QUESTION weither there is a God is one which is decided on very different
grounds by different communities and different individuals. The immense majority of mankind accept the prevailing opinion
of their own community In the earliest times of which we have definite history everybody believed in many gods. It was the
Jews who first believed in only one. The first commandment, when it was new, was very difficult to obey because the Jews had
believed that Baal and Ashtaroth and Dagon and Moloch and the rest were real gods but were wicked because they helped the
enemies of the Jews. The step from a belief that these gods were wicked to the belief that they did not exist was a difficult
one. There was a time, namely that of Antiochus IV, when a vigorous attempt was made to Hellenize the Jews. Antiochus decreed
that they should eat pork abandon circumcision, and take baths. Most of the Jews in Jerusalem submitted, but in country places
resistance was more stubborn and under the leadership of the Maccabees the Jews at last established their right to their peculiar
tenets and customs Monothiesm, which at the beginning of the Antiochan persecution had been the creed of only part of one very small nation, was adopted
by Christianity and later by Islam, and so became dominant throughout the whole of the world west of India. From India eastward,
it had no success: Hinduism had many gods; Buddhism in its primitive form had none; and Confucianism had none from the eleventh
century onward. But, if the truth of a religion is to be judged by its worldly success, the argument in favor of monotheism
is a very strong one, since it possessed the largest armies, the largest navies, and the greatest accumulation of wealth.
In our own day this argument is growing less decisive.[i] It is true that the un-Christian menace of Japan was defeated. But the Christian is now faced with the menace of atheistic
Muscovite hordes, and it is not so certain as one could wish that atomic bombs will provide a conclusive argument on the side
But let us abandon this
political and geographical way of considering religions, which has been increasingly rejected by thinking people ever since
the time of the ancient Greeks. Ever since that time there have been men who were not content to accept passively the religious
opinions of their neighbors, but endeavoured to consider what reason and philosophy might have to say about the matter.
In the commercial cities of lonia, where philosophy was invented, there were free-thinkers in the sixth century B.C. Compared
to modem free-thinkers they had an easy task, because the Olympian gods, however charming to poetic fancy were hardly such
as could be defended by the metaphysical use of the unaided reason. They were met popularly by Orphism (to which Christianity
owes much) and, philosophically, by Plato, from whom the Greeks derived a philosophical monotheism[ii] very different from the political and nationalistic monotheism of the Jews. When
the Greek world became converted to Christianity it combined the new creed with Platonic metaphysics and so gave birth to
theology. Catholic theologians, from the time of Saint Augustine to the present day, have believed that the existence of one
God could be proved by the unaided reason. Their arguments were put into final form by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth
century. When modem philosophy began in the seventeenth century, Descartes and Leibnitz took over the old arguments, somewhat
polished them up, and thus owing largely to their efforts, piety, it remained intellectually respectable. But Locke, although
himself a completely convinced Christian, undermined the theoretical basis of the old arguments, and many of his followers,
especially in France, became Atheists. I will not attempt to set forth in all their subtlety the philosophical arguments for
the existence of God. There is, I think, only one of them which still has weight with philosophers, that is the argument of
the First Cause. This argument maintains that, since everything that happens has a cause, there must be a First Cause from
which the whole series starts. The argument suffers, however, from the same defect as that of the elephant and the tortoise.
It is said (I do not know with what truth) that a certain Hindu thinker believed the earth to rest upon an elephant. When
asked what the elephant rested upon, he replied that it rested upon a tortoise. When asked what the tortoise rested upon,
he said, I am tired of this. Suppose we change the subject. This illustrates the unsatisfactory character of the First-Cause
argument. Nevertheless, you will find it in some ultra-modem treatises on physics, which contend that physical processes,
traced backward in time, show that there must have been a sudden beginning and infer that this was due to divine Creation.
They carefully abstain from attempts to show how this hypothesis makes matters more intelligible. The scholastic arguments
for the existence of a Supreme Being are now rejected by most Protestant theologians in favor of new arguments which to my
mind are by no means an improvement. The scholastic arguments were genuine efforts of thought and, if their reasoning had
been sound, they would have demonstrated the truth of their conclusion. The new arguments, which Modernists prefer, are
vague; and the Modernists reject with contempt every effort to make them precise. There is an appeal to the heart as opposed
to the intellect. It is not maintained that those who reject the new arguments are illogical, but that they are destitute
of deep feeling or of moral sense. Let us nevertheless examine the modern arguments and see whether there is anything
that they really prove.
