Rhetoric First, Reason if Time Permits

witch_hunt_accusation_crucible_jpgIn 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.

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4 responses to “Rhetoric First, Reason if Time Permits

  • Alexander

    Hang on, it’s not that simple. One of the strongest reasons given to a belief in a god is that the alternative is burning hellfire. “Believe or else!” which is a strong dogma of the church throughout history which only in recent times have been pulled back a little (but not, say, in the Catholic Church). And are you not supposed to be fearful of the lord? If that’s not belief based on fear, then what is?

    However, I don’t agree with Russell on this particular point, even though “the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes” certainly rings true for a lot of people. However, I hinted in comments elsewhere that I think the drive is more a sense of justice than fear, but I dare say that religion is probably driven by as many reasons as what most anything else in life is driven by, I don’t think religions are *driven* by something particular different (even though I’m inclined to think the model and conditioning within the culture brings forth some specific drivers). And, frankly, I don’t really need to pinpoint the many reasons people do things for, as long as their reasons are reasonable, debated and justified.

    • Debilis

      I would agree with nearly all of this, actually. I even agree that many have come to religious belief out of fear. I only object to Russell’s insinuation that this is the primary cause of it, or that these two ideas encompass the majority of religious believers.

      I’d be much more in line with your position, that there are a multitude of reasons and, so long as adherents can defend those reasons rationally, they should be considered credible.

  • katachriston

    The emotion of fear is what you see when you feel you have to tell your students to “write the name “JESUS” on the card, throw it on the floor and stomp on it”. Or if you name your trendy, fashionable new line clothing “Jesus Jeans”. It’s an effort to subdue the momentous and make that which you fear may be true into something laughable or at least irrelevant. Otherwise why not “Mohammed” jeans. Oh that devouring albatross. Van Til was so right.

    • Debilis

      Yes, I suppose I did overlook the fact that fear is sometimes a good thing.

      Actually, I suspect that God wants to teach all of us more about which emotion is appropriate for each situation. I’ll have to think on that.

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