Category: .Grayling, A.C.

Russell’s attacks on religion

Russell’s attack on religious belief took a variety of forms and was expressed in a variety of ways, often in the form of ridiculing the contradictions, absurdities and anthropocentric parochialisms of religions and their sacred texts, practices and ethics, and sometimes in the form of direct argumentation against the claims either of natural theology or reve­lation. He also argued from more general historical and sociological considerations about the effects of religion – and more generally ’faith’ understood as including not just religion but Soviet Communism and the like – on society and human lives. He saw that religions and political tyrannies share in common a monolithic structure which demands sub­servience and loyalty on pain of punishment, proscribes independence of thought and action, hands down the dogma to be believed and lived by, and issues a one-size-fits-all morality or way of life to which conformity must be absolute. Russell objected both intellectually and morally, and both on principle and in defence of human nature and possibility, to the harm done by this. The tenor of his attacks on religion is explainable accordingly. [59]

Science teaches thinking

The idea of the outward-looking, self-transcending stance expressed itself in two connected ways for Russell. One related to science, the other to personal relationships and the individual’s attitude to others in general. In regard to science, the objectivity and scope of science is obviously such as to make individual self-concern a very minor if not indeed nugatory thing. In the essay ‘The Place of Science in a Liberal Education’ Russell worte, ‘The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires and interest as affording the key to the understanding of the world’, and this immediately entails that the disciplines of reason and evidence are the sole legitimate determinants of thinking in general. [69-70]

The freedom to use reason publicly

Neither Kant nor his contemporaries thought that they actually lived in an enlightened age. By ‘enlightenment’ they meant a process – the process of lessening the darkness, the beginning of the spread of light. The human mind was starting to shrug off the rule of arbitrary authority in the spheres of thought and belief. Intellectual immaturity is characterised by a need for direction from others; intellectual maturity is characterised by independence. ‘Nothing is required for enlightenment except freedom,’ Kant wrote, ‘and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.’ [137]

Awareness of principles

That our own governments are busy destroying civil liberties, and creating large new problems in the process, should dismay all who live in the West. But it is happening with too little awareness, too little discussion, and too little account­ability. When the financial markets of the world collapse, discussion of every aspect of what it means and why it happened is endless, and governments spend billions to bail out the banks who caused the problem in the first place with nothing short of feckless greed. Arguably the irresponsibility and cupidity of people in the finance industry has done far more harm than terrorism. But an even greater collapse in the socio-political order of the rights, freedoms and autonomy of individuals is discussed only by a few, and almost always too late: the contrast is stark and telling. [6]

Attn.: politicians of ‘liberal’ parties

What I argue for should not be misconstrued as a version of ‘libertarianism’, which is different from ‘liberalism’. By ‘libertarianism’ I understand an outlook that promotes the kind of absence of regulation cherished by right-wing, small government advocates who want not so much freedom as license to pursue their interests economically and politically without the inconvenience of too many obligations to think about others. I write as a ‘liberal’ in the European sense, that is, someone who places himself on the liberal left in political terms, meaning that I retain a commitment to ideals of social justice – a view with a number of definite public policy implications – my commitment to constitutionally en­trenched liberties and rights is very much one that has, at heart, the interests of those on whose heads ‘libertarians’ might trample on their way to getting an outsize slice of the pie. Libertarianism in this sense is close to theoretical anarchism, and is in fact not especially friendly to ideas of rights, because rights are obstructions to the libertarian’s desire that there should be as few restraints as possible on what he chooses to do. An advocate of civil liberties wishes to see everyone given a chance to choose and act, not just those with the advantage of strong wills or great wealth or power. [14]

Civil liberties vs. state power

Civil liberties exist to protect individuals against the arbitrary use of state power, and authorities in all countries and times have found themselves inconvenienced by civil liberties, one main reason being that they make the task of moni­toring, arresting and prosecuting bad people more difficult. But there is a good reason why civil liberties make the work of the authorities more difficult in these respects: namely, to protect the great majority of people who are not bad. Think of a typical police state – say, former communist East Germany – where there was no regime of civil liberties to stop men in long leather coats knocking on doors at 2 a.m., and the disappearance without trace of the individuals thus woken. The full implications of this example are too obvious to need spelling out. What it shows is that the incon­venience of the authorities equals the freedom of the people, and is a price richly worth paying for all that matters to individual lives and aspirations. [1-2]