This is a reflection on Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian: and Other Essays on Religion and Related Topics, published by Simon and Schuster 1957.

                Russell had chose to view religion in only one light: a deprecating one. Having decided that religion was ‘bad’, and Christianity as a source only of misguided oppressive power, stagnation, and fear it was easy for him to give perfectly good examples to support this thesis. Not only is this a surprising reductive and simplistic view below a mind as great as Russell’s, it sells short the good that has come and is still being done in and through religion. Even (gasp) Christianity.

                In his section of “The Character of Christ” and “Defects in Christ’s Teaching” we get little more than what we get from the “WWJD” folk: a simplified version of the scriptural Jesus that paints the poor Nazarene in a single portrait that is obviously deceptive to support their agenda. Jesus, as he appears in the New Testament and later non-canonical but dogmatic writings is like any other literary creation: open source. There to be picked over, re-mixed, air-brushed, hacked, subverted, inverted, free to everyone in the same way. Its what you want to do with him that decides who and what he is. In this way Jesus judges us. As with any other religious tradition or scripture, they are like anvils that decide us as we decide them. Does one look at Scientology with derision? Does one scoff at Wicca? Why? Are they operating under easy pretenses that exclude the voices of the people that earnestly believe them? Does one read Bible and walk away sure in their understanding and use it like a weapon? Shouldn’t we, in the spirit of personal responsibility hold the person espousing bigotry and ignorance accountable for their beliefs and actions and not the historical figures they appropriate to validate their prejudices?           
                  Russell uses the ol’ “Look at what Christianity has done: Inquisition, witch burnings…Its screwed!” Argument. This is not too convincing to me. Power and stupidity and greed will always lead to crimes against humanity. Because in the past there was a one to one sharing of church and state doesn’t mean anything about religion per se. For any moment of dark history where religion and power sought more power at the sword’s edge, there have been people of faith whose faith made them stand up to power in the spirit of humanity, freedom, compassion. I think that when Russell and folks like him use the “Religion is just keeping people down” line (“How the Churches Have Retarded Progress”) they have not been exposed to the social activists who are working within churches. Could someone today spend time with Bishop Gene Robinson, the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu and still read this section of Russell seriously?

             The “What We Must Do” conclusion of Russell to me in no way excludes the life of Christians or people of faith. He writes, “We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face…A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage….It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence.” There are people of faith the world over who can stand by this without contradiction. Extremism, radicalism, hubristic power hoarding, ignorant cultural imperialism will always likely be a part of our social ills. Pinning them onto religion does no service to their rectification and only abuses the struggle against them undertaken by people of good faith and conscience.

             Ryan McGivern

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