Was Bertrand Russell an Atheist or an Agnostic?

Agnosticism is hardly a novel position, as it can be traced in the 20th century to philosophers like Russell, known to the public at large as “that atheist philosopher.” Yet agnosticism rarely, if ever, has received a sustained philosophical defense. A close study of Russell’s position reveals him to be an agnostic, not an atheist. In “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?” (1949) he writes: “As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.” (Seckel, Editor, Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, p. 85.) Perhaps Russell is implying that atheists as well as theists have the burden to prove their own position.(This point is raised in the form of a question in Piers Benn, “Some Uncertainties about Agnosticism,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 46 (1999), p. 175.) Why indeed ought theists be the only ones to have the argumentative burden of proof in the debate about the problem of God? Besides, even if it turned out to be the case that theism is implausible, does it logically follow that atheism is? Or, might some version of agnosticism be the best all things consideredposition to accept on the matter?

Indeed, in “The Faith of a Rationalist” (1947) Russell does not rule out the possibility that there may be alternative conceptions of God that are indeed plausible answers to the problem of evil: There is a different and vaguer conception of cosmic purpose as not omnipotent but slowly working its way through a recalcitrant material. This is a
more plausible conception than that of a god who, though omnipotent and loving, has deliberately produced beings so subject to suffering and cruelty as the majority of mankind. I do not pretent [sic] to know that there is no such purpose; my knowledge of the universe is too limited.
(Seckel, Editor, Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, p. 90. See also Russell’s claim that “Many people who say they believe in God no longer mean a person, or a trinity of persons, but only a vague tendency or power or purpose immanent in evolution. Others, going still further, mean by ‘Christianity’ merely a system of ethics which, since they are ignorant of history, they imagine to be characteristic of Christians only” (Seckel, Editor, Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, p. 76). Careful philosophers and theologians must remember that Russell wrote “Why I am not a Christian,” not “Why I am not a Theist.” The difference demonstrates how cautious Russell was in his reasoning, unlike many atheists who slip, unwittingly, from agnosticism to atheism without regard to what the balance of human reason supports)

Such epistemological humility on Russell’s part serves as a caution to atheists as well as theists. It is consistent with his agnostic statement that “. . . in matters as to which men disagree, or as to which our own convictions are wavering, we should look for proofs, or, if proofs cannot be found, we should be content to confess ignorance.”Seckel, Editor, Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, p. 88.)The willingness to acknowledge that theism might assume a different and more plausible form than that of traditional Christianity is found in the probabilistic atheism of Mackie. Subsequent to his refuting the traditional arguments for the existence of God, Mackie gives signifi cant attention to the “extreme axiarchism” of John Leslie (John Leslie, Value and Existence (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979).) according to which the world exists because it ought to exist. (J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, Chapter 13.) And Mackie, I believe, provides sufficient criticism of Leslie’s theory to render it dubious. However, it is Mackie’s rather brief admission that Tillich’s notion of God as ultimate concern might prove plausible that leads me to explore in some detail an alternative conception of the nature and function of God in order to better test the God hypothesis. Tillich, of course, means by “God” that thing or principle which is objectively of ultimate concern and is the ultimate reality, (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volumes 1–3 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951). an idea of divinity that Mackie insists traces back to the idea of the Form in Plato’s dialogues. (Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, p. 230. For an argument to the effect that whatis found in Plato’s dialogues is not attributable to Plato, see Corlett, Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues.)

Even more striking is Mackie’s statement that:
In short, all forms of the free will defence fail, and since this defence alone
had any chance of success there is no plausible theodicy on offer. We cannot,
indeed, take the problem of evil as a conclusive disproof of traditional theism,
because, as we have seen, there is some fl exibility in its doctrines, and in
particular in the additional premises needed to make the problem explicit.
There may be some way of adjusting these which avoids an internal contradiction without giving up anything essential to theism. But none has yet been clearly presented, and there is a strong presumption that theism cannot be made coherent without a serious change in at least one of its central doctrines. It leaves open several possibilities for revised religious views. (Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, p. 176.)

Apparently, Mackie and Nielsen were unfamiliar with the Whiteheadian process theologies of Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin, respectively, or even of those of certain liberationists like James H. Cone and Gustavo Gutiérrez. I shall employ aspects of process and liberation theologies to explore the possibility that many of the concerns with traditional Christian theism might intelligibly and plausibly be evaded by the theist. Furthermore, I shall not consider certain attempts to rescue traditional Christian theism from the objections
it faces, such as Hans Küng’s “indeterminate and mysterious”45 notion of God that amounts to nothing short of fi deistic double-talk and incomprehensibility:

God cannot be grasped in any concept, . . . cannot be defi ned in any defi nition:
he is the incomprehensible, inexpressible, indefi nable. . . . he is nothing of that which is; he is not an existent: he transcends everything. God transcends all concepts, statements, defi nitions; but he is not separate from the world and man; he is not outside all that is . . . God is, but he is not an existent, he is the hidden mystery of being; . . . . . . In God, therefore, transcendence and immanence coincide.(Hans Küng, Does God Exist? E. Quinn (trans.) (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1980), pp. 601–602; 632–633. For a Whiteheadian critique of some of the points made by Küng, see David Ray Griffi n, “The Rationality of Belief in God: A Response to Hans Küng,” Faith and Philosophy, 1 (1984), pp. 16–26.)

Categories: atheism


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