Re: A belated addition to the Science/Religion thread

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Sun Mar 25 2001 - 09:31:55 MST

When I was a junior in one of the two high schools of
the public school system in Newark, Delaware, back in
1969, I somehow found myself being handed the opportunity to
attend an expense-paid summer session at Archmere Academy,
a private school just north of Wilmington. I no longer remember
the details of how this came about (ungrateful wretch that
I am), except that it must have been through the kind
attention of one of my teachers, since I have never been
either alert or hungry enough to seek out such chances
on my own (and I probably had to be hit over the head
once or twice to be persuaded to take advantage of this
one). Nevertheless, that summer has remained in my
memory as a taste of what school can be like in circumstances
where both students and teachers are enthusiastic about
the educational process, and where the subject matter is
not limited by the bland requirements of the public-school

One lasting gift I received during that brief exposure to the
delights of high-quality private education was an acquaintance
with Bertrand Russell. The book we read was one of his
lighter, popular ones, _The Conquest of Happiness_
( ), but
it engendered a permanent appreciation for the characteristic
scathing humor arising from the combination of Russell's
razor intelligence and breadth of knowledge with his cleverness
in crafting dryly witty prose. A few years later, after hearing
a recording in the audio holdings of the University of Delaware's
Morris Library, I left work early one afternoon and drove to
Philadelphia to purchase an LP called "Bertrand Russell Speaking"
(Caedmon TC-1148), containing 52 minutes of Woodrow Wyatt interviews
from 1959 (also published as _Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind_)
on the topics of "Philosophy and Science", "The Importance of
Religion", "Taboo Morality", and "Fanaticism".

Russell has published whole books on the subject of science and
religion (or, to be less coy, on the subject of science
**versus** religion: for example, _Religion and Science_
and _Why I Am Not a Christian_
which I have certainly read, in addition to his books about
morality, politics, and the history of philosophy, over
the intervening years. But I often listen to the CD-R copy I
have made of that old LP just to be able to enjoy the sound
of Russell's voice, which brings the characteristic wit and
humor already apparent on the printed page to vivid life (and
gives a glimmer of what an immensely entertaining raconteur
the man must have been).

Russell wrote an autobiography
and there is a fascinating book called _My Father,
Bertrand Russell_ by his daughter Katharine Russell Tait .
I have also browsed in the first of the two-volume
biography by Ray Monk:
The Bertrand Russell Society
has an archive of sound recordings of Russell, from which
three (all-too-brief) Real Audio sound clips are available
on-line (two from Russell's Nobel Prize acceptance speech,
and one from a discussion called "Leonardo's Day And Our
Own"): .

My admiration of Russell is certainly not unalloyed.
For one thing, in the course of too steady a diet of
Russell, the crackling wit takes on a shrill and edgy
tone. Also, one gathers from the bio and from his
daughter's book that he could be cruel to the people
around him, if only unintentionally. He was above all
a man of thought, and people like that can sometimes force
those around them to fit the categories and theories
they have devised, and blind themselves to the suffering
they cause thereby.

The old LP I bought in the early 70's was apparently available
as an audio cassette as recently as the mid-80's
( )
but is probably currently out of print. I have succumbed
to the temptation to transcribe the section "The Importance
of Religion" and include it here, for the pure joy
of sharing a bit of something that has given me so much
(wicked) pleasure.


WYATT: Have you ever had religious impulses, Lord Russell?

RUSSELL: Oh, yes! When I was adolescent, I was **deeply**
religious. I was more interested in religion than in
anything else except, perhaps, mathematics. And, uh,
being interested in religion led me -- which it doesn't
seem often to do! -- to look into the question whether
there was reason to believe it. I took up three questions.
It seemed to me that God, and immortality, and free will
were the three most essential questions. And I examined
these one by one, in the reverse order, beginning with
free will. And, uh, gradually, I came to the conclusion
that there was **no** reason to believe **any** of these.
And, uh, after that, I thought I was going to be very
disappointed, but oddly enough I wasn't.

WYATT: But how did you come to convince yourself there's
no reason to believe in any of these three things?

