As anyone who knows me knows, I’m an atheist. As a group, we’re on the ascendency; we’re putting ads onto buses, we got a shout-out from Obama in his inauguration speech, and Britain is becoming every more secularised.
We’re a challenge to the old order; the notion that religion makes for a moral being, that adherence to a creed and heirarchy without evidence, in spite of evidence, is the only path to virtue.
This, of course, means that atheists have a lot of enemies, particularly in the States. More people would vote for a homosexual, Muslim, Mormon, or female candidate for the Presidency than would vote for an atheist. If you don’t regularly go to a church, or mosque, or synagogue, you can forget about being President. I’d like to believe less people in Britain would care about the religion of the Prime Minister (although “anyone but Brown” seems to be the more salient concern).
You also inevitably get those people who think they’ve got you in a corner when they suggest that atheism is intellectually dishonest, and that it’s a faith as bad as the ones we protest against.
Which brings us neatly around to Bertrand Russell, who is the progenitor of an idea known as “Russell’s teapot”. It can be summarised (courtesy of the fine fellows who edit Wikipedia) as follows:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
It’s a wonderful piece of intellectual ammunition, and it’s one of the reasons I like to read books by people like Lord Russell and Prof. Dawkins.
The book I have lately read is a collection of short essays on various subjects, leading with the titular Why I am not a Christian but with other topics too, such as sexual ethics and academic freedom, as well as an appendix detailing the witch-hunt which prevented Lord Russell from taking up an academic position at a New York college.
It was an immensely enjoyable read, and refreshing in the wonderful way that all works of great intellectual achievement are. The feeling of another’s fantastic thoughts running through your own brain are incredible, and it’s a damned good reason why I should really read more philosophy.
I felt like his musings on why he wasn’t a Christian were probably amongst the material that inspired Dawkins, and so the arguments there are familiar, if brought to a higher polish by Dawkins in his book The God Delusion.
I found the sections on sexual ethics to be particularly interesting because for the time he was writing they would have been extremely controversial, and they remain so today. He raises the points that sexual taboos are unhealthy, and that the sexual instinct should not be as repressed as it is in our society. It was actually a shock to me that in contemplating his ideas I discovered some of my own unreasonable prejudices and indoctrinations. A profound re-orientation of sexual ethics around the principles of reason would probably be very healthy.
In light of this, I’m probably in the near future going to buy something like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, because I do find the question of feminism really rather interesting. She’s also an existentialist, which I like a lot.
All in all this is a very interesting collection of essays that’s well worth reading, especially if you’re not sure what it is you believe. I just have to say I would rather be on the side of people like Russell than many religious people.
If you haven’t already, go back to Part 1 – Illium.
Coming soon, Part 3 – Slaughterhouse 5.