In the following passage of “Why I’m not a Christian”, Bertrand Russell provides what may be the most sweeping and speculative generalization he makes. It is hard to see how anyone who has had a religious experience could fail to see the problem with this:
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. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.
This is a beautiful rhetorical flourish to place near the climax of his speech. However, it is also false, judgmental, and irrelevant.
It is clear enough that it is false. I’ll not spend time on that. But I will say that anyone who is willing to make such grandiose declarations as this, without any real support at all, has no right to cast his side as the supporters of scientific and rational thought (as Russell does). Indeed, many of the New Atheists seem to have trouble understanding the difference between wild accusations and scientifically gathered data.
Such a harshly judgmental attitude based largely or wholly on ignorance is commonly called prejudice. And there seems to me to be something about this subject which causes people to speak boldly (and prejudicially) outside their areas of expertise. Richard Dawkins can often be found giving us amateur philosophy when he should be giving us professional science. It it strange, then, that Russell here gives us amateur psychology instead of professional philosophy.
And, most significantly, his claim is completely irrelevant to the question of God’s existence. Even if it were true that all spiritual experience is simply a fear reaction (though it isn’t remotely), this is not a logical reason to believe that God does not exist. It does nothing at all to establish that one shouldn’t be a Christian.