February 25th, 2008

Books!

A (surprisingly) Oldie, but a Goodie ...

Bertrand Russell would have been somewhat controversial today (ala Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris), but he was amazing for the era in which he wrote. The essays collected in Why I Am Not A Christian, originally published in 1957, reflect works ranging in vintage from 1899 to 1954, that were certainly groundbreaking in their day.

Thankfully, Russell built up such a substantial body of other work (in philosophy and mathematics) that his many enemies could not, ultimately, silence him. The book contains 15 essays, generally on the subject of religion, plus a fascinating appendix by editor Paul Edwards. Frankly, to anybody familiar with "the antitheistic genre" there is little surprising in the essays (as good as they are), except for the fact that he "got away with" publishing them when he did. The appendix, however, on "How Bertrand Russell Was Prevented From Teaching At The College Of The City Of New York" is a real eye-opener about how religious fanatics can create tyranny despite being in an extreme minority of opinion. It is also a very good example of why I consider Christians (unless they are simply "culturally Christian") dangerous. In 1940 the College of the City of New York invited Russell (who had been teaching at University of California) to take a year-and-a-half posting as a Professor of Philosophy. This was unanimously approved by the college's board, and generally hailed as quite a coup to have such a "bright light" join the faculty. This, however, (due in large part to many of the essays included in the book) sent various religious organizations into a lather (many being no more substantial than the present "Catholic League" which is one religious fanatic with a staff of four) and eventually bringing suit to block the appointment. From start to finish, the legality of these efforts was questionable at best ... at that point the College of the City of New York was an all-male institution, but the suit was nominally being brought by the parents of a young lady whose "morals" were likely to be corrupted by the presence of Russell on the college's faculty, even though there was exactly zero chance that she would be exposed to his instruction. The Judge hearing the case was also a religious fanatic and was summary in his rulings (having had several of Russell's books entered into evidence, he still ruled within a few hours, obviously not having perused any of the prose), and blocked all standard efforts to counter the prosecution's case. What is heartening in this story is how the entire of the educational community came to Russell's aid, presenting a unified front to deny the scurrilous charges that were being leveled at him. As things turned out, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature that year, and ended up teaching at Harvard.

Anyway, rather than pick apart the essays (which were, of course, rather "preaching to the choir" in my eyes), I figured that I'd just share some choice bits, like this from Why I Am not a Christian:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing - fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.
Or this, which is from Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?:

... 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.
A piece which in many ways foreshadows Russell's own legacy is found in the excellent historical essay "The Fate Of Thomas Paine":

The orthodox of our day have forgotten what orthodoxy was like a hundred and fourty years ago. They have forgotten still more completely that it was men like Paine who, in the face of persecution, caused the softening of dogma by which our age profits.
Here is some rather rational advice, as much to the point now as it was when penned, from "Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?":

What the world needs is reasonableness, tolerance, and a realization of the interdependence of the parts of the human family. This interdependence has been enormously increased by modern inventions, and the purely mundane arguments for a kindly attitude to one's neighbor are very much stronger than they were at any earlier time. It is to such considerations that we must look, and not to a return to the obscurantist myths. Intelligence, it might be said, has caused our troubles; but it is not unintelligence that will cure them. Only more and wiser intelligence can make a happier world.
Needless to say, I feel that Why I Am Not A Christian is one of those books that ought to be in the "standard curriculum". In fact, I suspect that this edition is used as a textbook, given the relatively high new/used pricing. This is, however, fairly inexpensive (I got it for the Amazon discounted price of $10.20), and is in print, so should be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. If you want to go the used route, "very good" copies can be had south of four bucks, but with the per-unit shipping on those, you're pretty much doing as well to add a copy to another order that's getting free shipping. While this is not the most strictly "enjoyable" read (it is philosophical essays, not narrative, after all), it's an important one, and I'd encourage all and sundry to pick up a copy!


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