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Bertrand Russell on Agnosticism.doc

Bertrand Russell on Agnosticism.doc

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Published by JudyCR
One of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and minds of the 20th Century shows why he so influenced Hitchens and Dawkins. This is complex thought made plain and easily understood.
One of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and minds of the 20th Century shows why he so influenced Hitchens and Dawkins. This is complex thought made plain and easily understood.

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Published by: JudyCR on Jul 03, 2013
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Bertrand Russell on AgnosticismWhat Is an agnostic?An agnostic thinks it impossible to know thetruth in matters such as God and the futurelife with which Christianity and other religionsare concerned. Or, if not impossible, at leastimpossible at the present time. Are agnosticsatheists? No. An atheist, like a Christian, holdsthat we can know whether or not there is aGod. The Christian holds that we can knowthere is a God; the atheist, that we can knowthere is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment,saying that there are not sufficient groundseither for affirmation or for denial. At thesame time, an Agnostic may hold that theexistence of God, though not impossible, isvery improbable; he may even hold it soimprobable that it is not worth considering inpractice. In that case, he is not far removedfrom atheism. His attitude may be that whicha careful philosopher would have towards thegods of ancient Greece. If I were asked toprove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera andthe rest of the Olympians do not exist, Ishould be at a loss to find conclusivearguments. An Agnostic may think theChristian God as improbable as the Olympians;in that case, he is, for practical purposes, atone with the atheists. Since you deny `God'sLaw', what authority do you accept as a guideto conduct? An Agnostic does not accept any`authority' in the sense in which religiouspeople do. He holds that a man should think 
out questions of conduct for himself. Of course, he will seek to profit by the wisdom of others, but he will have to select for himself the people he is to consider wise, and he willnot regard even what they say asunquestionable. He will observe that whatpasses as `God's law' varies from time to time.The Bible says both that a woman must notmarry her deceased husband's brother, andthat, in certain circumstances, she must do so.If you have the misfortune to be a childlesswidow with an unmarried brother-in-law, it islogically impossible for you to avoiddisobeying `God's law'. How do you know whatis good and what is evil? What does anagnostic consider a sin? The Agnostic is notquite so certain as some Christians are as towhat is good and what is evil. He does nothold, as most Christians in the past held, thatpeople who disagree with the government onabstruse points of theology ought to suffer apainful death. He is against persecution, andrather chary of moral condemnation. As for`sin', he thinks it not a useful notion. Headmits, of course, that some kinds of conductare desirable and some undesirable, but heholds that the punishment of undesirablekinds is only to be commended when it isdeterrent or reformatory, not when it isinflicted because it is thought a good thing onits own account that the wicked should suffer.It was this belief in vindictive punishment thatmade men accept Hell. This is part of the harmdone by the notion of `sin'.
Does an agnostic do whatever he pleases?In one sense, no; in another sense, everyonedoes whatever he pleases. Suppose, forexample, you hate someone so much that youwould like to murder him. Why do you not doso? You may reply: "Because religion tells methat murder is a sin." But as a statistical fact,agnostics are not more prone to murder thanother people, in fact, rather less so. They havethe same motives for abstaining from murderas other people have. Far and away the mostpowerful of these motives is the fear of punishment. In lawless conditions, such as agold rush, all sorts of people will commitcrimes, although in ordinary circumstancesthey would have been law-abiding. There isnot only actual legal punishment; there is thediscomfort of dreading discovery, and theloneliness of knowing that, to avoid beinghated, you must wear a mask with even yourclosest intimates. And there is also what maybe called "conscience": If you evercontemplated a murder, you would dread thehorrible memory of your victim's last momentsor lifeless corpse. All this, it is true, dependsupon your living in a law-abiding community,but there are abundant secular reasons forcreating and preserving such a community. Isaid that there is another sense in which everyman does as he pleases. No one but a foolindulges every impulse, but what holds adesire in check is always some other desire. Aman's anti -social wishes may be restrained by

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