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LOGICAL FALLACIES IN RUSSELL’S “WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN”

Bertrand Russell made many objections to Christ and Christianity in his paper Why I am not a Christian.

He wrote, “Belief in eternal hell fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in Hell.”

Russell commits the fallacy of rash generalisation. Just because some bishops and Church leaders oppose the Christian doctrine of Hell he assumes it is not binding on anybody to believe it.

The error here is in assuming that it is up to bishops and ecclesiastics to decide what is to be believed by Christians. Russell should have remembered that bishops and ecclesiastics may just as easily mutilate and try to misrepresent the teaching of Christ as they can propound it accurately. To be a Christian one must accept the teaching of Jesus Christ. People who are described as Christian leaders quite frequently lead their flocks astray. If Jesus said there is a Hell, then the Christians who considers the doctrine optional is not a true Christian. He or she follows a semblance of Christianity.

Russell hints that Christianity is not revealed by God but is merely based on human opinion. Some say that is the straw man approach. It accuses the faith of being purely human but masquerading as divine. But they are setting up a straw man unless they can give good evidence that he is wrong.

When considering arguments for the existence of God, Russell states, “Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God. …If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause…There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed.”

Russell fails to see that if the world could have come to be without a cause so could God. And if the world could always have existed then why not God? His arguments do not work unless the concept of God is incoherent. It is incoherent and that is the problem with it.

Imagine the first cause was just an impersonal and spiritual intelligence. That would be simpler than the Christian God who not only is intelligent but is conscious and can relate to people. If you want an simple first cause, the cause cannot be God.

Christians say, "Russell believed in the brute fact of the universe. He didn’t see that it is more likely for God to be such a fact than the creation. God is simple and he is spirit. Spirit is that which exists but which is not physical and has no parts. The creation however is complicated and physical and needs to be put together and organised. He failed to see that when we say everything has a cause we mean the creation. God was not made by anything. He has no cause. He just is. God is a brute fact. Only God can be a brute fact for he is the reason for his own existence."
This assumes that a spirit is so simple that it needs nothing to put it together. But that may be false - sometimes simple things have to come out of complex. It assumes that it is good and perfect to be God. But is it?

You would need to be able to prove spirit really exists. And you would need to prove that being spirit is good. In fact, Christians say we hope to rise again implying that surviving death as a spirit is undesirable and inadequate. It is only good because the alternative is non-existence. That would be a negative goodness. It is not a positive goodness. So it might not be good to be a spirit. It could be a case of being wanting to do things and being unable to without having a body. Or it could be a case where you have no brain or nerves and no feelings and just float around aimlessly. A spirit God as a spirit God, cannot suffer for others. God is said to have become man in Jesus Christ. But that is different. He had to take on an additional nature in order to do it.

Russell is said to misused Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor means one must always accept the simplest and most suitable explanation of the available evidence. Suppose the universe could be a brute fact. Suppose God could be a brute fact. Occam’s Razor says we should take it for granted that God as the simplest adequate explanation is the brute fact. Russell could have avoided being accused of abusing the Razor by exploring the alleged simplicity of God more in depth.

“There is a very common argument from Natural Law. That was a favourite argument all through the eighteenth century, especially under the influence of Sir Isaac Newton and his cosmogony. People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so… We now find that a great many things we thought were Natural Laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depth of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature. And a great many things that have been regarded as laws of nature are of that kind.”

Russell attempts to refute the idea that the universe works according to laws - eg, its law that if you get too close to the sun you will burn up - because he is afraid that the suggestion that it does imply that there must be a God to make these laws. He suggests that what we see as natural laws are simply the regularities we observe. They are not really laws. In this view, the sun is hot not because laws actually decree that it will be but by chance.

This is an example of circular reasoning, “The universe does not really work through laws so there is no God. Because there is no God we know it does not work by laws.” He is assuming as true what he says he needs to prove. Assuming is not proving.

