MENU MORE

Why I Am Not A Christian

by Bertrand Russell, 1957

Review is copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2017.10.24



Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: Why I Am Not A Christian: and other essays
    on religion and related subjects
Author: Bertrand Russell
Editor: Paul Edwards
Year: 1957
Genre: Religion, Philosophy
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN 978-0-671-20323-8
View It On Amazon
Author’s Wikipedia Page


Summary


“Why I Am Not A Christian” was the title of a 1927 lecture (available online) given by Bertrand Russell in England; it was later published as a pamphlet and translated into several languages. It is the first of 15 essays reproduced in the 1957 book of the same name, which is under consideration here.

The book covers a variety of topics, which include not only religion and atheism but also the two world wars, communism, academic freedom, societal forces and morals, racism and bigotry, misogyny, and more. As a philosopher, logician, mathematician, and political activist, Russell is “generally recognized as one of the main founders of modern analytic philosophy” and “also made significant contributions to a broad range of other subjects, including ethics, politics, educational theory, the history of ideas and religious studies” (source). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950 for literature, “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”.

Following are the 15 selections in this book:

• Why I Am Not A Christian (1927)
• Has Religion Made Useful Contributions To Civilization? (1930)
• What I Believe (1925)
• Do We Survive Death? (1936)
• Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is (1899)
• The Free Man’s Worship (1903)
• On Catholic And Protestant Skeptics (1928)
• Life In The Middle Ages (1925)
• The Fate Of Thomas Paine (1934)
• Nice People (1931)
• The New Generation (1930)
• Our Sexual Ethics (1936)
• Freedom And The Colleges (1940)
• Can Religion Cure Our Troubles (1954)
• Religion And Morals (1952)


What I Liked Least About It


There is very little to dislike about this book. I am nitpicking when I say parts of it didn’t age well; this will be true of most any book that deals with politics and social questions — and scientific knowledge — of a bygone age. The oldest essay in the book is from 1899 (“Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is”) and refers to writers and speakers of the time, none of whom are known to laypersons today. Even the latest entries, from 1952 and 1954, use language that is now foreign to American literature and discuss thoughts of the day that haven’t been in vogue in quite some time. However, these cases aren’t as troubling as is sometimes the case with older literature — in most instances, Russell refers to the thoughts and questions that have troubled human civilization for millennia.

Also, as a matter of personal taste, I tend to dislike collections of essays in general, especially when the topics vary as they do in this book. In such cases, I force myself to consider each entry as a separate thing, much like when reading a variety of news articles in a newspaper.


What I Liked Most About It


As a newly-minted atheist, I most of all enjoyed reading the words of one of the earliest modern atheists and imagining how it must have been different for him and other skeptics of his time than it is for me. In places, I was startled that so many of his phrases and opinions so closely mirrored my own:
“The question of the truth of a religion is one thing, but the question of its usefulness is another. I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue.”

—Preface, pg. vi, 1957

I also enjoyed some of his assumptions about the future of society, some more fantastical than others. I was pleasantly surprised at his feminism and his advanced views on several topics including penal reform, sex education, reproduction, pacifism, and anti-nationalism.
“I merely wish to suggest that we should treat the criminal as we treat a man suffering from plague. Each is a public danger, each must have his liberty curtailed until he has ceased to be a danger. But the man suffering from plague is an object of sympathy and commiseration, whereas the criminal is an object of execration. This is quite irrational. And it is because of this difference of attitude that our prisons are so much less successful in curing criminal tendencies than our hospitals are in curing disease.”

—“What I Believe”, pg. 72, 1925



Special Appendix


The volume’s editor, Paul Edwards, wrote a 53-page appendix called “How Bertrand Russell Was Prevented From Teaching At The College Of The City Of New York”, which covers the 1940 hiring and subsequent dismissal of Russell from the aforementioned college, a case that garnered national attention at the time. This appendix alone was quite an interesting read, if only because echoes of it still reverberate today — with talk of censuring college professors for their personal opinions — but also because of how well Russell reacted to the “charges” brought against him.

In short, Russell was lecturing at the UCLA Department of Philosophy when he was appointed as a professor at City College Of New York. Before he could take the position, religious agitators in New York City mounted a frenzied attack against him, citing his earlier works including “Marriage and Morals” (1929) and calling him “morally unfit” to hold a professorship in the city. A lawsuit was filed by the mother of a CCNY student (who wasn’t even eligible for his higher mathematics classes) and supported by many religious fanatics. Well-known intellectuals — including Albert Einstein — came to Russell’s defense, but the Catholic judge (John E. McGeehan) refused to allow Russell to appear in court and ruled against him in a written tirade against Russell’s character, calling his works “filth”. Subsequent appeals by the ACLU were denied in several other courts. New York City major Fiorello H. La Guardia removed funds from the city’s budget that would have paid for Russell’s position, effectively ending the debacle.

What was the “filth” that so upset New York’s entrenched Catholics? Many passages from Russell’s works were cited, and some of his books were entered into evidence in the court documents, but it all stemmed from his position that adults should be allowed to privately conduct their sexual affairs.
“For my part, while I am quite convinced that companionate marriage would be a step in the right direction and would do a great deal of good, I do not think that it goes far enough. I think that all sex relations which do not involve children should be regarded as a purely private affair, and that if a man and a woman choose to live together without having children, that should be no one’s business but their own.”

