FreeThought Fort Wayne

        Be Reasonable

Couldn’t have said it better myself

Posted by Eye4Cards on December 28, 2008

I was reading some Bertrand Russell on Christmas (doesn’t everybody?).  What can I say, it was a slow day and religion is on everyone’s mind that day.

I found his short essay on The Essence of Religion.  It struck a chord with me.  Many people have said most of what he wrote, but Russell managed to say so much in such a concise manner.  In case you are interested, I got this out of The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, 1961, Touchstone.  I’m sure you can hunt down nearly all of his work online though, if you google him.  He might as well be required reading for everyone because he touched on so many facets of human thought, not just religion.  It is striking how little his works have aged:

THE ESSENCE OF RELIGION

The decay of traditional religious beliefs, bitterly bewailed by upholders of the Churches, welcomed with joy by those who regard the old creeds as mere superstition, is an undeniable fact.  Yet when the dogmas have been rejected, the question of the place of religion in life is by no means decided.  The dogmas have been valued, not so much on their own account, as because they were believed to facilitate a certain attitude towards the world, an habitual direction of our thoughts, a life in the whole, free from the finiteness of self and providing an escape from the tyranny of desire and daily cares.  Such a life in the whole is possible without dogma, and ought not to perish through the indifference of those to whom the beliefs of former ages are no longer credible.  Acts inspired by religion have some quality of infinity in them :  they seem done in obedience to a command, and though they may achieve great ends, yet it is no clear knowledge of these ends that makes them seem imperative.  The beliefs which underlie such acts are often so deep and so instinctive as to remain unknown to those whose lives are built upon them.  Indeed, it may be not belief but feeling that makes religion :  a feeling which, when brought into the sphere of belief, may involve the conviction that this or that is good, but may, if it remains untouched by intellect, be only a feeling and yet be dominant in action…

The animal part of man, being filled with the importance of its own desires, finds it intolerable to suppose that the universe is less aware of this importance;  a blank indifference to its hopes and fears is too painful to contemplate, and is therefore not regarded as admissable.  The divine part of man does not demand that the world shall conform to a pattern :  it accepts the world, and finds in wisdom a union which demands nothing of the world.  Its energy is not checked by what seems hostile, but interpenetrates it and becomes one with it.  It is not the strength of our ideals, but their weakness, that makes us dread the admission that they are ours, not the world’s.  We with our ideals must stand alone, and conquer, inwardly, the world’s indifference.  It is instinct, not wisdom, that finds this difficult and shivers at the solitude it seems to entail.  Wisdom does not feel this solitude, because it can achieve union even with what seems most alien.  The insistent demand that our ideals shall be already realized in the world is the last prison from which wisdom must be freed.  Every demand is a prison, and wisdom is only free when it asks nothing.

(The Hibbert Journal, Vol. II, October 1912.)

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One Response to “Couldn’t have said it better myself”

  1. agnohumanist said

    Nice post, Theo. It’s good to find another B. Russell fan. A small volume, “The Best of Bertrand Russell,” was very influential in my journey to skepticism. In fact, it was the first such book I ever read, and although it would be an exaggeration to give it full credit for my deconversion (after all, I would never have picked it up if I had not already had some serious doubts), it certainly gave voice to many of my feelings and provided ample logic and evidence to support what I had long suspected. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to read Russell’s words. Here was a respected author–a Nobel Prize-winner, no less!–who lent credence to skepticism and rationalism. Interesting chap, to say the least. And he lived to the age of 98! Who says you have to belong to a church to live a long, healthy life? (But that’s a topic for another post.)

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