Friday, January 11, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 7, part 1

Chapter 7 (pages 82-123), “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”

This essay is sufficiently long that I will eschew tradition and devote multiple posts to its summentary. This is the first post, covering pages 83 to 95.

Russell laments the irrationality in man and nations, but fights despair by studying the past – through which mankind has somehow managed to survive. “The follies of our own times are easier to bear when they are seen against the background of past follies [p. 82].”

Aristotle thought that man added a rational dimension to the vegetable and animal dimensions shared with other forms of life. The intellect that is the source of this rationality is best signaled (according to Aristotle) by “mastery of arithmetic [p. 83].” But now we have an easier system of numbers along with calculating machines, so the ability to do arithmetic is less suggestive of a divine nature.

But if arithmetic is not evidence of our rationality, what is? Perhaps we can reveal man’s rational nature by looking at some exemplars: let us examine the wisdom of the clergy. Alas, when the clergy has been most powerful, its wisdom has been most questionable. During the Age of Faith, all sorts of superstitious, unscientific nonsense was promulgated. “Devils would settle on the food that monks were about to eat, and would take possession of the bodies of incautious feeders who omitted to make the sign of the Cross before each mouthful [p. 84]” – hence the custom of saying ‘bless you’ after a sneeze, to prevent demons from entering someone’s body after the sneeze left him or her momentarily soul bereft. Since the Age Of Faith, the clergy have been abandoning one position and then the next as science advances. “At each stage, they try to make the public forget their earlier obscurantism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be recognised for what it is [p. 85].” For instance, clergy objected to the invention of the lightning-rod, because lightning strikes were used by God to punish the wicked.

The standard clerical approach to sin is rather puzzling, in that sometimes what is considered sinful is something that alleviates human suffering. Informed consent to euthanasia for the terminally suffering has been opposed as sinful because the consent implies that the process is a form of suicide – hence sinful. Any God who wants to prolong suffering would not be worthy of worship. Things that aren’t considered sinful – such as cruelty to soulless animals – are as much a puzzle as those that are. Religious views towards corpses (including dissection and cremation) also are curious.

“Although there are many kinds of sin, seven of which are deadly, the most fruitful field for Satan’s wiles is sex [p. 89].” Russell proceeds with a clever litany of religious views on sex, marriage, divorce, and petting.

Modern morals include “rational precepts as to how to live together peaceably in a society [p. 91],” along with traditional taboos; the latter tend to be accepted uncritically, even when they promote misery. It would be better if people came up with some sort of rationale for ignoring the harmful taboos encased in ancient scriptures.

“There are logical difficulties in the notion of sin [p. 92].” To sin is to disobey God or to act contrary to God’s will, but God is supposed to be omnipotent – so presumably God intended the sin. And what is God’s will, anyway? Which authority should we follow? “In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others [p. 93].”

Outside of mundane facts, people choose their beliefs to make them feel good about themselves; for instance, people commonly think of their native city or country as possessing marks of superiority. Likewise, religious beliefs about the centrality of man’s place in the universe and our difference from other animals flatter us. “The whole of theology, in regard to hell no less than to heaven, takes it for granted that Man is what is of most importance in the Universe of created beings [p. 95].” Even modern theologians who accept evolution see man as the shining goal of those millions of years of gradual change – though if we are so outstanding, why not just start with us?