Reading Russell During the Pandemic

In recent days, we in India have been witnessing people throwing caution to the winds, in the name of religious fervour. This, even as the Covid-19 pandemic ravages the country, with the discovery of a new, highly transmissible variant first found in India, the B.1.617. Whether it is the Maha Kumbh Mela, or the celebration of Ramadan, or even local religious feasts and processions, the entire pageantry of our religious diversity is on full display.

Are they cleansing themselves of their sins, or praying for deliverance from the pandemic? And wouldn’t it be a better idea to follow Covid-19 protocols, listen to scientists and doctors, and pray at home instead, if one has to? Well, according to media reports it appears that even the leadership of our country ignored scientists’ warnings of a second wave in early March this year.

Bertrand Russell; Image: Wikimedia Commons

A good time then, to revisit the age-old debate between religion and science, in the form of an essay-length book by Bertrand Russell, called Religion and Science. I happened to see it shared on Twitter and thought it might be a good idea to download and read it. Having said that, I am not sure it is an authentic Bertrand Russell book, since it is a scanned pdf of a book, supposedly from Delhi University. I have downloaded and read a few pdfs of really old books from what are usually Google books in the past – Mary Wollstonecraft, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Alexis de Tocqueville, to name a few. Having seen how the unprofessional Perfect Relations folks and their cronies in BBDO Chennai have been meddling in media and in publishing, including meddling through Google over the past 16 years, I wonder if those books too are genuine!

With this out of the way, I must say that I thought it still made for interesting reading. Russell, of course, deals with the debate from the point of view of Christianity and its centuries-old battle with science, but his observations would apply equally to most other religions. And while the conflict at its heart pits creationism against the evolution of Darwin, it is more complex than merely the theory of the origin of the universe and man.

According to Russell, every religion has three important features: a church, a creed and a code of personal morals. And the conflict between religion and science has to do with the church feeling threatened about loss of power since science was challenging the creed. He writes:

“Creeds are the intellectual source of conflict between religion and science, but the bitterness of the opposition has been due to the connection of the creeds to the Churches and moral codes. Those who questioned creeds weakened authority, and might diminish the incomes of Churchmen; moreover, they were thought to be undermining morality, since moral duties were deduced by Churchmen from creeds. Secular rulers, therefore, as well as Churchmen, felt that they had good reason to fear the revolutionary teaching of the men of science.”

Russell devotes an entire chapter to the Copernican Revolution, since this is central to the story of the universe and the earth and man’s place in it. It is also where the Church disagreed vehemently with the view of the men of science, branding them heretics and burning them at the stakes. He traces the history of thought and scientific theories, from the time of Aristarchus, who is first believed to have suggested that it is the earth that revolves around the sun and not the other way around, to Ptolemy who laid down the rules, as it were, placing the earth at the centre of the universe. He discusses the Copernican view of the sun at the centre as well as Kepler’s additions, especially in explaining the elliptical orbits of the planets and of epicycles. While these scientists were criticized equally by both the Protestant as well as the Catholic churches, they did not have to face the opposition and inquisition that Galileo did.

Conflict between religion and science is an age-old one: Image: Pixabay

Russell also examines the conflict between religion and science from the point of view of evolution, demonism and medicine, determinism and mysticism. In this, he traces the evolution of scientific thought and the rise of reason, from Darwin to Descartes, Kant and Newton, Those of us who have read other books of Bertrand Russell and have also read authors like Arthur Koestler know the divide between religion and science runs deep. Throughout the history of the conflict between religion and science, what we in fact witness is the evolution and growth of human thought and endeavour. Science is what can be observed, measured and proven. It helps to explain how the world, including we human beings, work. And it attempts to provide us with greater and better understanding, so that we may pursue even greater knowledge and improve our lives.

In that sense, Russell’s book helps us realise that science is a work in progress, with new research and findings always leading to new knowledge and understanding. While faith, where everything is pre-ordained and pre-determined, has led to the world of religion lagging behind, ossified in its beliefs.

Russell says in the ultimate analysis of the conflict between religion and science, it is science that has emerged victorious. But he also warns us of the question of ethics that science always poses, something we are only too aware of in the 21st century. He also writes about a programme broadcast on BBC in the autumn of 1930, called Science and Religion: A Symposium as being important in understanding both from the point of view of the State. I searched the internet and BBC online for this symposium, but in vain! Yet one more reason to doubt the authenticity of the book among many others.

