Religion and Humanism,
The Sophists to Secular Humanism

He says somewhere that man is the measure of all things,
of the existing, that they are, and of the non-existing, that they are not.

Socrates quoting Protagoras of Abdera, Plato, Theaetetus, 152a, Theaetetus and Sophist, translated by Harold North Fowler, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1921, 1961, p.40-41, translation modified.

Greek philosophy began with the , physikoì philósophoi, the "natural philosophers" (in Latin, philosophi naturales). Their focus on nature contrasts with the emphasis in Indian and Chinese philosophy (on salvation and morality) and suggests the later development of science in Western philosophy. But eventually there was a reaction in Greek philosophy. The reaction can be characterized as Greek Humanism. Humanism proper began in the Renaissance as a movement associated with Classical literature and Classical values. "Humanism" comes from the Latin word for man, homo, and the derived adjective, humanus, "human." Applying the term to Greek humanism thus involves a retrospective judgment, that Greek values were comparable, indeed were the origin, of the humanistic values of the Renaissance.

"Humanism" now is often defined, or at least leaves the impression, as the exclusion of religion. We see this at The Humanist and the American Humanist Association. Someone merely familiar with the language of these sites would be surprised to learn that Renaissance humanists were Christians, or that the greatest Greek humanist, Socrates, regarded his own work as a mission for his patron god, Apollo at Delphi. These cases, which are historically central, show that humanism was originally a religious humanism. Some recent humanist organizations are clearly aware of this, for instance the American Ethical Union, which says, "Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society." Similarly, if some humanism is religious, then a humanism that explicitly excluded religion would be something else, a "secular humanism," such as we see in the name of the Council for Secular Humanism.

So what would humanism in general, religious and secular, ancient and modern, be about? We see the origin in the contrast with Greek natural philosophy. Humanism is a concern with issues relevant to the human condition. Since the human condition is, as Buddhism would say, birth, disease, old age, and death, one begins to wonder about the meaning, value, and purpose of life. With such concerns, inquiry frequently turns, as Socrates puts it, to questions about the "just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad." If Greek humanism was a reaction against natural philosophy, Renaissance humanism itself was a reaction against the Scholasticism of Mediaeval philosophy, which often concerned itself with abstruse questions (like how many angels can fit on the head of a pin) of questionable relevance to the human condition (the answer -- all of them -- they are immaterial and do not take up space -- but I like the Buddhist debate about whether people in the interim state, between death and rebirth, wear clothes or not). This was not always fair, since Mediaeval philosophy, like Mediaeval religion, was intensely concerned with the meaning and purpose of human life; but the Renaisssance humanists, with Greek literature returning from the Fall of Constantinople, grew impatient.

Greek humanism did not actually begin with Socrates, but with the Sophists. A , sophistés, is simply one who knows something, or the "master of one's craft or art," an "adept." What the Sophists actually were, however, was traveling paid teachers. Like modern rock stars, they even had advance men who would arrive in a city to advertise the coming of the Sophist and sign up students. Some Sophists advertised themselves, as we hear with Hippias of Elis, who is supposed to have showed up at the Olympic Games saying that he could teach anyone how to make anything he was wearing. In general, however, the Sophists, especially the most important ones, like Protagoras of Abdera, , or Gorgias of Leontini, , claimed to teach something in particular, namely virtue. What this is going to mean is not at first obvious. "Virtue" has recently sometimes only been used to mean sexual chastity. The general meaning of the Latin term virtus has also been criticized as merely meaning "manly," from Latin vir, whose equivalent in Greek would an andreîa, "manliness" or "courage." However, the Greek term for virtue, areté, derives from Árês, the god of war -- an association not just of manliness but of violence. Nevertheless, areté is often used just to mean "excellence." If we wonder what kind of "excellence" the Sophists were teaching, we need merely remember their humanism. It must be the excellence of being human. What that is depends on a particularly Greek kind of answer:  Human excellence is participation in the life of the city -- politics. Someone not so participating is merely an idiótês, a private individual. But what are the Sophists going to be teaching about politics? What is going to enable one to participate? That ends up meaning something very specific indeed, especially in democracies like Athens, with an Assembly of the (male) citizens:  public speaking.

Without loudspeakers and with crowds often in the thousands, ancient public speaking required a loud and trained voice. Benjamin Franklin, in a day when electronic amplification still didn't exist, was curious about accounts of ancient figures, like Julius Caesar, addressing entire armies. Being the kind of curious character he was, Franklin put the matter to the test with the evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770):

He had a loud and clear Voice, and articulated his Words & Sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great Distance, especially as his Auditories, however numerous, observ'd the most exact Silence. He preach'd one Evening from the top of the Court House Steps [in Philadelphia], which are in the Middle of Market Street, and on the West Side of Second Street which crosses it at right angles. Both Streets were fill'd with his Hearers to a considerable Distance. Being among the hindmost in Market Street, I had the Curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the Street towards the [Delaware] River, and I found his Voice distinct till I came near Front-Street, when some Noise in that Street, obscur'd it. Imagining then a Semi-Circle, of which my Distance should be the Radius, and that it were fill'd with Auditors, to each of whom I allow'd two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than Thirty-Thousand. This reconcil'd me to the Newspaper Accounts of his having preach'd to 25000 People in the Fields, and to the ancient Histories of Generals haranguing whole Armies, of which I had sometimes doubted. [Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings, Penguin Classics, 1986, p. 120]

Today, about the only people whose voices would be trained in such a way would be opera singers, but even they now also use amplifiers. The Sophists, therefore, in teaching speaking and rhetoric, had a substantial discipline on their hands. However, being heard and sounding good wasn't enough. The idea of public speaking is to convince others of one's views or proposals. Political speaking is thus most importantly about persuasion.