RUSSELL: Well, uh, over free will I think the argument
was, uh, not a valid one, and I don't, any longer,
think it was still conclusive, but I thought that because
I thought that all the motions of matter are determined
by the laws of dynamics, and the motion of a man's
lips when he speaks must be so determined, so that he
can have no control over what he's going to say. Tha...
I don't think that was a valid argument, but that convinced
me at that **time**. About immortality, well, it seemed
to me quite clear that, uh, the relation of body and
mind, whatever it may be, is much more **intimate** than
is commonly supposed, and uh, that there's **no**
reason to think that a mind persists when a brain decays.
And as for God... well, there are a great many
arguments that have been advanced in favor of the
existence of God. And, one and all, I thought,
and **still** think, that they're invalid, and that
nobody would've accepted such arguments if they hadn't
wanted to believe the conclusion.

WYATT: Do you think that it is **certain** that there is
no such thing as God, or simply that it is not proven?

RUSSELL: I don't think it is **certain** that there is
no such thing, no. I think, uh, that it is on exactly the
same level as the Olympic gods or the Norwegian gods.
They also **may** exist -- the gods of Olympus and the gods
of Valhalla. I can't prove they **don't**. But I think
the Christian god has no **more** likelihood than they
have. I think they're a **bare** possibility!

WYATT: Do you think that religion is good or harmful
in its effects?

RUSSELL: I think most of its effects in history have
been harmful. Not all. Religion caused the
Egyptian priests to fix the calendar, and to note the
occurrence of eclipses so well that in time
they were able to predict them. I think those were
beneficial effects of religion. But I think a
**great** majority have been bad. And I think they've
been bad because it was held important that people
should believe something for which there did not exist
good evidence. And that falsified everybody's thinking,
falsified systems of education, and set up also what
I think a complete moral heresy: namely, that it is
**right** to believe certain things, and **wrong**
to believe certain others, apart from the question
whether the things in question are true or false.

WYATT: But do you mean there's a kind of censorship
of thought that goes on, which prevents freethinking?

RUSSELL: I do, yes. I mean, uh, if you take
practically any school in the world -- any school for
boys and girls -- you will find that a certain kind
of belief is taught. It's one sort in Christian
countries and another in Communist countries. But
in both, something is **taught**, and the **evidence**
for what is taught is not impartially examined. And
the children are not encouraged to find out what there
is to say on the other side.

WYATT: What is it that makes Man, over the centuries,
demand a religion?

RUSSELL: I think **mainly** fear. Man feels himself
rather powerless... There are three things that cause
him fear. One is what Nature can do to him -- it can
strike him by lightning or swallow him up in an
earthquake. One is what other men can do, which is
that they can kill him in war. And the third, which has
a great deal to do with religion, is what his own
violent passions may lead him to do. Things which he
knows, in a calm moment, he would regret having done.
And for that reason, most people have a great deal of
**fear** in their lives. And, uh, religion... helps
them to be not so frightened by these fears. But the
founders of religions -- I say **religions** in the
plural -- have very little to do with what their
followers teach. Very little indeed. I, uh,
well, now, to take an illustration... I've found that,
uh, military men in this country think that, uh,
Christian belief is very important in the contest with
Eastern powers. And, uh, they think that if you're
not a Christian you won't be so vigorous about it.
Well, uh, I read the Sermon on the Mount over again
and I couldn't find a **word** in it to encourage
H-bombs, not a **word**!

WYATT: Much of what you're criticizing happened a
long time ago, but what about today?

RUSSELL: Oh, no, it's just the same today. Ah, this
illustration I gave you about the H-bombs is certainly
not antiquated yet. I wish it **were**! And I think
that at this present day, uh, religion -- as embodied
in the churches -- in the main, discourages honest
thinking, and gives importance to things that
are **not** very important. Its sense of importance
seems to me quite wrong. Now, when the Roman Empire
was falling, the Fathers of the Church didn't bother
much with the fall of the Roman Empire. What they
bothered with was how to preserve virginity -- that
was what they thought important. Well now, when...

WYATT: What did they do about that, sir?

