- Published on Wednesday, 15 June 2011 06:49
- Written by John Draper
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One of the world’s greatest philosophers and clear thinkers, he was passionate about logical thinking and the need for children to be taught to question everything and not just accept whatever it was they were told. Because of his incredible ability to think, he concluded that religion was not only wrong in its teaching about the existence of a god but that it was the principal enemy of moral progress in the world. Further, what the world needs is not dogma but an attitude of scientific inquiry combined with a belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin or by a Deity imagined in the likeness of the believer. He understood that this thinking rested on the conviction that an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God does not exist.
He wrote a collection of essays called “Why I am not a Christian” which gives the details of his case but a summary here is both a way of demonstrating his thinking and providing food for thought.
Some time ago, many philosophers in the Catholic Church were arguing about whether it was possible to prove that God existed using reason. According to Russell, the Catholic Church was concerned about this so decreed that henceforth there would be a dogma that the existence of God can be proved by unaided reason and they then set down a collection of these reasons. These are still the main arguments used by theists to prove that there is a God:
- The First Cause Argument – everything has a cause and that has a cause and you go back until you come to the First Cause. That First Cause you give the name of God.
- The Natural Law Argument – God makes the world work and created the laws which govern it
- Argument from design – Everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it.
- The Moral Arguments for Deity – There would be no right or wrong unless God existed.
- The Argument for the Remedying of Injustice – We see great injustice in the world but because God exists there is an afterlife where injustice is remedied.
The First Cause Argument – everything has a cause and that has a cause and you go back until you come to the First Cause. That First Cause you give the name of God.
I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question 'Who made God?' " That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. 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, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.
The Natural Law Argument – God makes the world work and created the laws which govern it
We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths 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. On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was.
Argument from design – Everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it.
It sometimes takes a rather curious form; for instance, it is argued that rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. I do not know how rabbits would view that application. It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire's remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence of design about it.
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 or the Fascists?
The Moral Arguments for Deity – There would be no right or wrong unless God existed.
Kant, as I say, invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say that there would be no right or 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, 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. You could, of course, if you liked, say that there was a superior deity who gave orders to the God who made this world, or could take up the line that some of the gnostics took up a line which I often thought was a very plausible one - that as a matter of fact this world that we know was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking. There is a good deal to be said for that, and I am not concerned to refute it.
The Argument for the Remedying of Injustice – We see great injustice in the world but because God exists there is an afterlife where injustice is remedied.
In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying; but if you are going to have justice in the universe as a whole you have to suppose a future life to redress the balance of life here on earth. So they say that there must be a God, and there must be heaven and hell in order that in the long run there may be justice.
That is a very curious argument. If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, "After all, I know only this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also." 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. He would say, "Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice, and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in the world; and therefore so far as it goes it affords a moral argument against deity and not in favour of one."
Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you about are not what really moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason.
Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people's desire for a belief in God.
Of course there are other more "scientific" responses to these arguments put forth by the likes of Stenger, Krauss, Harris, Dawkins and others but Russell's are philosophical and easier to follow.
For a collection of short quotes from Bertrand Russell, go to this site.