If one is going to teach persuasion, however, the question is then persuasion about what. Well, it would have to be persuasion about anything, if the Sophists are going to do the best job for any student or client. Teaching how to be persuasive about anything, however, began to give the Sophists a certain reputation. To win any argument, one cannot always argue honestly. If the Sophists then teach how to argue dishonestly, this begins to give them the reputation of being unprincipled, opportunistic, and deceptive. Because of this, a fallacious turn of argument today can still be called a sophism. Since then, fallacies of argument have been described and catalogued in great detail, like the ad hominiem argument, to attack the man instead of his argument, or the Petitio Principii, to "Beg the Question" or assume what is to be proven. Using such arguments habitually is now sophistry (sadly, a characteristic even of much Constitutional Law), and someone who argues that way is a sophist -- which now is no longer anything like a traveling paid teacher, much less a "master of one's craft or art." Some of the original meaning of sophistés, however, is preserved in the word "sophisticated," which implies knowledge in a person (often of esoterica of high culture, like wines, or of the world, like seduction) or the embodiment of knowledge in an object (like a sophisticated computer or aircraft).

With the Sophists, Greek humanism might even assume a bit of the secular variety. Protagoras, the greatest and perhaps even the first Sophist, famously stated that "Man is the measure of all things," which might be reconciled, perhaps, with the importance of the gods or, as seems more likely, eliminates them. This is confirmed by Protagoras' answer when he was specifically asked about the gods, that it was a difficult subject, life was short, and Protagoras therefore had nothing to say. This kind of thing helped give even Socrates the reputation of irreligion, although he was not a Sophist and was wholly undeserving of such imputations.

For all their acknowledgment of religion, however, Socrates, the Renaissance humanists, and apparently the "humanistic religious" American Ethical Union ("the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society"), have a view of religion that is not always consistent or reconcilable with the traditional demands of religion itself. The element of rationalism is clear in Socrates (who nevertheless heard voices), strong in the Renaissance, and overwhelming in recent religious humanism (considering that the "surpreme aim" of many religions, like Christianity and Buddhism, is Salvation). A good contrast in that respect is between the contemporaries Erasmus (1466-1536), one of the greatest Renaissance humanists, and Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of the Protestant Reformation. These men were at first inclined to be sympathetic to each other, but then fell out when they realized how different their purposes and sensiblities were. Erasmus, indeed, was essentially a rationalist ("Pray for us, Saint Socrates," he said) and as such is barely remembered as having anything at all to contribute to religion. Luther, on the other hand, was driven by religious passions that still echo in contemporary religious inspiration.

If a religious humanism can become essentially rationalistic, it is central to note what it does regard as religious and how this differs from the more intrinsic and genuine requirements of religion. Religion, as it happens, can be divided into matters of belief and matters of practice, while practice can be divided into ritual practices and morality. To a religious humanism, morality is all that really matters about religion, and if there are matters of faith that are not strictly matters of rational knowledge, these are only metaphors and parables for rational truths, formulated so that the latter will be intelligible to the masses. Matters of faith that represent something outside of rational understanding altogether, i.e. matters of dogma, are regarded by religious humanism with all the distrust and opprobrium that now clings to the term "dogma" quite generally. By the same token, the requirements of ritual practice, reduced greatly enough in Protestantism, come to be regarded as absolutely unnecessery and absurd. Thus, Hume says:

The ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion may be considered as instances of the same nature. The devotees of that superstition usually plead in excuse for the mummeries, with which they are upbraided, that they feel the good effect of those external motions, and postures, and actions, in enlivening their devotion and quickening their fervour, which otherwise would decay, if directed entirely to distant and immaterial objects. [David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Shelby-Bigge edition, Oxford, 1902, 1972, p. 51]

Thus, to Hume, ritual acts, lacking rational purpose, are senseless "mummeries." Although Hume was an infamous atheist, similar views are noteworthy in Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, for each of whom the point and content of religion was moral, while doctrines more at the heart of traditional Christianity, like the Redemptive role of Jesus, are rejected as improper and superstitious, or even morally offensive. Jefferson even redacted his own edition of the New Testament, eliminating everthing except the actual moral teachings of Jesus. He had nothing but contempt for notions of the divinity of Jesus, which he blamed on the Patriarch Athanasius -- who was in fact the champion of the Christian orthodoxy formulated at Nicaea in 325 [note]. Kant and Jefferson were outwardly nowhere near as observant as Erasmus had been, but they represent the logical continuation of the humanistic tendency to dismiss dogma and ritual as offensive to reason and inessential to the real, moral purpose of religion.

A further level of dispute, however, arises over morality itself, for the justification of the moral doctrine of religions itself is subject to a rationalistic critique; and it also becomes an issue whether morality ought to mainly be about personal behavior or if it really means action for political and social purposes. Thus, I recall again the statement of the American Ethical Union that "the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society." In many public debates, we often see the concern of the traditionally religious with issues like abortion and sexual promiscuity, while those whose inspiration is humanistically religious frequently dismiss these concerns with brusque affirmations that the real concern of religious action should be with the poor, the hungry, the homeless, etc. While Jesus undoubtedly puts emphasis in both areas, humanistic religious action displays a tendency to absorb radical political ideology that is unrelated and often adverse to religious concerns -- not to mention false and dangerous in general. The "Liberation Theology" that was long popular with some Catholic clerics was easily conformable, indeed hardly distinguishable, from the Marxism of the kinds of political figures with whom such clerics often associated. Liberal Protestant ministers (including the dependably radical National Council of Churches USA, which nevertheless includes many Orthodox as well as Protestant Churches), although only occasionally going as far as Marxism, nevertheless tend to lapse into a generalized Leftism, whose tendencies and rationalistic inspiration are on the whole little different.

While the leftism of religious humanism accompanies a conceit that this is the only way to display concern for the poor, it completely loses touch with the case in traditional morality that personal virtue itself is the proper treatment of poverty and the only moral and honorable way, for those able, that people can achieve prosperity. For traditional personal morality, as it happens, melded rather easily with capitalism, and the leftist inspiration of the typical modern religious humanism involves an explicit and contemptuous rejection of capitalism in all its principles and ethic. Religious humanism thus runs afoul, not just of religion, but of its own rationalistic foundation, since anti-capitalism is now revealed as itself a kind of irrational dogma, immune to the lessons of economics, history, and often even logic. As I have noted elsewhere, Marxism easily becomes an equivalent substitute for religious dogma, in no way inferior in its intense moral indignation and its prophetic, fantastic, and irrational elements -- with the added factor of pseudo-science to make it sound like superior rationality.

