Russell called himself an agnostic. In other words he neither believed nor disbelieved in the existence of God. Such an attitude was natural in a man who had a scientific outlook on life and who called himself a Rationalist. In one of his essays called “Why I am not a Christian”, he examined the main arguments which are thought to prove the existence of God, and showed them all to be false.Likewise Russell did not believe in any of the dogmas of traditional religion and was firmly opposed to every kind of religious orthodoxy. Thus he was a “free thinker” in religion. In one of the essays, “Free Thought and Official Propaganda”, he writes: “I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. I do not believe that, on the balance, religious belief has been a force for good.” Russell admits that, in certain times and places, religion has had some good effects but says that on the whole religion has been a force for evil. He points out the evils of holding rigid and dogmatic opinions in the sphere of religion as well as that of politics. A doctrinaire approach to religion, he says, is always accompanied with intolerance and persecution. “If only men could be brought into a tentatively agnostic frame of mind about these matters, nine-tenths of the evils of the modern world would be cured.” In the sphere of religion, as in all other spheres, Russell preaches not the “will to believe” but the “will to doubt” or “the wish to find out”.
Opposed to Christian Doctrines, Dogmas, Rituals, Etc.
Russell did not recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ. He did not even agree that Christ, as depicted in the Scripture, was a supremely good man. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is undoubtedly a noble utterance, but Christ was guilty of a vindictive attitude towards his opponents. It is noteworthy too that it is the more intolerant aspects of Christ’s teaching that have had by far the greater influence on the practices of the organized Christian churches. Christianity, says Russell, has been distinguished from other religions by its greater readiness for persecution. Christians have always persecuted those who held different views; they have always persecuted free-thinkers; they have even persecuted one another; they have killed thousands of innocent women on the ground that they were witches. Russell did not approve of the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to birth control which he felt to be necessary under certain circumstances. He could not see any sense in the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church either. It was a superstition to believe, said Russell, that a priest could turn a piece of bread into the body and blood of Christ by talking Latin to it. The Christian taboos were also odious to him. Nor did he see any logic in the refusal of Christians to admit God’s responsibility for the suffering and misery in this world, if at all there was a God. If the world was created by an omnipotent and omniscient God, how could that God escape responsibility for all the suffering in the world? If suffering be necessary as a means of purification from sin, why should innocent children suffer under God’s dispensation? In short, Russell found the dogmas, doctrines, rituals, observances, and beliefs of Christianity to be wholly unacceptable.
Sceptical of Mystical Experiences and of An After-life
Nor did Russell have any faith in mystical or spiritual experiences of any kind. When a man does not believe in God, he will not believe in any direct or indirect communion with God who in his opinion is a mere figment of the imagination. It is impossible to verify the truth of the experiences which mystics claim to have had. For the same reasons Russell did not believe in immortality or an after-life. His concern for human welfare was confined to improving the lot of mankind in this life because the next life was only a hypothesis.
Opposed to Puritanism
In the sphere of morals, Russell was strongly opposed to Puritanism and to conventional ideas of goodness and badness. The practical objection to Puritanism, he says, is the same as to every form of fanaticism. The fanatic fails to recognise that the suppression of a real evil, if carried out through extreme steps, produces even greater evils. Breadth of sympathy, he says, has never been a strong point with the Puritans. The Puritan condemns all pleasure: not only does he deny pleasure to himself but he denies it to others too. The Puritan imagines that his moral standard is the moral standard, and he does not realize that other ages and other countries, and even other groups in his own country, have moral standards different from his, to which they have as good a right as he has to his. Thus Russell deplores the Puritan’s narrow outlook and closed mind. He disapproves of the doctrine of original sin. According to this traditional doctrine of orthodox Christianity human beings are all born wicked, so wicked as to deserve eternal punishment. This doctrine inevitably leads to Puritanism and to hypocrisy. Moralists are persons who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others: “There is an element of the busybody in our conception of virtue: unless a man makes himself a nuisance to a great many people, we do not think he can be an exceptionally good man. This attitude comes from our notion of sin. It leads not only to interference with freedom, but also to hypocrisy.”
Opposed to Conventional Ideas of Goodness and Badness
In the essay, “The Harm That Good Men Do”, Russell’s opposition to conventional ideas of goodness and badness is clearly stated, though the mode of expression here is ironical. All good poets were thought to be immoral at the times when they were writing really good poetry, he tells us, citing the cases of Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Donne, Milton, and Swinburne. Scientists and philosophers were persecuted for holding views opposed to the prevailing orthodoxies. Judged by conventional standards all the Renaissance artists were bad men. Russell condemns the moralist’s attitude towards venereal disease. Instead of asking people to take the necessary precautions against venereal infection, the moralist would like people to suffer the painful consequences of sexual indulgence outside the marital relationship. A rational and scientific attitude would be prevention and, failing that, treatment and cure, but the traditional moralist takes pleasure in the suffering of the patients who, according to him, deserve their suffering as a punishment for their sinfulness. “We need a morality based upon love of life, not upon repression and prohibition”, says Russell. A man should be regarded as good if he is happy, generous, and glad when others are happy; if so, a few lapses such as drinking or a sexual aberration should be condoned. It is necessary to instill a rational attitude towards ethical questions, instead of the mixture of superstition and oppression now prevailing. Thus the whole conception of “virtue” needs to be changed. Russell does not accept the theological view that morality should be based on divine authority, for the simple reason that he questions the very existence of the Deity.
“Sin is Geographical”
Russell’s rationalism means, among other things, plenty of freedom for the individual in the sphere of social conduct, marriage, morals, etc. In “The Value of Scepticism” he informs us that every kind of marriage-custom has existed in the history of mankind, many of them such as would seem to be repugnant to human nature. We think we can understand polygamy as a custom forced upon women by male oppressors. But in
a woman voluntarily marries several husbands, and family life there is at least as harmonious as in Tibet Europe. There is no strong evidence to show that one marriage-custom is better or worse than another. Almost all marriage-customs involve cruelty and intolerance towards those who violate the local code, but otherwise they have nothing in common. It would seem that sin is geographical: that is, the notion of sin varies from country to country according to the particular code of morality prevalent there. In the essay, “Freedom in Society”, Russell goes to the length of saying: “If a man chooses to have two wives or a woman two husbands, it is his affair and theirs, and no one else ought to feel called upon to take action about it”.
What is a “Right” Action?
In matters of general conduct Russell’s view is that, a man should perform actions that will probably have the best consequences, in the light of whatever information he possesses, or can be reasonably expected to have. Russell speaks of an action which satisfies this condition as the wisest possible action, and he equates it with what it is right for a man to do. Russell is also inclined to the view that a man ought to do what his conscience tells him to. A moral action is one that a person would judge to be right after due consideration (“after an appropriate amount of candid thought”). However, Russell also often speaks of the vagaries of conscience.
Reason and the Passions
In one of his books, Russell wrote that in the ethical sphere he agreed with Hume’s dictum that “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions”. This is obviously an irrational attitude: it subordinates “reason” to the passions, while everywhere else in his writings Russell gives to “reason” the supreme position. Perhaps all that Russell means by his endorsement of Hume’s dictum is that the ends of our actions are determined by our desires and that it is the role of reason only to ensure a choice of the proper means. Even so it is somewhat difficult to reconcile Russell’s defecation of “reason” with his approval of Hume’s dictum.