Apologetics,  Atheism

Bertrand’s Blunderbuss

Bertrand Russell and his pipe

“As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others” (Bertrand Russell).

Russell liked to have a go at religion with the argumentative equivalent of a blunderbuss: He shoots out many different arguments that go all over place and hopes that something will hit the target. There are at least three arguments in this paragraph. The first one goes something like this:

  1. There are many different authorities and we cannot tell which one is the right authority (even if there was, in fact, a right authority). 
  2. If we cannot tell which is the right authority then there is no obligation to obey any authority.
  3. Therefore, there is no obligation to obey/listen to/heed any authority.

Let’s come back to that one and look at another couple. His main point seems to be that relying on authority to know something is a silly thing to do. Russell claims that what authority people end up living under is arbitrary. Generally people choose the authority most familiar to them but people aren’t able to choose what is familiar to them (they are born in a community without being able to choose what community). He also suggests that, in practice, people don’t really live under authority anyway. People pick the parts of authority that are most preferable and ignore the rest. Much better, then, to do away with authority than pretend to live under it and never really achieve the goal.

At first these two arguments appear promising but, upon reflection, tell us very little and don’t really support the conclusion that would should ignore authority. As to the first, though there are many people who accept what they are told by their parents Russell is no different. Bertrand Russell had no choice about what community he was born into. Daddy was an atheist and brought up young Bertie to eschew religion. In other words, merely having no choice as to what family one is born into tells us nothing about the truth of what one’s family tells us.

Similarly, and in regard to the second argument, the fact that people pick and choose what they like from a given authority tells us nothing about whether or not they ought to live fully under that authority. It tells us that human beings are inconsistent, sinful even, but that doesn’t tell us anything. It might actually support the case of a religious person whose authority describes human beings as sinful and unable to live consistently under their authority.

So what about the first argument? According to Russell, we have no obligation to obey an authority if we cannot tell which authority is the right one. There are so many to choose from. All of them claim to be from a supreme and, in most cases, divine authority. Since we can’t tell, we don’t have to obey since ought implies can. Furthermore, to do so, according to Russell, is to abandon reason. One cannot obey an authority without being irrational.

The first thing to point out is that, if one could tell which authority is the right one then it would be perfectly rational to obey it. I am assuming that even Russell would be happy, in principle, with the following conditional: If God exists and has spoken and we could tell that God exists and has spoken, then we would be obligated to live under his authority. Russell still might not want to obey God, but he couldn’t very easily say it is irrational to do so. If so, then it is not a question of obligation but of epistemic confidence, proving the antecedent.

There are several things to say about Russell’s religious skepticism. The first is to suggest that he only offers another voice to be unsure about. We are to take it that his authority on the matter is a far better bet than all the others. Presumably, Russell holds his own view–that there is no god and, therefore, no need to live under god’s authority–because he thinks it has better rational support. Russell, as he made clear, was an unbeliever because there was no evidence for the existence of God that was persuasive to him. His standard was very high indeed. Too high, as it turns out, since if the evidence he demanded for the existence of God was applied to many other things Russell believed those beliefs too should have been rejected. Russell probably read more arguments for the existence of God  than many believers, yet Russell remained unconvinced. It is highly likely that Russell, even if he got the kind of evidence he wanted, would still be skeptical. This suggests that proof is not really the problem.

What if someone replied that there is indeed a way to tell that God exists and has spoken and then proceeds to point to a revealed text and says “this is the Word of God”? Surely, if that person can tell which is the right authority that person is obliged to live under that authority. Of course, the response would lead to a more fundamental question: how does one tell that she is right? But that is a problem not of choice, but disagreement. Consider the following: If epistemic peers (equal access to evidence, intellectual capacity etc.) disagree, then they should examine and be suspicious of their beliefs. If being suspicious of one’s beliefs in the face of disagreement entails withholding belief then Russell’s argument goes through. The trouble is that nothing suggests that Russell is any less obliged to withhold than the theist. At best, this gives us universal agnosticism, but that again is a self-defeating dead end for it involves the universal claim: “there is no way to tell if there is a religion that is true.” But that itself is subject to the same suspicion and belief should be withheld.

Of course, it is open to the theist to deny the antecedent. What makes Russell assume he is on par with a Christian theist? A Christian might easily reply, as Plantinga suggests, the she is no such peer of Russell. Though she does not deserve it, God has favored her above Russell with a spiritual awareness of the truth of scripture in virtue of her new nature given her through new birth. Russell cannot see it because he is not born again.

Let’s think the other way up for a minute. If we begin with the idea that we can’t tell which one is right and then try to explain the way the world is we end up in a mess. So let’s try the other way. What if everyone could tell that God exists and that they are obliged to live under his authority? Let’s say that it is a kind of universal knowledge – everyone has it. And let’s say that some, if not most, people spend their lives attempting to deny that knowledge and do all sorts of things to avoid the truth that they know. They make false gods, intellectually argue themselves out of believing and generally try to hide from God. And let’s say that this is the default position of all human beings. We all attempt to deny the obvious. Further, let’s say that God, because of his grace, decides to give some human beings the ability to accept the truth and live self-consciously, though not yet perfectly, under his authority. What difference would that fact make to the way the world is? None. It appears to be a perfectly good explanation for what the world looks like. It is, in fact, what the Bible tells us is the case:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (Romans 1:18-23).

The Bible is not kind to those who know the truth and suppress the truth in virtue of their unrighteousness. In fact, such an action is considered warrant for eternal condemnation. But how would one know if one is in such a state? The state, call it state D (D for denial) roughly speaking is:

State D =defS knows that God exists. S does not want/desire to believe that God exists. S deceives him/herself into believing that God does not exist (Bahnsen used something like this in his doctoral thesis on self deception)

Someone in such a state would have no way to tell if he or she was in it. A person would have to be told by someone who is not in D that he or she is in D. But who could we call on? Everyone is in D! One would require an act of revelation by God, who is not in D, to tell us that we are in D and that being in D is sinful. God would also have to do something to us, regenerate our minds so that we could see the truth and affirm the truth. He would have to alter our desires so that we would want to believe that God exists. Such is the view of the Christian, who proclaims that she was once blind but now she sees. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.