A good example of the connection between traditional morality and the kind of social issues that the left regards as its own can be found in Benjamin Franklin, who in 1766 wrote:

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer. ["The Encouragement of Idleness"]

The possibility of this is simply not believed by leftist social activists because they do not believe that wealth is created by private economic action but is actually controlled and distributed by larger institutional forces, which now are improperly in the hands of selfish private interests and instead should be subject to government. Although it can hardly withstand a moment's critical scrutiny, even from genuine Marxists, what underlies this worldview is often a kind of Cargo Cult economics, which takes wealth to be something that already exists, leaving the only moral, economic, and political question to be one of how to "distribute" the wealth. On the other hand, while serious Marxists understand that wealth must be created, Marx's thesis that capital is unnecessary and fictitious, and that wealth is merely a function of labor, produces principles nearly as absurd. When Lenin got his chance to absolish capital altogether in practice, the results were so catastrophic that he had to Save the Revolution by pulling back and allowing some amount of private business. The Soviet Union never went so far again towards pure Communism, except in the sense that private capital was not allowed. The effects of this regime were bad enough, though it now allows the diehards to claim that Marxism was never "tried" in the Soviet Union. It was, but even Lenin was wise, or pragmatic, enough to perceive its failure, at least at the moment.

There would be no need to go into these matters in such detail were it not the case now that so many people have come to believe that the essence and the meaning of religion is really political activism, based on Marxist or socialist economic principles. This has been especially damaging in liberal Christianity and Judaism. A recent poll found that 60% of Jews don't even believe in God; and, not surprisingly, speaking to Reform Jews about religion is more likely to involve talk about the "here and now," "social justice," or "corporate responsibility" than about God or the observation of the (irrational and ritualistic) Law -- for instance, we find Rabbi Michael Lerner at Tikkun magazine, who says that "a progressive politics of meaning does not require that one believe in a Supreme Being, much less the specific God that has been taught in orthodox versions of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam." This all serves merely to bleed religion of anything specifically religious, or indeed to dismiss it as superfluous. When the humanist sees dogma and ritual as, at best, metaphors for rational truths that the masses are not yet ready to understand, then, presumably as education spreads, this symbolic shell for the rational truths can be expected to wither away, like Marx's notion of the withering away of the state. So nothing specifically religious seems likely to remain.

In those terms, the history of the 20th century was a great disappointment for humanism. As the century began, the bien pensants expected that things like public education would produce an enlightened age of science, prosperity, peace, and, no doubt, socialism -- with old dogmatisms, like religion, fading away. The American "Pragmatist" (actually an ideologue) John Dewey (1859-1952) fell into this group. Instead of this sunny future, however, purely secular ideologies like Fascism and Communism managed to plunge the world into horrendous wars and succeeded in slaughering a good hundred million civilians, usually in their own countries. It took some years (around 15) for Dewey to understand that Josef Stalin was a murdering tyrant -- displaying a degree of mental density that is not at all uncommon in intellectuals but that seems surprising or impossible to many still impressed by academic credentials and verbal facility. It is always worth remembering that professional verbal facility began with, of all people, the Sophists.

While the essence of religion is the irreducible irrationality of the numinous, the holy, expressed in dogmatic belief and ritual, as discussed in detail elsewhere, traditional morality also can often embody truths that escape the analysis of the rational humanist. This is because traditional morality can easily be the result of centuries of trial and error, the natural experimental environment of history itself. This was well understood by classical conservatives like Hume and Edmund Burke. More recently, F.A. Hayek stated the case, characterizing as a "fatal conceit" the idea that an extended social order can be understood or constructed just from a priori and rationalistic speculation.

This itself is a kind of rationalistic thesis, as is particularly obvious in Hume (Hayek's own touchstone), for it means that, at least retrospectively, we may eventually understand why particular social customs and moral precepts have come to be and what purposes they serve. As such, it also means that we are not always unwarranted in tampering with customs and tradition. Burke clearly understood that change was something that always happens and that intentional reforms at different times may be justified -- as later it was British Conservatives who passed Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Thus, Hayek himself simply and famously denied that he was a conservative at all. This is how even religious conservatives like Burke display streaks of humanism, for genuine religious morality is as fixed and authoritative as faith and ritual. For instance, reluctance to entertain the notion that Islamic Law might have to be adapted to the modern world has led to fierce reaction and conflict in many places, hampering the economic and social progress of many Islamic countries, and spawning the development of Islamic terrorist ideology. This form of religious dogma is counterproductive, dangerous, and vicious and reveals that an element of religious humanism, and rationalism, is not always a bad idea.

Thus, a role for humanism and its rationalism emerges. Humanism is not just a concern with issues relevant to the human condition, it is a willingness to bring these under human control. Secular humanism embodies the conceit that everything is both subject and reducible to human control. Religious humanism acknowledges that the human condition may involve something more, but then this is split according to the degree of control and rationalism that is expected. We can call the alternatives there "limited rationalism," as with the qualified conservatism of Hume, Burke, and Hayek, or "unlimited rationalism," where religion itself may be reduced to the symbolic shell of rationalistic doctrine, and no doubt is entertained about the power of rational control. At the extremes, the latter may be all but indistinguishable, certainly in effect, from secular humanism. Just what this means in political, economic, or social terms depends on the ideological direction to which the rationalism tends. Someone like Thomas Jefferson would go no further than Classical Liberal principles of government, while recent religious humanism, as noted, rarely stops before socialism or Marxism -- the mark of which still tends to be the use of the term "progessive," as in the Michael Lerner quote above -- terminology in which dissimulation and dishonesty, to avoid confessions of how extreme the ideology is, play a role. All of these forms of humanism contrast with a dogmatic traditionalism, for which the Scriptural or revelatory forms of faith, ritual, and morals are authoritative and immutable. In the end, therefore, religious humanism, even that most cognizant of the nature of religion, remains in some tension with the irrational heart of religion itself.

