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.