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Customer Review

on March 17, 2003
Reading anything by Russell is like sitting in a single-person jury box while evaluating the arguments of a very bright, extremely lucid and highly opinionated attorney who tends to offer well-reasoned analysis but frequently crosses over into the realm of diatribe. As a result, it's very possible to agree with his general arguments despite dismissing some of his more extreme component statements.
Before diving into his arguments, it's important to understand the layout of this book, as the title can be a bit misleading. This compilation includes 15 essays written between 1899 and 1954 and a lengthy (25% of the entire work) appendix written by Dr. Paul Edwards on the topic of the 1940 "Bertrand Russell Case." Despite the primary title (taken from one relatively short essay), the work includes topics beyond religion such as the cruelty of the Middle Ages, the heroism of Thomas Paine and grave threat to liberal democracy entailed in declining academic freedom. That said, Russell's views on morality and religion are infused throughout the essays and provide some degree of coherence.
Russell's arguments against Christianity generally fall into the following categories: 1) there is no compelling evidence for a Creator (i.e. deism) and much less evidence to believe in theism, 2) the teachings of Jesus, while generally admirable, include many pernicious tenets, 3) Christians have routinely ignored the admirable tenets of Jesus, and 4) the net impact of Christianity has been decidedly negative for mankind.
Regarding the first, Russell is on much firmer ground in his criticisms of theism than of deism. He convincingly deals with the First Cause, Natural Law and Morality arguments for a Creator. He is less convincing in his rebuttal of the Design argument, as he does not address its modern crux, which is that the odds of the initial conditions being such as to result in the successful evolution of Homo Sapiens are extremely remote, thereby increasing the odds of a Creator's involvement.
Regarding the second, Russell concedes a "very high degree of moral goodness" to Jesus and points in particular to his pacifism, his social consciousness and compassion for the poor & oppressed and his admonition to avoid judging others. However, he finds Jesus' wisdom to be deficient in his clear belief that the second coming would occur during the lifetime of many of his followers. More importantly, he finds his morality to be deficient in his belief in hell and his "vindictive fury" against those who did not believe his preaching. While Russell makes valid points here, he leaves the realm of reason when he say that the eternal damnation teaching "is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture." Clearly, cruelty and sadistic torture existed well before Christianity and continues to occur among those who do not believe in Christianity.
Regarding the third, Russell, a noted pacifist who was jailed by Great Britain for refusing to serve in World War I, scornfully notes that Christians have consistently ignored Jesus' "turn the other cheek" pacifism through constant aggression and war, his "give away all your possessions to the poor" teachings through a focus on individual wealth accumulation and his urge to "judge not lest yet be judged" through an extensive criminal justice and incarceration culture. As a blanket generalization across time and groups, Russell is clearly right in these criticisms. The history of poor conduct by the Church and its believers is a long and well-known one. However, Russell seems to take his point too far when he appears to use this criticism as a component in his rationale for skepticism. The failure of Christian believers to adequately follow the teachings of Jesus is not a sufficient condition to dismiss the veracity of the core beliefs of Christianity.
Regarding the fourth, Russell sums up his collective criticism by concluding that religion "is a disease born of fear" and "a source of untold misery to the human race." Among other things, he points to the doctrine of sin and hell as a justification for intolerance, hatred and sadism, the supposed eternal truth of revealed religion as a fierce opponent to learning and intellectual progress, the sexual ethics around abstinence, pre-marital sex and birth control as responsible for our warped view of the human body and sexuality and the emphasis on the individual soul as justification for self-centered, anti-social behavior. Again, his arguments are well crafted, although his case for the latter appears to be weakest, as it is clear that many Christians have viewed good works and charity in general to be central to their faith.
Russell's prose is crisp and clear and allows the reader to easily follow his logic and arguments. His qualifications as a logician are well known and his arguments are frequently unassailable. He is courageous in espousing unpopular views and relentless in exposing superstition and folly. While there is much in this book that does not stand up to clearheaded analysis, it is highly recommended for anyone grappling with building the foundations of a personal belief system. I give it 4 stars.
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