Unitarian Universalist Church, Roanoke, 29 April 2012 Frank Munley
I thank the Worship Committee for giving me this opportunity to speak with you about a man who has had such a great influence on me.
In his long life of 97 years, Bertrand Russell was a complete philosopher who thought deeply and wrote books on logic, math, science, metaphysics, economics, education, religion, ethics, and politics. One of the hardest things about preparing this talk was getting sidetracked into studying anew his technical works and reacquainting myself with his more popular and informative essays.
Today, I’ll talk briefly about my first encounters with Russell, and how he encouraged my break from the Catholic Church. Then I’ll say a few words about some of his popular writings. I’ll conclude with a discussion of his social activism and its continuing legacy.
1. Breaking with the Church
I grew up in a largely Irish-Catholic town of 6000 people in NE Pennsylvania. I received my primary education at the tender hands of Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns. I then went to the local public high school, and after that to college, the only affordable one being the University of Scranton, 10 miles down the road. Despite its name, the “U” is a Jesuit institution that taught me much, including the importance of critical thinking and arguing things out, either with myself or with others.
I left Catholicism at the age of 19 for a number of reasons. One was a heretical Jesuit theologian who properly taught the official Catholic teaching that non-Catholics could go to heaven. BUT, he said, that is about as possible as swimming across the Atlantic Ocean. Uh-huh! That was sheer dishonesty! But it was mainly my ever-growing love of science that weaned me not just from rigid Catholic dogma but from all organized creedal religions. My budding disaffection was ironically buttressed when I worked with an atheist physicist in a summer job between sophomore and junior years. This fellow challenged me on all the pseudo-arguments I had for God and soul. I argued with him, but right when the job finished, I immediately gave up and embraced the liberation of atheism.
When I began my junior year and started criticizing Catholic teachings, one of my classmates, a worldly vet going to school on the GI Bill, told me to read Bertrand Russell. I was familiar with him as a great mathematician, and remembered seeing him on TV the previous year debating the threat of nuclear weapons with the self-proclaimed father of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, a Dr.-Strangelovian war hawk. So I bought Russell’s Skeptical Essays at a downtown bookstore, and that hooked me. Russell’s trenchant critiques of organized religion gave me the intellectual fortitude and underpinnings I needed to argue theological and philosophical issues with my Jesuit teachers, something most did not welcome—but some did.
Shortly before the year ended, I wanted to look over Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. Local bookstores didn’t have it, but to my great joy, I saw it listed in the university library catalog. Oh Boy! I could hardly wait to crack it open. But when I went to check it out, I was refused: EVERY Russell book in the library was on the infamous INDEX, which allowed only priests to borrow it. I was incensed, and wrote a letter to the student newspaper complaining bitterly about the practice. The letter was published, and to put it mildly, my protestations were not received kindly by the Jesuit establishment.
The week after my letter appeared, every theology class from Freshmen to Senior included a brief lecture saying it was necessary to restrict such books, because the local bishop (not a Jesuit) required it. In this way, the Jesuits, many of whom I respected, saved face.
The incident earned me an audience before the University Dean, who made it clear that I could leave if I didn’t like it there. But to his disappointment, I stuck it out more from necessity than choice.
I should make it clear that my break with the Catholic Church was a break with its dogma and oppressive Roman hierarchy which reformed with Pope John XXIII only to revert to meaner form when he died. I have worked on many occasions with Catholic peace activists over the years, such as Philip Berrigan, not to mention members of other religious groups. Russell himself made clear that “In the realm of value I admit the significance of religious experience,” and didn’t hesitate to work for peace with religious people of all persuasions. [See Russell's Answer to E. Brightman in The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, Paul Schilpp, ed.(1941),p. 726, in the series "The Library of Living Philosophers."]