RUSSELL: Well, they exhorted people. And, uh, didn't
bother about seeing that the armies held the frontiers
or anything like that, or that the taxation system
was reformed. They were occupied in founding monasteries
and nunneries and so forth, and thought that far
more important than preserving the Empire. Well, so, in
the present day, when the human race is falling, I find
that, uh, eminent divines think that it's much more
important to prevent artificial insemination than it is
to prevent the kind of world war that will exterminate
the whole lot of us. And that seems to me to show
a lack of sense of proportion.

WYATT: Yes, but wouldn't you agree, though, that many
organized religions have done a tremendous amount of
good in spreading education where perhaps no other
system has been available -- as in Burma, say, where the
monks have done a tremendous amount of educating the
poor where there aren't any organized schools?

RUSSELL: Well, I think it's possible, yes, and I, I think
the Benedictines did a certain amount of good in that
way. But only **after** doing the harm. They first
did a great deal of harm, and then a little good!

WYATT: But, though... What about people, though, who
feel that they must have some faith in a religion,
otherwise they can't face their life at all...

RUSSELL: Well, I say that...

WYATT: ...if you take that away?

RUSSELL: I say people who feel that are, really...
Well, they're showing a kind of cowardice which in any
other sphere would be considered **contemptible**, but
when it's in the religious sphere it's thought
admirable. And I can't admire cowardice, whatever
sphere it's in. Now take, uh, the whole question
of the very dangerous condition that the world is
in. I get letters **constantly** from people
saying, "Oh, God will look after it." But he never
has in the past! I don't know why they should think
he will in the future.

WYATT: You mean you think this is a very unwise
doctrine to follow -- it ought to be self-help
rather than depending on somebody else to do it
for you?

RUSSELL: Certainly, yes!

WYATT: But then if, though, religion is harmful,
and yet Man has always insisted on having one,
what is the answer?

RUSSELL: Oh, "Man" hasn't. **Some** men have,
and those are the men who are used to it. In countries
in the Laand, for instance, people walk on stilts.
And they don't like walking without stilts. And
religion is just the same thing -- some countries
have got accustomed to it. But, uh, now, I spent a
year in China, and I found that the ordinary,
average Chinese had no religion whatsoever. And,
they were just as happy -- I think, given their
bad circumstance, happier -- than most Christians
would have been.

WYATT: But I think a Christian would say that if
he could convert them into being Christians, they'd
be much happier.

RUSSELL: Well, I don't think that's borne out by
the evidence at all.

WYATT: Yes, but, though... doesn't Man rather
search for some cause or faith outside himself,
which appears to be bigger than himself -- not
merely a question of cowardice or leaning on it,
but also wanting to do something for it?

RUSSELL: Well, but there are plenty of things bigger
than oneself. Um, I mean, uh, from... you start...
first of all there's your family, then there's your
nation, then there's mankind in general. Those are
all bigger than oneself, and are quite sufficient to
occupy any genuine feelings of benevolence that a
man may have.

WYATT: Do you think that organized religion's going
to go on having the same grip on mankind?

RUSSELL: I think it depends entirely upon whether
people solve their social problems or not. I think
that, uh, if there go on being great wars and great
oppressions, and many people leading very unhappy
lives, probably religion **will** go on, because I've
observed that the belief in the goodness of God is
inversely proportional to the evidence. When there's
no evidence for it at all, people believe it; and
when things are going well and you might believe it,
they **don't**. So I think that if people solve
their social problems, religion will die out. But,
on the other hand, if they don't, I don't think it
will. Now you can get illustrations for that in the
past. In the eighteenth century, when things were
quiet, a great many educated people were
freethinkers. Well, then came the French Revolution,
and certainly English aristocrats came to the
conclusion that free thought led to the guillotine,
and so they dropped it and they all became deeply
religious, and you got Victorianism. And the same
thing again happened with the Russian Revolution.
The Russian Revolution terrified people, and they
thought that unless they believed in God their property
would be confiscated. And so they believed in him.
So that, I think you'll find that these social
upheavals are very good for religion.

WYATT: Do you think that you and I are going to be
just snuffed out completely when we die?

RUSSELL: Certainly, yes, I don't see why... what...
I mean, I know that the body disintegrates, and I
think that there's no reason **whatever** to suppose
that the mind goes on when the body is disintegrated.



Jim F.

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