The importance of Bertrand Russell’s (1872–1970) work on twentieth century philosophy can hardly be overestimated. Russell’s most lasting contributions have been in mathematical logic and the philosophy of logic, but Russell was a polymath who not only grasped several fields of philosophy but the applications of them. His work ranged into the natural and social sciences, not to mention being a very public figure in debating political issues. He was a leading influence in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and for numerous peace initiatives until his death in 1970.

Concerning arguments for the existence of God, Russell was a notable skeptic. He proclaimed there was no reason to believe in a deity, and in his book titled Why I am Not a Christian (1927), he expounded and criticized the arguments for God’s existence. Before going into his counterarguments, it is important to see the way that Russell understood the relationship between philosophy and religion.

In his History of Western Philosophy, Russell stated:

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge — so I should contend — belongs to science; dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology.

Russell’s views, propounded in his book Why I am Not a Christian, trace to this profound distinction between philosophy and theology. The book provoked a strong backlash among pious readers, intellectuals included. Appearing as it did at a time of religious revival, it was met with a hostile response. In fact, Russell’s book inspired a counter book by H.G. Wood, a member of the Society of Friends and later a professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham. Wood’s book Why Bertrand Russell is Not a Christian, An Essay on Controversy was published the following year by the London Christian Movement. Not to be outdone, Russell responded in a review entitled “Why Mr. Wood is Not a Freethinker.”

Russell asserts that there are two different “items” essential to the belief system of anyone calling himself a Christian: a belief in God and a belief in immortality. Put in this way, the title Why I Am Not a Christian is misleading. His subsequent arguments against the existence of God apply not only to Christianity but to Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and several other smaller religions which accept those same two beliefs.

A beginning to atheism can be located more than 2,300 years ago. In ancient Athens, the materialists Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus concluded that the world was composed of atoms in perpetual motion. In his work De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Lucretius (99– 55 B.C.E.) revived the atomist theory during Roman times. Atomism was regarded as heretical during the Christian era and was persecuted.

Russell sets out to attack the first of those beliefs. He notes with curiosity that the Catholic Church has “laid it down as a dogma” that the existence of God can be proven by unaided reason, as well as being accepted by faith. Russell proceeds to take on several of these arguments.

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Next Russell takes on what he calls the “argument from design.” This was Aquinas’s fifth way. It is at once the most renowned of the five arguments and the one that the proverbial man in the street is most apt to embrace. It appeals to anyone who believes that the universe is too orderly and too good to have occurred without being designed by some supreme being. Design of the universe implies a designer.

The design argument has lost some steam since the nineteenth century, specifically since Darwin, who, says Russell, “understood much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment.” It is not that the environment was made suitable for us; rather, it is the other way around. Creatures grew suitable to the environment and that is the basis of adaptation.

Could it really be, Russell wonders, that if a being with omnipotence and omniscience were given a million years to perfect his design he could produce nothing better than the one we have? “Nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascisti?” Russell persists. And still believers persist — in calling such a being supreme.

Even a casual acquaintance with the most basic laws of science shows that “human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is merely a flash in the pan.” Life is but a momentary stage in the ultimate decay of the universe. What we now see in the moon, Russell maintains, is the sort of thing to which the earth is tending — something dead, cold, and lifeless.

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