2. Russell’s voluminous popular writings
Now a few words on Russell’s popular writings. His books on logic, math, and science can be daunting. His popular books are much easier, but require careful reading too, and the average person would shrink from plowing through most of them. But Russell could knock one out at the drop of a hat. Michael Ruse, who wrote the introduction to Russell’s Religion and Science, says of his popular writings:
As you might expect, professional philosophers tend to spend less time on Russell’s popular writings. It is these, however, which won him a huge following and large audience. Composed at high speed—he could dictate three thousand words a day, without a single word of correction per page—he would count back and start a 65,000 word book exactly three weeks before promised delivery!
Don’t we all wish we could write like that!
One of my favorite Russell essays is “The Ancestry of Fascism” in his popular book In Praise of Idleness. This essay locates the recent philosophical roots for modern fascism from the 18th Century Enlightenment’s reliance and focus on reason, to Hume and then to Kant. Russell describes how modern societies make the appeal to reason increasingly ineffective in the art of political persuasion. He says:
As the political constituency grows larger and more heterogeneous, the appeal to reason [and evidence] becomes more difficult, since there are fewer universally conceded assumptions from which agreement can start.
That describes to me the sad political situation in our country today. Russell points out that rejection of reason is nothing new—throughout history, the pendulum has swung between valid argument based on reason and evidence, and specious arguments that usually aim to satisfy a lust for power and are often shrouded in primitive religious appeals to the masses.
I fervently hope we will swing away from the religiously prejudiced lust for power we see in politics today. But this swing can come about only when commonly held assumptions about human rights, science, and reason again dominate our culture. How I long for the day when natural evolution and human-produced global warming are in the mainstream of American thought. Here’s an arresting statistic: 38% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, and an additional 40% believe God had a hand in human evolution. Only 16% believe humans evolved naturally. But don’t despair: 71% of Americans correctly believe Earth goes around the sun. So if you want to ignore the 29% that believes the sun goes around Earth, things are looking up! [http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx] Comparable figures for western European countries show a much greater acceptance of evolution. [http://richarddawkins.net/articles/706] That’s American Exceptionalism for you!
Not all of Russell’s popular writings were intellectually challenging. He loved skewering oppressive religious dogma, and often did so in a humorous fashion (to my mind at least). Even when serious, he could be funny to make his point. In a philosophical analysis of Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am,” Russell says:
Everybody knows the story of two German pessimistic philosophers, of whom one exclaimed: “How much happier were it never to have been born.” To which the other replied with a sigh: “True! But how few are those who achieve this happy lot.” [Portraits from Memory, essay on Mind and Matter, p. 147.]
Devoted as he was for human well being, Russell also wrote a “self help” pop-psychology book, The Conquest of Happiness. In the blurb for the book, Russell says:
My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable.
Russell’s popular writings won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. In his address upon receiving the prize, he talked of fear in public life, saying:
The conquest of fear is of very great importance. Fear is in itself degrading; it easily becomes an obsession; it produces hate of that which is feared, and it leads headlong to excesses of cruelty. Nothing has so beneficent an effect on human beings as security. If an international system could be established which would remove the fear of war, the improvement in everyday mentality of everyday people would be enormous and very rapid. [Russell’s Nobel Prize address, 11 December 1950]
Just imagine what we could do to improve daily life if we stopped sinking our national assets into an imperialistic foreign policy. But today, our political life is infected with fear—fear of Muslims, fear of immigrants, fear of black people wearing hoodies, fear of children who run to their grandmas through a TSA barrier gate. In my opinion, indignation with a dollop of anger would be much better than fear.
One final “pop” book, Russell’s 1929 Marriage and Morals, deserves mention. This book analyzed the institution of marriage and made reasoned arguments for sexual equality between men and women. I consider the book to be most thoughtful and insightful, but Russell was wildly vilified for it. In the United States, the book was used as “evidence” in a 1941 civil suit to deny him an academic position at CCNY. The judge cited the book in the final decision! Shortly after that sorry episode, Russell accepted an academic position at Harvard, and three years later received the Order of Merit from King George VI.
