Thursday, November 28, 2013
'[Bertrand Russell's] autobiography occasionally reveals a more complex and ambivalent relationship to religion. In particular, he relates an episode in 1901 when he witnessed the wife of his Cambridge colleague Alfred Whitehead suffer intense pain due to heart problems, causing Russell to have what can only be described as a spiritual insight. "The ground seemed to give way beneath me and I found myself in quite another region," he writes. "Within five minutes I went through such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that.
What caused the disparity between Russell's "official" view of religion and his personal experience? Why was he unwilling to bring this experience to bear on his critique of religion? The answer seems to lie in his deep methodological commitment to both rationalism and scientific empiricism: Russell tended to treat "religion" as either a body of doctrines to be intellectually analysed, or as a phenomenon to be observed objectively from the outside. In the first case, Russell found flawed arguments; in the second, flawed institutions perpetrating violence and oppression. His own spiritual insights belonged to a different order – and although they changed his life deeply, they were not allowed to change his philosophical position.'
Clare Carlisle, How to Believe: Bertrand Russell, part 2