Saturday, May 18, 2013

Russelling with religion

 Bertrand Russell, the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was born on May 18, 1872. He is best known for his works on logic, knowledge, and mathematics; his A History of Western Philosophy is an elegant and entertaining overview of the thoughts and thinkers of the Western world from pre-Socratic times down to his day. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
   In 1927 Russell gave a speech in London called “Why I Am Not a Christian.” He defined a Christian as one who a) believes in God and immortality, and b) believes, at the very least, that Jesus Christ was “if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men.”
   Addressing the first condition, Russell laid out some of the arguments for the existence of God. In short order he demolished:
  • The First-cause Argument. “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause,” Russell said. “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God.”
  •  The Argument from Design. (Everything in the world has been created so that we can live in it and appreciate it, and if it weren’t made just so, we could not live in it.) “It is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world…should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years,” Russell said.
  • The Moral Argument. (There would be no right or wrong unless God existed.) Russell pointed out that if God created both right and wrong, then there was no difference in quality or truth between the two, and therefore it became meaningless to say that God is good.
   Turning to the second condition, concerning the character of Christ, Russell first admitted that Jesus said some wonderful things, among them “Turn the other cheek,” “Judge not lest ye be judged,” and “Sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.” But he noted that he was consistently less than wise, as he firmly believed that his second coming would happen within the lifetimes of those he was addressing. And because he believed in hell, and angrily condemned those who did not heed his warnings about eternal punishment, Russell judged Jesus to be far less than a paragon of virtue. In fact he placed Socrates and Buddha above him.
   “The Christian religion, as organized in its churches,” Russell concluded, “has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world…
   “When you hear people in church debasing themselves…it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings…"

     And finally:

      “A good world needs knowledge, kindliness and courage; it does not need…a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”    

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