Bertrand Russell

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
2nd September 2008

Tagged: atheism morality sin

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One of the disadvantages of an atheistic journalist, preacher or prophet is that they do not have to live a consistently moral life.

In our sinfulness we think it would be an advantage. To be without concern for consistency or morality would give a freedom to write and teach whatever we like. Whereas in fact it is great disadvantage, for it vitiates the whole exercise of one's life.

Christians are committed to both sincerity and morality. This commitment guides our behaviour and intellectual quest. It provides for us a perspective by which we may understand other people and the events of the world. It detaches our personal life from our estimation of others.

Only the sincere and the shameless can understand moral activity with detachment: the sincere for they are not trying to justify themselves or rationalise their behaviour; the shameless because they do not care about behaviour—theirs or anybody else's. Yet the genuinely shameless will not care about the truth of what they write or speak—for they are shameless.

Christians may, and in fact will, fail in our commitment to sincerity and morality. But these are the standards to which we aim and by which we can be judged. Our failures do not disqualify our claims. Christ's gospel is about repentance, forgiveness and new beginnings. The heart of the gospel tells us how to deal with our failures.

Twenty years ago the conservative writer Paul Johnson wrote a damning book on the private lives of “Intellectuals”. Their views were well known and shaped modern western society. But what was not so generally known was how their own private immorality and hypocrisy distorted their views. Paul Johnson's book was a great exposé on the contaminating effect of sin upon intellectual perception. Sadly this argument came back to haunt him, when ten years later his own sexual immorality was exposed.

It is the great danger of the media world that the speaker/writer is unknown except for their utterances. The personal lives of journalists are considered irrelevant to their views and so a matter of privacy. Amongst the intellectuals, academics, journalists and politicians there is a conspiracy of silence concerning public figures' personal lives.

There are several exceptions to this conspiracy. When the public figure is disgraced—the journalists admit that everybody knew about this kind of behaviour all along. Or when social mores change to make immoral behaviours acceptable—then the truth is told. Or when the person is long dead it can be told—though in the case of “The Wild Men of Sydney” even death did not prevent censorship of Cyril Pearl's book.

There is of course one group of public figures, which has no right to privacy—the Christian leader. Not all religious leaders will be exposed for their immorality. Those who preach moral relativism will avoid public exposure. But the Christian leader who preaches repentance, regeneration and holiness will rightly be held accountable for any failure. Pulling down Christ by pointing to the unholy lives of his ambassadors brings joy to the enemies of the gospel.

Christians should gain no joy in exposing the sinfulness of others. And yet sadly we need to help people understand the close connection between sinfulness and lies. It is important to see and understand that the views of sinful people will express and be distorted by their sinfulness. False prophecy and immorality go hand in hand. We do not need courses in Freud to understand this rationalising process, for the Bible itself teaches us of this connection. (Romans 1:18ff Ephesians 4:17-19)

Bertrand Russell is a classic illustration of the failure of atheism. He was an immoral hypocrite. His rebellion against God led to sinful and degenerate behaviour that totally perverted his views on life. Yet he was one of the most famous and widely read social commentators of his day and still enjoys many admirers.

Bertrand Russell's career was built on his academic work as a mathematician and logician. But his widespread fame was established by his popular radical writings on a multitude of political, social and moral subjects—in particular his rejection of Christianity. He was the popular atheistic prophet of the twentieth century. His famous book, Why I am Not a Christian, was as important to the atheist cause in the middle of last century as Professor Dawkins recent book has been in the beginning of this.

In the 1990's Ray Monk, the Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton provided a two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell. It was an enormous labour of love from an admirer of the great atheist. It detailed the life of Bertrand Russell in a way that previous biographies had not been able to. It showed that Paul Johnson's exposé of Russell in the “Intellectuals” was only the tip of the iceberg. The man who had led a generation in his exposition of atheistic ethics was a totally immoral hypocrite.

In the forward to Ray Monk's second volume he wrote:

…as I have worked on this volume, two thoughts have dominated my reactions to him (Bertrand Russell), which, I am aware, may have distorted my account of his life. The first is just how bad most of his writing on political, social, and moral questions is. Few who know Russell from his great writings on logic have taken the trouble to read the vast quantity of journalism that he produced in the second half of his life; those who do would, I think, be shocked at how sloppy and ill-considered much of it is.

The second thought that has come to dominate my reaction to Russell, particularly in the latter half of his life, is how emotionally maimed he was. He was, it sometimes seems, simply not capable of loving another human being.

Two scriptures spring to mind. “The fool says in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” (Psalm 14:1) and “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10)