Cultura Brasileira: no ar desde 1998



Why I am not a Christian, by Bertrand Russel (a Review)

   Versão em Português aqui


First delivered as a lecture on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall.

Bertrand Russel begins by explaining what is to be considered a Christian, namely, that a person must believe in God and Immortality and, secondly, must believe that Christ (as depicted in the Gospels) is to be considered, if not divine, at least the wisest or best of men. Russel believed neither of those two things and carefully, with is implacable logic, explains why. Let’s see that point by point.



God and Immortality


            The first cause argument: the church tells that everything must have a cause and, if you go back in time, the first cause, that created all that existed, you must call it God. Russell simply points out that this sort of argument brings up a more complex question than answers anything; in short WHO CREATED GOD in the first place?

            The natural-law argument: this one has a problem of confusing, mixing up human laws with natural laws; laws like gravity or evolution by natural selection are natural laws and happens either the human beings like it or not. If there were a God issuing those laws, either he chose to make things happen as if he wasn’t there or he had no choice – which brings another question; If god is subjected wither to a higher God or to the laws of nature themselves, there is no point is his meaningless existence and we can simply “skip the middle man” and study the laws of nature without needing a law giver.

            The argument from Design: in short “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.” Since Darwin, however, “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.” Furthermore, goes on Russel, “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?” – I remember that this lecture was given in 1927; nowadays we could say something like “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 Banks and Corporations ruling over all people of the World behind a grim curtain of corruption and incompetence?”

            The moral argument for deity: Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason disposed those moral arguments for the existence of god and invented a new one, namely, “there would be no right or wrong unless god existed”. Well, reason Russell, if that was so, then god should be above good and evil and there would be no point in considering god as good, as most theologians do. Russell goes on in a fascinating reasoning: “You could, of course, if you liked, say that there was a superior deity who gave orders to the God that 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.

            A word about the devil – this one mine, not Russell’s – I have attended some religious gatherings here and there compelled by family obligations and was often astonished by the way many preachers (mostly protestant, they seem obsessed by it, but also some catholic priests) use almost all the time during their services putting fear of the devil and hell of everlasting fire and punishment on their flock, scarcely remembering even mentioning the existence of god or even Christ… But they all point out that “the existence of god, the devil, countless angels of god and many more of the devil; even saints, are there to emphasize that Christianity is a MONOTHEISTIC religion. I regard that as funny: they believe in so many imaginary creatures, put their emphasis on the devil and everlasting punishment in a hell of fire that burns forever but insist that they are “monotheistic”…

The argument for the remedying of injustice: “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.” Supposition is hardly proof of anything and, if you have a basket of apples whith the first layers rotten, you wouldn’t believe that the lower layers were composed by fresh and tasty ones “to redress the balance”; you would certainly believe (and dropping all apples in a blanket, say, would confirm that) all the lot was rotten. From a scientific point of view – keeps going Russell – 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 the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also." So, this argument carries no weight.



The Character of Christ


            Christians believe that Christ was the best and wisest of men, and there are many good teachings, such as The Golden Rules (common to all human societies since immemorial times, btw) that goes like that “do to others as you wish they do to yourself”, “do not harm”, "judge not lest ye be judged" – this one is not popular in the courts of law around the world – “resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” – if Christians believe that is a good advice is not certain, their common lives tell us another story, a story of constant revenge and almost complete disregard to the teachings of the one considered by them “the best and wisest of men”. Russell goes on telling that, in his opinion, however granting Christ – as depicted in the Gospels, since there are no consistent proof that he even ever existed – a high degree of moral goodness, that in matters of moral goodness Confucius, Lao-Tse, The Buddha and even Socrates were superior to Christ in this regard.


Defects in Christ's Teaching


            First and foremost he believed and made their disciples believe also, that his second coming in clouds of glory was very near and there are many points in the Gospels that confirm that belief. He says, for instance, "Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come." Still quoting Russell: Then he says, "There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom"; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, "Take no thought for the morrow," and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count.

Then Christ says, "The Son of Man shall send forth his His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth"; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often. Then you all, of course, remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming He is going to divide the sheep from the goats, and He is going to say to the goats, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire." He continues, "And these shall go away into everlasting fire." Then He says again, "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched." He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.

            There are also some smaller, pointless or crueler points, such as the curse of a fig tree that gave him not a fig because the time of figs was not yet. Or the pigs (what were pigs doing amongst a jew community is unclear, they were regarded by them as unclean animals) to whom he cast a demon out of a man and drives them to die in the sea. If we think he was omnipotent, he could easily make the demon go away, no need to torture pigs in that fashion.


            Christ was really intolerant with those who disagree with his preachings – and created a pattern to all preachers after – saying things like “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.

            Any person who is really profoundly humane cannot believe in everlasting punishment, but Christ (as depicted in the Gospels) did believe in Hell and spent quite a bit of his time menacing with everlasting punishment, wailing and gnashing of teeth. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sorts of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him.

In short, Socrates – a real person, not invented by a repented Saul – had a far higher morality level than Christ as depicted in the Gospels. Quoting Russell again: I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put The Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.


The Emotional Factor


            People accept religion not due to logic or argumentation, but rather by the moral grounds. It is widely believed – despite all evidence in contrary – that religion makes people virtuous.

(Here I remember the book by Jose Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, published in 1991. In it, Saramago depicts a Christ concerned about mankind who, after a little chat with his heavenly father, had a vision of all wars pro and con his preachings and all the blood that would be shad in religious wars among different brands of Christianity and among Christians and Muslins, Christians and Jews and so forth. While hanging from the cross, Christ addresses the crowd and ask THEM to FORGIVE GOD, because, HE DOES NOT KNOW WHAT HE IS DOING with all his thirst for blood… Or what the Nobel Prize Stephen Weinberg said: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.)


Fear, the Foundation of Religion


            This short sentence I must just quote entirely: Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.



Last paragraph, in totum, it’s worthwhile

What We Must Do


“We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.”


My final considerations


          I was personally driven away from religion while in college. It was a process. I had to make many interviews with people of different creeds and religions and attend some of their gatherings such as a Candomble Round, a Catholic Mass, at least 5 different protestant cults – one of them was really funny, the preacher cast out demons by beating the hell of the victims; a girl in her twenty-something was carried away by members with a black eye and many bruises while chanting and thanking the preacher for casting out the devil off her… – I also attended a Mosque, a Synagogue, a Hindu Temple and some minor forms of cult. At first I came to the conclusion that all of them had some glimpse of truth (up to this date I cannot quite grasp what, but there is still a feeling in me screaming that humans are hardwired to believe anything above their individualities, not necessarily religion). Finally, it has being 20 years now, I locked myself trying to UNDERSTAND things rather than believing without questioning. I could also use the famous Cartesian motto: QUESTION EVERYTHING!

Lázaro Curvêlo Chaves – 30/03/2014

Listen to ‘Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell  (1927)

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