Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Bertrand Russell in 1872. Russell was a great thinker and a champion of logic and reason. Bob Felton at Civil Commotion has a lengthy piece on Russell and here are a few brief highlights:
[F]ew men did so much as Bertrand Russell to shape the modern world. As a philosopher, his Principia Mathematica re-ordered mathematics as a branch of logic; every math teacher you ever had who said “It’s just logic” is quoting Russell.
It was Russell’s student, Alan Turing, who used Russell’s insights to invent the first modern computer, the one built at Bletchley Park and used to defeat Germany’s Enigma code during the second World War. It was Russell’s student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who laid the groundwork for Google’s search engine.
His interests eventually turned toward public policy matters, and in his middle and latter years he wrote a steady stream of books, articles, and lectures across a broad range of topics. Most of them remain in print, and his A History of Western Philosophy remains a widely used textbook today, more than 60-years after its initial publication. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, and deserved it; he is among the most graceful essayists that ever lived.
Whether his fortunes waxed or waned, Russell never budged from his uncompromising opposition to unreasoning belief. One of his most famous lectures, Why I Am Not A Christian, was delivered in 1927 and has been in print ever since.
You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.
There are a great many ways in which, at the present moment, the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering. And of course, as we know, it is in its major part an opponent still of progress and improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. “What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy.”
Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.
A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.