Monday, May 12, 2008

Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian": Book Review

A grad school classmate twenty-five years ago recommended this book to me; I finally got around to it. After I read (and reviewed here and on Amazon) Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett's recent arguments against religious belief, I wondered what their inspiration had to say. They all acknowledge his pioneering efforts to expound an rationalist's philosophy, and I wondered-- scientific advances into DNA and political shifts in fundamentalist terror aside-- how much of today's "neo-atheist" presence had been foreshadowed, if not ghosted, by Russell.

The title's a bit misleading; "Why I Don't Believe in God" fits better this 1957 collection from over five decades of essays loosely concerned with intellectual freedom as well as "theological subjects." The title essay from 1927 attacks the standard proofs for God vigorously but rather too rapidly; it was a talk given for the National Secular Society, which may account for its briskness. "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?" (1930) takes on Christianity's harmful "ethical perversions" regarding most powerfully its suppression of sex. This theme occurs in many of the essays, reflecting Russell's well-known, or notorious once upon a time, advocacy of an openness in moral attitudes that even today would place him far on the left. The rest of this lengthy essay asserts "the three human impulses embodied in religion are fear, conceit, and hatred." (44) Religion makes these respectable passions, "provided they run in certain channels." Compared to Dawkins & Hitchens, Russell's position remains even more provocative perhaps, in such defiance.

"What I Believe" (1925) predicts how science will continue to obliterate credulous faith in a deity or in immortality. It rises to astonishing eloquence; its rhetoric is employed perhaps too lavishly for our tastes today, but it does leap out from the other essays which prefer more professorial tones. "Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanising myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own." (54) Here he's close to Hitchens' humanism as praised in his closing pages, and also Dawkins, with whom Russell shares a confidence in reason that will overcome superstition and wish fulfillment.

He does wander about considerably in this essay, but many of his warnings still remain in effect for us. "Capitalists, militarists, and ecclesiastics co-operate in education, because all depend for their power upon the prevalence of emotionalism and the rarity of critical judgment." (67-8) In criticizing the power of revolutionaries who argue that salvation, secular or religious, can only result from "catastrophic change, like the conversion of St. Paul," Russell aligns Shelley's poems. He does not blame only the churches, but all who foolishly if calculatedly goad people to revolt in hopes that if the "priests or capitalists or Germans" are overthrown, "that there will be a general change of heart and we should all live happily ever after." (75-6) This nuance, often overlooked in Russell, reminds us that he saw his foes among communists as well as the corporations, and denied any "short cuts to the millennium." The good life comes only through the cultivation of compassion, commonsense, and intelligent self-control. It cannot be grasped by the impatient.

Hitchens has been criticized for his assertion that part of the disasters of 9/11 can be traced back to the fact that the fanatics were driven to their actions by their warped sexual impulses. Russell notes: "A man or woman who has been thwarted sexually is apt to be full of envy; this generally takes the form of moral condemnation of the more fortunate." (82) Such jealousy of the rich and a hatred of luxury may, Russell implies, go on to become an "envy of love" itself.

In "A Free Man's Worship," (1903) eloquence also colors his address. He denies the primacy of power placed in a God. He supports the contrary to force, the worship of goodness. Since humans are but "a helpless atom in a world that has no such knowledge" of good and evil, Russell sets up mankind as the maker of God, who rules by fear and ignorance. Earlier people misunderstood how nature itself works without hatred or joy. For moderns, the alternative awaits. "Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?" (109) Here, the neo-atheists align with Russell. They all accept that once we understand evolution, that we should continue to refuse to be tyrannized by attributing the patterns of blameless nature to a vengeful, loving, capricious, or jealous deity or deities.

This essay reaches a tremendous climax, full of imagery that could rival Darwin, Marx, or Nietzsche in its passionate claims for a Prometheus who breaks his chains forged in centuries of submission to mental and political and clerical control. Only a brief excerpt must suffice. Russell compares our life to that lived on a narrow raft (I think of the Medusa in Gericault's terrible painting) among "the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears." (113) Much more in this mode awaits the intrepid reader.

A treatment of Catholic vs. Protestant skeptics (1928) has its moments: the latter tend to leave their denominations behind for denial of God more easily, as they merely continue the divisions that formed in turn the Reformation's sects. The former, however, "feels himself lost without the support of the church," upon whom the believer must perforce depend totally, and in his "desperate revolt" lacks the example of earlier heretics who found an intellectual or spiritual haven safely. He goes on to contrast the "social character" of Catholicism with the "individual character" that defines a Protestant. Goethe (I think; this is not cited by Russell) opined that it's easier to be good if one's happy than to be happy if one's good. This reminds me of Russell, somehow: "Protestants like to be good and have invented theology in order to keep themselves so, whereas Catholics like to be bad and have invented theology in order to keep themselves good." (123) These sorts of apercus keep you reading past the inevitably dated references and highlight Russell's clever wit.

Other essays here turn towards other concerns, loosely related to thought dominated by a Christian vs. a freethinking perspective. A review of Eileen Power's "Medieval People" and Johan Huizinga's "The Autumn of the Middle Ages," two popular histories from around 1925, is useful; a long 1934 account of Tom Paine's fate may have resurrected his reputation for later admirers such as Hitchens himself. "Nice People" failed to sustain its satirical edge, but can be taken as a valid 1931 indication of how the proto-hippies of the Thirties might have viewed with venom that vast majority of decent suburban hypocrites to the right of the bohemian (and perhaps then as now often trust-funded, one suspects) smart set.

This attitude pervades the essays on "The New Generation" (1930) and "Our Sexual Ethics" (1936), of course. I found this prediction has come nearly to pass among many single mothers, baby mamas, and absent fathers whose families doubtless came once from far to the right of Russell's radicals: "If women are to have sexual freedom, fathers must fade out, and wives must no longer expect to be supported by their husbands." (170) Another essay relates such statements to academic freedom (as does the long appendix devoted to the denial of Russell's appointment to a teaching post at CCNY in 1941 for his allegedly godless, pro-abortion, Communist, and free-love [etc.] espousing lack of immorality). It's still timely as a reminder of the state's exercised control of what professors can teach in their classes, and can publish.

"Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?" (1954) gives the answer you'd expect. "When two men of science disagree, they do not invoke the secular arm; they wait for further evidence to decide the issue, because, as men of science, they know that neither is infallible. But when two theologians differ, since there are no criteria to which either can appeal, there is nothing for it but mutual hatred and an open or covert appeal to force." (198) Substitute "believers" for "theologians," or "armed nations basing their aggression upon their faith-based ideologies" and you have instant relevance.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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