3. Russell’s social activism
Russell was a vigorous opponent of World War I. He understood that entrance of Britain into the war required citizens to forget their common sense of humanity and fairness. In his gripping essay “Experiences of a Pacifist in the First World War,” Russell begins:
My life has been sharply divided into two periods, one before and one after the outbreak of the First World War, which shook me out of many prejudices and made me think afresh on a number of fundamental questions…
I have at time been paralyzed by skepticism, at times I have been cynical, at other times indifferent, but when the war came I felt as if I heard the voice of God. I knew that it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be. My whole nature was involved. As a lover of truth, the national propaganda of all the belligerent nations sickened me. As a lover of civilization, the return to barbarism appalled me.
Russell goes on to describe his pacifist activity, including a narrow and harrowing escape from a potentially lethal attack by “viragos” at a pacifist meeting.
Russell’s pacifism landed him in prison in 1918 for four and a half months. On his arrival at the prison, he says:
I was much cheered…by the warder at the gate, who had to take particulars about me. He asked my religion, and I replied ‘agnostic.’ He asked how to spell it, and remarked with a sigh, ‘Well, there are many religions but I suppose they all worship the same God.’ This remark kept me cheerful for about a week.
Russell kept busy in prison, among other things writing the mathematics book censored by my university.
After World War I, reformers the world over looked to the earth-shaking events in Russia that led to the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. In 1920, Russell went to take a look for himself, and out of it came his short but powerful book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. He was an acute observer of events and warned of dictatorial tendencies in Russia, remarking critically that “Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures.”
After World War II, until 1959, Russell wrote 15 books on philosophy and social issues, most notably Human Society in Ethics and Politics. As an activist, he focused on the threat of nuclear war. He worked with Einstein, Schweitzer, and other humanitarian notables around the world to institute the famous Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Pugwash resulted from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955 and its work continues to this day. Russell was now a community organizer—in the community of scientists and humanists in the cause of world peace.
In 1961, at 89 years of age, Russell was very active with the Committee For Nuclear Disarmament opposing the deployment of nuclear-armed US subs in Britain. Later that year, he ended up in jail for the second time. He was sentenced to two months, but served only for a week because of his health. His crime was disrupting public order in a large demonstration in London commemorating the destruction of Hiroshima by the US’s atomic weapon. His crime was using a microphone in a public park!
The horror of the Vietnam War gave rise to the Russell Tribunals, another legacy that continues to this day. The Russell Tribunal on Viet Nam, which some of you might remember, was followed in 1973 by a tribunal on Chile’s military coup, and another on the Iraq War in 2004.
The latest Russell Tribunal is on Palestine. As some of you know, justice for Palestinians has been a special interest of mine for years. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine is gathering reams of evidence not just on conditions in the occupied territories but also on discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel.
Russell always championed the establishment of world government, understanding that the difficulties to do it are stupendous, putting its realization a long way off. But he hoped, as I do, that steps to that end would be taken in the development of a robust system of international law, such as we see in the various Geneva Conventions. Unfortunately, the conventions are weakly implemented by the UN.
Russell wisely emphasized the importance of population control for effective international law and the peace it might bring. Unfortunately, population control has been practically removed from public discussion in recent years by the rabid religious right wing in the US.
When the UN was instituted after WWII, we should have expected the most powerful country in the world, a democratic country that trumpets the importance of UN resolutions, to steadfastly support impartial implementation of resolutions. The powerful democratic country I’m talking about is, of course, the US of A. To my bitter disappointment, the US miserably fails the test when it comes to many issues, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the US vetoes, at Israel’s demand, any UN resolution Israel doesn’t want, even if it is voted for by large majorities. Even worse, the US has turned a blind eye to Israel’s violations of UN Resolutions the US itself has voted for! And for the shame of our country, it has openly supported Israel’s theft of West Bank land used to establish large settlement blocs, thus damaging the same international law it hypocritically expects other countries to follow. When the Russell Tribunal on Palestine is completed, I hope it receives the news coverage it so richly deserves.
I thank you for your attention and again thank the Worship Committee for this opportunity to share my views on a man who has taught me much and has inspired me by his actions.