Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a prominent British philosopher. He was an outspoken agnostic, and his essay entitled Why I Am Not A Christian (based on a talk given in 1927) remains one of the most celebrated statements of unbelief.
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins. . . . Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
In a recent article, John Piper asks three interesting questions about this statement:-
1. Why did Russell use language borrowed from another worldview – ‘loves’, ‘beliefs’, ‘devotion’, ‘inspiration’, ‘genius’, ‘despair’ and (strangest of all) ‘soul’? ‘Why,’ (asks Piper) ‘would material atoms collide to create a language affirming realities beyond matter?’
2. Did Russell really believe that everything could be reduced to ‘accidental collocations of atoms? Did he say to any of his several children when they cried, or to any of his several wives in their affections, that their sorrows and love were ‘but the outcome if accidental collocations of atoms’? In other words, did he live his philosophy?
3. Does not this very statement not point to something more meaningful? Does not the very eloquence of Russell’s utterance (‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built’) point away from his self-annihilating reductionism to some transcendent reality?
Some people may indeed accuse some parts of the Christian church of hypocrisy. But we should not be blinded by the academic gamesmanship that too often passes for intelligent scepticism.
To Russell’s ‘unyielding despair,, we may respond with Gilbert Beenken: ‘Other men see only a hopeless end, but the Christian rejoices in an endless hope.’