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Saturday, December 10, 2016


One of the odd things about the UMass W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, in which I spent the happiest sixteen years of my career, was that although not one member of the Department was at all religious, half or more of the graduate students were seriously religious, sometimes in quite manifest ways.  You never know.

Five days ago, I responded to Chris's request for a "defense of atheism" with a post that triggered what is for this blog a tsunami of comments, thirty-five in all.   It would never have occurred to me that religion was a subject of such intense interest to my readers.  This morning I posted a rather lengthy analysis of the challenges posed by Trump's election, a topic that I would have thought was right in my readers' wheelhouse.  Not a comment yet.  You never know.


s. wallerstein said...

You have a fairly stable group of regular commenters and we've never talked about religion since I've been following your blog closely (over a year). I would guess that most of us were curious to find out the religious positions of other regular commenters and to tell them what ours is. We get to know each better that way.
On the other hand, we already more or less know the political positions of other regular commenters.

Ed Barreras said...

I myself don't have anything to add to your previous post, but opinions on religion are like belly buttons -- everyone's got one.

S. Wallerstein, generally speaking, my problem with Russell on religion is that he's *too* rational, and I almost want to say this comes down to a matter of literary style. As wonderful and distinctive as Russell's prose is, it just seems ill suited to match the spiritual pathos that is religion's stock in trade. Such a task seems to require an aesthetic vision that can meet religion on its own terms; hence the centrality of Nietzsche to atheist discourse.

That's just a general impression. (And I confess it's been many years since I've read Russell on religion, so there's a chance I'm slighting him.) However, I can think of at least one instance where Russell commits a concrete, elementary error. In attempting to refute the cosmological argument for God's existence (i.e., the argument from a first cause), Russell claims that the arguement's first premise is "everything has a cause." From whence it follows that God must have a cause. So the argument is self-refuting.

But this is a bad mischaracterization. None of the proponents of the CA propose that everything has a cause. Rather, the initial premise is that everything that *begins* to exists has a cause, or every contingent being has a cause, or every actualized potency has a cause. This makes for a much more interesting argument than Russell's strawman, as it seeks to motivate a conception of God as Being itself rather than as one being among many -- the former of which is the classical conception of the divine being.

Incidentally, this strawman seems to begin with Hume, although Hume does offer a separate critique of the CA, which is more compelling.

s. wallerstein said...

Russell was a rationalist. He explains in his Autobiography that he was in love with geometry as a teenager. As I said in the other thread, his best-known work on religion is entitled "Why I am not a Christian" (that is, it states his personal reasons for not being a Christian) and being such a rationalist, Russell gives only rational reasons for not being a Christian. Russell does not claim to explain why other people are religious and my guess would be that Russell is not much of a psychologist.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, claims to be a psychologist and truly is a great one. What's more, Nietzsche was raised in religious family and was programmed by his family to become a preacher like his father (who died when Nietzsche was very young) and so not only had great insight into the mind of religious people (or at least 19th century Lutherans), but also had to rebel against religion to become a free spirit, which meant that this was an existential issue for him, one he put a lot of energy into. I would say that Nietzsche, in spite of being so reclusive, had more interest in other people and how their minds work than Russell did.

You're right that Russell invents a strawman (or uses Hume's strawman) to "refute"
the cosmological argument.

Ed Barreras said...

Interesting thought about Nietzsche being more interested in other people than Russell.

There's probably a larger story to be told here vis-a-vis the metaphilosphcial commitments of the analytic philosophers up to about 1950. As you probably know, Russell was a Hegelian in his youth, and the analytic mode he helped to found is generally understood to have been a reaction against the idealism that prevailed in the profession in the late 19th century. One consequence of this paradigm shift was that matters of Spirit tended to be analyzed away, as evidenced in the explicit scientism espoused by the first one or two generations of analytic philosophers. Apparently, dissatisfaction with this state of affairs is what spurred Wittgenstein, Russell's student, to formulate his later philosophy. Also, I know of at least two great modernist writers who formulated their aesthetic theories partly in opposition to the dominant mode of philosophy -- namely, Yeats and D.H. Lawerence, the latter of whom, as you know, had a rocky friendship with Russell.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

Coming upon an idea, Nietzsche immediately wonders what kind of person could have that idea and why. Russell seems to take ideas as basic, primary.

It's been a long time since I read Russell's autobiography and I've never read a biography of him as I have of Nietzsche, but as far as I know, people qua people never played the crucial role in Russell's life as they did in that of Nietzsche.

Russell of course had normal intellectual relations with philosphical colleagues and with the Bloomsbury group and had a series of wives, who seemed to have been disposable and replaceable. Still, I don't recall that he had human relationships as intense as that of Nietzsche with Wagner or with Lou Salome or with Nietzsche's sister. Nietzsche even takes his reading of Schopenhauer, whom he never met, as a personal relationship with another human being (Schopenhauer as Educator), while Russell always seems to take his intellectual influences as learning new ideas.

Russell evidently was much more concerned about social causes than Nietzsche was, but I don't think that he had as much interest in specific human beings as Nietzschde did. There's no contradiction between accepting war and cruelty as normal human traits, as Nietzsche did and even saying "yes" to them, as Nietzsche did and being intensely interested by one's fellow human beings.

David E. said...

This has nothing to do with Russell, Nietzsche, or Hegel, but...

Although I remain in every molecule an atheist, for a number of years I immersed myself in Jewish ethics. When I attended shul I would try to ignore the blatant nationalism (not to mention the occasional genocides) in both prayer and Torah passages. Needless to say, I never turned out to be a very good Jew. Still, religion does fascinate us and it does appeal to some dark side of the human mind.

I recently read a book by Benedict Anderson ("Imagined Communities"), which does a wonderful job of explaining the link between religion and nationalism. And recently, in the discussion about "identity politics," Mark Lilla offered a suggestion that Liberals compromise the civil rights of vulnerable groups out of deference to religious sensibilities. As objectionable as this idea is, Lilla, too, knows a lot about the weird link between religion and religious nationalism.

And with the recent Putsch, not only your hooded North Carolinian friends but America's religious right as well feel that they are now firmly back in control.

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