By Jonathan Rée
In a pamphlet published in 1930 by the Rationalist Press Association (the organisation behind New Humanist), Bertrand Russell laid down what seems to be the classic humanist line on war. The title of the pamphlet took the form of a question – “Has Religion made Useful Contributions to Civilisation?” – and Russell’s answer was an almost unqualified no. He conceded that religion might have inspired our ancestors to study the stars and compile calendars, but apart from that, he said, it had served only to throw a cloak of priestly respectability over the principal sources of human misery, namely ignorance, fear, conceit, hatred and mistrust. Religion, in short, was a world conspiracy for the propagation of folly and the prevention of progress. “The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured,” Russell wrote, but the churches were not interested, and preferred to perpetuate pestilence, famine, cruelty and above all war:
Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will first be necessary to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.
The argument may have sounded good in 1930, but it was always rather shaky. For one thing, it is not obvious that war is invariably evil. Apart from the fact that it can sometimes be justified, it may also serve (as William James observed) as a school for such virtues as solidarity, bravery, comradeship, stoicism and self-sacrifice. And there is a case for saying – with Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, and more recently with the historian Ian Morris – that without wars, civilisation would never have happened: without wars, there would have been perpetual insecurity, and no space for the cultivation of civility, mutuality, cultural creativity, public-spiritedness and prosperity, not to mention political deliberation, human rights and the rule of law. (See Ian Morris, War! What is it Good for? Profile, 2014.) But even if Russell is right, and war is good for nothing, his argument is spoiled by his zeal, and his summons to “slay the dragon” of religious belief sounds more like a fanatical call to arms than an overture to peace and reconciliation.
As the human cost of war soared in the following decades, Russell’s claims began to look even less plausible. Religion played hardly any role in the murderous belligerence of Nazi Germany, or in the actions of the other participants in World War Two, and, as time went by, the activities of officially atheistic régimes in the Soviet Union and Communist China turned out to fall some way short of peace-loving benignity. Of course you might argue that the inspirations of both Nazism and Communism were really religious, if only unconsciously; but this line of thought is liable to spiral into absurdity. Before long the concept of religion will burst the bounds of any usable definition, and we will find ourselves saying that everyone is really religious at heart, even those of us who shun all forms of other-worldliness and put our money on one of the secular options, such as the religion of humanity, or socialism or liberalism or nationalism, or the religion of science, materialism or enlightenment rationalism.
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