While its tone is playful and frivolous, this book poses tough questions over the nature of religion and belief. Religion provides comfortable responses to the questions that have always beset humankind - why are we here, what is the point of being alive, how ought we to behave? Russell snatches that comfort away, leaving us instead with other, more troublesome alternatives: responsibility, autonomy, self-awareness. He tells us that the time to live is now, the place to live is here, and the way to be happy is to ensure others are happy.
He believes that all religions are false and harmful. He even calls religion "a disease born of fear" and "a source of untold misery to the human race." Fear leads to cruelty, he says. "A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering."
He explains his agnostic views with his usual lucidity. Russell was not an atheist; he was just not convinced by the arguments for God. He was always wary of certainties. So this book does not resolve anything, but it will give you plenty to think about. It is not a difficult read.
I will say that the long Appendix (not written by Russell) detailing how Russell was prevented from teaching at the City College of New York leaves me breathless with revulsion.
Certainly in these frighteningly Bible-thumping times in the U.S., this material is highly relevant.
Russell's prose is very well-written and persuasive, and the longest essay of the book, What I Believe, lays out a very interesting way of life for people to follow, as well. Other essays, concerning other atheists and their fate (on Thomas Paine), dealing with children, the ethics of sexuality, and other topics, are also very well done. Since it's a list of essays on similar topics, there is certainly overlap, but it's not too great, and that they were written at different times allows one to see the growth and changes in his thought over time.
I really enjoyed this book, and found it both thought-provoking and something that I will carry with me over time. The final essay, regarding how Russell was refused employment at the City College of New York by local government due to his atheism in 1940, shows that the influence of religion on politics and authority were already apparent, and the effects of atheism overblown, even then. It may have gotten worse since, but it's still visible in our past.
This one's definitely worth reading, if you have an open mind about the question of religion.
There are several essays that directly relate to religion, I really liked "Can Religion Cure Our Troubles" and there are a few that you might be able to kinda sorta relate back to religion, but you'd be making the connection there, not Bertrand. An example of that would be the essay on Thomas Paine. I know Thomas Paine was very outspoken about religion, but the extent to which it comes up in the essay is that he pissed off Jefferson and Washington for running his mouth off about his non traditional beliefs (he was Deist). They shared those beliefs they just weren't about to admit it and didn't like Paine's uncompromising literature. That probably accounts for about two sentences of the essay.
Another of my favorites, "Nice People", could certainly point the finger at hypocritical behavior of some Christians...or any other person that projects a mantle of moral superiority while acting without disregard for the well-being of other people. It certainly never singles Christians out, or any other group for that matter. The essay does just fine coyly listing examples of the sorts nice behavior practiced by "nice people". For example:
"Above all they keep alive the pleasures of the hunt. In a homogeneous country population, such as that of the English shire, people are condemned to hunt foxes; this is expensive and sometimes even dangerous. Moreover, the fox cannot explain very clearly how much he dislikes being hunted. In all these respects the hunting of the human being is better sport, but if it were not for the nice people, it would be difficult to hunt human beings with a good conscience. Those whom the nice people condemn are fair game; at their call of "Tallyho" the hunt assembles, and the victim is pursued to prison or death. It is especially good sport when the victim is a woman, since this gratifies the jealousy of the women and the sadism of the men."
All and all the book is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the essays are great. But a fair chunk are just so-so and two of them didn't read like Bertrand at all. This is the consequence of the essays being drawn from the first fifty years of Bertrand's writing. Two essays written in the 'ots lack all of the confidence, wit and simplicity that make Bertrand so enjoyable to me. They sounded an awful lot like a unsure, but overachieving college student that tries too hard to write seriously by using cold, formal and overly decorated language.
The book ends with a reasonably detailed account of Bertrand's dismissal from New York City College before he actually got a chance to start. It's a pretty outrageous case of ideological bigotry. Though he had widespread support of the college's board, students and their parents Russell was ousted by what amounted to an angry mob and a shady judge that decided that Bertrand's astonishingly modern, but shamelessly misrepresented views on sex, marriage and (egads) masturbation would corrupt students and encourage them to violate New York's penal laws. These were laws that among other things made extramarital sex and cohabitation a felony, especially if it was with "an unmarried female of any age of a previously chaste character".
Dedicated as few men have been
“I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue,” Russell declares in his Preface, and his reasoned opposition to any system or dogma which he feels may shackle man’s mind runs through all the essays in this book, whether they were written as early as 1899 or as late as 1954.
The book has been edited, with Lord Russell’s full approval and cooperation, by Professor Paul Edwards of the Philosophy Department of New York University. In an Appendix, Professor Edwards contributes a full account of the highly controversial “Bertrand Russell Case” of 1940, in which Russell was judicially declared “unfit” to teach philosophy at the College of the City of New York.
Whether the reader shares or rejects Bertrand Russell’s views, he will find this book an invigorating challenge to set notions, a masterly statement of a philosophical position, and a pure joy to read.
Purely for historical reasons, it was interesting to read the last portion of the book concerning the furor over Russell's