A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell
Russell’s paper might be a little dated (presented in 1927) but its arguments are still being circulated today even among those in “New Atheism”. You can judge for yourself as you read along. Having recently read through Russell’s paper I found plenty of discussion topics to comment on. The first one being Russell’s explanation of what a Christian is.
WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?
What is interesting about the answer he gives is that it tells us quite a bit about how the Church portrayed itself and the way in which the Church was understood by the culture around the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century. He begins by saying, “It is used in these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds”. In spite of the fact that I disagree with Russell on almost anything and everything, I will agree with him on this point, if Christianity is the cultivation of moral behavior, there would be many outside the church who would be regarded as Christian since there are many who attempt to live a good life. I would say from the Christian perspective there is an aspect of moral living which we call sanctification, but it isn’t as central to Christianity as justification typically holds that place.
Just a few years prior to Russell presenting this paper across the pond another intellectual J Gresham Machen, who is a Christian and was President of Westminster Theological Seminary before his death. Machen wrote a very important book that is still being sold and read today, Christianity And Liberalism. Here Machen writes, “Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time (that is true of this present time as well); there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life.” So while Russell struggles to find a definition of Christianity based on what he has experienced, Machen is calling for for precision in our teaching for the reason that a Christianity without it results in a faith that “will never stand amid the shocks of life.”
I think we can probably spend a great deal of time unpacking just this quote of Machen’s alone. However the review is on Russell so I will attempt to stay focused. Machen was speaking specifically of theological liberalism or modernism of his day. Early in modernity some decided to practice the “if you can’t beat em, join em” school of ecumenism (Church unity). The end result was a re-configuring of Biblical teaching that was for the most part gutted of true Biblical content. One of the first teachings to go was the atonement. Once that was out the cross of Christ was no longer the means by which our sin was atoned for. Rather, modernists looked at the crucifixion as an act of love one that we ought to emulate. When all was said and done Christianity amounted to what Russell referred to as ” a person who attempts to live a good life”.
It isn’t as if Russell was ignorant about this matter. Moreover, this isn’t a case of an atheist with an axe to grind. Later he wrote in this discussion, “I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full‐blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions”. Notice the distinction between what Russell observed in his day compared to how he describes Christians in the pre-modern era. Moreover, here we are in the 21st century and there isn’t too much that is different from Machen and Russell’s era.
Returning to Russell, he has this to say about defining Christianity, “Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anyone calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature ‐‐namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ.” He begins by saying these days are not like the past where people were self conscious of their Christian beliefs. He says that now there is more ambiguity as to what one believes about Christianity. So he offers up 3 things that one must believe which are belief in God, immortality, and some kind of belief about Christ. Interesting choice of words; he is attempting to encompass all that go by the name Christian which is quite ambiguous. Obviously there is more to it than just that. Such a description still falls into the dilemma stated earlier of encompassing those who are not Christian. However, that is the definition that Russell goes by.
At this point I feel that I have bitten off a little more than I can chew for one post so I will have to continue with Russell in a second installment.