Betrand Russell on Christianity, Fear, and Dishonesty (Pt. I of III)

Betrand Russell, the famous British mathematician and philosopher of the early twentieth century, offered this stance up as an alternative to Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or…):

“We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of a God is a conception derived from the ancient oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.”

Given that Russell offers up this stance of honesty and courage as an alternative to the Christian stance, we can infer at least two features of the Christian stance as he understands it: that it is a stance based upon both fear and a sort of intellectual dishonesty. As regards the bit about fear, Russell is more than explicit elsewhere:

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”
As regards the dishonesty bit, Russell is not quite so explicit, but he comes through clear enough: “I do not think that the real reason that people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.” Add to this claim Russell’s assumption that it is intellectually dishonest to accept something on emotional grounds without the backing of argumentation, and there you have it. Russell thinks the Christian stance to be one of dishonesty — or, at the very least, one of unfortunate self-deception.

The dishonesty charge has been taken up by many, many Christian apologists. Some have battled this charge by arguing that the Christian stance is (or can be) defended with argument (e.g. those in the Natural Theology camp). Others have battled the charge by arguing that argument and emotion are not the only things that might ground the religious stance; and that certain alternative grounds often clear the Christian of the charge of dishonesty (e.g. those in the Reformed Epistemology camp). And yet others have battled the charge by arguing that emotion (with a good deal of qualification regarding circumstance) is a perfectly honest and warranted basis for the Christian stance (e.g. William James, and more recently John Bishop; perhaps even G.K. Chesterton). Needless to say, a lot has been said. I’m not sure I have anything interesting to add or repeat – at least not today.

So instead I’d like to take up the fear charge — the charge that the Christian religion is grounded in, or a response to, fear. Let’s get the Russell quote before us again:

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”

The question that probably does not immediately come to mind for most of us is: So what? What is the problem with someone’s fundamental, existential stance being grounded in fear? I think most of us do not ask this question because it seems obvious that this is a problem. Giving fear this much control is a problem, first off, for a reason already mentioned: it does not leave room for the intellect and thus ensnares us in a sort of dishonesty. But there’s more than just a lack of the intellect at issue: there’s also a lack of courage. To give fear this much control is to lack some virtue, to have some character flaw, to fail morally in some way. This, I think, is the assumption Russell is making, and which he expects his reader to make.

Thus, most of us who are interested in defending the Christian stance against this charge of moral failing will begin, quite naturally, by challenging the charge that the Christian stance is grounded in fear. We will argue that the Christian stance is grounded is something else, and, thus, that the stance is not the product of some moral failing. I think this move makes a great deal of sense; and in a bit I will try my hand at this move. But before I do so I think it worth considering the assumption that, were the Christian stance grounded in fear, then it would exemplify some moral failing. I think it worth putting this assumption to the test…

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