Category Archives: Thomas Aquinas

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part V The Moral Argument For Deity

 

The moral argument for God’s existence. This is a popular one among contemporary Christian apologists such as CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. Although different variations of it can be seen as far back as Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) in the fourth of his Five Ways. Ironically the German philosopher Immanual Kant (1724 -1804) argued that if you come across a man who tells you he has five proofs for the existence of God, you can be sure he doesn’t have any, because if he had any it would only take one. So which argument did Kant chose? The moral argument for God.

Kant’s version of the moral argument becomes very influential in the history of theology and philosophy. He held that moral beings will “the highest good” if they can have confidence that within the causal structure of nature the highest good can be achieved by moral means. Thus belief in God is the guarantor that the highest good is achievable. And from this you might be able to detect the dilemma Russell will present us with. Because if one were to remove God from this equation you can see how the whole moral project implodes.

The reason I mention Kant is because Russell mentions him in his rejection of this argument. He writes,

“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.”

You might have heard Christian apologists who argue the way Russell is explaining. It seems compelling since many non-believers have not consider the nature of morality. As a result some will confess that they don’t know where morals come from. There are some in “new atheist” literature who aren’t amused by the question in the slightest. Some of them will say that morality is the utilitarian standard of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Others might give a pragmatic response but one thing they are sure of is God is not a necessary condition for morality. Granted I believe these points can be refuted successfully by the theist and in fact should be. However, when you think about it, are these individuals being consistent with their own perspective on reality and the world? They are after all doing what Paul describes and suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Thus for them to insert the idea of God as evidence for morality is like putting the square peg in the round hole.

Moving on, Russell continues by arguing:

“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 [command or decree] 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.”

Once again Russell offers one of his arguments of dichotomy. The dichotomy is either right and wrong are irrelevant to God, or God must appeal to moral laws which are “anterior” or outside of God. I hope you see the dilemma he is making here. Leave me a comment if you would like more explanation. My response would be that if God was a finite being, such as you and me are finite beings, this argument would have some traction. God however is an infinite Being so that when He says what Right conduct is He is simply reflecting on His own Being. Therefore we say that God is good and is the standard of goodness.

There is no dilemma as Russell is suggesting. Rather Russell is working from the assumption that God is finite and operates at this finite level. Such an assumption gives Russell the impression that he can stipulate standards for himself and impose them upon God from his finite realm of experience. Once again this isn’t the Christian conception of God and therefore Russell hasn’t made his case for not being a Christian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Apologetics

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.”[1] 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.

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Aquinas on Muhammad

[4] On the other hand, those who founded sects committed to erroneous doctrines proceeded in a way that is opposite to this, The point is clear in the case of Muhammad. He seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure to which the concupiscence of the flesh goads us. His teaching also contained precepts that were in conformity with his promises, and he gave free rein to carnal pleasure. In all this, as is not unexpected, he was obeyed by carnal men. As for proofs of the truth of his doctrine, he brought forward only such as could be grasped by the natural ability of anyone with a very modest wisdom. Indeed, the truths that he taught he mingled with many fables and with doctrines of the greatest falsity. He did not bring forth any signs produced in a supernatural way, which alone fittingly gives witness to divine inspiration; for a visible action that can be only divine reveals an invisibly inspired teacher of truth. On the contrary, Muhammad said that he was sent in the power of his arms—which are signs not lacking even to robbers and tyrants. What is more, no wise men, men trained in things divine and human, believed in him from the beginning, Those who believed in him were brutal men and desert wanderers, utterly ignorant of all divine teaching, through whose numbers Muhammad forced others to become his followers by the violence of his arms. Nor do divine pronouncements on the part of preceding prophets offer him any witness. On the contrary, he perverts almost all the testimonies of the Old and New Testaments by making them into fabrications of his own, as can be. seen by anyone who examines his law. It was, therefore, a shrewd decision on his part to forbid his followers to read the Old and New Testaments, lest these books convict him of falsity. It is thus clear that those who place any faith in his words believe foolishly.

Contra Gentiles 1, 6

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