Russell fears the notion that there can be no law without a law maker. But if there is no God, if there is nothing at all, it is the law that there will be no suffering. Laws exist whether there is a lawmaker or not.

Russell contemplates the Argument for God’s existence From Design:
 
“The next step in the process brings us to the argument from design. ..When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the 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. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan, the Fascisti, and Mr. Winston Churchill?”

Christians reply, "Russell assumes that God must make only perfect things. If for him if things are imperfect or seem to be imperfectly designed then they disprove God. He does not consider the possibility that creation was designed well but we ruined it. We ruined the design at the Fall. The ruin does not refute design but rather supports it."

If design is ruined by evil, that evil surely might attack our minds first and foremost. So how can we judge then if creation is designed? Is not blaming the fall for the lack of design an attempt to dismiss any evidence that there is no design?

Another Christian answer to Russell’s problem is that God does make things perfectly. It is because we refused to be perfect that creation is imperfect. Also, an artist might design some “flaw” into his painting. That does not mean his painting is imperfect. It is as perfect in the way it is meant to be.
If we were in a hellish universe, Christians would still be saying that. It is rubbish spouted by people who have no real understanding of the horrors of suffering.

Christians say, "Russell thinks that the things that don’t seem designed prove there is no designer. If you go into a tailor’s premises and see there are a few coats completed amid a pile of material lying everywhere you will not take the latter as evidence that there is no tailor. You will take the coats as evidence that there is."

But if the rags were found along the road you would not say there was a tailor there. You only take the rags as evidence for a tailor when you know you are in a tailors shop.
 
Russell argued:

God only makes things that look perfectly designed.

 

There are imperfections in the universe.

 

Therefore there is no God.

He takes the first premise as proven though it is only an assumption. It is not necessarily correct. But it is not necessarily wrong either.

He says, “Really I am not much impressed with the people who say: "Look at me: I am such a splendid product that there must have been design in the universe." I am not very much impressed by the splendour of those people."

He insinuates that believers in divine design are arrogant and haughty. That is an ad hominem argument. If all believers have that pompous attitude it does not disprove divine design. He is trying to provoke ill feeling against believers to prejudice the reader against divine design.
The argument would show that believing in divine design is not nice but not that it is incorrect.

After stating that life will disappear from the universe one day and there is no eternal life he writes, “I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. “

It seems true that some people need the teaching of eternal life. In fact, they make themselves need it. If they were properly adjusted they would love life for being life and settle for that. In reality, what they need is not the belief but to grow out of it.

He argues against the moral argument for God which states that “there would be no right and wrong unless God existed. 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 point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God's fiat, because God's fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.”

Russell’s argument is obviously and undeniably correct. No honest person will dispute it. No decent person will say that the problem with killing babies for fun is not that it needlessly hurts the babies but that it is forbidden by God. To be unable to admit it is bad just because it is cruelty is to admit that you don't really know what evil or good are.
Christians dispute Russell's argument. They say its flaw is that it is too simplistic.

Some say, "If there is no God who is working to bring a greater good out of all the evil that happens, then for all you know, murdering a baby could change the course of history for the better and letting the baby live might not. Everything we do has a “butterfly effect” or domino effect. Every event however small ultimately changes the course history will take. So you have no way of proving that it is really right or wrong. To believe in the possibility of knowing the objective moral values you need to believe in a God whose authority forbids us to murder babies." An atheist would not kill the baby for he has no reason to think it can better the future. The believer in a God who turns evil into good could not agree with the atheist. The argument they give is no response to Russell. Russell is not on about what is moral or immoral but about the justification for believing that morality is real.

Is wrong really wrong or is it wrong just because God says so? If we say the former it implies that right and wrong are independent of God and God must obey those standards. The Christian "solution" is that God’s character is good and he only commands good because he is good. There is no standard of good and evil independent of God. Thus good and evil have objective existence. In reality, the solution says that both options are out and then it combines them and rewords them to make it seem there is a third option.

