Archive for December 2nd, 2009

Bertrand Russell

December 2, 2009

Our whirlwind recap of the history of philosophy brings us into the twentieth century today. Where to begin? I nominate Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), logical atomist and comic book hero, arguably the most famous, influential, witty “public intellectual” of all time, and an old atheist.

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of a God is a conception derived from the ancient oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.

“Why I am Not a Christian” has inspired imitators, including Ramendra Nath’s “Why I am Not a Hindu” and Ibn Warraq’s “Why I am Not a Muslim.” My colleague (Rabbi) Rami Shapiro has been eloquent on why he cannot consider himself exclusively Jewish (or anything else). Poems have been written about not being Buddhist. Here’s a “five birds with one” shot.  And inevitably: “Why I am Not an Atheist.”

Warraq (whose What the Koran Really Says was the subject of an earlier post) and others have also issued a declaration of principles that would swell Russell’s (or Tom Jefferson’s) chest. It begins,

We are secular Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.

We affirm the inviolable freedom of the individual conscience. We believe in the equality of all human persons.

We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights…