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Bertrand Russell on Christianity, Fear, & Dishonesty pt. III
July 19, 2014 D.J. Clark

Bertrand Russell on Christianity, Fear, & Dishonesty pt. III

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Oops, I did it again. Said this series would be x parts long, and it turns out to be y. I said three parts, but it’s gonna be four. My apologies. Anyways, here’s part three…

In the previous two posts, we looked at a number of quotes from Bertrand Russell. Among those quotes was this one:

“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.”

In the previous essay we accepted this contention for the sake of argument; and proceeded to consider whether this contention is – as Russell clearly intends it to be – a charge against Christianity. In this present essay, I want to consider this contention itself.

I can think of many who would challenge Russell’s claim that the Christian stance is grounded in fear by responding that, no, this stance is more often grounded in evidence. Perhaps arguments, perhaps some sort of evidence-giving experience, but certainly not emotions. (They would not discount that the Christian stance may by principally grounded in emotion for some; but they would say that these cases are abnormal and the result of some sort of dysfunction.) I do not agree. Perhaps emotion is not the primary source of the Christian stance, but I am not ready to say that it isn’t; at the very least, I think emotion a very common source of the Christian stance.

The evidence-is-the-principal-ground-of-the-Christian-stance folks tends to underestimate, for starters, just how prevalent is the phenomenon of beliefs being formed on the basis of emotion. They tend to acknowledge this phenomenon only in the really ugly cases — self-deception, wishful thinking, etc. Emotion, so they say, rarely forms belief; and when it does it signifies some dysfunction. It is not a phenomenon that happens in a stable, reasonable, well-formed, properly functioning person.

Here’s just one reason to think this line of thought deeply mistaken. Almost all of us find ourselves holding beliefs about things for which we have essentially zero evidence, or for which the evidence both pro and con is equal. We encounter countless propositions about which, were we able to shut down our focus to attend only to the evidence, we would realize that we cannot decide evidentially one way or the other; and for a great many of these propositions, we nonetheless find ourselves forming beliefs one way or the other. If you insist that, in all these cases, the appropriate stance is agnosticism, I would reply by saying that you are not grasping the pervasiveness of these situations of evidential-undecidability.

But if you counter by, like me, simply asserting the contrary – “It isn’t all that pervasive” – then perhaps we must agree to disagree as to just how common belief-by-emotion is. I don’t have a good argument at hand to demonstrate this pervasiveness. But maybe I don’t need one. For even if you insist that emotion is not a common (and appropriate) ground of belief, that is not yet to say that emotion is not a common (and appropriate) ground of our fundamental, existential stances. The sort of stance that is the Christian stance is, after all, a different thing from Christian belief.

We need to step back for a moment and consider an important distinction: the distinction between belief and acceptance. To believe that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is to “see” (or be disposed to see) reality as containing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is to have this pot of gold on your map of reality. It is to have this pot of gold presented to your mind as true. Acceptance is different. To accept that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is to stand ready to act as though it were true that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is to allow this pot of gold to play a role in your practical reasoning.*

Belief and acceptance are not only conceptually distinct; they also come apart in practice. One may believe something without accepting it, and one may also accept something without believing it (though the former seems much more rare than the latter). I might believe that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – I might not be able to suppress this idea from presenting itself to me as true -, but I might not stand ready to act as though it were true because I have a second-order belief that “I ought not to believe such a silly thing as there being a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Belief without acceptance. Likewise, I might have the acceptance without the belief. I might be an agnostic about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; I might judge the probability of there being a pot of gold to be an even 50%. Nonetheless, I might think this pot of gold something worth believing in, and thus, I might perform the action of taking this belief to be true in my practical reasoning. (Of course, the relationship between belief and acceptance is often an intimate one: in most cases, belief gives rise to acceptance; and very often, accepting something long enough will gradually bring belief along with it.)

…to be continued…

Footnote: * The Christian philosopher William Alston takes up this belief/acceptance distinction, and goes so far as to claim that authentic Christian faith may only require acceptance of the core Christian claims, and not necessarily full-fledged belief that they are true. I find myself in agreement with Alston on this point.



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