Russell objects to the doctrine that there is a lot of unfairness and injustice in the world and that some day maybe in the next life God will rectify this and give justice to all.

He states “Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue: "The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance." You would say: "Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment;" and that is really what a scientific person would argue about the universe. “

This is a false analogy.

We can see all that is in the crate. But we cannot see the full picture of all that happens in the universe. The evil that happens in one place could well be balanced out by the good God does elsewhere in the universe or he might bring a wonderful good out of it.

“What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. “

This is an ad hominem fallacy and a false generalisation. It is meant to accuse all believers of being stupid. It underestimates how good theologians can be at lying.

“As I said before, I do not think that the real reason that people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.”

These arguments are an ad hominim arguments and rash generalisations. Even if belief in God is ridiculous it doe not follow that believers necessarily believe in God without intellectual arguments. Anybody can believe because of an inadequate argument.

“I now want to say a few words upon a topic which I often think is not quite sufficiently dealt with by Rationalists, and that is the question whether Christ was the best and the wisest of men. It is generally taken for granted that we should all agree that that was so. I do not myself. I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do. I do not know that I could go with Him all the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can. You will remember that He said: "Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-Tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present Prime Minister, for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.”

None of the above is relevant to proving Christ unwise. Russell seems to want us to think that because some of Jesus’ teaching was similar to other religious figures that he was stupid. Again an ad hominem attack for if Jesus had borrowed that would not mean he was unwise. Wise men do learn from one another.

He argues:
 
Christ’s teaching on turn the other cheek is stupid so Christians do not accept it and Christians do not accept it because it is stupid. A circular argument.

Russell wrote: “Christ said, "Judge not lest ye be judged." That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries.” He says this teaching is unrealistic and stupid.

But many people who call themselves Christians are fond of quoting Jesus out of context in order to spread liberalism and indifference to immorality. What Jesus actually meant was that you must not judge others unless you judge yourself first. The context speaks of seeing the mote in the eye of another while there is a plank in your own eye. Jesus’ teaching is not unrealistic at all. It urges realistic and unbiased judgement.

Russell thinks that Jesus thought that “his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance: "Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come." Then He says: "There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom"; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living.” … That was the belief of his earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, "Take no thought for the morrow," and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. “

Christians say that none of the texts he cites indicates that Jesus meant a coming where he would come in glory and power to take over the world. They say Russell takes Jesus out of context. But they are twisting Jesus' words. There was no other coming referred to in the Bible but the coming of Jesus as man and as son of man in glory to reign over the world. They say Russell is using the argument from ignorance for he incorrectly surmises that the lack of evidence that Jesus meant his second coming means that he did mean it. Jesus is being presumed guilty until proven innocent.


The believers might say I am forgetting that Jesus left us at the crucifixion and came back to us and returned in the resurrection three days later. This was fulfilled they say. But that is a rationalisation - Jesus rising from the dead and making a few brief appearances is not much of a coming.


Russell implies that any person who believes in Hell is not a good person: “I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting Punishment.”

Is that an hominum attack? It would seem that even if the doctrine were evil, there would be many good people who have not thought the doctrine through and taken it for granted as compatible with God’s love in some way they have not heard about or can’t understand. But if good people thought it was okay to rape a child would you make such an excuse?

“Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching -- an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative Excellence.”

Christians say that Russell is setting Jesus up as a straw man here. "Jesus’ fury was not vindictive but reflected the very real danger of Hell. He was warning people for their own good. Are you vindictive if you shout furiously at somebody to get out of a burning house?" If it was not vindictive but just real tough love, then why are the Christians not showing this love themselves?

To argue that it is vindictive to preach about Hell and since Jesus preached about Hell he was vindictive, is thought to be a circular argument. Christians think that. But it is not.

Russell writes, “There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: "Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world nor in the world to come." That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come.”

