Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bertrand Russell on God

Throughout my younger years, the books of the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell [1872-1970] were no doubt my main non-fictional reading. Even today, my copy of Russell's big History of Western Philosophy (which I bought in Paris in 1962) is located permanently on a bookshelf just alongside my bed.

Whenever I stroll through London's Trafalgar Square, I recall this photo of the 87-year-old white-maned philosopher standing among the lions at the foot of Nelson's Column at a 1959 rally of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

This evening, it was a pleasure for me to discover this interview on the Dawkins website:

Naturally, I always imagined Russell first and foremost as a philosopher and a mathematician (whom I approached initially through his work in the domain of symbolic logic), and only then as an outspoken freethinker and a nuclear-disarmament campaigner. He impressed me greatly, of course, by describing himself explicitly as an atheist... at a time when this term was hardly fashionable. I tended to interpret this, however, as Russell's way of telling us that he simply didn't have the time or the inclination to be concerned about questions of divinity. That's to say, I imagined him rather as an agnostic, since I never really felt that Russell had provided us with convincing proofs that God did not exist... if indeed such proofs were thinkable.

Today, looking back upon my admiration of Russell, I see him retrospectively as a precursor of Richard Dawkins. Or, rather, I imagine Dawkins as an intellectual descendant of Russell. There is something similar in their elegant style, their power of inquiry and expression, and their profound humanism.

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