One of the favourite
arguments is from evolution. The world was once lifeless, and when life began it was a poor sort of life consisting of green
slime and other uninteresting things. Gradually by the course of evolution, it developed into animals and plants and at last
into MAN. Man, so the theologians assure us, is so splendid a Being that he may well be regarded as the culmination to which
the long ages of nebula and slime were a prelude. I think the theologians must have been fortunate in their human contacts.
They do not seem to me to have given due weight to Hitler or the Beast of Belsen.[iii] If Omnipotence, with all time at its disposal, thought it worth while
to lead up to these men through the many millions of years of evolution, I can only say that the moral and aesthetic taste
involved is peculiar. However, the theologians no doubt hope that the future course of evolution will produce more men like
themselves and fewer men like Hitler. Let us hope so. But, in cherishing this hope, we are abandoning the ground of experience
and taking refuge in an optimism which history so far does not support.
There are other objections
to this evolutionary optimism. There is every reason to believe that life on our planet will not continue forever so that
any optimism based upon the course of terrestrial history must be temporary and limited in its purview. There may, of course,
be life elsewhere but, if there is, we know nothing about it and have no reason to suppose that it bears more resemblance
to the virtuous theologians than to Hitler. The earth is a very tiny corner of the universe. It is a little fragment of the
solar system. The solar system is a little fragment of the Milky Way. And the Milky Way is a little fragment of the many millions
of galaxies revealed by modern telescopes. In this little insignificant corner of the cosmos there is a brief interlude between
two long lifeless
epochs. In this brief
interlude, there is a much briefer one containing man. If really man is the purpose of the universe, the preface seems a little
long. One is reminded of some prosy old gentleman who tells an interminable anecdote all quite uninteresting until the rather
small point in which it ends. I do not think theologians show a suitable piety in making such a comparison possible.
It has been one of the
defects of theologians at all times to over-estimate the importance of our planet. No doubt this was natural enough in
the days before Copernicus when it was thought that the heavens revolve about the earth. But since Copernicus and still more
since the modern exploration of distant regions, this pre-occupation with the earth has become rather parochial. If the universe
had a Creator, it is hardly reasonable to suppose that He was specially interested in our little corner. And, if He was not,
His values must have been different from ours, since in the immense majority of regions life is impossible.
There is a moralistic
argument for belief in God, which was popularized by William James.[iv] According to this argument, we ought to believe in God because, if we do not, we shall not behave well. The first
and greatest objection to this argument is that at its best, it cannot prove that there is a God but only that politicians
and educators ought to try to make people think there is one. Whether this ought to be done or not is not a theological question
but a political one. The arguments are of the same sort as those which urge that children should be taught respect for the
flag. A man with any genuine religious feeling will not be content with the view that the belief in God is useful, because
he will wish to know whether, in fact, there is a God. It is absurd to contend that the two questions are the same. In the
nursery, belief in Father Christmas is useful, but grown-up people do not think that this proves Father Christmas to be real.
Since we are not concerned
with politics, we might consider this sufficient refutation of the moralistic argument, but it is perhaps worthwhile
to pursue this a little further. It is, in the first place, very doubtful whether belief in God has all the beneficial moral
effects that are attributed to it. Many of the best men known to history have been unbelievers. John Stuart Mill
may serve as an instance. And many of the worst men known to history have been believers. Of this there are innumerable
instances. Perhaps Henry VIII may serve as typical. However that may be, it is always disastrous when governments set to work
to uphold opinions for their utility rather than for their truth. As soon as this is done it becomes necessary to have a censorship
to suppress adverse arguments, and it is thought wise to discourage thinking among the young for fear of encouraging dangerous
thoughts. When such malpractices are employed against religion as they are in Soviet Russia, the theologians can see
that they are bad, but they are still bad when employed in defense of what the theologians think good. Freedom of thought
and the habit of giving weight to evidence are matters of far greater moral import than the belief in this or that theological
dogma. On all these grounds it cannot be maintained that theological beliefs should be upheld for their usefulness without
regard to their truth.
