Voltaire and Bertrand Russell, a Comparison: God, Religion and Dogma (Part 2)
INSPIRATIONAL, 14 Jan 2019
A comparison of the two men’s views on God may throw some light on how the affirmation of the mystery of existence may lead to a declaration of its meaninglessness.
4 Jan 2019 — While Russell rejects all proofs for the existence of God, Voltaire rejects only the ontological argument. He maintains that we know God only by His effects, we cannot know Him by his nature, which is inscrutable to human reason; thus he urges men to adore God without wishing to ‘pierce the obscurity of His mysteries.’
While rejecting revealed religion, he claims that the rational man need only open his eyes to nature to perceive God for ‘all is art in the universe, and art announces an Artisan.’
This is a classic statement of the teleological argument subscribed to by Newton and Locke, men greatly admired by Voltaire as pioneers of the empirical method and natural religion.
Russell points out that this argument can easily be parodied by claiming that rabbits have white tails in order that they may be less difficult to shoot, and goes on to claim that Darwin’s natural selection is sufficient to account for so-called design; moreover, he claims that judging from the world and the seedier specimens of humanity, an omnipotent and omniscient God could have done a better job.
This brings me into areas which are beyond the scope of this article, so I shall pass on to the moral argument.
Had he lived to read it, Voltaire would almost certainly have approved of Kant’s moral argument for the existence of God in the light of his maxim that if God did not exist one would have to invent him.
The need for justice and the need for God are closely bound up, hence atheism is ‘a frightful moral mistake, incompatible with wise government.’
The belief in a God who rewards good actions and punishes evil ones is seen as ‘the belief most useful to human beings’ as it acts as a curb on the worst secret vices of society, those which human schemes of justice fail to bring to light.
Russell dismisses this argument as sentimental subjectivism and sees no need for this kind of social sanction based on a form of superstitious fear. He simply accepts the existence of injustice and does his best to combat it.
Voltaire sees God as the guarantor of absolute moral values, while for Russell, as for many other writers since Nietzsche, the nonexistence of God implies the nonexistence of absolute values; hence we are driven back to a form of relativistic humanism, where we become responsible for the creation of our own values and meaning. Thus metaphysical scepticism combined with agnostic views on God and morals deprive life of any transcendent significance.
As a postscript to the views on God it is interesting to note a strand of nature mysticism in both men.
Voltaire describes his exhilaration on seeing a sunrise, while Russell’s feelings are aroused by the sea which, he says, ‘satisfies all my love of boundlessness and change and vast regularity, and has an extraordinarily exhilarating and yet calming effect on all my thoughts and feelings.’
Elsewhere he writes of his impression of the Cornish cliffs and in another letter that ‘my most profound feelings have remained always solitary and have found in human things no companionship.
The sea, the stars, the night wind in waste places mean more to me than even the human beings I love best and I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom and attempt to escape from the vain search for God.’ Here one recognises a frustrated religious impulse, of which more below.
Voltaire’s attitude to dogma is a natural corollary to his views on metaphysics referred to earlier. It seems to him the height of folly and presumption to make categorical statements on matters which can never ultimately be resolved: ‘all dogma is ridiculous, deadly. All coercion on dogma is abominable.
To compel belief is absurd.’ His viewpoint is that of the rational empiricist, and he is appalled by two of the consequences of dogma, namely odium theologicum and religious warfare. He denounces sophistry and castigates theological disputes as ‘at once the most ridiculous farce and the most terrible scourge on earth.’
He likens metaphysical battles to balloons which adversaries throw at each other; when they burst, the air escapes and nothing remains. What he finds both exasperating and tragic is that men kill each other for something which is ultimately incomprehensible: “I’m certain I understand nothing about this; no one ever has and that’s the reason why people dismember each other.’
Russell is equally impatient and scornful of dogma. He realises (in common with Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor) that the demand for certainty is natural to humans, but he nevertheless considers it an intellectual vice as it may lead to conviction in instances where it would be more prudent to withhold judgement in the absence of evidence.
He defines faith as ‘a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence’ and comments wryly that ‘it is an odd fact that subjective certainty is in inverse proportion to objective certainty.’
One way of combating this tendency is through education, which he claims ought to foster the wish for truth, supported by argument as opposed to the conviction that some particular creed represents the truth.
However, while asserting that a decay of dogmatic belief can do nothing but good, he is less optimistic about the psychological need for certainty not finding other outlets: ‘I admit at once that new systems of dogma, such as those of the Nazis and Communists, are even worse than the old systems, but they could never have acquired a hold over men’s minds if orthodox dogmatic habits had not been instilled in youth.’
This raises the whole thorny question of authority and education and its relation to indoctrination. Russell’s solution has been hinted at above, but will be treated more fully below in relation to his ethics.
