Saturday, May 8, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter VII

Part Two, Chapter VII (pages 213-221), “Will Religious Faith Cure Our Troubles?”

Some people believe that the erosion of religious faith is responsible for our current troubles. But our beliefs tend to be the result of our circumstances, not the other way around. [Existence (or being) determines consciousness, as Marx says? -- RBR] The deterioration of those circumstances has followed a sort of tragic inevitability that has sprung from the characters of the leaders involved. Russell provides (pages 213-214) a capsule summary of European relations (including the US and Russia) from 1914 through to the Cold War. The political forces were what they always have been among great powers, even as the destructive forces accelerated; the same evolution would have occurred whether Russia “believed” in Orthodox Christianity or in Marxism. Indeed, the First World War was fought by leaders who by and large were devout Christians. (Atheist politicos tended to be against the war.) Russell doesn’t use the term, but he indicates that he adheres to a “realist” conception of great power politics.

Russell rejects the view that some faiths (such as Christianity) are forces for good while others (such as Communism) are forces for harm. “What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm [p. 215].” Faith exists when someone believes something, profoundly, despite a lack of evidence to support that belief: it involves substituting emotion for evidence. (If there is evidence, faith is superfluous.) As different groups will have different emotions, faith tends to lead to conflict. If holders of faith also have political power, they will use the state to promote their faith and suppress others. History indicates that people of faith, even the Christian faith, do not avoid war. “Indeed, some of the most ferocious wars have been due to disputes between different kinds of Christianity [p. 216].”

Russell does not accept the view that some religious skeptics might endorse, that Christianity can be socially helpful, despite being false – though he holds a very low opinion of one alternative to Christianity, Marxism. [Russell’s godfather, John Stuart Mill, argued against suppressing minority views in the belief that the prevailing views, though possibly wrong, were nonetheless socially useful; further, “The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself.”] Russell recognizes that belief in the useful lie has a long provenance, and enlisted the support of Plato. The contribution of faiths to war is the hatred that they engender against non-believers; war brings out the worst in faiths. History gives the lie to the notion that fanaticism is beneficial to military enterprise. Science, useful to winning wars, is compromised by fanaticisms: Nazi hatred of Jews and Soviet embrace of Lysenkoism did not add to the power of their states: “without intellectual freedom, scientific warfare is not likely to remain long successful [p. 218].” More generally, the idea that national success depends on everyone adhering to some irrational belief is both ahistorical and wrong. It is hard to compartmentalize rationality, so those who accept fantastic beliefs in one realm tend to ignore evidence in other realms. At one time belief in a flat earth was reasonable. But now, people who believe in a flat earth must “close their minds against reason and to open them to every kind of absurdity in addition to the one from which they start [p. 220].”

“There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths [p. 219].” Further, he sort of knows, but is unwilling to openly recognize, that they are myths; this knowledge makes him react harshly to any criticism of his creed. He wants to constrain education so that such criticism is suppressed. Authoritarian rulers can successfully limit education and instill timidity in the populace, but at the cost of achieving progress. Beliefs based on reason can be altered by discussion; beliefs based on faith are beyond reason, so they are supported by repression and mis-education. A decline in the hold of dogma, whether of the traditional kind, or Nazi and Communist variants, is an unalloyed blessing. Science and a recognition of the horror of mass torture are what the world needs.

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