Russell XX: “I Don’t Think I Like Your Tone”

keep-calm-and-be-politeIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, Russell makes a point of his distaste for the tone of certain passages:

It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

While one couldn’t accuse this speech of hypocrisy in criticizing harsh tones, the New Atheists have made harshness their calling-card. It is odd, then, that arguments about the “horrors” of guilt-inducing passages are still popular.

But, if it really is the New Atheists’ intent to convince religious people that our source of hope in life should be scornfully dismissed as an unparalleled evil, then it is their intent to invoke horrible feelings of guilt and shame in countless individuals.

Such people could, I suppose, make the case that guilt over what one has done is sometimes appropriate, but this would serve at least as much to defend the offending passages of the Bible as anything they have written.

Of course, I’m not convinced that these passages are so offending. Russell has given us no good reason to think that “an unspeakable amount of misery” has been caused by this teaching. Religious young people consistently show higher self-esteem than their secular counterparts. I’d wager that, among more significant reasons, this is because it is impossible to be disturbed by a correct understanding of the quoted passage.

It seems to be a pattern that any passage in the Bible which can be reinterpreted to sound evil will be used as “proof” that religion of any kind is evil. A real desire to understand is, of course, conspicuously absent from such tactics.

As for Russell, I’d merely suggest that what counts as the proper tone in twentieth century British academia may not be the same as what was proper in first century rural Palestine. It seems deeply culturally narrow, almost to the point of imperialism, to dismiss a moral teacher from another continent, and another millenium, based on a personal reaction to tone.

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