Why I Am Not a Christian
Why I Am Not a Christian is an essay by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell in which he explains, not surprisingly, why he is not a Christian. Originally a talk given on March 6, 1927, at Battersea Town Hall, under the auspices of the South London Branch of the National Secular Society, it was published later that year as a pamphlet and was later republished, with other essays, in the book, Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects.
Note that the section titles below correspond to the sections of Russell's essay.
What is a Christian?
Russell points out that "Christianity" is a vague notion, and sets out to define the word. He concludes that someone should minimally satisfy the following requirements in order to be called a Christian:
- Believe in God and immortality.
- Believe that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men.
Russell goes on to note that there may be some stricter definitions of Christianity, which also require such things as belief in hell. However, pointing to examples of Christians who do not believe in hell, Russell dispenses with this requirement.
The existence of God
Russell considers and rejects a series of arguments proposed to prove the existence of God. Many of these are very succinct presentations of arguments presented elsewhere in Iron Chariots. He includes:
The moral arguments for deity
Russell refers to Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, saying that Kant dispensed with the three primary intellectual arguments for God. Though not mentioned here, the three arguments are the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the physico-theological argument. Then, Russell says, Kant invented the moral argument as a fourth argument and was convinced by it.
- "The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good."
The argument for the remedying of injustice
Continuing with a discussion of morality, Russell considers the argument that a just afterlife must exist to balance the injustice found in this life.
- "That is a very curious argument. If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, 'After all, I only know 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 then 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."
The character of Christ
Russell next turns to the matter of Jesus Christ and whether he was indeed the best and wisest of men. Russell grants that Jesus made many good points in his teachings, and claims that on some points he agrees with Jesus more than many Christians do. He highlights the principles of "Turn the other cheek" and "Judge not lest ye be judged" as examples of good suggestions which are not generally practice by Christians.
Defects in Christ's teaching
Having granted that there are some worthy teachings uttered by Jesus, Russell goes on to criticize certain aspects of Christ's teachings as portrayed in the Bible. First he notes that the historicity of Christ is highly questionable. He then goes on to say that Jesus said many things which were simply factually incorrect, casting doubt on his status as the wisest of men. For example, Jesus claimed that his second coming would occur before the death of all the people who were living at that time.
The moral problem
Next, Russell tackles what he believes are defects in the moral teachings of Christ. Russell focuses on Jesus' teachings about hell. Russell does not believe that anyone can be truly moral while believing in everlasting punishment. He also brings up some other incidents which he considers to be of lesser importance. He objects to the treatment of the Gadarene swine, and the story of Jesus and the fig tree.
The emotional factor
Russell next returns to considering the idea that religion makes people good. He notes that most people do not accept religion because they are convinced by argumentation, but because they believe they need religion to be moral. Russell rejects this notion, stating that every positive development in human history has been consistently opposed by organized churches.
How the churches have retarded progress
As an example of the church's cruelty, Russell presents an example of a naive girl who unknowingly marries a man with syphilus. According to the Catholic church, she can never divorce him, and she can never use birth control of any sort, which effectively enforces the creation of syphilitic children. Using this as one example out of many possible, Russell describes the church's position on morality: "What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy."
Fear, the foundation of religion
Russell claims that religion is based above all on fear of the unknown. He suggests that science is the best remedy for this, since science encourages us to look for natural explanations, and deliberately improve our lives.
What we must do
The essay ends on a positive note, calling for people to "stand up and look the world frankly in the face". It calls for knowledge, kindliness, and courage in place of contempt for humanity and fear.