Christians say, "He is using the example of people who suffered because they did not understand the Bible. They did not understand that Jesus merely meant the blasphemy of hardening one’s heart so much that one would never repent and respond to the grace of the Holy Spirit. Those who commit the sin do not worry about having committed it for they are too blind to see how sinful they are."
But they presuppose that the people referred to by Jesus as being guilty of the eternal sin were 100% hardened. Nobody is. What you have is people who are hard enough not to let their better nature through. Of course the doctrine of the eternal sin will torment them.

Of the warning about hell and punishment from God, Russell writes, “it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often. “

That might seem as illogical as saying that a person becomes an executioner because he likes killing people! Not necessarily. If all Christians vindictively enjoyed the thought of people going to Hell that still would not refute the gospels. But if the gospels are fond of the doctrine we can question the right of the authors to be seen as penning the word of a loving God.

“ There is the instance of the Gadarene swine, where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill into the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chose to send them into the pigs. “

Christians say that the gospel does not say that Jesus was to blame for what the pigs did. He put the demons into the pigs but the demons were so evil and furious they accidentally drove the pigs to suicide. They say that the divine purpose in this miracle was to show how dangerous demons are and to get it across that demons and the inhabitants of Hell are insane.

The argument is presented in the context of claiming that Jesus was not the perfect man. Russell is accused of using an ad hominem attack on Jesus. The Christians say the story is not relevant to proving Jesus bad because it does not say Jesus was to blame for what happened to the pigs.
But if Jesus puts demented demons into pigs what does he expect? Russell is right.

Christians ignore that and say that Russell is guilty of the False Dilemma fallacy:

Jesus killed the pigs.

 

Only a bad person would do that.

 

Therefore Jesus was bad.

The Christians say that the argument is like saying a dentist is evil for hurting his patient to help him. They say, "Even if Jesus had seemingly being cruel to the pigs, if we knew the reasons why he acted as he did we might have a different perception. God knows more than we do and we must not presume to know that his actions are not justified." That is mere rationalisation. If Jesus does what seems bad to us, we have a right to know why. And especially when he says he is to be adored as God.

“Then there is the curious story of the fig-tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig-tree. "He was hungry; and seeing a fig-tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply
He might find anything thereon; and when he came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: 'No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever'.... and Peter.... saith unto Him: 'Master, behold the fig-tree which thou cursedst is withered away.'" This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to History. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.”

Christians without any justification rationalise this as follows, "Russell forgets that Jesus preferred to teach the people through symbols and parables. The fig tree was a parable he acted out. The point of the episode was to show that God would not accept whoever had the potential to bear fruit but failed to. What about the fact that it was not the time of year for figs? That doesn’t matter for Jesus had the power to make figs appear on it but didn’t. He still illustrated his point."

“One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. ..That is the idea -- that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. “

Jesus himself criticised religion as it deserved. The "true" Church of his day was Judaism but that did not stop him telling it the truth about itself. Jesus implied that no Church should get away with doctrines or behaviour that undermine the truth revealed by God and the paths of righteousness. Jesus was clearly well are that religion does not need to worship statues to become idolatrous. Sometimes religion itself can be idolatry when it stands proud and arrogant and admires itself rather than God.

Not all believers hold that non-Christians are wicked in the sense that they are like wild beasts or demons.

“You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress of humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or ever mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the World.”

The Christians say that the scriptures never command that we must like war, abuse other races, keep slavery going etc. They lie - the Bible God does command unnecessary violence.

Some believers say that if all Christians are bad that does not mean that the faith itself is bad. It only means its being disobeyed.
But surely if the faith came from God and God changes lives their argument is wrong?

Russell claims that the Church teaches, "What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy."

It is said that he is using a straw man approach. He wants to present Christianity as a grim and unattractive faith. Some say that Christianity teaches that there is good happiness and dangerous happiness. So happiness in itself is not good. It is only good when it is based on virtue. So it means that the Christian would rather you were severely depressed and virtuous than have you happy but lacking in virtue.