There is a simpler and
more naive form of the same argument, which appeals to many individuals. People will tell us that without the consolations
of religion they would be intolerably unhappy. So far as this is true, it is a cowards argument. Nobody but a coward would
consciously choose to live in a fools paradise. When a man suspects his wife of infidelity, he is not thought the better
of for shutting his eyes to the evidence. And I cannot see why ignoring evidence should be contemptible in one case and
admirable in the other. Apart from this argument the importance of religion in contributing to individual happiness
is very much exaggerated. Whether you are happy or unhappy depends upon a number of factors. Most people need good health
and enough to eat. They need the good opinion of their social milieu and the affection of their intimates. They need not only
physical health but mental health. Given all these things, most people will be happy whatever their theology. Without
them, most people will be unhappy, whatever their theology. In thinking over the people I have known, I do not find that
on the average those who had religious beliefs were happier than those who had not.
When I come to my own
beliefs, I find myself quite unable to discern any purpose in the universe, and still more unable to wish to discern
one. Those who imagine that the course of cosmic evolution is slowly leading up to some consummation pleasing to the Creator,
are logically committed (though they usually fail to realize this) to the view that the Creator is not omnipotent or, if He
were omnipotent, He could decree the end without troubling about means. I do not myself perceive any consummation toward which
the universe is tending. According to the physicists, energy will be gradually more evenly distributed and as it becomes more
evenly distributed it will become more useless. Gradually everything that we find interesting or pleasant, such as life and
light, will disappearso, at least, they assure us. The cosmos is like a theatre in which just once a play is performed, but,
after the curtain falls, the theatre is left cold and empty until it sinks in ruins. I do not mean to assert with any positiveness
that this is the case. That would be to assume more knowledge than we possess. I say only that it is what is probable on present evidence. I will not assert dogmatically that there is no cosmic purpose, but I will
say that there is no shred of evidence in favor of there being one.
I will say further that,
if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and
kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to
be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody [emphasis inserted by JK]. A man who willingly
afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year
with this dreadful disease. A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to
make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of His children.
The whole conception of an omnipotent God whom it is impious to criticize, could only have arisen under oriental despotisms
where sovereigns, in spite of capricious cruelties, continued to enjoy the adulation of their slaves. It is the psychology
appropriate to this outmoded political system which belatedly survives in orthodox theology.
There is, it is true,
a Modernist form of theism, according to which God is not omnipotent, but is doing His best, in spite of great difficulties.
This view, although it is new among Christians, is not new in the history of thought. It is, in fact, to be found in Plato.
I do not think this view can be proved to be false. I think all that can be said is that there is no positive reason in its
favour. Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than
of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is
a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided
I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go
on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt
it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient
books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe
in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened
age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. It is customary to suppose that, if a belief is widespread, there must be something
reasonable about it. I do not think this view can be held by anyone who has studied history. Practically all the beliefs
of savages are absurd. In early civilizations there may be as much as one percent
for which there is something to be said. In our own day (but at this point I must be careful), we all know that there are
absurd beliefs in Soviet Russia. If we are Protestants, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Catholics. If we are Catholics,
we know that there are absurd beliefs among Protestants. If we are Conservatives, we are amazed by the superstitions
to be found in the Labour Party. If we are Socialists, we are aghast at the credulity of Conservatives. I do not know, dear
reader, what your beliefs may be, but whatever they may be, you must concede that nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths
of mankind are totally irrational. The beliefs in question are, of course, those which you do not hold. I cannot, therefore,
think it presumptuous to doubt something which has long been held to be true, especially when this opinion has only
prevailed in certain geographical regions, as is the case with all theological opinions.
My conclusion is that
there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that
they were true. Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility
is his, and so is the opportunity.
[i] It is told that Genghis Khan made the opposite argument to an emissary
of the Popes. When the priest proposed conversion, the Khan replied that his
gods had brought him success and that he did not wish to offend them.--JK
[ii] These two statements of Russell I find objectionable. First, I have no recollection of Plato denying the gods or of stating that there is but one. Second, if such be the case there are elsewhere, such as in the Euthythro, references to gods. Thirdly, if there be such a position somewhere in Platos over 1,500 pages of surviving
works, it did not lead to a movement for monotheism. As to the other proposition,
that the Greek polytheism was indefensible by reason, that is false. The Greeks
based on observation proved there faith. There are many historical accounts of
the oracles being fulfilled.--JK.
[iii] The Beast of Belsen refers to Josef
Kramer (1907-1945), the notoriously cruel commander
of the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.
[iv] William James (18421910), American philosopher, founder of Pragmatism, and author of The Will to Believe (1897) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). See also A. I. Ayer on James (pp. 104105).