Saturday, October 23, 2010


I seem to have spent my life flipflopping about religion.  As a teenager, I flipped.  To compensate for my sense of inferiority and abnormality, I became such a religious geek that I actually delivered "sermons" (mostly cribbed from Presbyterian Life) at several sunrise Easter services conducted by the youth group of  First Presbyterian Church, Lewiston, MN.  Then, in college, after reading Nietzsche and Sartre, I flopped hard, harshly rejecting everything to do with organized religion and making my mother weep bitterly (even as she continued to pledge money to the church in my name--so that I wouldn't be officially unChristian in case I were to die).  Much later, enticed by the camaraderie and community at Mater Dei High School, and once more in despair about my own emotional life, I flipped again:  converting to Catholicism in a very superficial, affected and self-justifying way (I even taught CCD for a while).  And so, inevitably, another flop loomed.  Because I simply couldn't stomach Catholicism's hateful teachings on human sexuality, I eventually fled to the Episcopalians, hoping thereby to keep the edifying sacramental baby while throwing out the stinky dogmatic bathwater.  I'm not sure whether my Anglican period should be labeled a flip or a flop, but certainly it was a flop in the sense that it "was not a success."  Though I continued to find some residual comfort in the traditional bells and smells of the Episcopalian eucharist, I grew increasingly annoyed by any talk at all about metaphysics or God. It all just seemed "made up."  And, well, if not exactly "evil," at least unhelpful and, probably, unhealthful.

So where does that leave me now?  Pretty much nowhere, I guess.  Exhausted from the futile effort to know anything really important--but unwilling to spend my remaining years vegetating in the "Holy Ignorance" espoused by many Christian divines.

I continue therefore to read widely about the religious "question."  More and more, though, I am choosing my reading material with an eye to freeing myself from the knee-jerk assumptions I acquired as a result of my Christian upbringing (for which, by the way, I do not "blame" my beloved parents--who merely transmitted what they had received and, obviously, found meaningful).  Some help along these lines has been afforded me by a compilation of Bertrand Russell's writings entitled Russell on Religion.  Following are some provocative and (for me) illuminating quotations from that book:

From "What is an Agnostic?"

  • An agnostic is a man who thinks that it is impossible to know the truth in the matters such as God and a future life with which the Christian religion and other religions are concerned.  Or, if not forever impossible, at any rate impossible at present.
  • An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God.
  • As for 'sin', [the agnostic] thinks it not a useful notion.  He admits, of course, that some kinds of conduct are desirable and some undesirable, but he holds that the punishment of undesirable kinds is only to be commended when it is deterrent or reformatory, not when it is inflicted because it is thought a good thing on its own account that the wicked should suffer.
  • For my part, I do not think there is any good reason to believe that we survive death, but I am open to conviction if adequate evidence should appear.
  • [...] if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.
  • The existence of base and cruel passions is undeniable, but I find  no evidence in history that religion has opposed these passions.  On the contrary, it has sanctified them, and enabled people to indulge them without remorse.
  • I do not think that life in general has any purpose.  It just happened.  But individual human beings have purposes, and there is nothing in agnosticism to cause them to abandon these purposes.
From "The Essence of Religion"

  • In order to free religion from all dependence upon dogma, it is necessary to abstain from any demand that the world shall conform to our standards.  Every such demand is an endeavour to impose self upon the world.
  • Under a strict and conservative religious system individual development is stifled.  Furthermore, oppressive religions make it particularly hard for those with unusual talents to develop freely and contribute intellectually and socially.  Therefore, the civilization of a nation will definitely regress under the oppression of religion.  Some nations may appear strong due to their religion but they are not able to progress.
  • What makes us most comfortable in a religion is that it advances the egotistical notion that Man's desires are not trifling but of great consequence in the universe.
From "Why I am not a Christian"

  • When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience has been able to produce in millions of years.
  • You find as you look round the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.
  • Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear.  It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes.
From "Has Religion Contributed to Civilization?"

  • There is no rational ground of any sort or kind for keeping a child ignorant of anything that he may wish to know, whether on sex or on any other matter.
  • The earth will not always remain habitable; the human race will die out; and if the cosmic process is to justify itself hereafter, it will have to do so elsewhere than on the surface of our planet.  And even if this should occur, it must stop sooner or later.  The second law of thermodynamics makes it scarcely possible to doubt that the universe is running down, and that ultimately nothing of the slightest interest will be possible anywhere.
  • No man treats a motor car as foolishly as he treats another human being.  When the car will not go, he does not attribute its annoying behaviour to sin; he does not say: 'You are a wicked motor car, and I shall not give you any more petrol until you go.' He attempts to find out what is wrong, and to set it right.  An analogous way of treating human beings is, however, considered to be contrary to the truths of our holy religion.
Obviously, I'm still flipping and flopping.  I don't agree with everything Russell asserts (e.g., I can think of instances when certain organized Churches supported "progress in humane feeling"; I also wonder if it is always wise to tell a child anything he wishes to know--doesn't the child's level of cognitive and affective development matter at all?)  But in general, I found this book extremely liberating.  I hope that I'm moving toward, if not full Knowledge (obviously impossible), at least a kind of freedom from (unholy) Ignorance.


