Bertrand Russell wasn't necessarily the wisest of all men, but he was a very important influence on my early thinking. Therefore, I hold him in very high regard
I recall taking a speech class in college. For our final grade, we had to select a reading from some work and present it aloud in front of the class. My professor was a very religious man, a Catholic, possibly a Jesuit, with no sense of humor. I used a selection from Russell's classic work, "Why I Am Not A Christian". He glared at me throughout the entire reading, his face red and flushed. I enjoyed every moment of it. When it was over, he gave me my grade in front of the whole class: D. I could never figure out what I did wrong :-)
Read "Why I Am Not A Christian" HERE!
I had the good fortune of having as my Philosophy teacher Paul Edwards, a Russell expert and the editor of Russell's works. Needless to say, he turned me on to Russell.
For that, I will be eternally grateful.
In the area of Natural Law, it was popular in the 18th century to assume that all of the bodies in the solar system moved according to a set of natural laws that derived from a supernatural creator. Russell explains that " a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions." He goes on to say that "They (the laws of nature) are statistical averages, such as would emerge from the laws of chance." If you are describing the motions that you see and are observing how things behave, you cannot argue that there must be someone who told them to behave just that way. Then you must ask the question "why did God issue just those natural laws and no others?"
The Argument from Design is where Russell is at his weakest. He describes the argument by saying that "everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it." His retort to this is to fall back on the Darwinian view that living creatures are adapted to their environments, it is not the environments that were created to serve them.
But look at the problem another way. If travelers from another galaxy, unaware of the humans living on the earth, were to land on the moon and find one of the lunar modules that we left there, would they think for a moment that it was a naturally occurring phenomenon that had sprung up by chance from the rock and dust of the moon? I think not. They would see evidence of design and purpose. Living organisms are complex biochemical machines, run by a sophisticated computer program.
As each day goes on, the levels of complexity deepen to the point where we must begin to wonder if it was possible for machines of this nature to have sprung up by random chance from the rocks and waters of a barren earth. Paley's argument begins to look better and better. But the fact that we may see design and purpose in living organisms does not necessarily imply a supernatural being. That requires a leap of faith that many would not be willing to make. At the very least, however, it implies the existence of a higher intelligence that may have built us. Of course, that begs the question "where did THEY come from?" and we're right back to elephants standing on tortoises.
One example of this argument is that there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. Russell argues that if there is a difference between right and wrong and if this difference is due to the will of God, then for God himself, there is no difference between right and wrong. It is then ridiculous to make the statement "God is good". If you want to believe that "God is good", then you must say that right and wrong have a meaning that is independent of God's will because God's whims are good, independent of the fact that he made them. This makes right and wrong logically anterior to God.
A similar argument says that God is required in order to bring justice into the world. There must be a heaven and a hell in order to remedy the injustice in the world. Russell argues that since we don't know about the rest of the universe, there is no logical reason to suppose that it is any different anywhere else and that the absence of justice in the world makes a moral argument against a diety, rather than in favor of one.
Russell argues that the main reason that people believe in God is because they have been taught to from early infancy. The second most important reason is the need to feel safe, to feel that someone in power is watching over you and protecting you
Russell is quick to point out that Christ espoused some excellent principles. For example, He said "Judge not, lest ye be judged" and "Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away". Also, He said "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor." Unfortunately, as Russell points out, these maxims are little practiced in actuality and are difficult to live up to.
Russell goes on to point out some areas where Christ was not so wise. For example, he thought that his Second Coming was imminent, and would occur during the lifetimes of those then living. But the most serious defect that Russell finds in Christ's teachings is that he believed in Hell. Russell says "I do not believe myself that any person who is profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment." He also expressed a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His teachings. Russell finds this doctrine of everlasting punishment in the fires of hell to be a doctrine of cruelty that unleashed on the world generations of cruel torture. For this he considers Christ to be partially responsible.
"You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been, and still is the principle enemy of moral progress in the world."
Bertrand Russell (Mar 6, 1927)
Russell believes that religion is based mainly on fear, on the terror of the unknown and upon the desire for someone to watch over you and take care of you. He also believes that fear is the parent of cruelty, and this explains why religion and cruelty have gone hand in hand over the centuries. Russell believes that Science can help us to overcome those fears by helping us to better understand things and to look to our own efforts here in this world to make the world a better place to live in.
"We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world - its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties and its ugliness; to see the world as it is and not be afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it...A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create."
Nothing has changed since 1927. Or maybe it has, but I've not noticed. I see continuing violence around the world being perpetrated in the name of God. I'm beginning to wonder if killing each other is simply a part of our genetic programming that we will never be rid of. Each generation, the cycle seems to begin anew and we are plunged back into horror. I used to be hopeful that we were moving towards a more rational view of the world and that there was a road to peace. I'm not so sure any more.
(Read More about this in the book "Why I Am Not A Christian:and other essays on religion and related subjects" Touchstone Books 1957 ISBN 0-671-20323-1 available from Amazon.com)
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