Saturday, September 18, 2010

“Since my subject is ideas that have harmed mankind, it is especially harmful systems of beliefs that I shall consider.” How does Russell elaborate this statement and how far do you agree with him?

False Religious Beliefs and Political Dogmas
Among the ideas that have harmed mankind, Russell first of all mentions a number of superstitions connected with religion. It was supposed, for instance, that human sacrifice could improve the crops. Then there was the religious belief that conquered races should completely be exterminated and that even their cattle and sheep should not be spared. There was also the superstitious belief held by Christian saints that the pagans and heretics would be subjected to eternal tortures after death.
As a consequence of this belief, the saints abstained from all the pleasures of the senses and found satisfaction in the thought that those who did not have the same religious faith as they would have to undergo indescribable tortures in hell. In modem times, this particular Christian dogma took a political shape. Both the German Nazis and the Russian communists demanded hard work and self-sacrifice from their followers on the ground that those who did not comply with their political creed would either be liquidated or put in concentration camps. Thus these political dogmas, based on a false belief, led to considerable persecution and suffering. Communists have the same outlook as characterized the Calvinists who believed that they would go to heaven and that sinners would receive a severe punishment in hell.
The Belief in Witchcraft
Another false notion that has greatly harmed mankind is the importance which each individual attaches to himself. Most of us believe that our own good or evil fortune is due to the deliberate actions of other people. We invent all sorts of myths to explain our misfortunes without sacrificing our self-importance. It was this state of mind that gave rise to the belief in witchcraft and black magic. The Inquisition punished not only witches but those who did not believe in the possibility of witchcraft, since to disbelieve it was heresy.
The Soundness of Russell’s Analysis of Religious Beliefs
In drawing our attention to the various harmful ideas originating from religion, Russell is on sure ground. There is no doubt that religious beliefs which are in reality mere superstitions have caused tremendous suffering in the world. Russell gives us concrete historic examples to illustrate this point. The attitude of the Christian saints towards pagans and heretics, as described by Russell, is historically authentic; and he quotes the Bible to show that the punishment given to those people who did not believe in punishing the supposed witches was justified by the Bible which says: “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live”. The cruelties inflicted upon the witches by the Inquisition are also historically true. In modern times, says Russell, these same emotions find an outlet in a fear of foreign nations. The example of grazing cows running away in terror at the approach of a railway train is given by Russell to show how people create myths to explain their misfortunes. Russell also quotes a couple of lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost to illustrate the pleasures which Satan experienced on contemplating the harm that he could do to man. Thus in each case Russell has supplied undeniable evidence to prove his point. His reasoning therefore is thoroughly convincing. At the same time, there is nothing to startle us in this line of reasoning. The enlightened ones among us are already aware that scientific discoveries have dispelled many superstitious beliefs connected with religion. If a large majority even of civilized people continue to hold superstitious beliefs, it only shows their unwillingness to be enlightened. In our own country, for instance, numberless religious superstitions still continue to dominate the minds of people and to determine their actions.
Envy and Economic Nationalism
Russell next tells us that one of the most powerful sources of false belief is envy. The jealousies of women are proverbial, but similar jealousies prevail among males also, especially in their official circles. Envy becomes dangerous when it dominates the attitudes of nations towards one another. Envy may cause a complete misconception of economic self-interest. The whole philosophy of economic nationalism, which is now universal throughout the world, is based upon the false belief that the economic interest of one nation is surely opposed to that of another. This false belief produces international hatreds and rivalries and thus leads to war.
Russell’s Psychological Approach
In this particular case, Russell adopts a psychological approach. He traces the origin of a world war to the deep-rooted feeling of envy in the human heart. He focuses our attention on the psychological causes behind economic nationalism and war. And in this case, again, he illustrates his ideas by means of a parallel about butchers and bakers. The feeling of envy made these butchers and bakers concentrate their attention upon competitors and forget altogether the aspect of their prosperity that depended upon customers. Russell is also right in pointing out that in large offices we shall find exactly the same kind of jealousies among male officials which we generally attribute to women.
False and Harmful Beliefs Arising from the Passion of Pride
Pride is another passion which gives rise to false beliefs that are politically harmful. We have the pride of nationality, the pride of race, the pride of sex, the pride of class, and the pride of creed. All these kinds of pride are dangerous. For a long time the English people were brought up to believe in the inhertent superiority of their nation over the French. They were taught that one Englishman could defeat three Frenchmen. A similar feeling of superiority is cherished by people of other countries in relation to one another. The pride of race, says Russell, is even more harmful than national pride. People of white races regard themselves as superior to people of the coloured races. The Jews had, in ancient times, a peculiar belief in their own racial superiority. Subsequently the Christians have been holding an equally irrational belief in their superiority to Jews. Beliefs of this kind do infinite harm, and it should be one of the aims of education to eradicate them. Another form that the feeling of pride takes is the belief in the minds of men that they are superior to women. Men have claimed to be more reasonable than women, more inventive, less swayed by their emotions, and so on. But each of these arguments in turn was proved to be false, but it always gave place to a similar other argument. This tendency of the male sex to dominate over women has had some very unfortunate effects on the marriage-relationship. As a consequence of this male domination, husbands treated their wives as slaves, regarding themselves as the masters. The pride of class persists even in America where; in theory, all men are equal. So long as great inequalities of wealth continue, the pride of class will continue also. In England, where the inequalities of wealth are less glaring, another kind of snobbery has emerged, so that the pride of class is to be found in that country also. Finally, there is the pride of creed. