Betrand Russell on Christianity, Fear, & Dishonesty (Pt. II of III)

…continued from part I…

Consider Wilbur, a suitable bachelor. Wilbur greatly desires to be a father some day — to bring a little human unto maturity, to pass on his name, to leave a legacy, and all that. But there is a problem: Wilbur will not so much as date a woman, let alone wed one. Not after the heartbreak he experienced when his high school girlfriend left him ten years ago. He’s afraid of this sort of rejection. So afraid that he won’t go near another women, even though he greatly desires the good of being a father more than almost anything.

How do we think of Wilbur? For most of us, we probably think him lacking in some virtue — perhaps courage. No doubt we pity poor Wilbur. But we do not pity him enough to think him justified in his flight from women. A few different reasons might come to mind: High school relationships are generally far different things from adult relationships; one relationship is an awfully small sample set to base such a bachelorhood upon; and the good of fatherhood is great enough to merit a substantial amount of risk. In his situation, fear is a poor ground for his bachelorhood.

Now consider a Cambodian man or woman circa 1980, who had barely survived the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Someone who had lost their entire family, spouse, children, siblings to the slaughters. Who had seen – as many Cambodians claim to have seen – infants’ heads smashed against trees, starved old women being forced to dig their own graves, tortures of every sort imaginable. Consider this person. Now consider this person’s decision to flee her homeland, to run away from human institutions as a whole, to never even allow herself to contemplate bringing another child into this world — and let us suppose that these choices are made on the basis of the fear and terror she encountered in the face of that evil. How should we judge this person? Should we think this fear a perfectly reasonable ground for her choices? Or should we think her lacking some virtue: Should we have told her that, were we in her shoes, we would rather “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.”?

Any sane person, I should hope, would think the idea of charging this survivor with some sort of cowardice absurd. What “good facts” and “beauties” might she expect to compete with the evil and ugliness she experienced? What good could all the intelligence in the world be in light of the terror she met? How could we expect this woman to ever stand upon her feet again, let alone “look fair and square” at the world — as though she could ever give the world a fair shake again?

In her situation, fear seems a perfectly adequate ground for her choice not to have a family.

So we are forced to admit that, even with the same good at issue – in our examples, the good of raising a family – fear may or may not be a legitimate ground for one’s decision to pursue that good. It all depends on context. Fear, sometimes, is something to shun; and sometimes it is something to act upon. (Discerning the conditions under which fear should be shunned or, alternatively, acted upon is not my present concern. And thank goodness: I don’t think I’d be up to that challenge.) The upshot: Acting on fear is not necessarily to act the coward.

Of course, this is not yet to say that the Christian is justified in being motivated by fear. But it is to say that Russell’s assumption (that being moved by fear = a moral failing) is far from obvious. And thus, that his claim that the religious stance is (usually) based in fear – even if it were true – does not just imply that the religious stance is unjustified, immoral, what have you.

What we have said should also open up the reader to consider what sort of worlds – what sort of circumstances – would justify fear as a religious motivation; and whether our world is like that world. Is our situation vis-a-vis our fundamental existential stance in this life more analogous to Wilbur’s situation or to that of the unnamed Cambodian?

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