By Gary Suttle
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the extraordinary British philosopher, mathematician, and social reformer, roundly rejected orthodox religious beliefs but not religion itself. "...I consider some form of personal religion highly desirable, and feel many people unsatisfactory through the lack of it, (although) I cannot accept the theology of any well known religion, and I incline to think that most churches at most times have done more harm than good."
Russell believed that religion had to be grounded in scientific rationality yet he observed that brilliant thinkers melded science with mystical feelings. "The greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and mysticism....In such (individuals) we see the true union of the mystic and the man of science, the highest eminence, as I think, that it is possible to achieve in the world of thought....One of the most convincing aspects of the mystic illumination is the apparent revelation of the oneness of all things, giving rise to pantheism in religion, and to monism in philosophy." Russell called Pantheist Benedict Spinoza "ethically supreme" among western philosophers, and he acknowledged Spinozaís ideas in his popular book, The Conquest of Happiness.
Ecophilosopher George Sessions notes that "Russell had a life-long attraction to Spinozism." In "The Essence of Religion," Russell elaborated on a pantheistic sense of oneness, referring to "the selfless untrammeled life in the whole which frees man from the prison-house of eager wishes and little thoughts."
A genuine interest in persons and things outside oneself sparks wholeness: "Through such interests a man....feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found."
Joining the stream of life brings us in touch with infinity. "By contact with what is eternal," said Russell, "we can make our own lives creative." Our well-being requires contact with what is eternal, with Nature, as he relates in The Conquest of Happiness:
"Whatever we may wish to think, we are creatures of Earth; our life is part of the life of the Earth, and we draw our nourishment from it just as the plants and animals do. The rhythm of Earth life is slow; autumn and winter are as essential to it as spring and summer, and rest is as essential as motion. To the child even more than to the man, it is necessary to preserve some contact with the ebb and flow of terrestrial life. The human body has been adapted through the ages to this rhythm, and religion has embodied something of it in the festival of Easter. I have seen a boy two years old, who had been kept in London taken out for the first time to walk in green country. The season was winter, and everything was wet and muddy. To the adult eye there was nothing to cause delight, but in the boy there sprang up a strange ecstasy; he kneeled in the wet ground and put his face in the grass, and gave utterance to half-articulate cries of delight. The joy that he was experiencing was primitive, simple and massive. The organic need that was being satisfied is so profound that those in whom it is starved are seldom completely sane. Many pleasures, of which we may take gambling as a good example, have in them no element of this contact with Earth. Such pleasures, in the instant when they cease, leave a man feeling dusty and dissatisfied, hungry for he knows not what. Such pleasures bring nothing that can be called joy. Those, on the other hand, that bring us into contact with the life of the Earth have something in them profoundly satisfying; when they cease, the happiness that they have brought remains, although their intensity while they existed may have been less than that of more exciting dissipations."
Russell, Bertrand. The Conquest of Happiness. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1930.
_____________. "Reply to Criticisms" in The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell., third edition. Edited by Arthur Schilpp. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1963.
_____________. "The Essence of Religion," in Hibbert Journal, Volume 11, Oct. 1912, pp.46-62.
Sessions, George. "Spinoza and Jeffers on Man in Nature," Inquiry, Volume 20, 1977, p. 523.
_____________. "Spinoza, Perennial Philosophy & Deep Ecology," Essay, Sierra College, September, 1979, p.31.
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