of the Christian church but rather, a Christ of his own making. He clarifies this with the following sentences,

“Therefore I take it that when I tell you why I am not a Christian I have tell you two different things: first, why I do not believe in God and in immortality; and, secondly, why I do not think that Christ was the best and wisest of men, although I grant him a very high degree of moral goodness.” (pp 4-5)

I am left to wonder at this very early stage of the essay whether or not it is fruitful to continue. Russell is not basing the fundamental arguments that support his conclusion on fact but rather, on his incorrect assertions (assumptions?) about what makes one a Christian. If I consider this false ‘christian’ that he portrays a straw man, all that follows will simply knock down that creation rather than present a valid, reasoned argument with evidence that can be evaluated independently of the essay. I suppose that I must now be prepared to read further prepared to confront additional falsehoods and unwarranted liberties with the essentials of Christian belief.

Part Two here…

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