Infantile Atheism

Why I am a Platonist

Why I am not a Christian


History of Philosophy

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2005, 2007, 2016, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Religion and Humanism, The Sophists to Secular Humanism, Note;
The Nicene Creed

Hence the Nicene Creed, as promulgated at the First Council of Nicea (325), with parts, like the condemnation of Arianism, subsequently deleted at the Second Council in 381:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. [But those who say: "There was a time when he was not"; and "He was not before he was made"; and "He was made out of nothing," or "He is of another substance" or "essence," or "The Son of God is created," or "changeable," or "alterable" -- they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]

What the Holy Ghost is, whether it emanates from the Father alone or from the Son also (filioque), became the matter, at least formally, on which the Latin (Western, Catholic) and Greek (Eastern, Orthodox) Churches split in 1054 AD. In the West, the Catholic Church ended up with this more elaborate version of the Creed, as seen first in Latin:

Credo in unum Deum, patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium, et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum, et ex patre natum ante omnia saecula, Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum vero de Deo vero, genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri, per quem omnia facta sunt; qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis. Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto, ex Maria virgine et homo factus est. Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est. Et resurrexit tertia die secundum scriptures et ascendit in coelum, sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris, et iterum venturus est cum gloria judicare vivos et mortuos, cuius regni non erit finis. Et in spiritum sanctum Dominum et vivificantem, qui et Patre filioque procedit, qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur, qui locutus est per Prophetas. Et in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.

I believe in one God, almighty Father, maker of the heaven and the earth, of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, very God of God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary and was made man. And was crucified also under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father, and he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the Prophets. And in one holy catholic and apostolic church. I acknowledge baptism for the remission of sins. And I expect the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

In the Greek version, it is noteworthy that "same substance" is one word (homooúsion) and that "one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" does not mean, as it does in common usage now, the Latin Church of the Pope in Rome. The "Catholic" (katholiké, "universal") Church meant the Church of the Rome Empire, which in the Middle Ages was centered in Constantinople, not in Rome.

I believe in one God, Father, All-Ruler, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried. And He rose on the third day according to the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge the living and dead, His kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets. In one, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead. And the life of the age to come. Amen.

Several of these beliefs, including baptism for the remission of sins, are the kinds of things no rational (i.e. scientistic, materialistic, or naturalistic) person would credit. Missing from the Creed, however, are a few things that the practice of American Christianity would seem to value as much or more than the given elements of faith:  (1) there is no Prohibition here of alcohol or drugs. That is especially awkward when there is nothing of the sort in the Bible either, and Jesus actually enjoins the drinking of wine on the Apostles. The interpretation of some Protestants that Jesus meant "grape juice," even though he says "wine," is preposterous.

And (2) there is no denial of Evolution by Natural Selection. This was a grave oversight by the Nicene Fathers. They could have at least bolstered the Creationist case by affirming that all of the Bible is literally true. They certainly knew the difference between literal and other (metaphorical, allegorical, etc.) readings of texts. But we don't get any statement on the issue. A sensible person, of course, is aware that the Nicene Fathers were unaware of the age of the earth, that present forms of life have not always been around, or that there were many ancient forms of life that are now extinct. The Bible does not inform us of any of this any more than it informs us of the atomic nature of matter, the heliocentric nature of the solar system, or the Newtonian theory of gravitation. Hence the folly of thinking that the Bible will reliably inform people about scientific issues.

Return to Text in "Religion and Humanism"

Return to Text in "Why I am not a Christian"

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2005, 2007, 2011 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Why I am not a Christian

[Acts 9:3] And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: [9:4] And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? [9:5] And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks [note]. [9:6] And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. [9:7] And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. [9:8] And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. [9:9] And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: "This was divine intervention. You know what divine intervention is?"

JOHN TRAVOLTA: "I think so. That means that God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets."

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: "That's right. That's exactly what it means. God came down from Heaven and stopped these motherfuckin' bullets."

Pulp Fiction, 1994, Miramax Films

[1 Corinthians 1:22] For the Jews require a sign [], and the Greeks seek after wisdom []: [1:23] But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock [], and unto the Greeks foolishness []; [1:24] But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. [1:25] Because the foolishness [] of God is wiser [] than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.


The lord whose oracle is in Delphi
neither speaks nor conceals but gives a sign.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, quoted by Plutarch, De Pythiae oraculis 21, 404 E, The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge, 1964, p.211.

Why am I not a Christian? Well, mainly because nothing like what happened to the Apostle Paul (at this point still Saul) on the road to Damascus, as related above,
The Eastern Gate of Damascus, at the end of the Street Called Straight, 1970
has ever happened to me -- and I've even been to Damascus, by three different roads, and to the traditional spot were Paul is supposed to have entered the city, at the Eastern Gate, , the Bâb Sharqî -- seen at right, with my traveling companion.

While at 1 Corinthians 1:22, above, Paul seems to say that neither a sign () nor wisdom () are necessary for Christian faith, Paul himself has experienced one of the most dramatic signs in the history of religion -- to be struck blind and hear the voice of Jesus. It is a little disingenuous if he says that others do not need what was necessary for Paul himself to obtain faith [note].

Or I would settle for something a bit more indirect. Two popular movies, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs [2002] and The Rite [2011], are about doubt or loss of faith. In the former, Mel Gibson, who lost his faith because of the apparently meaningless death of his wife, regains it largely because of meaningful coincidences (Jung's synchronicity), as remarkably foretold in her dying words. In the latter, a young skeptic, Colin O'Donoghue, comes to believe, apparently for the first time, because of his experience with an exorcist played by our old friend Anthony Hopkins. Although we get no direct divine intervention or epiphany in either story, there are definitely supernatural manifestations in the latter. But I have never myself seen anything like the degree of synchronicity in Signs or the supernatural events in The Rite. In short, it is not outside traditional religious expectations that I should require a Sign, -- just as Samuel L. Jackson sees in Pulp Fiction, or as Paul says of the Jews (and experienced himself) [note].

But don't most Christians become Christians without such an experience? Yes, but perhaps they don't have as much to overcome as did Paul, or me. On the other hand, do I think it is possible to have an experience like Paul's? Yes. Do I think Christianity as a religion is worthy of membership? Yes (pace Bertrand Russell [note]). Then what is there to overcome? Ay, there's the rub.