—Marriage And Morals, 1929

Imagine a professor today being fired for holding such a view.

Russell responded to the tirades against him by calmly dismissing them in measured statements to the press, by writing a powerful essay “Freedom And The Colleges”, and by going on with his life, including taking a position at Trinity College, Cambridge. He lectured and wrote more books — including A History Of Western Philosophy (1945), which was financially successful enough to support him the rest of his life. In his essay responding to the court’s startling miscarriage of justice, Russell wrote:
“The principle of liberal democracy, which inspired the founders of the American Constitution, was that controversial questions should be decided by argument rather than by force. Liberals have always held that opinions should be formed by untrammeled debate, not by allowing only one side to be heard. Tyrannical governments, both ancient and modern, have taken the opposite view... The fundamental difference between the liberal and the illiberal outlook is that the former regards all questions as open to discussion and all opinions as open to a greater or less measure of doubt, while the latter holds in advance that certain opinions are absolutely unquestionable, and that no argument against them must be allowed to be heard...

“Uniformity in the opinions expressed by teachers is not only not to be sought but is, if possible, to be avoided, since diversity of opinion among preceptors is essential to any sound education. No man can pass as educated who had heard only one side on questions as to which the public is divided.”

—“Freedom And The Colleges”, pg. 183 and 184, 1940



Selected Quotations


Nearly every page in the book has quotable selections. Here are some of my favorites:
“There has been a rumor in recent years to the effect that I have become less opposed to religious orthodoxy than I formerly was. This rumor is totally without foundation. I think all the great religions of the world — Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism — both untrue and harmful. It is evident as a matter of logic that, since they disagree, not more than one of them can be true.”

—Preface, pg. v, 1957

“Apart from logical cogency, there is to me something a little odd about the ethical valuations of those who think that an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent Deity, after preparing the ground by many millions of years of lifeless nebulae, would consider himself adequately rewarded by the final emergence of Hitler and Stalin and the H-bomb.”

—Preface, pg. vi, 1957

“We are sometimes told that only fanaticism can make a social group effective. I think this is totally contrary to the lessons of history. But, in any case, only those who slavishly worship success can think that effectiveness is admirable without regard to what is effected. For my part, I think it better to do a little good than to do much harm.”

—Preface, pg. vii, 1957

“I do not think there can be any defense for the view that knowledge is ever undesirable. I should not put barriers in the way of the acquisition of knowledge by anybody at any age... A person is much less likely to act wisely when he is ignorant than when he is instructed...”

—“Has Religion Made Useful Contributions To Civilization?”, pg. 28, 1930

“It is clear that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity demand a great deal of ethical perversion before they can be accepted.”

—“Has Religion Made Useful Contributions To Civilization?”, pg. 29, 1930

“No man who believes that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses for pain and misery.”

—“Has Religion Made Useful Contributions To Civilization?”, pg. 30, 1930

“God and immortality, the central dogmas of the Christian religion, find no support in science... No doubt people will continue to entertain these beliefs, because they are pleasant, just as it is pleasant to think ourselves virtuous and our enemies wicked. But for my part I cannot see any ground for either... They lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them.”

—“What I Believe”, pg. 50-51, 1925

“Sometimes the Divine commands have been curiously interpreted. For example, we are told not to work on Saturdays, and Protestants take this to mean that we are not to play on Sundays. But the same sublime authority is attributed to the new prohibition as to the old.”

—“What I Believe”, pg. 65, 1925

“It is only when we think abstractly that we have such a high opinion of man. Of men in the concrete, most of us think the vast majority very bad. Civilized states spend more than half their revenue on killing each other’s citizens. Consider the long history of the activities inspired by moral fervor: human sacrifices, persecutions of heretics, witch-hunts, pogroms leading up to wholesale extermination by poison gases... Are these abominations, and the ethical doctrines by which they are prompted, really evidence of an intelligent Creator?... The world in which we live can be understood as a result of muddle and accident; but if it is the outcome of deliberate purpose, the purpose must have been that of a fiend. For my part, I find accident a less painful and more plausible hypothesis.”

—“What I Believe”, pg. 93, 1925

“[I]f the state is to acquire such immense powers it is imperative that the state should become enlightened. It will not do this of itself; it will do it only when the majority of the population has ceased to insist upon the preservation of ancient superstitions.”

—“The New Generation”, pg. 165, 1930

I dog-eared many more pages than this, finding useful quotations everywhere, but won’t list them all here to keep with my practice of “short” reviews.


Conclusion


I would recommend this book to anyone, atheist or otherwise. Despite the title, which was based on only one essay, much of the subject matter does not regard the desirability of being a Christian. All of it is worth considering, whether one agrees with the positions or not.

Note: Many of Russell’s works, including some of the essays in this book, are available online free of charge, starting with this list. Following are links to this book’s essays (excluding the ones I couldn’t find online):

Why I Am Not A Christian (1927)
Has Religion Made Useful Contributions To Civilization? (1930)
The Free Man’s Worship (1903)
The Fate Of Thomas Paine (1934)
The New Generation (1930)
Our Sexual Ethics (1936)
Freedom And The Colleges (.pdf, 71.9 kb) (1940)
Can Religion Cure Our Troubles (1954)








comments powered by Disqus