  1. "What makes us most comfortable in a religion is that it advances the egotistical notion that Man's desires are not trifling but of great consequence in the universe."

    I don't know if I'd agree with Russell's point here-- i always assumed one of the core assumptions of Christianity was that Man's subordinate desires ARE trifling in comparison to God's dominant desires lived out THROUGH man.

  2. But if God lives out his desires through MAN, we must assume that God prefers US to all the trillions of other creatures that must be in his charge. Which is, well, "comforting." (I think Russell is just having a little fun: he believes that God was created in the image of man, not the other way around.)

  3. "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

    I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy -- ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness -- that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what -- at last -- I have found.

    With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

    Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer. This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me."

    It's one of my favorite things to read, to think about, to attempt, and it always gives me a little knot in my throat. Nothing has ever felt as liberating as the realization that I was an atheist. I feel more like "myself" now than I ever have, and I think I have Russell to thank for some of it.

  4. Thanks for that beautiful passage, Mellisa. I didn't know it, so I looked it up. It will now become part of my "Russell Notes." Like you, I feel more myself. But more BY myself, too. Probably that's good.

  5. "What makes us most comfortable in a religion is that it advances the egotistical notion that Man's desires are not trifling but of great consequence in the universe."

    You know, I find this quote intriguing as well. It's almost as if it's laced with a Christian humility that so often follows revelation, a thorn in the side that's supposed to say, "Hold up, remember now, you are only human and how could you possibly think that you matter."

    Fair enough. To say humans aren't as inflated as they think they are is an argument you can't quite refute, lest you sound 'egotistical.' However, I think that's part of the problem I have with a lot of the crticism against religion (i.e. Nietzsche, Foucault). The problem with those arguments is that there can be truth in truth. Say, a one-inch cutout of a photograph can still be considered as an accurate portrayal of reality, though it’s hardly the complete picture.

    I don't think you have to be religious to be offended by a comparison between humans and malfunctioning cars. I read (I think someone was quoting Scientific American) that the human mind has more neurons than there are stars in the universe, less an egotistical evaluation as it is an observation. If this is true, then the human being is the most complex thing in the universe, and there is nothing more elevated, mysterious, and complex than a conversation between two friends at a coffee shop. Not space travel, not nuclear technology. It’s why Freud, an atheist, had such a profound impact on Western culture because his statement that humans are far more complex (or even profound) than their own self-evaluations was something that resonated so deeply with felt experience.

    You can say that love is an evolutionary adaptation to survival. Yes. Survival is a truth amongst many, which can’t be proved false but only expanded upon, though the Richard Dawkins of the world refuse to extend their limited evaluations on human nature—you see the difficulty.

    Cosmic consequence is a different matter. But it’s the contempt for the complexity of “Man’s desires” that I find troubling. As a fellow flip-flopper (however young), one thing that does attract me to Christianity is not so much the anthropomorphism of the cuddly God that leaves you feeling unalone wherever you are because he needs friends, but rather, the theomorphism. The thoughts God has of man as described by the Psalmist. The sort of awakening that humans are the temples of love, pity, compassion, memory, creation, art—all things beautiful that extend beyond aesthetics, beyond sentiment—beauty that refuses to be reduced to any utilitarian notion of what human behavior can be simplified by two lines plotted on a graph. Perhaps Russel is right in saying that folly is what can most accurately describe how man “treats another human being,” and perhaps it is folly that can most accurately describe Captain Ahab, or Alyosha Karamazov, or Jack Boughton. Hasn’t it always been literature’s responsibility to humanize? And hasn’t it always been the failures, not the successes, that so sumptuously elevate our humanity?

  6. I don't really feel competent to reply to your comment, Geoff--mostly because I truly don't know "where I am" in thinking. Like you, I have love that goes beyond words for the astonishing beauty that our species is capable of. As I listen to Mozart's Requiem, I am moved to believe in the "exceptionalism" of man. Maybe we ARE somehow divine; maybe our creativity DOES reflect and even advance an ineffable transcendence. But I understand that these are my FEELINGS and, as such, probably subjective. Am I just kidding myself because I WANT this special status for myself and my species? Does wanting make things so?

    I, too, bristle when Russell seems to disparage humanity. But the question remains: is he telling the TRUTH? If indeed he is, then man is not only the paragon of animals, but also, as Hamlet observed, the quintessence of dust--destined to decline, disappear or be surpassed, just as surely as "exceptional" America is similarly bound, despite our passionate wishes to the contrary.

    So I remain in doubt. I confess that I sometimes yearn to be a holy fool in the Alyosha Karamozov mold, but I do not seem to be sufficiently evolved in "folly." (Mostly, I suppose, because if I WERE somehow "divinely mad," I wouldn't even have the rational objectivity to know it and appreciate it.) Incorrigibly self-centered, I guess.

    And still, as you see, kinda nowhere spiritually. I'll send you an email with more personal info in response to your very welcome FB message. KK.