Had he lived in the 20th century. Voltaire would doubtless have written an enthusiastic review of Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy – he stated that deism is a religion spread through all religions and we are all of the same religion without knowing it.
His starting point is the insistence that while belief is an accident of birth, morality is universal; we have already seen his impatience with dogma and metaphysics, which might be summed up in his famous slogan “Ecrasez l’Infame’ – (crush the infamous).
It is notoriously difficult to give a precise formulation of what Voltaire meant by ‘l’infame’ but it certainly included the Catholic Church of his day, who thought of him as an atheist because he did not agree with their dictates and still less with the consequences of religious faith: ‘blood has run in wars and on scaffolds for 500 years on account of theological disputes…because morality has always been sacrificed to dogma.’
This last tendency exemplifies the tragedy of the Western idealist, who is inclined to sacrifice the individual to an overall plan.
Before dealing with Voltaire’s positive views on religion, I shall mention a few of his criticisms. In one of his stories he criticises the spiritual ambition of an ascetic monk who spends his day sticking nails into himself, and claims that, without adopting this procedure, one can only attend the 19th heaven while he himself will reach the 35th; eventually he is persuaded to give up these excesses and is much happier as a result.
However, he loses the respect of others and finally ‘reprend ses clous pour avoir de la consideration’ (he resumes his nails in order to be respected). The same kind of attitude is expressed in Candide when the travellers are astonished at the lack of ceremony.
In El Dorado the monk is an unknown species – Voltaire saw them as disputatious parasites sheltering behind the tax exemptions of ecclesiastical law. He felt that priests should be married and set a moral example to their parishioners. In Candide he lambasts the hypocrisy of those who advocate charity in their sermons but do not practise it in their everyday lives.
Finally, in Micromegas he ridicules the anthropocentric presumption found in Aquinas that the universe was created for mankind: when Micromegas finds this opinion prevalent on the ant-heap of a globe he bursts into ‘an inextinguishable laughter which, according to Homer, belongs to the realm of the gods.’
And in Plato’s Dream the demiurge is accused of not having taken humans very seriously because they have been given so many enemies and so little defence, so many diseases and so few remedies, so many passions and so little wisdom.’ Voltaire urges humans to see themselves in perspective.
In his Philosophical Letters, written to describe his visit to England in 1734, Voltaire reports favourably on the English religious scene in general and on the Quakers in particular.
He was impressed by the peaceful coexistence of so many different sects in England and remarked that English people go to heaven by the path they choose. He was struck by the Quakers’ use of silence, the fact that they have no priests and elaborate ritual, and by their tolerance exemplified in the code of laws drawn up for Pennsylvania, which stated that no one must be mistreated on account of his religion and that all believers should be regarded as brothers.
Voltaire’s ideal religion is given in an article from his Philosophical Dictionary in an answer to the question of what would be the least pernicious form of religion. It would be, says Voltaire, the simplest one, which would teach a lot of morality and very little dogma, which would not demand assent to a series of unbelievable assertions, the one, finally, which would teach the adoration of one God and principles of justice, tolerance and humanity. What more can one add?
Russell starts as a dissenter from all known religions on the grounds that they are both untrue and harmful. His analysis of falsehood of religion is surprisingly specious at the outset in that he claims as a matter of logic that only one religion can be true, without taking into account the considerable overlaps between the various traditions.
He abhors the Inquisition in the same way as Voltaire and attacks the church for having impeded scientific progress while it could; for instance in the fields of physics, dissection and geology. He sees the religious spirit as the antithesis of the scientific in that it already has a set of unalterable axioms which must be adhered to, thus minimising intellectual flexibility.
Other harmful effects include attitudes to sex and birth control. On the last point he quite rightly highlights that if Papal edicts were carried out to the letter the result would be widespread poverty and starvation. Russell’s metaphysical attitude was, as we have already seen, like that of Camus, one founded on agnostic despair.
In the face of the hostility of the universe and the human need to create our own values, he finds the courage of Christian resignation useful (which is more than Nietzsche) but insists that mankind needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. We must go beyond fear, conceit and hatred to knowledge, kindliness and courage.
Russell believed that if these qualities became widespread (and unlike Voltaire does not posit a God to back them up) humans would solve their social problems and religion would die out. Incidentally, Russell also praised the Quakers for their emphasis on meditation and commented that the proportion between largely futile bustle and silence was wrong, urging that if the silence were longer the bustle might be less futile.
Despite his sporadic mystical insight, it seems to me that Russell’s attitudes in this field are not very profound and that he ignores the whole area of symbols and the many modern manifestations of gnosis.
Read Part 1: Voltaire and Bertrand Russell, a Comparison: The Crusade against Dogma and Fanaticism
David Lorimer, MA, PGCE, FRSA is a writer, lecturer and editor who is a Founder of Character Education Scotland, Programme Director of the Scientific and Medical Network and Editor of Paradigm Explorer.
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