Friday, January 05, 2018

“Why I Am Not A Christian”– Book Review


During my recent vacation, I read “Why I Am Not A Christian” – a collection of essays by philosopher, writer and teacher Bertrand Russell.


Probably the people most in need of reading this book will never do so and the people who cleave toward Russell’s viewpoint will make up the majority of its readership.  In that regard, perhaps you could say that Russell is preaching to the choir.  Yes, that was a pun and no, I’m not apologizing.  The essays in this book were all written decades ago, which is part of what makes it all so interesting.  We don’t often think of discussions of atheism, divorce and birth control from our parents or grandparents generations.  It is therefore refreshing to read the essays with that perspective in mind.

The reason for the whole “preaching to the choir” issue is due to the fact that many people do not like to have their belief system questioned.  Often, this is because they fear that they can’t articulately and logically defend it in the first place.  This obviously begs the most necessary question, “Perhaps if you can’t defend your belief system doesn’t that seem to suggest that your belief system is of questionable value?”.  Unfortunately, people usually respond to this emotionally rather than rationally; they are infuriated by the thought that what they were taught by their family, their clergy and their school growing up was all untrue or unhelpful.

As you might expect, many of the views set forth by Russell are quite similar to those of the late Christopher Hitchens.  That said, however, Hitchens’ work is a more entertaining read; by comparison, Russell’s essays, despite the fact that they all have a sound basis in thinking, can be a bit of a slog – at least at times.  Many of these chapters are somewhat dry and you almost get the feeling that you are reading an undergraduate-level philosophy textbook.  It’s not an easy book to get through, especially given that Russell’s background is as an academician and he is prone to using language that doesn’t sound particularly natural. 

There is an essay titled, “Do We Survive Death?” where Russell almost predicts the terrorism that we are seeing today.  He says that nothing productive would come if we stopped fearing death – thus, this fear of death is mostly useful.  Having read that, consider how today’s terrorists – especially the suicide bombers – who give little or no regard to the thought of death because they are focusing on the afterlife where they will be greeted by 72 virgins (although I’m not sure how much fun just one virgin would be, much less 72). 

In “A Free Man’s Worship”, Russell almost foresaw climate change, by stating that natural physics leads to the destruction of man.  Additionally, there is the rather provocatively titled essay, “Sexual Ethics”, where the author discusses birth control, infidelity and how theology determines our attitude toward sex rather than our attitude toward sex determining our view of religion.  Consider two men:  one a pastor, the other a layman.  The pastor has 10 children with his wife, who dies from exhaustion.  The layman has sex with a woman he is not married to and uses birth control to ensure they don’t have any unintended children.  Which man is the more moral of the two?

One thing that might be seen as a serious flaw in the book has to do with the organization of the various essays.  Specifically, the fact that the essays are not presented in chronological order may pose something of a problem.  It might be better to read them in the order in which they are written.  Doing so would allow us to see how Russell’s views evolved, matured and refined over time.  Arguably the best part of the book is its Appendix; it deals with the 1941 court case in which Russell was involved resulting in a judge deciding that Russell was unfit to teach philosophy at the College at the City Of New York.  

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