This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 3 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When Christians think of Bertrand Russell (if they do at all), they likely remember a famous British atheist who penned a book titled Why I Am Not a Christian. In his long and storied life, Russell (1872–1970) was a vocal atheist and arguably the foremost atheist in the Western world in the twentieth century. His career was not sustained by his atheism, however, but through his long engagement with philosophy and through controversial positions he took on moral issues, such as pacifism. Some aspects of his philosophy are beneficial for the cause of philosophically defending Christianity because his attacks on the faith, for all their popularity, are really quite weak.
Russell was a brilliant academic and philosopher who authored more than seventy books and more than two thousand essays on topics such as philosophy, ethics, education, science, and mathematics. He wrote for both the academy and the general public and was a prolific correspondent. He is perhaps most known for this tome A History of Western Philosophy (1945), which I have consulted many times. Ambitious and idiosyncratic, Russell’s anti-Christian prejudices bleed through at times, especially when he wrongly asserts that Blaise Pascal’s turn to religious devotion later in life caused him to disparage science and waste his prodigious intellectual talents.1 Russell won the Nobel Prize in 1950 and was one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century. His nontraditional views on sexual ethics kept him from being offered a prestigious professorship at the City College of New York in 1955.
POINTS OF COMMENDATION
Russell could be a masterful writer. In a celebrated passage in his essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” he waxes eloquent on the predicament of humanity in the modern age. In an expansive but beautiful sentence, Russell poetically limns the lineaments of his atheistic creed.
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.2
He, like Frederick Nietzsche, understood the consequences of rejecting God and accepting a godless and purposeless cosmos.3 In this, we can commend his honesty. Would that all atheists would be as philosophically aware. Nevertheless, Russell did not succumb to nihilism but was animated by hope. He says, “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”4 In his autobiography, he writes that he had found love toward the end of his life, that he had achieved a little knowledge of “the hearts of men,” “why the stars shine,” and of “the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.”5 He says he would live his life over again.
Secondly, Russell should be commended for his method in philosophy, however much we may disagree with his philosophical conclusions. Along with G. E. Moore and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, Russell developed the school of analytic philosophy in the early twentieth century. He called this “the philosophy of logical analysis.”6 Russell rejected the grand, sweeping, sprawling philosophizing of Hegel (who is so often incomprehensible) in favor of the precision of a Swiss watchmaker. This approach is modeled on the accuracy and clarity of good science writing, but it need not address matters of science. Analytic philosophers labor to define their terms carefully, to work on intellectual questions one at a time, have an acute concern for how language works, and to articulate explicitly the kind of argument forms they are offering.
Although the early proponents of analytic philosophy were non-Christians, the method itself is neutral as to outcome. The most distinguished Christian philosophers of the day are analytic in their method, such as Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, and Richard Swinburne. Of course, there are analytic philosophers who are atheists as well, such as Thomas Nagel and John Searle.7
Third, Russell’s philosophy of truth and falsehood is worth studying and applying in a world of relativism and postmodernism in which objective truth claims, such as “Jesus rose from the dead” are called into question. In his 1912 work The Problems of Philosophy, Russell rightly distinguishes what truth is and how truth can be known. If we fail to discern the meaning of truth, we never can determine what statements are true and what statements are false. In other words, we cannot test a statement for truth unless we have defined the nature of truth.8
Russell writes that “truth and falsehood are properties of beliefs and statements; hence a world of mere matter, since it would contain no beliefs or statements, would also contain no truth or falsehood.”9 However, “truth or falsehood always depend upon something which lies outside of the belief itself.”10 For the statement “Jesus rose from the dead” to be true, it must correspond to the fact that Jesus did rise from the dead. Truth and falsehood are properties of beliefs, but they are properties that depend on their relationship to things outside the beliefs themselves, and “not upon any internal quality of the beliefs.”11 Thus, being sincere or being convinced is never a guarantee that one’s belief is true. You can be sincerely wrong if your belief fails to correspond to the claim that you assert. “Thus, a belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.”12
The reader should see that what is called “the correspondence theory of truth” (as defended by Russell and others) is necessary for the proclamation and defense of the gospel. Consider Paul’s great claim about Jesus’ resurrection.