In choosing a religion, if one feels faced with a choice and has not simply and comfortably inherited a faith -- which I might have done had my parents been more serious about their Protestant religion -- the basic idea is usually to pick the one that looks best, the one whose teachings and doctrine seem to represent real goodness and justice. St. Thomas Aquinas saw this as the issue, and so he believed that goodness was a matter of rational and natural knowledge, such that a natural and untutored man, or least a naturally good and wise one, would be able to pick Christianity out of the line-up, as it were, of competing religions. Much the same thing was presented in relation to Islâm by the philosopher Ibn T.ufayl (d.1185), in his allegorical tale H.ayy ibn Yaqz.ân ("Living, Son of Awake").

This fails as an approach to Christianity for me because I think that Christian morality contains grave flaws:  Some of the most striking teachings of Jesus involve fallacies of anaesthetic moralism and judicial moralism.
The Street Called Straight,
Damascus, 1970
Thus Jesus says, "But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Matthew 5:22) and "But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has aleady committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27). In the former, since anger is a feeling, not a choice, it cannot be a matter of moral obligation. It is not anger as such but its causes, its circumstances, and especially what one thinks and does about it that involve moral issues. Someone who thinks ill of his brother for stupid reasons, or who does violence or other wrong because of it, he is the one liable to judgment. In the latter case, looking on a woman "lustfully" (something to which Jimmy Carter famously and embarrassingly admitted before his election) simply means perceiving and feeling the attraction of her beauty. Again, it is the circumstances and what one thinks and does about it that involve moral issues. Beauty itself and natural sexual attraction are intrinsically goods, not wrongs -- though some people, all the way back to St. Augustine, are personally troubled that the sexual response is caused and not under the control of the will. Things that are not under the control of the will cannot be moral, or even legal, issues.

My suspicion is that Christianity in some way almost deliberately makes impossible demands. Anger is something that comes spontaneously, as is arousal to erotic stimulation. These are functions of personality and of sexual reproduction, neither of which is something consciously chosen. If one sins by innappropriate feelings and reactions, then sin is ineviable and cannot be remedied by ordinary means. Thus, Christianity, having condemned normal people to hopeless guilt, offers the solution:  Forgiveness and Redemption by the sacrifice of Jesus in the Crucifixion. If guilt is neither felt nor believed, and one is not troubled that feelings or the sexual response are independent of the will, then the Christian promise gains no traction.

Now, I do not feel free of guilt, I tend to agree with the Christian view that the world is a vale of tears, and involuntary feelings and responses certainly can be matters, as even Kant believed, of immoral temptation. It is a matter of degree, and I do not condemn such joys as the world offers, even lust, as entirely unworthy. So, even if flawed, I do not think that the Christian worldview is without merit. At the same time, one might think that I would dismiss Jesus for the flawed nature of his moral teaching. However, my response is just the opposite of Jefferson's. He dismissed Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Light -- the means of Christian Redemption and Salvation -- only endorsing the moral teaching. For me, however, Jesus is more likely to be the Savior than to be a perfect moral teacher. This attitude would probably be incomprensible to most Christians, and non-Christians, but it follows naturally from my view of religion.

More specific, less technical, and more famous kinds of impossible demands involve non-violence and poverty. Thus, Jesus says,

[Matthew 5:39] But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This and similar passages are generally interpreted to mandate non-violence and pacifism for Christians. Since few Christians are, or have ever been, actually non-violent and pacifistic, they and the religion in general are commonly upbraided, as by Bertrand Russell himself, for hypocrisy. There is at least one religion, Jainism, that does enjoin non-violence on all its members. Christianity has really never done this. The success of Christianity may even be said to have begun with a battle, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge where the Emperor Constantine put the Chi-Rho symbol on his soldiers' shields. Truly an odd deed to honor a religion of non-violence. Constantine wasn't actually a Christian yet, so perhaps he didn't understand. But then neither did any other Christian Emperor, King, or ruler in subsequent history. So there is certainly some kind of disconnect there.

While there are appropriate contexts for non-violence in what might otherwise be violent political struggles, as developed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, pacifism in general, if I may be excused for saying so, is a foolish and unrealistic principle, as it was in Russell himself. What is going on in Christianity may then be construed in a couple of ways, both based on the devaluation of the world and the dismissal of its values -- something in common with Jainism, Buddhism, and other world-denying religions. Thus, Christianity may just be making an impossible demand. We cannot avoid violence, so we are hopelessly guilty and must depend absolutely on grace, forgiveness, and redemption for salvation. The "hypocrisy" in the Christian is thus simply revealed as the weakness and fallen nature of the human. On the other hand, an ethic based on the denial of the world is properly implemented by, perhaps, the denial of the world. Thus, non-violence and other impossible Christian demands have always been much more successfully practiced by renunciates -- by monks, nuns, and priests. This would be conformable with the practice of religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, where not everyone is expected to observe the rigors of asceticism, but only those few who are born to it or ready for it.

Equally foolish and unrealistic is the injunction stated here by Jesus:

[Matthew 19:21] Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me. [22] But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. [23] Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. [24] And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

A rich person following this instruction will be able to help the poor just once. And once the poor are helped, once, they will remain poor. Rich Christians, however, or at least rich Protestants, have long believed that remaining rich not only enables one to help the poor over and over again, but also that remaining rich enables one to hire or capitalize the poor so that they will cease being poor. Thus, John D. Rockfeller, the richest man in history to his day, ended up not just having more money than anyone had ever had, but giving away more money than anyone had ever had. This only sounds peculiar to people who think that being rich involves taking wealth from others. If the rich are only rich because others are poor, then being rich certainly involves no virtue.

This is the continuing positive danger of the Christian teaching. People who think that economics is a zero sum game -- gain for one involves loss for another -- or that capital is an illegitimate and unnecessary extraction from labor, as in Marxism, have done more harm to the poor, and everyone else, than legions of selfish rich people. Since wealth is created, and created by way of capital, people who concentrate capital and know what to do with it are going to be the ones who create wealth in the first place. And they are also going to end up rich. But a Marxist or Cargo Cult economics aims to destroy capital, capitalists, and investors (and Jews), imagining that wealth is simply created by labor, or that wealth is already a big pile of goods, which simply must be "distributed."

