Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (1927)


1.      One: Belief in God

         a.      No specific idea of what God is like?

2.      Two: Belief in immortality

         a.      If one does not believe in life after death, one is not a Christian?

3.      Three: Belief in Christ as the best and wisest of men

         a.      Needn’t believe he was divine?

4.      Russell rejects all three

5.      Note: For Russell, being Christian doesn’t require a belief in Hell



7.      Objections to the 1st cause argument (Cosmological argument = Everything has a cause, so there must be a first cause)

         a.      Positing God as cause of the world doesn’t help, as who caused God?

         b.      World could have always existed

         c.      No reason why world couldn’t have come into existence without a cause

         d.      **Note: You should be able to give Richard Taylor’s response to each of these objections

8.      Objections to the design argument

         a.      Design argument: World must have been designed to suit living beings (including humans)

                  i.      For if world had been a bit different, not life could have existed

                  ii.     There is oxygen, gravity, and a bunch of physical constants all of which are necessary for life

         b.      Russell’s natural selection/evolution response:

                  i.      Argument undermined by realization that living beings adapted to the world and that is why the world seems such a nice fit for living beings

                  ii.     “Not that the environment was made to suit living creature, but they grew to be suitable to it”

                  iii.    Evolution explains design of living things for their environment

         c.      Russell’s problem of evil response:

                  i.      Not likely a good and all powerful being would have designed a world with all the defects of our world

Objection to the moral arguments

9.      Argument 1--Divine command theory of right and wrong: Right is what God commands and wrong is what God forbids (God is needed to create right and wrong)

         a.      Replies

                  i.      If what is right is right because God commanded it (simply due to his choice/fiat to command it), then we can’t praise God for his commands and such commands are arbitrary (lacking a good reason, that is, the reason that he commanded them because they were right is not available)

                  ii.     If God commands something because it is already right, then right and wrong are independent of (and prior to) God

10.    Argument 2--Argument for remedying injustice: Sometimes, in this world, the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer and so we need to suppose a God who will eventually bring justice into this world

                  i.      But why assume the world must be just?

                  ii.     Given that the world we know if filled with injustice, why assume the rest of reality is any different?

                  iii.    It is more logical to assume the rest of reality is like what we know (bad oranges top of crate argument)


11.    Not the wisest, because he predicted his second coming and it hasn’t happened

12.    Not the best of men

         a.      Christ had a good deal of moral excellence and perfection, such as these teachings

                  i.      Turn the other cheek, judge not lest one be judged, and if one wants to be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor

                           (1)    Russell criticizes Christians for not liking or living up to these teachings

         b.      But was not the best or most perfect person

                  i.      Socrates or Buddha were better men

13.    Objections to Christ’s moral views and character

         a.      (1) Christ believed in and threatened hellfire and eternal damnation

                  i.      This has caused unspeakable misery in those who believed they have sinned

                  ii.     A truly good person would not put such fears and terror into the world

                  iii.    Any profoundly humane person wouldn’t believe in everlasting punishment

                  iv.    Hell-fire as a punishment for sin is a doctrine of cruelty and it has brought cruelty into the world

         b.      (2) Christ’s vindictive fury against disbelievers and those who would not listen to him detracts from his excellence

                           (1)    Socrates, for example, had a different attitude

                  ii.     “Only way to God is through me”

                  iii.    If you don’t believe in me you will go to Hell


14.    Positive force

         a.      Many believe that one should not attack religion because it makes people virtuous and w/o it, they’d be evil

                  i.      Is this true? Fear of God’s punishment keeps people in line? Are atheists any more likely to be immoral than other people?

         b.      Consider the massive amount of charitable contribution and good work of churches and religious people in general

15.    Negative (Russell’s view)

         a.      Religion is the source of much evil (including violence) in the world (e.g., hatred and fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Jews and Muslims in Middle East, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Hindus and Muslims in India, ISIS–Radical Islam vs Christianity)

         b.      The stronger the religious fervor, the worse the situation

                  i.      Note: Recent study found that being a more fundamental and religious Muslim was not correlated with more likely to be a terrorist

         c.      Consider the inquisition (Church persecuting heretics in middle ages), witch burnings (tens of thousands of women burned to death)

         d.      Organized churches have been a principle impediment to human progress (e.g., support for Nazis, Southern churches support for segregation, KKK)

         e.      Religion sees God’s will and human good as not the same

                  i.      Religious based morals not tied to human happiness

                           (1)    Sex is bad; religion perpetuates fear, shame in those who have sex

                           (2)    Prohibition of contraception and affects on world population are bad


16.    Brainwashed in infancy

17.    Fear/terror of meaningless, death, the unknown

         a.      Desire not to believe that the universe will eventually die out

18.    Need for safety and comfort (a big brother looking out for you)


19.    Virtuous person is not a religious person

20.    Religion unworthy of free and rational people

         a.      Debasing, not worthy of self-respecting people

                  i.      Image of people flogging themselves saying “We’re miserable sinners”

         b.      Slavishly subdued by terror

         c.      Fetters human intelligence using ancient words of ignorant people

         d.      Belief in God a crutch

21.    Instead look to human intelligence and science

                  i.      “To conquer the world”

         b.      Look to our own efforts to improve the world

         c.      Need a fearless outlook

         d.      Faith in human intelligence

22.    Possible critique of rational humanism

         a.      Does such a humanism manifest an undue faith in humans?

         b.      As if we humans are so great then we can solve all our problems?

                  i.      A kind of hubris? Arrogance?

Questions on Russell on Religion and Christianity

1.      Russell claims: "If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God. . . . 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. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all." Which of these statements would Richard Taylor agree with and which disagree with and why? Where they disagree, do you support Taylor or Russell? Why?

2.      According to Russell, the theory of evolution undermines the design argument for God’s existence. What is the design argument and how does evolution undermine it?

3.      Identify and explain the two “moral arguments” for God’s existence. What are Russell’s objections to them?

4.      What must one believe in order to be "a Christian" according to Russell? Is this a good definition of "Christian?"

5.      What are Russell's reasons for not being a Christian? Are these good reasons? Why or why not?

6.      What "moral defects" does Russell find in Jesus' character? Do you agree that these are moral defects? Why or why not?

7.      According to Russell, what are some of the motivations that get people to be religious (besides fear of eternal damnation)? Do you think he is right? Why or why not?

8.      Explain Russell's reasons for claiming that religion has, on balance, been a negative force in human history. Do you agree with him?

9.      Explain why Russell thinks that religious belief is "unworthy of free and rational people." Do you think he is right?

10.    Can an atheist be a morally good person? Why or why not? Can an atheist consistently believe in objective morality? Why or why not? Is it true that "without God, everything is permissible?" Why might some think this is true?

11.    Explain the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Is it more difficult to defend atheism than agnosticism? Why or why not?

12.    What does Russell propose as an alternative to belief in God as a guide to human life? Does alternative seem plausible to you?