What Bertrand Russell does not write much about, though, is the view of the Church on many of these issues and their relevance in our lives. Religion and Science traces the history of scientific thought and the conflicts with the Church that it encountered along the way. But what does the Church (even if we were to consider only Christianity) believe about many of these matters? And more importantly, how does the law in most Western countries view some of these issues since they would be important to people’s lives? For example, the issue of abortion is still a live and burning one in many countries, including in the US, where it is feared that the Roe vs Wade case might be reopened again after decades, for a more conservative Supreme Court interpretation.

The second book of Bertrand Russell that I discovered in my father’s library and that also makes for good pandemic reading is The Conquest of Happiness. In this, he shares some of his thoughts on happiness and how we can almost always find it in our grasp, because it is within ourselves. The book is divided into two sections: causes of unhappiness and causes of happiness, with the second section not quite written as a counterpoint to the first. What is unusual is that Russell is not normally known to offer prescriptions for a better life, and it is surprising that he should write “All that I claim for the recipes offered to the reader is that they are such as are confirmed by my own experience and observation, and that they have increased my own happiness whenever I have acted in accordance with them.”

Surprising as that may be, thank goodness it isn’t a self-help or self-improvement book. Russell tells us that much of the unhappiness we experience is because we make ourselves miserable. In the first section, he discusses causes of unhappiness, ranging from incurable pessimism (what he calls Byronic unhappiness), to competition, fatigue, envy, sense of sin, persecution mania and fear of public opinion. He deals with each of these in some detail in order to analyse what we subject ourselves to, when we experience unhappiness.

For example, in the chapter on Byronic unhappiness, he writes:

“There are, however, also intellectual arguments in Ecclesiastes,

The rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.

There is no new thing under the sun.

There is no remembrance of former things.

I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.

If one were to attempt to set up these arguments in the style of a modern philosopher they would come to something like this: Man is perpetually toiling, and matter is perpetually in motion, yet nothing abides, although the new thing that comes after it is in no way different from what has gone before. A man dies, and his heir reaps the benefits of his labours; the rivers run into the sea, but their waters are not permitted to stay there. Over and over again, in an endless purposeless cycle men and things are born and die without improvement, without permanent achievement, day after day, year after year. The rivers, if they were wise, would stay where they are. Solomon, if he were wise, would not plant fruit trees, of which his son is to enjoy the fruit.”

He then goes on to add:

“No new thing under the sun? What about skyscrapers, aeroplanes, and the broadcast speeches of politicians? What did Solomon know about such things?”

Happiness is what we find within ourselves; Image: Pixabay

In the second section on causes of happiness, Russell shares with us his thoughts on how to overcome unhappiness. Zest, affection, family, work, impersonal interests and effort and resignation are some of the ways we can find happiness, and avoid ennui that we experience from time to time. He begins this section with the observation that there are two kinds of happiness: that which is available to everyone, and that which is only available to the educated.

Throughout this section, Russell writes of the importance of finding and developing dimensions to our lives that we enjoy. Whether it is zest for great food or travel, or work that one truly enjoys, or being in the company of family and developing a genuine affection for those around, he is writing of the need to focus less on ourselves. For he believes that most of our unhappiness stems from excessive attention on ourselves. And he cites several examples to illustrate what he means.

Though Russell admits at the end of the book that he has written it from a hedonist’s point of view, he thinks that happiness is a state of mind. In that sense, he differs from a utilitarian who might view happiness as an end in itself.

I have to say that after all that I have lived through these past 16 years, I find myself agreeing with most of what Russell says. It helps that I have a cheerful disposition and since they say that is an inherited trait, I have my parents to thank for it. Of course, I would be happiest if I was back at work doing the kind of work I enjoy and have built a career lasting several years in, so that I can actually look after my parents.

Until then, I continue to focus on intellectual and work-related interests, other interests, as Russell says, such as reading, spending time with my aged parents, listening to music, my morning walks in peace and quiet when I hear the song of birds and the like. All these have helped me deal with the losses of the past 16 years: work, career, income, savings, and most of all, morale. I daresay, I might have lost many friends too. For a career-focused woman like me with aged parents to care for, that is a lot to lose.

And yet, I prefer to look ahead, work on what I would like to focus on in my career, and look after my parents as best I can.

Meanwhile, as the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, Bertrand Russell makes for good pandemic reading.

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