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor. 15:14–20 NIV)
To put it philosophically, Paul is assuming that the statement “God raised Christ from the dead” is true because it is factual. It is not true because Paul said it or because many people have believed it. Their beliefs are made truth by the fact of the Resurrection. The opposite claim that “Christ has not been raised” is thus false because it fails to correspond to the facts.
Despite his brilliance, Russell erred greatly on the topic that is most important of all: the existence of God. He argued that no argument for the existence of God succeeded. I will address two of his flawed critiques.
POINTS OF CONTENTION
First, take the cosmological argument. There is a family of cosmological arguments, but they all argue from the fact of the cosmos to the existence of a Creator of the cosmos. It is a specimen of one of many kinds of natural theology.13 Russell summarily dismisses the argument by offering a straw man version of it.
Everything that exists must have a cause.
The universe exists and so must have a cause.
Therefore, the universe is caused by a first cause (that is, God).
This argument obviously fails because of premise (1). If everything needs a cause, then God Himself needs a cause and is not God at all, being dependent on something outside Himself. Outside of incorrect answers on student papers, I have never seen any theist give this transparently fallacious argument. But even the great Russell writes, “If everything must have a cause, it may as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in the argument.”14
Consider a real cosmological argument that is not so easy to refute.
Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
The universe began to exist.
Therefore, the universe had a cause.15
There are more sophisticated arguments against the different forms of the cosmological argument, to be sure.16 But it is remarkable that a man of Russell’s caliber gave such an inept criticism.
Russell failed in all these supposed refutations of theistic arguments, but I will take up just one more: the moral argument. Very simply, the argument says that without God, there would be no right and wrong. Since there is right and wrong, God must exist as the basis for right and wrong. This is how Russell puts it, but it can be stated in far richer detail. Russell thinks he can defeat all moral arguments for God by raising an ancient objection, first given by Plato in The Euthyphro. He writes,
If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, 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.17
Russell takes this dilemma to destroy the moral argument. Nonetheless, the theist can escape between the horns of the dilemma by saying that God grounds what is good in His own character, which is eternal and stable. God’s commands come from His character and fit the world God has made. Thus, the dilemma is dissolved.18
The intellectual landscape of twentieth century philosophy cannot be conceived without the work of Bertrand Russell. This small sampling may help Christians appropriate a few of Russell’s philosophical strengths and to criticize two of his arguments against Christianity.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness — A Philosopher’s Lament (InterVarsity Press, 2017).
- Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972; orig. pub. 1945), 768. In defense of Pascal’s philosophical acumen, see Douglas Groothuis, On Pascal (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).
- Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship” in Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Touchstone, 1967).
- See Nietzsche’s parable of “The Madman,” in Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking, 1975).
- Bertrand Russell, Autobiography (London: Routledge, 2000), 9.
- Russell, Autobiography, 9.
- Bertrand Russell, “The Philosophy of Logical Analysis,” A History of Western Philosophy.
- For an in-depth treatment, see Aaron Preston, “Analytic Philosophy,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/analytic.
- Francis Schaeffer agreed. See “The Importance of Truth,” The God Who Is There, 30th ed. (Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity Press, 1998).
- Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (orig. pub. 1912; Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1984), 121.
- Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 121.
- Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 121.
- Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 129. On the correspondence view of truth, see Douglas Groothuis, “The Truth about Truth,” Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000) and Stewart Kelly and James Dew, Understanding Postmodernism: A Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017).
- See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), “Part II: The Case for Christian Theism.”
- Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, 6–7. The current queen of straw-man arguments concerning the cosmological argument is atheist Rebecca Goldstein. See William Lane Craig, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: Goldstein on the Cosmological Argument,” https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-natureof-god/36-arguments-for-the-existence-of-god-goldstein-on-the-cosmological-argument.
- For the substantiation of this argument for natural theology, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 214–39, and J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind, rev. and updated (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012), 161–71.
- See Groothuis, “Cosmological Arguments,” in Christian Apologetics.
- Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” in Why I Am Not a Christian,
- For a detailed treatment of this issue see James Hanick and Gary Mar, “What Euthyphro Couldn’t Have Said,” Faith and Philosophy 4, 3 (1987): 241–61.