The Guardian is countering Bertrand Russell’s lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian” demanding that Russell didn’t really understand christianity. Russell:
”Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly 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. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.”
Clare Carlisle dissects this as a distortion of his view of religion whether fear is motivator or symptom. She sees christianity as replacing fear with love.
The First Letter of John, for example, puts forth the basic tenet that “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”, and suggests that fear and love are incompatible with one another: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” In fact, Russell echoes this sentiment in a 1912 essay on “The Essence of Religion, where he writes that “fear tends more and more to be banished by love, and in all the best worship fear is wholly absent.”
She then invokes Spinoza.
But Spinoza attacked “superstitious” forms of religious belief, which are characterised by fear, as a dangerous perversion of a purer Christian teaching found in the New Testament. Prefacing his Theological-Political Treatise with a verse from the First Letter of John, Spinoza implied that the church was failing by precisely those Christian ethical standards which it claimed as its own.
Kierkegaard argued that human psychology is darkened by an inseparable combination of pride and fear, which both get in the way of love. This means that the Christian ideal of love requires us to battle against both pride and fear, to combine humility with courage.
Carlisle says christianity has a means of responding positively to fear but that it is the idea of original sin that bothered Russell and he was actually reacting against Victorian England. He would have been a good christian if only born today??
In his autobiography he describes a visit in 1952 to a small Greek church, where he became aware within himself of “a sense of sin” which, to his astonishment, “powerfully affected” him in his feelings, though not in his beliefs. If Russell had followed Kierkegaard in paying more heed to such “feelings”, he might have come closer to understanding that fear is a religious problem, and not just a problem with religion.
John’s letter has had a huge impact on his religion(s), I’m doubting that his religion is others, as confirming that christianity is love. Combined with the best of Jesus and the prechristian “do unto others” it would seem that all the horrors of the testaments are really wrong and that most of the characters of the bible weren’t really good christians. One can only wonder who the good christians were when a couple of men and a woman or two are the only decent characters in this ultimate book supposed to flood one with convincing evidence of and a sense of love.
Even taken historically and psychologically you can’t avoid the horrors of the testaments. The examples of love are few and far between. The most moving instances of love can be confused whether they mean love of others, love of strangers, or love of god–and really, love of others is about love of god in others, as god’s children. Frankly, it is most clear there should be an unequivocal love of god far more than any love of any other people. The great stories be damned the bible is about salvation through love of god even if chooses to destroy entire races. A love so strong you trust his every confusingly vicious deed as goodness in some mysterious way. At its best you must love an utterly unknowable god without fear, or with full-on fear, as long as you love him. We all know what at its worst means. Spreading the word has been far more than listen to me, hear me oh Israel.
The easy out is sin. It is sin that causes humans to err. Heuristic, cognitive biases are a simile for sin for many interpretations granting more free emotive range. A pure self would not know sin. But there are so many sins they should be called original sins but somehow that one original sin released a multitude of original sinning acts so great it is impossible to retract the original sin. Hence fear and trembling and need for god. Indeed “fear and trembling” are as essential as love in being religious as Kierkegaard also writes. In dealing with anxiety he resorts to infinite resignation as the highest praise and means to faith. Where is the love here? Love becomes a castrated non sensual support of the unknowable. It’s like love without passion where passion is confused with a feeling of awe. Even sex with god becomes possible as much more than lust and no body to enjoy.
Spinoza is so much of a pantheist that to even use the term love as a christian term is to wholly misunderstand him unless one wants to throw out the bible entirely as a simple misconstruction with a sincere intent, unable to communicate the ineffable extension of love as, again, about what could best be called hopeful. People love Spinoza because it seems like ethics without humans and without human gods. If you sterilized religion of the people what would be left, natural love, pantheism, an absent god. At which point who needs god? He’s either not there by choice or because he can’t be.
What Russell is getting at, which we all have so little ability to understand because our lives are so much more secure, is we can’t even conceive of the fear we are talking about. It is still “fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.” Rather than remaining in fear and positing a love of the mysterious, a love of defeat, and a love of death Russell wants us to engage in illuminating the mysterious, defeat, and death. Rather than resignation or courage through static embrace of nothingness Russell seeks an active engagement of clarity through analysis rather than acceptance.
By understanding the world we remove the fear of the mysterious. Yes, we still don’t know the origin of the universe for certain but we know so much more. That primitive societies also succeeded by knowing less is good credit but knowing what a germ is, how a disease works, and especially what a cognitive bias is we can better meet the mysterious without fear. This is why the enlightenment was so damned exciting and why we take their excitement for granted. Imagine finally learning why people were dieing by the thousands and not having to attribute that to poor belief in god. Little could be more liberating than that. We could change it. We could stop it. We didn’t have to put a prayer on our lips and wait. Fear could motivate and not just be denied with love. What a strange dissonance it had been, love strapped on the back of fear.
Russell seeks cognitive resolution to fear of defeat. Defeat is not a misalliance to either god’s will or a poor embrace of love. It is a failure of either resource or society. Rather than celebrating the underdog as really the uberdog or fearing that others will conquer us, clearheaded analysis, cognitive support, and political strategies best prevent defeat, or more importantly the conflict that leads to aggression. Only when we succumb to “might makes right,” whatever form that takes, does defeat become a vicious guessing game that maintains fear. Meeting all the demands of all the people is difficult but to relegate the entire debate to one of love requires absurd mental gymnastics which delays resolution.
It is tempting for some to see fear as a sin, one of the original sins of wisdom. For wisdom leads to awareness and it is best to just love god simply. No one more than I would relish a world where the “natural savage” could live in bliss and harmony free from the evidence of sin, full of love, crossing worlds that transcend all mortal and physical boundaries–oh wait, we do, it’s called consciousness. This intense desire to be free from fear does indeed motivate us to look for a means away from fear and to celebrate those moments when we are free from fear. But what I really enjoy in this are abilities I don’t have that seem advantageous like flying, or not killing.
Jacques Cousteau was particularly apt at describing the life in the sea as one near-constant anxiety of being eaten and having to find food just in time for survival. In this sense being aware, being fearful has its use. If you sleep at night in the woods unaware you can be eaten. If you have someone stand watch, or build a shelter, or construct an alarm system you can sleep in peace. If you use love to counter your fear and continue as you have you will still be eaten. It is not religion that helps us with fear it is human awareness of ourselves and what we need to survive and thrive as best we can ascertain that allows us to find the means, processes, and ends. One wants enough fear to be safe but not so much to be unable to advance. Anything more is cruelty, an uneasy border. Anything less teases survival.
Impulse control has long been used by psychologists to support religion as functionally merited. Fine. Let us then change religion to use the better knowledge we have of ourselves and the universe to better ameliorate the “original sins” that require impulse control for success. Do not continue to believe the broken car needs only more love to work, as if we could gain a miracle by simple praying and displaying a more deep emotion. Why do we not speak of the pride of love as sin? Love of god as counter to fear of world? What then? How will we raise corn?
Russell is clear that religion doesn’t help with fear but cherishes it. What little love found within christianity is subsumed by its overriding darkness of its singular path to salvation, with its many counterexamples to love.
The proof is in the pudding. Are Christian nations, cities, tribes, or churches more moral or more successful or even better at alleviating fear that causes psychological suffering?
Jim Newman, bright and well