Book Review: Why I Am Not a Christian

Why I Am Not a Christian is a collection of essays by one of the twentieth centuries most celebrated philosophers. To judge this book by its provocative title would be a mistake as it would deny you the treasures within.

Why I Am Not a Christian

Why I Am Not a Christian is not what I expected and was full of surprises. For several reasons. It is a collection of thirteen essays – and one debate transcript – by Lord Russell, a Nobel Prize winner and the man who literally wrote the book on Western Philosophy. But the collection was not compiled by Russell, but rather by Paul Edwards who acts as editor. Edwards also contributes an extensive appendix, but more on that later.

If you were expecting this book to be a sustained critique of religion, along the lines of more recent books such as The God Delusion or God is Not Great, this book may surprise you. While the essays at the beginning and the end of this collection are of that sort, the ones in the middle of the book offer much else besides. I would go as far as say that they are the best in the collection.

But even the essays that do deal with religion directly were a surprise. With Russell’s reputation as a great logician, I had thought he would spend much of his time exposing the flaws of logic in the various arguments for the existence of God or destroying the arguments for a divine origin or ultimate purpose to the universe and life with a whiff of science or pointing out the moral failings of the Bible. But these are soft targets that have been amply dealt with even before Russell’s time. So, while he does discuss them a little, he does not expend his resources here. Similarly, he is not interested in the question of the historical accuracy of the texts.

Instead, Russell chooses to devote his energy to the more difficult interrelated targets proposed by religion’s defenders; that religion, even if untrue, provides an ethical framework to prevent immoral behaviour, it provides emotional comfort, it is useful and beneficial to society and, specific to Christianity, that Christ was among the best and wisest of men.

With characteristic wit and acumen, Russell discusses Christ’s doctrines of cruelty, religion’s tendencies to thwart moral and intellectual progress, its difficulties with sex and free will and its history of intolerance and persecution. Further, Russell discusses the dangers of the concept of righteousness, the removal of rational fears of death and the assumption of moral certainty. To those who may argue that religion is far more tolerant and benign than it was in the past, Russell reminds us that it continues to do considerable harm and any appeasement of fundamentalism has resulted from reactive change to external critics rather than proactive change from within.

It is true that the modern Christian is less robust, but that is not thanks to Christianity; it is thanks to the generations of Freethinkers, who, from the Renaissance to the present day, have made Christians ashamed of many of their traditional beliefs. It is amusing to hear the modern Christian telling you how mild and rationalistic Christianity really is, and ignoring the fact that all its mildness and rationalism is due to the teaching of men who in their own day were persecuted by all orthodox Christians.

Christianity, I will admit, does less harm than it used to do; but this is because it is less fervently believed.

Again, if, like me, you are familiar with these arguments, you may not learn much new here, but it is still enjoyable hearing them from someone with the clarity, style and wit of Russell. One point I will share because I had not heard it before, at least not with the same emphasis and clarity, is the trouble Christianity finds itself in when there is conflict between being good as opposed to doing good.

The natural impulse of the vigorous person of decent character is to attempt to do good, but if he is deprived of all political power and of all opportunity to influence events he will be deflected from his natural course and will decide that the important thing is to be good. This is what happened to the early Christians; it led to a conception of personal holiness as something quite independent of beneficial action, since holiness had to be something that could be achieved by people who were impotent in action. Social virtue came therefore to be excluded from Christian ethics.

This legacy from early Christianity explains a lot. For those who us who cannot fathom why Cristian churches preach to Africans in AIDS affected areas that, while AIDS is bad, condoms are worse; Russell here provides the answer. Where the goal of getting more souls into heaven conflicts with making the world a better place; the former is preferred.

One chapter that deals with religion directly but fails to live up to Russell’s essays is the transcript of a debate between Russell and Father Copleston on the existence of God. This debate proceeds the way you might imagine philosophical debates to – arguing about the definition of terms such as ‘contingency’, ‘necessary’ and ‘ought’ in philosophical language. It is the chapter that is easily the least interesting or useful to the reader.

As I said, it was Russell’s essays in the middle of the book, that do not address religion directly, that I enjoyed the most. My favourite of the whole book was his essay The Fate of Thomas Paine. Serving as a miniature biography of Paine, it is a wonderful essay that inherits all the inspiration, enthusiasm and confidence of his subject.

Thomas Paine, though prominent in two revolutions and almost hanged for attempting to raise a third has grown, in our day, somewhat dim. To our great-grandfathers he seemed a kind of earthly Satan, a subversive infidel rebellious alike against his God and his King. He incurred the bitter hostility of three men not generally united: Pitt, Robespierre and Washington. Of these the first two sought his death, while the third carefully abstained from measures designed to save his life. Pitt and Washington hated him because he was a democrat; Robespierre, because he opposed the execution of the King and the Reign of Terror. It was his fate to always be honoured by Opposition and hated by Governments: Washington, while he was still fighting the English, spoke of Paine in terms of highest praise; the French nation heaped honours upon him until the Jacobins rose to power; even in England, the most prominent Whig statesmen befriended him and employed him in drawing up manifestos. He had faults, like other men; but it was for his virtues that he was hated and successfully calumniated.

