Saturday, September 18, 2010

Russell finds rationality sadly lacking in the modern world. What evidence of this lack does he offer in his essay, An Outline of intellectual Rubbish, and how far do you agree with him?

The Meaning of Intellectual Rubbish
Although it is often said that man is a rational animal, Russell finds hardly any evidence of human rationality in the world. Russell finds cruelty, persecution, and superstition increasing by leaps and bounds; and any one asserting that human beings are rational will have to be dubbed as an old foggy not aware of the realities. Russell gives us an abundance of concrete examples to prove his thesis in this essay.
He uses the phrase “intellectual rubbish” to describe all false beliefs, baseless opinions, superstitions of various kinds, and a general obscurantist attitude. All this intellectual rubbish is the consequence of an irrational view of things. People follow certain beliefs, ideas, and customs without inquiring into their validity. In actual fact, many of these beliefs and customs lead to evil and suffering in the world.
Some Examples of the Irrationality of Priests
Russell begins with an exposure of the irrationality of the priests. The opinions and ideas propagated by priests are a glaring example of intellectual rubbish. Russell points out that the past ages, when religious faith dominated the minds of people, were ages of superstition and not rational beliefs. The priests encouraged people to believe in miracles performed by saints and in the evil brought about by wizards through the exercise of black magic. Many thousands of people were burnt at the stake on a charge of practising witchcraft. It was thought that men were punished by God for their sins through epidemics, famines, earthquakes and floods. Very little was known scientifically about the world.
The Illogicality and the Contradictions in Religious Beliefs
Nor did the priests become rational when science began to make its discoveries. The priests fought a losing battle against the advances in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology and sociology. They did their best to prevent the rise of geology; they fought against Darwin’s theory of evolution, and in recent times they have been fighting against scientific theories of psychology and education. So superstitious have the priests been that when the lightning-rod was invented they condemned it as an impious attempt to defeat the will of God. Priests are so illogical as to treat even the mercies of God as discriminatory. They still hold a dogmatic conception of sin which appears to be very puzzling to the rational mind. They believe, for instance, that sexual intercourse is unholy and should be avoided. Extremists in this case were men like Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, not to speak of the Manichaeans. And there was a time when priests did not think it sinful for human beings to ill-treat animals, and when they opposed the dissection of dead bodies for medical purposes as an impious act. Much of modern morality is still derived from traditional taboos based originally upon superstitions. Then there, are the logical difficulties in the notion of sin. If God is all-powerful, as the priests say, why does He not prevent all sinfulness. If everything happens in compliance with God’s wishes, then Nero’s murder of his mother must also have been committed in accordance with God’s wishes.
Russell’s Criticism of Religious Beliefs Justified
There is no doubt that most of the so-called religious beliefs are merely superstitions, and Russell is fully justified in pointing out that priests have largely been responsible for the hold of such superstitions on the minds of people. Even today when we live in the age of science, superstitions have not completely been dispelled, especially in our own country. In our country, priests are still all-powerful and people perform all kinds of silly rituals and ceremonies in compliance with the directives of these priests who are regarded as men of great spiritual power even when they are most worldly-minded and materialistic. Religion has always served as a means of the exploitation of the ignorant by priests who are no better in a spiritual sense than the common people. Even today, when we make an extensive use of the practical appliances that science has placed at our disposal, we refuse to benefit by scientific ideas; in other words, science has not yet influenced our thinking, though it has transformed our external life by providing us with such useful inventions as the railways, aeroplanes, telephones, television, and so on. In the intellectual and moral sense we are still living in the Middle Ages, and we are still the slaves of traditional beliefs and practices which have completely lost their meaning in the eyes of any rational individual. No intelligent man can therefore fail to appreciate the rational scrutiny to which Russell subjects some of the traditional ideas of the western man, though such a scrutiny is even more urgently called for in the case of our country.
Some Other Irrational Beliefs and Practices
Russell then proceeds to examine the feeling of self-importance which leads individuals to hold many wrong beliefs. The glorification of man, which took a new form after the theory of evolution became an accepted fact, is one example of this feeling of self-importance which an individual nourishes. People Have begun to believe that evolution has been guided by one great purpose, namely that, through millions of centuries of the process of evolution, God was preparing the great climax, Man. Russell finds such a belief to be ridiculous, especially when it is realized that all life on this planet is temporary and that one day no trace will be left of man who thinks himself to be greatest product of evolution. The glorification of man, says Russell, receives no support from a rational, scientific view of the universe. Another source of false belief is the love of the marvellous. During the Great War of 1914-18, for instance, it was widely believed in England that British troops had received encouragement and help from the angels of Mons. Myths of this kind lead to a lot of cruelty. For instance, it was believed for a long time that insanity was the result of a devil taking possession of a human being. This irrational belief led to the practice of a very cruel beating being given to a madman with the object of driving away the devil.
