Saturday, June 16, 2007

eighty years on

Was sent a copy of Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian recently, and noting that it's now the eightieth anniversary of that little pot-stirrer, I thought I might write a few words on how or if it stands up today.
I first read this essay many many years ago, but it's much more interesting to read today, in the light of recent publications [but check out A C Grayling's comment here], and in the light of the putative war on terror, etc.
As you can easily tell from reading it, Why I am not a Christian started life as a speech [to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at the Battersea Town Hall]. It has, inter alia, topical and humorous references to the PM of the day, the conservative Stanley Baldwin [at the same time, we had our own identikit conservative PM, Stanley Bruce, just to preserve our links with the mother country]. For this reason it has a summary quality. However, most of the arguments put forward for the existence of god[s] don't need much expansion, and I'm only marginally concerned with Russell's treatment of them here.
Modern secularists would cast their net more widely than Christianity, of course, which would bring attendant problems [how dare you speak against Islam, Hinduism, etc, of which you know nothing is the usual refrain], and even in the Christian field, latter-day secularists like Dawkins are condemned for their ignorance of theology, a topic which will never have an end in sight [note again Grayling's comment above], and which is of precious little interest to the vast majority of believers. Russell also largely ignores theology, preferring to go straight to the heart of the matter, for Christians; the existence of god, the value of Jesus. He looks at the best-known arguments for the existence of god, starting with the oldest and strongest, including the first cause argument [must be a first cause, so must be god - which of course doesn't follow at all, even if the first premise was granted], the natural law argument [natural law is divine law - an argument from the time when Newton's laws were held to be universal and absolute], the argument from design [never heard of it], a moral argument put forward by Kant [not clearly dealt with by Russell - obviously he doesn't take it seriously], and another argument based on moral injustice [there must be a god, with all the attendant paraphernalia of the afterlife, to remedy the injustices of this world in the next world, or the one after that, or the one after that... this is actually a great argument against those silly evolutionists who point out that if evolution was the product of a divine designer, he must be a peculiarly cruel designer, given all the suffering and wastage of life entailed by the evolutionary struggle. The answer is surely that every one of those suffering beings will be redeemed in the next life, or the next... It requires a leap of the imagination as well as a leap of faith to comprehend god].
Russell is good-humoured in his treatment of these arguments, never descending into the heaviness that so often mars this kind of debate. Everything is given the respect it deserves, to my mind.
Russell next deals with the character of Jesus, again with characteristic lightness and irony. He delights in pointing out how many of Jesus's idealistic maxims are ignored by latter day Christians. He's also amusing on the embarrassing problem of Jesus's predictions about his imminent second coming, and his scare-tactic of invoking hellfire against those who refused to follow him.
It's Russell's comparison of Jesus with Socrates that I find most gratifying. It's a comparison that begs to be made and I've made it myself, at some length, in the past. Russell, the soul of wit, is much more brief, merely alluding to Socrates' benign behaviour towards his adversaries, generally in the dialogues and at the end of his life, when he fell foul of them. This in contrast to Jesus, whose style he deliciously mocks. It's worth quoting at some length:

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell." That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: "Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come." That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

Then Christ says, "The Son of Man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth"; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often.
After disposing of Jesus, Russell turns to the psychological reasons for belief, and here his views can be applied to religion more generally. These are the sorts of arguments that Boyer seeks to flesh out [while ostensibly repudiating them] in Religion Explained. Russell doesn't go into too much detail, and his conclusions can be summed up in two words - comfort and fear. Comfort in the big brother or father figure, and fear of the unknown and of death.
While these are clearly powerful motives for belief in the supernatural, I think that an exploration of supernatural-type belief systems such as numerology or astrology, which clearly don't [and aren't intended to] provide us with paternal companionship or an escape from our mortality, might be of help here. Astrology in particular is popular [especially among women] because it's personal. It supposedly helps us to know why we are like what we are, whereas science deals in abstract and general principles which we might have difficulty applying directly to ourselves. Horoscopes tell us what might happen to us tomorrow, who we might meet, how our mood might be. Like religion, we can take what we need from astrology to comfort and guide us. Some people obviously need such supernatural, highly personalised comforts and guides. Why? Is it ultimately good for them? Should the rest of us seek to disabuse them? Isn't it all basically harmless? Perhaps so, in the case of astrology. Religion is, of course, another matter.
The last words should go to Russell - bearing in mind, though, that we have other, perhaps scarier religions to contend with in the more globalised world of the 21st century:
I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.

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