C.S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

C.S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell were compatriots, contemporaries, prolific writers, and renown professors. They were also philosophical rivals. They had a lot in common; but when it came to belief in God, they couldn’t have disagreed more.

So what? They’ve each been dead over fifty years. Why do these two writers matter today?

Both C.S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell matter because most of the current-day arguments for or against belief in God are simply the rehashing of arguments you will find in their respective works. Social media debates about God often merely echo the writings and arguments of Lewis and Russell. Consequently, they are very relevant today and deserve re-consideration.   

To start, consider Lewis. Besides being a professor of literature at Oxford and Cambridge, C.S. Lewis was probably the most important 20th century apologist for Christianity. 

Screen Shot – C.S. Lewis

Huh? What is an apologist? Does that mean Lewis apologized for Christianity? 

No, in spite of how the word might sound, an apologist is not someone who constantly apologizes for something offensive. C.S. Lewis did not make a career of apologizing for Christianity’s perceived deficiencies or faults; to the contrary, as an apologist C.S. Lewis wrote many works in defense of the intellectual credibility of the Bible and Christianity, one of which is entitled The Problem of Pain

Then who was Bertrand Russell?

Bertrand Russell was an important mathematician, logician, and philosopher. He taught at the London School of Economics, Trinity College, the University of Chicago, and UCLA. On the side, he also sometimes commented on politics, ethics, and religion.

Screen Shot – Bertrand Russell

Was Russell a Christian apologist like Lewis?  

No, definitely not. Bertrand Russell was not an apologist for Christianity, but instead the exact opposite. Russell was morally and philosophically opposed to Christianity and sought to intellectually discredit it. Given how far apart he stood from Lewis philosophically, Russell might even be considered the anti-Lewis. One of Lewis’s most famous books bears the title Mere Christianity. In stark contrast, Russell famously published a polemical ten-page pamphlet (the transcript of a March 1927 lecture) pointedly entitled Why I Am Not a Christian.   

For the sake of accuracy, though, I should not create a misconception here. I made it sound like Bertrand Russell was writing in reaction to C.S. Lewis. But since Lewis’s apologetic works were published years later than Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, I should conscientiously correct that. It was exactly the other way around. The theistic Lewis was (probably) writing in response to the atheistic Russell. If possible, I will eventually locate a quote from Lewis himself to the effect that he did in fact have Russell’s work in mind as he wrote. Thus far, though, I have not found anything online to substantiate that either The Problem of Pain or Mere Christianity were intentionally written by Lewis in response to Russell’s pamphlet. Nonetheless, given the similar content covered and the relative proximity of the two closest publications — within fifteen years, with both published in Great Britain — I think it very likely, if not certain.

Who had the better arguments — Lewis or Russell? 

Frankly, the answer to that depends on whose presuppositions you are inclined to accept. Lewis believed that there must be a transcendent Creator to explain for humanity’s overwhelming religious bent, while Russell saw the same bent as a traditional vestige that ought be discarded. Russell championed the supremacy of rigorous logic, and especially, of scientific progress; while Lewis accepted the reliability of the Gospel accounts, valued Church tradition, and deferred to authority of the Bible. Their positions therefore had very, very different points of departure.      

How does all this information lead to the section that follows?

Of all the arguments against God, one of the biggest leveled by Russell and by his successors is that the God of the Bible is “not great” but is instead morally unworthy. For instance, Russell insisted that the doctrine of hell as taught by Christ was “a doctrine of cruelty.” Russell also perceives Jesus as vinidictive towards those who rejected his teachings. This indictment of God might well be the very root of Russell’s whole atheistic program.

Earlier today I was re-reading a portion of Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Before sharing it, I thought my readers might benefit from some background information about the dispute between Lewis and the most prominent atheist of his day, who would be Russell. This particular passage does not specifically reference Bertrand Russell; but the skeptical Russells of yesterday and today usually dearly wish that the God of the Bible would be nicer. They would rather God be more like the senile, benevolent old grandfather in heaven described by Lewis.     

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness — the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to be doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see the young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of the day, ‘a good time was had by all.’ Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pp. 31-32.

The Problem of Pain is well worth the read. Lewis does a commendable job of answering some of the hardest questions and objections that critics of God and Christianity pose.