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Moving to a smaller house means shedding books: but a man’s library is a history of his mind: should I, for instance, throw out Why I Am Not a Christian?

This really was what at one time I would have called ‘my bible’: seeing that Bertrand Russell was just wrong wasn’t easy

By on Friday, 29 November 2013

Bertrand Russell: 'The contrast with the humourless Dawkins is total' (Photo: PA)

Bertrand Russell: 'The contrast with the humourless Dawkins is total' (Photo: PA)

Later this year, now that the value of property is picking up a little, my wife and I shall be putting our house on the market. Our family has grown up; we do not, strictly speaking, need a house of this size; and more compellingly, when we bought it, the plan was that in due course it would be sold and that the proceeds would give us, well, not a pension (nobody buys a pension any more) but a capital sum off which we might live.

All very well in theory: but emotionally draining in practice. We have lived here for 25 years, over half our married lives; this place is the repository of many happy memories. I do not want to move house. And the process of doing it is frightful: not least, the getting rid of so much stuff, again, all of it carrying its own memories. The worst thing of all is getting rid of books. There will simply not be enough wall space for it all: so half of it has to go.

But how? One’s library is a kind of history of one’s mind. Most interesting to me now are the books which reflect my mind as it was before I became a believing Christian, when I was a convinced and even militant atheist. I have just come across, for instance, a collection of essays by Bertrand Russell, given the title of one of them, Why I Am Not A Christian, after a lecture delivered in 1927 to the National Secular Society, and then published as a pamphlet. The collection was published much later, in 1952, and if you had asked me during my late teens and 20s what was the most important influence on my religious opinions, I would have pointed to that book as my “bible”.

It seemed to me entirely convincing, not least because of the power of Russell’s mind; but it was also attractive because of its relaxed good humour: it was so frequently so amusing. The contrast with the humourless Dawkins is total: not only is Dawkins nothing like as clever as Russell, his anti-clerical nastiness is completely absent from Russell’s way of arguing. Take the following passage, from the original lecture. He is explaining why modern Christians had toned down their beliefs, medieval Christianity being so difficult to maintain in modern times; and because he was arguing in a country in which “the Church” is taken to mean Anglicanism, he managed with consummate ease to make the whole thing seem simply ludicrous:

For instance, [Christianity] included the belief in hell. Belief in eternal hell-fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in hell.

More seriously, he goes on to deal with various arguments for the existence of God which the Church has found convincing and demonstrates why they are not. He for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, he said, until one day, at the age of 18, he read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?’” That, said Russell, showed him the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause: If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. Similarly (and, here again, the whole thing was made irresistibly attractive by Russell’s humorous tone of voice (his voice was one of the most recognisable in England), which made it so easy for him not merely to dispose of the argument from design, but to make it seem absurd. The argument, he said, was that “everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it. That is the argument from design. It sometimes takes a rather curious form; for instance, it is argued that rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. I do not know how rabbits would view that application.”

Such parodies of the argument, he said, had “turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed … because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence of design about it.” That argument seemed to me then entirely convincing: and it has to be said that it was convincing to nearly everyone else in this secularised culture, and it still is: that’s why Darwin is so central to Dawkins’s more polemical campaign against Christian belief.

Some of Russell’s arguments are much easier to counter, after a century of such extreme cruelty, much of it associated directly with political regimes passionately hostile to belief in a supreme being. “You find,” he said, “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 coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.”

One might think that it’s hardly worth countering that it was mostly Christian opposition to slavery that led to its abolition, or that “progress in humane feeling” was hardly in the course of the 20th century fostered by the increasing political power of anti-religious conviction. But Russell’s arguments convinced me then: and they are influential to this day.

It is difficult, almost impossible, to convince atheists by argument that they are wrong: until they discover for themselves that there is something non-viable about their world view, they will simply continue to entrench themselves behind its assumptions. It was not until I reflected that I was living in a culture which had more effectively rejected God as prime mover than any which had preceded it, and that this rejection had led to a more hopeless century than any in history, to the widespread belief, in the words of that horrendously influential philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, that “[i]n a world like this, where there is no kind of stability, no possibility of anything lasting… it is impossible to imagine happiness” and that “no man is happy; he strives his whole life long after imaginary happiness, which he seldom attains, and if he does, then it is only to be disillusioned.”

I realised that though I did not yet believe in God, I must be wrong. That was the essential first step. But what about the arguments against God? They were still an obstacle. That was where Newman came in; I had read and been impressed by the Apologia pro Vita Sua some years before, when studying 19th-century English literature; and I remembered one passage in particular.

“I am far of course from denying,” Newman wrote, “that every article of the Christian Creed … is beset with intellectual difficulties; and it is simple fact, that, for myself, I cannot answer those difficulties. Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of religion … but I have never been able to see a connection between apprehending those difficulties … and doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt … difficulty and doubt are incommensurate.”

Once I had realised that, the way was open, and God soon made himself known, unmistakeably. Within five years I was studying for the Anglican priesthood; 20 years later, I was a Catholic, and Newman had a good deal to do with that, too. But that’s another story.

I shan’t, obviously enough, be throwing out the Apologia when we move house: there’s a landmark of the mind if ever there was one. But so is Why I Am Not a Christian; I shan’t be throwing that out, either. But there are so many others: what shall I do about them?