Elsewhere in these mid-book essays, Russell discusses sexual ethics, education and child-rearing. These were areas that in Russell’s time had not yet shed the inheritance of instruction determined by religious dogma.

It may be tempting to think that these essays have lost their relevance because the issues of Russell’s time have passed. For instance, Russell’s time was characterised by the easy spread of simple STD’s, women dying from exhaustion after having more than 10 pregnancies and the demonising of homosexuals, divorcees and adulterers. All easily avoided at the time if it were not for the fact that sex education was still based on antiquated religious notions of sin and shame. But while the specific issues Russell was dealing with may have passed, other issues have taken their place, and Russell’s arguments for improvements in sex education remain relevant.

I do not think there can be any defence for the view that knowledge is ever undesirable.

But in the particular case of sex knowledge there are much weightier arguments in its favour than in the case of most other knowledge. A person is much less likely to act wisely when he is ignorant than when he is instructed, and it is ridiculous to give young people a sense of sin because they have a natural curiosity about an important matter.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, things remain very much the same. Secularism and the separation of church and state are continually undermined as are Enlightenment values such as free speech. Though many of these essays were written in the 1920’s and 30’s, their relevance remains and will give comfort to those who support such values. It could even be said that things have regressed in some areas. The Russell who said “Nobody nowadays believes that the world was created in 4004 BC”, would be very disappointed to see that we now have Creationist Museums and Ark Parks!

But to me the most impressionable part of this book, and the most relevant to our own time, is the considerable space given to discuss the issue of academic freedom. This is mostly delivered by an appendix written by editor Paul Edwards covering the incredible case of how Russell was prevented from accepting a teaching position at the College of the City of New York. The details are astonishing. The lengths taken to demonise and misrepresent Russell, the corrupt efforts made by Justice McGeehan and Mayor LaGuardia to circumvent the law and due process and the general air of hypocrisy, religious zealotry and mass hysteria are extraordinary and make for engrossing and terrifying reading.

These procedural outrages, however, were nothing as compared with the distortions, libels and non-sequiturs contained in the judgement itself, which deserves the most careful study. It shows what apparently can be done in broad daylight, even in a democratic state, if an ardent partisan has achieved a position of judicial power and feels himself supported by influential politicians. It is necessary to quote extensively from this amazing document, since otherwise the reader will not believe that this sort of thing actually took place.

Albert Einstein, who was among Russell’s supporters, remarked:

Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence.

Russell largely stayed quiet as the matter played out, but did publish an essay, Freedom and the Colleges, included in this book. Like his essay on Thomas Paine, it is as passionate as it is determined and is one of the best of the book. Russell examines the origins of doubt, argument and opposition to academic freedom and repeatedly likens the properties of good teaching to that of a good democracy.

The essence of academic freedom is that the teachers should be chosen for their expertness in the subject they are to teach, and that the judges of this expertness should be other experts.

The opponents of academic freedom hold that other conditions besides a man’s skill in his own department should be taken into consideration. He should, they think, have never expressed any opinion which controverts those of the holders of power.

Today, the main opponents of academic freedom are less likely to be from the religious Right, as it was in Russell’s time, than from the regressive authoritarian sections of the Left. There we hear, that arguments that risk offense should be banned, that the values of equality do not apply to minorities, that conclusions without evidence deserve equal consideration to those with evidence, that experts are not to be trusted. Or, to put it in Orwellian terms, that censorship is free speech, that intolerance should be tolerated, that knowledge is ignorance. Russell’s arguments are music to the ears of those who would stand up for academic freedom.

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The Roman soldier who killed Archimedes, if in his youth he had been compelled to study geometry, must have enjoyed a quite special thrill in ending the life of so eminent a malefactor. An ignorant American bigot can enjoy the same thrill in pitting his democratic power against men whose views are obnoxious to the uneducated.

One final surprise this book holds is that it is actually quite funny. One essay, in praise of ‘nice people’, is an entirely sarcastic and scathing attack on the so-called moral majority.

The essence of nice people is that they hate life as manifested in tendencies to co-operation, in the boisterousness of children, and above all in sex, with the thought of which they are obsessed. In a word, nice people are those who have nasty minds.

Russell does not miss opportunities to exercise his wit.

The place of the father in the modern suburban family is a very small one – particularly if he plays golf, which he usually does.

It is a shame that this book has such a provocative title as I am certain it must turn some people off (as some may be turned off from reading this review by the mere mention of its subject). In one sense, that may be fair enough; many a believer will avoid testing their faith against the counter arguments presented in this book and I cannot deny that this book provides plenty of those. But in another sense it is a shame because it would deny you the chance to read the other treasures it contains. Russell’s essay on Thomas Paine and both Russell’s and Edwards’ pieces on academic freedom are especially worth the price of admission.

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