Bertrand Russell’s 140th birthday was yesterday. (See yesterday’s entry.)
“I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue,” Russell wrote. “I think all the great religions of the world—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam—both untrue and harmful.”
The problem with religion, Russell thought, was that it was based on faith instead of evidence. “A habit of basing convictions on evidence,” he wrote, “…would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering. But at present, in most countries, education aims at preventing the growth of such a habit…” (Are you listening, you purveyors of creation “science”?)
In 1925, Russell published a small book called What I Believe. In it, he wrote that there were forces making for happiness and ones making for misery in the world, and he classed religion among the latter. He likened religion—religious dogma, that is--to a kind of armor that shielded its wearer against “the shafts of impartial evidence.”
“Fear is the basis of religious dogma,” he wrote. Fear of nature gave rise to religion, and the fear of death—and life—perpetuates it. “Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad.” Russell said that while he didn’t welcome death, he had no terror of it, even though he denied the possibility of immortality. “Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”
A major defect of religion as Russell saw it was its individualism; the defect, if it is one, is even more glaring today, when everyone claims to have a personal relationship with God. The dialogue, or duologue, between one’s soul and God was, Russell granted, at one time a thing devoutly to be wished, because to do the will of God, which led to virtue, was possible and even desirable in a society dominated by the state.
“This individualism of the separate soul had its value at certain stages of history,” Russell insisted, “but in the modern world we need rather a social than an individual conception of welfare.”
In short, Russell might have put it, ask not what God can do for you; ask what you can do for your God.