Poverty as part of renouncing the world is familiar from Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Christian renunciates who embrace poverty in the same spirit are harmless and admirable in their own way. But the alternative sense that poverty is an impossible demand imposed on all Christians has the dangerous consequence that confused economics and vicious political ideologies can seize upon it as not impossible at all. This has been seen in Catholic "Liberation Theology" and in liberal Protestant activism, as discussed above. There is thus a positive danger in these ideas, which commonly lead to tyranny as well as poverty, that we do not always see in pacifism -- though one of the noteworthy achievments of the latter, in Russell's own day, was allowing Adolf Hitler to rise to power, when some timely military action would have nipped the Third Reich in the bud. This kind of pacifism may not always be sincere, as when protests against the overthrow of Saddam Hussein often seemed motivated by more general anti-American and anti-capitalist ideology. Nevertheless, allowing for the sincerity of Christian pacifists and anti-capitalists, we have moral teachings that, if they are not confined to world-denying renunciates, are foolish, unrealistic, and dangerous. The teachings of Jesus in this respect, even if no more than ambiguous, leave the door open to great evils.

I do not think that the moral teaching of any religion is perfect. As a humanist and rationalist, I think that morality is a matter for reason, albeit reason tempered with a modesty derived from an appreciation of tradition and history. There are religions with no moral teaching (e.g. Shintoism), and I think this helps reveal the circumstance that the meaning of religion is not essentially moral. Religions differ significantly, not in their ethics, although differences certainly exist there, but in their approach to the meaning of life and their take on the relationship of life to eternity. Life is imperfect, troubled, and over quickly. I suspect that its significance in relation to the transcendent, to absolute reality, is incomprehensible -- as we see in Kantian metaphysics, let alone Buddhist, that a coherent theory of transcendent objects is impossible. Thus, the account of no religion can be absolutely and literally true when it comes to the ultimate nature of our existence and fate. Each may, in its own way, reveal a different facet of the truth.

This is a long way from thinking that all religions have essentially the same teaching, as Gandhi might have thought. Quite the contrary. From our point of view, I think religions can have profoundly different perspectives. Shintoism or Judaism appear to offer little in the way of explicit promises beyond this life, while Christianity and Islâm describe a continued, eternal existence in many ways, such as in resurrected bodies, like this one (disturbing in its own right -- this body for eternity..... boooring!). To the extent that I see the point in each of these, it becomes impossible to chose between them. Indeed, in some traditions a choice is unnecessary. The Japanese are sometimes said to be "born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist." But other traditions (including some Buddhist) are exclusivist, so that few Christians would allow Christian marriage to be genuine in lives otherwise involved in Shintoism or Buddhism.

For example, as I have discussed elsewhere, I believe it is morally important that we cannot know whether there is an afterlife or not. If we knew that there was retribution in the Hereafter, then moral duty would merely be a matter of prudence and self-interest. God will reward the good and punish the wicked. Knowing this, only a fool would fail to avoid wickedness. But many people do not believe in Judgment, and they are not bothered, at least at the time, in doing wrong. Later they might worry, but the possibility of Eternity usually remains remote and problematic. If there is a genuine difference between moral goodness and prudence, then one must observe righteousness not in the hope of reward or fear of punishment, but simply because it is good and worthy. Religion in fact has difficulty splitting the difference. Christianity and Islâm overtly promise eternal reward for goodness. In the Bhagavad Gita, we first get the principle that karmayoga must be performed without desire for reward, which would result in earthly rebirth. But then the Gita also offers salvation by Faith, in which the failures of intention and attitude can be overcome by devotion -- bhaktiyoga rather than karmayoga.

I think that these complexities are intrinsic to the problem. If I am not a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a Jew, or Jain, or Muslim, it is because I am curious and respectful of what each offers by way of insight into the human condition. This leaves me rather detached, indeed, and I don't deny that this is an artifact of a philosophical humanism. There is nothing I would find more thrilling than an extraordinary experience, a window opening into the transcendent. But I am for the moment, anyway, thrilled more by the variety of the sacred than attracted to commitment to any one version of it. I think this is a particular Way perhaps appropriate to a philosopher, whose desire is, above all, to understand. Even with the limitations I believe are inherent in reason and human understanding, I also suspect that there is still in effect no limit to them in their proper sphere. The goal may be the mountaintop, but it is impossible to say how far away that is, or how many worthy detours and interesting sights may exist in the plain along the road.

Infantile Atheism

What Would God Be? -- with a natural history of the gods

Autobiographical Statement on Religion

Religion and Humanism, The Sophists to Secular Humanism

Return to Top of Vita

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Why I am not a Christian, Note 1

"It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," a curious phrase, repeated by Johnny Cash in one of his last songs. Looking it up in Greek, I was surprised to find it missing. It is not present in all manuscripts, apparently, and is rejected by many scholars. The Nestle-Aland edition of the New Testament gives the English in a footnote [p.345], but has the Greek text in a separate note apparently for verse 4 rather than verse 5, and without accents [Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, 1981, 1990]:   . The Latin Vulgate gives it in a footnote:  Durum est tibi contra stimulum calcitrare [Biblia Sacra Vulgata, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, 1969, 1983, p.1712]. Here we are kicking (, calcitrare) against , stimulum. Stimulum sounds familiar, since we get "stimulate" out of it. As such in Latin, it could mean a prod or goad. But it could also mean a stake used against an advancing enemy. The Greek word, , also can mean a "goad" (glossed as equivalent to stimulus) or, abstractly, an "incentive." Liddell and Scott cite as a "proverb," used by Pindar and Aeschylus, but then they don't give any explanation apart from the literal meaning. Now, ordinarily one would not think of kicking against a goad that is being used against one, but kicking against stakes, which don't push back, sounds more like it. Nevertheless, it may be a bit dangerous. Jesus seems to mean that Saul persecuting him is such a dangerous undertaking.