Russell’s Sound Approach
Here, again, Russell’s approach is perfectly scientific and sound. It is, indeed, a sobering thought that no trace will one day be left of human beings on this earth because all life will come to an end. Man has no reason to feel proud of himself for being the supreme product of the process of evolution. Besides, Russell points to such cruel specimens of humanity as the tyrants Nero, Hitler, and Mussolini, who belie the belief that man is supremely noble. The belief in the supernatural is also absurd, as Russell rightly points out. The beating of a madman with the object of driving away the evil spirit is still wide-spread in our own country. India indeed “offers a truly formidable mass of beliefs and customs which can be described as “intellectual rubbish”.
Irrational Theories of Race and Blood
Russell next draws our attention to irrational beliefs about race and blood. The belief in the superiority of the white man over coloured people is a complete myth, says Russell. Physiologists have clearly told us that there is no difference between the blood of a Negro and the blood of a white man. The whole conception of superior races is an irrational belief which has resulted from the extravagant feeling of self-importance which is nourished by the holders of power. Equally irrational are the racial theories according to which certain populations of Europe are superior to others.
The Myth of Racial Superiority Exploded
Here undoubtedly is another convincing example of irrationality. The irrational beliefs pertaining to race and blood have been very wide-spread over a long period of time in the past. Today, however, these beliefs find little favour with people. Even Africans nowadays think themselves the equals of the white people, not to speak of the Indians some of whom have begun to regard themselves as superior to the white people on the basis of their ancient culture.
Absurd Beliefs about Precious Stones
In the economic sphere, too, says Russell, there are many wide-spread superstitions. There is, for instance, a belief in the magical properties of gold and precious stones. Nor is there any doubt that even the most sophisticated people in our own country still believe that particular precious stones such as the ruby, the sapphire, and the emerald, can bring good luck and prosperity to those who wear these. In this connection, it is noteworthy that the same kind of precious stone will not bring prosperity to everybody. A specialist has therefore to be consulted as to which precious stone will suit a particular individual, and the specialist of course extracts his own fee.
The Belief about the Inevitability of War
Another irrational belief is that human nature cannot be changed and that, for this reason, there will always be wars. Russell informs us that it is definitely possible to mould human nature, and to direct the human mind into constructive channels. For instance, says Russell, it is possible for a powerful government to educate its people in such a way that they become sane and reasonable; at the same time, it is equally possible for the same government to give such a wrong kind of education to its people as to change them into fanatical lunatics. Here, again, Russell speaks with an authority which cannot be questioned. Modern psychology definitely shows that the minds of vast populations can be moulded and controlled by the government provided it has enough military power to prevent any rebellion against the methods which it employs. Once a population has been moulded in accordance with the aims of the government, it will then automatically continue to think along the lines laid down by the government, provided no forces operate to bring about any further change in the minds of the people.
Abnormality and Punishment
There are a number of other irrational beliefs to which Russell draws our attention and which are the cause of much injustice and cruelty. For instance, it has long been believed that abnormality or wrong-doing can be remedied through punishment. The irrationality of such a belief has been proved by modern medical men who have pointed out that punishment only aggravates the trouble. Punishment may prevent crimes which are sane in origin; but punishment cannot prevent crimes which result from some psychological abnormality. For instance, punishment may reform an ordinary thief; but punishment will merely aggravate the thieving tendency of a kleptomaniac. (A kleptomaniac is a person who, on account of some psychological abnormality, simply cannot resist the temptation to commit a theft when the opportunity offers itself. Such a man will commit a theft even when he is not needy.) Thus it was wrong to incorporate too much severity towards the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles to punish them for their aggressiveness. The victorious nations should have realized that the Germans were lunatics and not ordinary criminals in having embarked upon a World war (1914-1918). Russell also mentions the irrational beliefs about lucky and unlucky days, about unlucky numbers (such as thirteen), and objections against birth control. Women too have been the subject of irrational beliefs on the part of men, and vice versa. Generalizations about nation characteristics are yet another example of irrationality.
The Value of this Essay in Our Practical Life
Russell has given us a multitude of concrete and homely examples of irrational beliefs of or what he justly calls intellectual rubbish. All irrational beliefs are misleading, and most of them lead to persecution and cruelty, as Russell has clearly demonstrated. In this essay, Russell does not offer any metaphysical or philosophical doctrines and theories; all the ideas are such as can be understood by the ordinary reader, because all these ideas pertain to the daily life of the ordinary man, though many of the ideas are also applicable to large communities and nations. An essay such as this is of great value because it can rid many of us from the superstitions and irrational beliefs which hold a sway upon our minds and which largely determine our actions. If we follow the simple rules which Russell enunciates towards the close of the essay, we can certainly make our lives more rational, more fruitful, more humane, and more meaningful.

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