Conversation with Bertrand Russell
The quotes below were taken from Bertrand Russell's essay "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?" This essay is part of the 1957 essay collection "Why I Am Not a Christian."
B.R.: "My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others."
Me: I guess I'll have to take your word for it, Mr. Russell. It's been a while since I read any Lucretius.
But I think there is a lot to be said for this "disease born of fear" bit. Much of our impulse toward religion is born of fear, though one might argue that the same impulse, with regard to more mystical traditions, can also spring from love. To be sure, the superstitions of prior generations have caused untold misery, but I think that one has to be alert to the superstitions held by the present generation, too. In the wrong hands any belief system, however well-intentioned, can became superstition. Even the Science you so stridently espouse.
And I think you ought to give Religion a little more credit. If we consider this impulse to religion a natural part of the human character - a point that I doubt even you would argue against - then many other branches of human knowledge can be traced back to it. Religion stands at the very beginning of human civilization, and for this reason those priest-kings you despise could also lay claim to the development of writing, agriculture, and a host of other things. Even atheism has theism as its antecedent.
B.R.: "The worst feature of the Christian religion, however, is its attitude toward sex - an attitude so morbid and so unnatural that it can be understood only when taken in relation to the sickness of the civilized world at the time the Roman empire was decaying. We sometimes hear talk to the effect that Christianity improved the status of women. This is one of the greatest perversions of history that it is possible to make. Women cannot enjoy a tolerable position in society where it is considered of the utmost importance that they should not infringe a very rigid moral code."
Me: I agree wholeheartedly, and I think that the historical argument you're making here is also sound. There is a kind of sexual sickness at the heart of traditional Christian belief, and the type of morality advocated in the Bible - if understood and taken seriously - can do nothing but diminish the stature of women. In this our attitudes - even those of us who claim other faiths - ought to be examined.
B.R.: "The objections to religion are of two sorts - intellectual and moral. The intellectual reason is that there is no reason to suppose any religion true; the moral objection is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow."
Me: I should add that in this instance there is a difference between the "religion" you are discussing and "belief in God." You don't make this distinction in all of your essays, but it is fairly obvious in the parts of this essay that aren't quoted here.
I'm still working out how to define "more cruel" in a historical context. Would this be the sum of all cruelties performed during a given time? Or over the course of a historical epoch? And what about the role of population? Considering that during medieval times the world's population was only a fraction of what it is now, wouldn't that mean that the sum of cruelties was smaller? Or is it a matter of quality over quantity? How is one to assign a greater or lesser amount of cruelty to any act?
But I think that on the whole you are pointing to the fact that the moral conscience of previous ages should belong only to previous ages, and should not be carried into future ages via scripture or established ritual traditions. With this I would tend to agree.
B.R.: "The Christian emphasis on the individual soul has had a profound influence upon the ethics of Christian communities. It is a doctrine fundamentally akin to that of the Stoics, arising as theirs did in communities that could no longer cherish political hopes. The natural impulse of the vigorous person of decent character is to attempt to do good, but if he is deprived of all political power and of all opportunity to influence events, he will be deflected from his natural course and will decide that the important thing is to be good. This is what happened to the early Christians; it led to a conception of personal holiness as something quite independent of beneficent action, since holiness had to be something that could be achieved by people who were impotent in action. Social virtue came therefore to be excluded from Christian ethics... with this separation between the social and the moral person there went an increasing separation between soul and body..." [underline added]
Me: I think that the missionary activities of some present religious institutions speak against your charge that they lack social conscience. In many poorer countries, in fact, the humanitarian work of such organizations overshadows that performed by other, non-religious, public or private institutions.
There is also the fact that some of your argument above isn't as novel as it first seems. This is merely a reinterpretation of the "faith vs. works" argument that so preoccupied medieval theologians. It was, moreover, one of the great arguments leveled at the Catholics by the early Protestants.
I like, however, the connection you're drawing between the social aspect of Christianity and the Christian idea of the soul. This, I think, is something I haven't heard before, and I believe it's worth contemplating the inward, non-physical leanings of Christianity to the lack of social progress in many Christian settings. Have Western societies experienced most of their social progress because of Christianity? Or in spite of it?
B.R.: "It is amusing to hear the modern Christian telling you how mild and rationalistic Christianity really is and ignoring the fact that all its mildness and rationalism is due to the teaching of men who in their own day were persecuted by all orthodox Christians."
Me: Yes, it is.
B.R.: "Now, what is 'unrighteousness' in practice? It is in practice behavior of a kind disliked by the herd. By calling it unrighteousness, and by arranging an elaborate system of ethics around this conception, the herd justifies itself in wreaking punishment upon the objects of its own dislike, while at the same time, since the herd is righteous by definition, it enhances its own self-esteem at the very moment when it lets loose its impulse to cruelty."
Me: I can only say "Amen" to that. When I think about my own life, and when I think about the moral judgments, handed down to me from "on high," I can only reflect upon the times when what is said above has been proven true. We would like to think we moralize for the sake of improving our fellow man, but more often this trend toward moralization points toward a herd mentality, a desire to belong, a desire for self-aggrandizement, and a disposition toward cruelty. It is a state of affairs no newer than the scapegoat mentioned in the Bible, and we are cautioned to remember that those who most often claim to be speaking for the community, and in the common interest, are often those who, in the long term, are doing anything but.
But anyway, I've got to go do something less philosophical now. I thank you, Mr. Russell, for your time. I've enjoyed your book, even though some of your arguments could have been made in greater detail. Next time let's invite Mr. Sartre and Mr. Aurelius over. It ought to be an interesting conversation.