December 13, 2006

Booklog: Why I Am Not a Christian

Filed under: booklog — ted @ 2:04 pm

Why I Am Not a Christian
Bertrand Russell
Read: 12.8.06
Rating: Good

Recently I’ve been reading quite a bit about the “new atheists,” namely Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, who have staked out quite a presence on the Internet and the bestseller list lately. These gentlemen are notable for their ability to ruthlessly engage and attack the basic precepts of religion, despite the fact that in the contemporary cultural climate — especially here in America — the open questioning of religion is generally considering impolite, intolerant, or even rude. Although I’m impressed by what I’ve read so far, and will probably be reading Harris’s book The End of Faith shortly, I wanted to go back into the past and check out Bertrand Russell, the forefather of these gentlemen. In the bookstore, I picked up Why I Am Not a Christian and dove in.

The first thing to know about this volume is that it’s not as much a book as a collection of essays, many of which were read as lectures or published topically. The title essay was given as a lecture in 1927, and, along with What I Believe, an essay Russell had published as a book two years earlier, it makes up the the heart of this particular collection. There are a number of fine essays towards the back of this book, all of which revolve, in some way, around Russell lifelong battle with the ideas (and implementation of the ideas) of religion, especially Christianity. In each instance, Russell’s criticisms are ruthlessly logical, piling argument upon argument. At his best, Russell cuts directly through common misconceptions about religion and its supposedly beneficial aspects, leveling crippling logic to prove that religion is in fact harmful to humanity. As a taste of his writing style, here’s a summary/concluding paragraph which appears towards the end of his essay Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?

It would seem, therefore, that the three human impulses embodied in religion are fear, conceit, and hatred. The purpose of religion, one may say, is to give an air of respectability to these passions, provided they run in certain channels. It is because these passions make, on the whole, for human misery that religion is a force for evil since it permits men to indulge these passions without restraint, where but for its sanction they might, at least to a certain degree, control them.

Obviously, this paragraph alone will convince no one, but coming as it does at the end of a powerful argument, it is deadly.

The shortcomings in this volume stem from the fact that most of the texts written in the 1930s; like many of the intellectuals of that time, Russell’s writings exhibit a rather breathless optimism concerning the future of human attitudes towards religion. Russell seems certain that the old beliefs about Christ and God are in the process of dying. Sadly, as we know, this is not the case — hence the continued need for people like Harris, who continue in Russell’s footsteps. To his credit, Russell did maintain a similar belief in logic and the capabilities of the human intellect (specifically through the progress of science) even after the Second World War and after his being denied a professorship in New York during the fifties (the ridiculous public furor surrounding this debacle is outlined in this volume, in an Appendix by Paul Edwards). After these events, his optimism is no longer breathless, but his faith in logic and progress are undiminished. It’s very impressive. Once the reader is acclimated this this difference of decades, this “problem” with the text becomes more lamentable than critical.

My personal favorite essay is A Free Man’s Worship, which Russell wrote in 1903 as a thirty-one-year-old. It has a delightful fervor to it, reminding me of Camus at his very best. In this essay, Russell explores the fact that science presents us with a a world which is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.” He stares directly into the question of meaning, and comes to the conclusion that mankind’s ability to rise above the ruthless meaninglessness of nature is sufficient:

In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow-men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

As I said, this essay is my favorite, and even if I wasn’t terribly impressed by each and every essay in this book, I found that Russell consistently surprised me with his ability to annihilate common conceptions about religion and morality — usually with a memorable turn of phrase. Here’s another example: “As soon as it is held that any belief, no matter what, is important for some other reason than that it is true, a whole host of evils is ready to spring.”

I’ve only scraped the surface here, so let me just say one more good thing (Russell’s ideas about sex and its role in society and morals are superb) and one bad (Russell’s conception of the “Good Life,” outlined in What I Believe, leaves much to be desired. He is a logician, after all).

If you’re interested in reading this book, here’s my suggestions about which essays you should focus on:

Must read: Why I Am Not a Christian; Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?; What I Believe; Do We Survive Death?; A Free Man’s Worship; Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?

Worth a read: Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is; On Catholic and Protestant Skeptics; The Fate of Thomas Paine; Our Sexual Ethics; Freedom and the Colleges; Appendix

Skippable: Life in the Middle Ages; Nice People; The New Generation


1 Comment »

  1. Tell Me, Have you read any of Daniel C. Dennett’s work? He is indeed a very brilliant man, but I’m afraid sometimes he gets caught in some unnecessary quagmires. Of course he’s got some interesting thoughts. I haven’t read through the rest of your blog so perhaps you’ve answered this, but are you considering atheism or agnosticism?

    Comment by Ezzardcharles — December 20, 2006 @ 1:01 am

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