Return to Text

Why I am not a Christian, Note 2

A Christian in Damascus named Ananias () is directed to the Street Called Straight:
The Street Called Straight,
Damascus, 1970

[Acts 9:11] And the Lord said to him, "Rise and go to the street [ ] called [ ] Straight [], and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold [] he is praying.

Ananias will heal Saul () of his blindness, but not without misgivings; for Ananias has heard of this Saul persecuting Christians. Nevertheless, he is assured that Saul will now become a Christian and an instrument of God's will among the Gentiles and Israel. So Saul is healed, and the "scales," , fall from his eyes [Acts 9:18].

We were told that Saul, having been blinded, was brought to Damascus, but we only know where he was staying because of this reference. That he entered the City through the Eastern Gate perhaps is assumed because the Street begins there; but I have also heard that the gates at that hour were closed, and Saul had to be helped to climb over the walls. I don't see a textual basis for this, but then I may have missed it, and many traditions have grown up around these stories.

The Street and the Gate, of course, still exist in modern Damascus, as seen in the accompanying photos. These three little children look like they are in pajamas. I did not arrange for them to be there.

Return to Text

Why I am not a Christian, Note 3;
Knowing, 2009 -- Nicolas Cage and Determinism

The Alex Proyas movie Knowing [2009] also deals with the theme of doubt and faith. Like Mel Gibson in Signs, Nicolas Cage has lost his wife in a pointless accident. Rather than being a minister himself, he is estranged from his minister father. Cage finds faith and is reconciled with his father because of the strange events with which he is involved as the Earth is actually destroyed by flares from a suddenly unstable sun. It is not a matter of meaningful coincidences or supernatural manifestations. Instead, Cage's son is rescued from Earth by extraterrestrials, who thus function a bit like the extraterrestrials in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

However, the story of Knowing does not really motivate an outcome of religious faith. Mel Gibson's family is preserved from the alien attack by meaingful coincidences, which have the implication of divine providence, while The Rite features events of an overtly religious and supernatural nature in an explicitly religious context. It is not clear that the extraterrestrials of Knowing, although benevolent and appearing at times like angelic beings (compared to the vision of Ezekiel), are anything more than alien super-beings, like the "Overlords" of Childhood's End. But while Clarke's own story provides for a God-like presence beyond the Overlands, the "Overmind," Knowing makes no such provision. Indeed, the vision of Ezekiel is often used by the "ancient astronaut" school to argue that ancient miracles and gods were simply visits from technologically superior alien beings.

We do not learn anything from the extraterrestrials directly, and the circumstances and motivation for saving only some of the population of the Earth (apparently children, at least, sensitive to telepathy -- perhaps an allusion to Childhood's End) remain a mystery to the end. The girl who is saved with Cage's son is told by the extraterrestrials that her dead mother is "safe"; but this is an ambiguous enough assertion that it could even mean, as Socrates might have said, free from suffering in non-existence. We otherwise have no evidence of individual immortality and no assertions of it, except in Cage's own baseless affirmations to comfort his son or reconcile with his father. The question whether the children are saved by angels or astronauts is left unanswered.

Thus, Knowing does not have the same effective point as either Signs or The Rite, or even Childhood's End. I do like the movie, however; and the image of the children running into their own Garden of Eden at the end, with its own Tree of Life, is vivid and moving.

A noteworthy point in Knowing is a confusion in metaphysics. At the beginning of the movie, Nicolas Cage, who is supposed to be a professor of astrophysics at MIT, asks his class for a definition of "determinism." The answer is clear enough:  the reasons for events are found in antecedent causes. Unfortunately, Cage then immediately interprets "reasons" to imply purpose and meaning. Random events are regarded as what are purposeless and meaningless.

However, this is a confusion that could already have been cleared up by Aristotle. "Antecedent causes" are efficient causes. These are blind and purposeless, which is why some people find Darwinism threatening. Generally, as in Schopenhauer, a deterministic world of blind and purposeless causes is what is regarded as meaningless -- although completely random events would also have that character, if not more so. The opposite of either of these involves actual purpose, i.e. final causes, or teleology (). Explanations involving final causes have been excluded from science for several centuries, and the term "cause" now generally implies only efficient causes.

Thus, Knowing misinterprets the debate over determinism and indeterminacy (as in quantum mechanics) as though it were the debate over efficient and final causes, or cause and purpose. The former is a lively business in contemporary physics and philosophy of science, but it has little to do with the meaning or purpose of the world. The latter is a perennial question in metaphysics, and in public concern, but it has long disappeared from science and from the sort of modern philosophy that disdains metaphysics. A more sophisticated statement on the issue may be found, oddly enough, in Forrest Gump [1994], where Tom Hanks wonders if everyone has a destiny or if "we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze." His judgment is, "I think maybe it's both," which we might state in Kantian terms as the determinism/indeterminacy of the phenomenal world over and against the purpose and meaning that are possible among things-in-themselves. Kant does think it's both -- although it is unlikely that Forrest Gump, or even Tom Hanks, could put it in those terms.


Return to Text

Why I am not a Christian, Note 4;

Bertand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian"

While I might have entitled this brief essay "Why I am not a Member of any Specific Religion, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.," Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" provides the precedent and the title [Why I Am Not a Christian and other essays on religion and related subjects, edited by Paul Edwards, A Touchstone Book, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1957].

Russell does not even consider Christianity in the sense that would seem essential to me and, I suspect, to most Christians. Thus, Russell says he is not a Christian because (1) "I do not believe in God and in immortality" and (2) "I do not think that Christ was the best and wisest of men" [p.5]. Now, this does not even consider Christian doctrines like the Incarnation, or the role of Jesus as the Redeemer and Savior through his sacrifice on the Cross. Nothing of the sort even comes in for mention, let alone serious discussion. The only thing therefore even appearing on the radar for Russell is some kind of Unitarianism (without him believing in God, of course), a creed where Jesus is little better than a moral teacher, with not much more to recommend him than Socrates or the Buddha, people Russell himself mentions as laudable or even superior moral teachers.
I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Job 19:25-26

Now, Russell admits that, "The word [Christian] does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the time of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas" [p.4], but just how much more it might have meant, like including the divinity of Jesus, isn't mentioned or examined. Personally, I don't see the point of Christianity, or the priority of Jesus over Confucius, the Buddha, Krishna, or Muh.ammad, without his divinity and soteriological role.