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians and Muslims were entirely convinced of each other’s wickedness and never doubted their own superiority. This form of pride has not disappeared even today. All these different kinds of pride, says Russell, make people feel “grand”. In order to be happy, people require all kinds of support for their self-esteem and self-importance. The Americans feel happy because they are proud of belonging to America which they regard as God’s own country. White people are happy because they are proud of their white skins which show that they are superior to the black races. Protestants feel happy because they are proud of their Protestant religion which is superior to the Catholic religion. Men are happy because they are proud of belonging to the male sex which is superior to the female sex. Likewise, the people of the east feel themselves to be superior to the people of the west, and vice versa. But all these beliefs are, in reality, irrational, false, misleading; and they all cause a good deal of mischief in the world.
Russell’s Analysis of Pride Perfectly Convincing
Russell’s analysis of the passion of pride also has a sound psychological basis. Pride is something inherent in every human being. Pride takes various forms, each of which has been illustrated by Russell with concrete examples. There may or may not be any justification for the feeling of superiority which various kinds of people entertain by comparison with others, but there can be no doubt at all that such feelings of superiority do exist. If there is no other ground for our superiority, we find pleasure in the thought that, as human beings, we are superior to all other forms of life on this earth. Almost everybody needs some prop to his ego. A feeling of superiority is universal in this world. It is natural also that people possessing feelings of superiority should clash with, and try to inflict damage or loss upon, those who do not accept their claim to superiority. However, it may be pointed out that this feeling of superiority arising from pride can never be eradicated from the human breast. A complete sense of equality can never be enforced among human beings. If all other feelings of superiority are done away with, the superiority of the strong man over the weak, and the superiority of the more intelligent man over the less intelligent one will always persist. There is such a thing as natural inequality which means a natural superiority and a natural inferiority. We may succeed in doing away with inequalities of wealth and income, but there will always be the superiority, to take only one example, of the more attractive female figure to the less attractive one or to a repulsive one.
The False Belief that One is God’s Special Agent or Instrument
Another harmful idea that Russell considers in this essay is that of imagining oneself to be a special instrument of the divine will. It often happens that men and nations delude themselves into thinking that they are the special agents designed by God to carry out His purposes. For instance, the Muslims have a fanatical belief that every soldier dying in battle for his religious faith would go straight to paradise where he will be entertained by beautiful houris. Cromwell believed himself to be the divinely appointed instrument of justice for suppressing Catholics. In our times, the Marxists think that they are the divinely appointed instruments for ensuring economic justice by liquidating the capitalists and all those who disagree with the communist ideology. Hegel had taught that the “dialectic” had given supremacy to Germany. Marx did not accept Hegel’s view and claimed that the supremacy belonged not to Germany but to the proletariat. The Marxists think themselves to be justified in the path of ruthless cruelty which they practise for the implementation and enforcement of their political and economic creed. And Russell concludes this part of the argument by saying: “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false”.
Russell, an Opponent of Dogmatism
Here Russell shows himself to be a strong opponent of dogmatism. What he really attacks here is the stubborn, dogmatic beliefs of various kinds of people. In attacking various systems of dogmatism, Russell gives evidence of his gifts of irony and satire. He ridicules those who consider themselves either the chosen people of God or the divinely appointed instruments of God’s will. He especially exposes the falseness of the claims of the Marxists. Russell appears here to be a man of liberal ideas; he is not wedded to any creed, and he is not fanatical about any belief, Russell is not fanatical even in his advocacy of democracy which he really admires as a form of government. For instance, he clearly says, towards the end of this essay, that the democrat does not necessarily believe that democracy is the best system always and everywhere. There are many nations, Russell rightly points out, which lack the moral qualities and the political experience necessary for the success of parliamentary institutions. Russell also shows his liberalism by suggesting that only an international government can prevent world wars. He is not a believer in narrow ideas of nationalism; he genuinely believes that only a world-government can save the human race from extinction or from being thrown back into a state of barbarism.

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Anonymous said...

very helpful these notes are.....thanks

Anonymous said...

Great notes

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