The Church says that you should be prepared to give all to God forever. If you sacrifice everlasting happiness in order to please God forever, then happiness is less important than virtue.

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes.”

Reason tells us to get to know people before we try to love them. It might make you virtuous to love a person you don't know but who you think you know. It might make you happy. God by definition demands all our love and as he is the ultimate source of good we must love others only for his sake - we love him through them. It is extreme cruelty though it may not look like it to encourage people to love a God who does not exist. What adds to the outrage is how people speculate that God is right to allow terrible things to happen to people. If your love for God is evil, then your approving of him despite his allowing evil to happen, makes you evil. In fact, we should be afraid of believing in God instead of believing in him out of fear. Fear has to be at the bottom of belief in God. As fear is largely illogical, it is no surprise if belief in God is illogical and incoherent.

“Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by the help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. “

Russell assumes that all Christians only accept Christianity because it helps them deal with their fears. This is said by Christians and others to be true of some believers but not all. But do the happy Christians really understand their faith? How Christian are they?

Some say, "The author of 1 John wrote that the perfect love of God takes away all fear. The Christian can be free of fear and enjoy his faith." But this is hypothetical - he said the perfect love of God casts out all fear but he is clear as were the rest of the New Testament authors that nobody loves God perfectly.

Russell is said to be ignoring the fact that many nonbelievers are in the grip of fear. Believers say, "The atheist can be terrified of suffering and death. The atheist philosophy robs its followers of a sense of the presence of God. They are left without a sense of a God who is with them in their suffering. Christians are not promised freedom from suffering in this life but freedom from feeling totally abandoned."

But people, Christians and atheists, both can feel totally abandoned. Our emotions and our depressions are not necessarily logical or realistic. We can feel 100% abandoned though we are not. Being reminded that we are not can make our pain worse. It is understandable that people may remind us, but to encourage them to believe in a God who is with them is downright cruel.

Christianity has no right to promise people that it will benefit them. The people who suffer most are those who are in the depths of depression. Christianity lets them down and no benefits or alleged benefits that it gives to other people can justify what it does to the profoundly depressed.

Fear is the parent of cruelty. Religion is based on fear and dangerous - it should be abandoned.

“Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.”

Russell assumes that science and Christian faith are necessarily in opposition. Christians say this is false. They say, "If God created the universe and is the author of the Bible then there is no necessary contradiction between science and faith. Sometimes we think there is conflict but if we wait and keep researching we will find that the conflict gets resolved." In reality, we should be more interested in science than faith. If we refuse to accept science when it contradicts faith, we are putting faith first. If it turns out the science is wrong, the fact remains that we still value it less than faith. To devalue science is to devalue the methodology of science which is, "Do not believe anything, unless the evidence says it is true. Be prepared to change your mind." Faith cannot compare to that at all.


Christians try to put God outside the reach of science by saying he is not an object in the universe and science is about objects in the universe. But what about science and his Bible? Science disproves the Bible.

“ The whole conception of a God is a conception derived from the ancient oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. “

This is stating that we are superstitiously doing away with our freedom by believing in God because it is derived from ancient despotism. Russell forgets that the Christian God is a God of liberty and freedom. He wishes us free us from slavery to sin. He makes an ad homimen attack on belief in God. Even if belief in God did take away our freedom and happiness it still would not follow that it is false.

And another logical error is that if belief in God came from ancient despotism, it does not mean that it is a bad doctrine now. Ideas can be started off by bad people and evolve into good things. Again Russell has made an ad hominem attack not on God but on belief in God. However, if the despotism is commanded by God in the scriptures and they are considered inerrant, belief in this God and in his scriptures could prove dangerous.

Conclusion: Russell some logical errors in Why I am not a Christian. But overall the book does a reasonable job of refuting Christianity.