This is clear enough in any fundamental, traditional, formal statement of Christian belief, like the Nicene Creed. Most Christians, moreover, would understand the essential and fundamental teaching and promise of Christianity in just two words:  Jesus saves -- , Iêsoûs sôzei, in Greek. Personal salvation is something that falls outside the purview of Unitarians and moralists. And this goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, when Jesus was represented by the formula IXTHYS:   , , , Iêsoûs Xristós, Theoû Huiós, Sôtér, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." I don't see "moral teacher" worked into that representation, although Jesus certainly was a moral teacher.

So Russell's essay consists entirely of refutations of arguments for the existence of God and of criticisms of the moral teaching and example of Jesus. Russell acknowledges that most of the arguments had already been refuted by Kant, but we nevertheless get some awkward moments. For instance, in saying that science doesn't really quite believe in laws of nature anymore, he says that "the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance" [p.8]. This is an embarrassing falsehood, though perhaps Russell was just confused about the significance of probability functions in Quantum Mechanics. A similar position could be maintained today as a kind of Positivism, that we just don't know why our understanidng of the laws of nature works, but Russell clearly wants something more dismissive, that nature in itself need not contain anything intrinsically law-like. The existence of order in nature is now taken much more seriously, and in fact motivates theism in a number of actual scientists. As it happens, I regard that as an error, but Russell himself, like many of his recent kind, fails to realize that some "full-blooded" metaphysics are called for one way or another.

With the "moral arguments," Russell must reject the kinds of considerations to motivate belief offered by Kant himself. While Kant's arguments are poor, and sometimes conflict with his rejection of theodicy, Russell nevertheless overlooks the need for an account of the foundations of morality. Since Russell himself is not a relativist but is morally rigorous about various matters, there is a need for such an account, an adequate version of which actually cannot be given on the naturalistic terms apparently favored by Russell. This is open to dispute, but we miss even that in the venue.

Curiously, Russell favors the moral instructions of Jesus that reflect the world-denying character of Christianity. The pacifist Russell loves "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" [p.14], and the socialist Russell favors "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor" -- "a very excellent maxim" [p.15]. While we discover that Russell is a secular humanist who thinks that human life and improving the world is all that matters, his political and economic views were hopelessly naive and foolish, the result, apparently, of applying maxims that are intended for those renouncing the world as principles for practical action. Yet Russell himself notes that teachings like "Take no thought for the morrow" [p.16] are usually in the context that the world is expected to end within living memory. So Russell incongruously thinks that avoiding resistance to evil, taken from the context of the Apocalypse, will make the world a better place. Some Christians might actually believe this also, but that is not historically typical for Christianity, as Russell rather smugly notes. So, as Russell also rather smugly notes, he may in practice be a better Christian (at least politically -- this does not seem to have been true in personal behavior). But then he does not believe the things that made the Christian maxims reasonable. The result is just absurdity.

In the end, he says that all religion is about fear and that the correct purpose of morals is just to make people happy [p.22]. Why letting the Germans conquer Europe would make people happy eludes me. But what eludes Russell are the questions that many people have about the meaning of life or that have existed since Plato about why people should be good or just. The only answers that Russell ever offers as a philosopher, apparently, are unbelievably shallow and insipid. Even Plato, who argued that justice makes people happier, was uneasy enough about the answer that he added the sanctions of divine punishment and reward. But Russell explicity despises the Christian Hell [pp.17-18], apparently unaware that the more humane Buddhism also posits its own Hells (not Hell, indeed, but Hells). But if Russell doesn't believe in evil, sin, or punishment, it is not suprising if the measures he was willing to undertake to secure human happiness were hopelessly inadequate in the face of the tyrannical and totalitarian threats apparent in his own lifetime. For instance, although laudably aware that Communism was a Hell on earth, Russell nevertheless was against most of the thankless efforts to counter its violent expansion. Thus, in his last days, he cooperated with Jean Paul Sartre, a explicit Communist sympathizer himself, in a comical "war crimes" tribunal against the United States involvement in Vietnam. The result of such exercises, of course, is that, long after the general Fall of Communism, Vietnam remains in the grip of Communist dictatorship. Good work, Bert.

Even more troubling was Russell's thinking during World War II. In World War I, we know that Russell was against the War, as a pacifist, and was willing to go to jail for it. His attitude was less clear to me in relation to World War II. Now we have the testimony of Richard W. Jencks (President of the CBS/Broadcast Group in 1969):

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had been jailed in World War I for his pacifism by a government of which Churchill was a minister, is considering [in 1940] whether he should abandon those pacifist beliefs if Britain faces imminent invasion. He does not think that passive resistance would work against Hitler. These considerations do not prevent Russell from confiding to his philosophy students at the University of California in Los Angeles (this writer among them) that world peace, in the long run, will probably be better served by Hitler's victory. World peace, Russell posits, cannot be had without world government. Over the long years ahead, he says, civilizing influences will operate to soften the bestial edges of Nazi rule. ["Why Capitol Hill Needs a Churchill Reminder," The Wall Street Journal, May 11-12, 2013, A13, boldface added]

Of course, Russell may not have persisted in these opinions through the War, but the very idea that the world would be better off if Hitler was able to conquer Britain (Europe, the World?) exposes a serious failure of judgment in Russell. The Hell on earth that was Communism probably would seem like small potatoes next to what a triumphant Hitler could have done to his conquered nations. "Bestial edges" hardly seems adequate. We can expect that the "Final Solution" would have been final indeed. How many "long years" of that would it be worth enduring, instead of just defeating and overthrowing Hitler? The "long years" of Communism turned out to be 73 for Russia and 44 for Eastern Europe, and still continuing for China, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea. Perhaps this would please Bertrand Russell. Still quite a few "bestial edges" out there.

Return to Text

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved