Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

russellb-whyiamnotachristianThis volume brings together a collection of speeches and essays by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell. They are all, directly or indirectly, about the topic of religion. In the titular essay, the author explains his reasons for being unconvinced by Christianity. In contrast to the typical view that Jesus was a good man but not the Messiah, Russell has no qualms about suggesting that he is not as good or as wise as we often make him out to be. He provides some compelling examples from the gospels, and makes an interesting comparison between the characters of Jesus, Socrates and Buddha, with Jesus seeming rather crude by comparison.

The lecture touches on the themes of what it means to be a Christian; the “first cause” argument for God’s existence; the natural law argument; the argument from design; moral arguments for deity; the remedying of injustice; the character of Jesus and defects in his teaching; how churches hinder progress; how religion uses fear. It’s a good lecture, uncompromising and informative. The only misstep, I felt, was Russell’s suggestion that Jesus may not have existed at all.

The main problem with Russell’s speech is that it doesn’t go deep enough. As an ex-Christian, I recognise that the primary mistake at the heart of religion is the erroneous notion that mankind is defective and in need of some kind of redemption. When you put in the time and effort to understand your own nature, and nature itself, then religion’s entire sales pitch evaporates. Essentially, my answer to the question “Why are you not a Christian?” is “Because I am not broken.” Religion is based upon a profound misdiagnosis of the human condition.

The titular speech is the high point of Russell’s book. The other chapters are variable in quality. The more interesting ones were those where Russell talks about sexuality; he was daringly forward-thinking for the time in which he spoke.

Overall, I have to report that I’m a little disappointed. It’s not that this is a bad book. Just that I was hoping to be blown away by it, given the author’s reputation as a philosopher. I found myself wincing at times at the manner in which Russell occasionally makes overly dramatic accusations which appear to be more emotional than rational. An interesting read, but not an essential addition to my library.

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The Year of the Comet by John Christopher

chistopherj-yearofthecometThis is the first novel by science fiction author John Christopher (although he did publish a short story collection before this), who is most famous for The Death of Grass and The Tripods. He wrote a number of disaster novels, and the title of the book under review would lead you to believe that this is one of them. But it’s not. The story is set in a post-capitalist future where countries have been replaced by huge corporations known as “managerials.” They have names like Telecom, Atomics, etc. Each managerial provides an essential role in the running of the world. The life of a seemingly average scientist called Charles (our protagonist) is thrown into chaos when he finds that his research into diamonds is being very closely monitored. He is soon tossed into a confusing world of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. His seemingly unimportant research appears to be of immense value to the various managerials, for reasons that prove to be world transforming. In the background of the story we have the Cometeers, a curious religious cult who are focused on the slow approach of a comet to earth.

For a novel written in the 1950s, the story is quite prophetic in its prediction of the rise of television into a forum of banal entertainment that people consume in a zombie-like fashion. It could also be argued that the replacement of countries by corporations is a legitimate possibility. We already have vast multi-national corporations that are free to operate outside of any one particular country’s laws.

As entertainment, the novel was average. It definitely had its moments of tension and mystery, but there was a distinct lack of conflict going on for much of the story and I felt my attention waning. It looks as if Christopher had some political ideas he wanted to express, and he used a fictional narrative as a vehicle for that.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

wattsa-wayofzenZen Buddhism has become an object of fascination for me in recent years. Fascinating because my personal philosophy happens to be highly compatible with the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism: the realisation that there is no individual self distinct from the Universe. Buddhism, in contrast to Western religions, seems to offer more of an experiential spirituality than a set of dogmas. It’s an approach of “Do x, and y will happen.” Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, appears to be just a regular guy who realised something deep and profound about life; he is not a saviour figure to be worshipped, the way that Christians worship Jesus.

This little book helped to give me greater clarity about the Buddhist pratice of “seated meditation” called zazen – what the specifics of the posture are for, and what the practitioner can hope to achieve (or not achieve) through sustained pactice. Unfortunately, thus far, I have been far too lazy to meditate on a regular basis. But if all this reading has done one thing for me, it’s to make me much more aware of the general “toxicity” of my mind, and what I can do about it.

The Way of Zen also provides some useful historical anecdotes on the origins of Buddhism. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read – which is no surprise when it comes to Alan Watts, a consistently brilliant writer and lecturer.

Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

huxleya-heavenandhellThis short book, which is little more than an essay, is a sequel to The Doors of Perception – a continuation of the theme of expanding consciousness via psychoactive drugs. I hardly know what to make of it, as I have never felt attracted to such experimentation, but I do find Huxley’s theories fascinating. He states that ordinary waking consciousness is heavily restricted, and there are higher states of consciousness that the brain generally excludes from awareness because they contribute nothing to the survival of the human organism. There is ordinary “mind” and “Mind-at-Large.”

Huxley maintains that the reason for the prevalence of visions in medieval Christianity, and the absence of visions in present day religion, is due to factors such as a restricted diet in winter causing vitamin deficiency, which triggers chemical changes in the brain facilitating visions of heaven and hell. The practice of deliberate fasting has the same effect. Chemical changes in the brain put us in touch with what Huxley calls “the antipodes of the mind.” He claims it is also possible to reach these visionary states more safely by using certain psychoactive drugs.

The book describes our fascination with gemstones and gold as a manifestion of our mind’s longing for the antipodes. When we decorate our churches with stained glass and shiny ornamentation, we are really attempting to evoke a sense of the otherworldly. This would have been clearer centuries ago, in a world that was not saturated with larger-than-life visuals via television and cinema. Going to church centuries ago would have evoked a sense of awe not possible today.

I can see what Huxley is getting at, but it’s all so foreign to my own experience. I have had what I believe to be a genuine mystical experience in the past, but it did not involve anything of a visual nature, and I simply can’t relate to this fascination with visions. In my opinion, the glory of creation is the very world in front of me, and I feel no urge to use psychoactive substances to mess with my appreciation of it. Do drugs really open us to higher perception, or do they merely distort perception? It’s a tough question, one I don’t have a solid answer for as yet. There are plenty of “spiritual” drug users out there who will tell you that their experience with drugs was life-changing, but if you ask them to elaborate on their spirituality, they’re often not very deep people at all.

Heaven and Hell, due to its shortness, is usually found packaged with The Doors of Perception as a single volume. Worth reading for its thought-provoking content.

Myth and Ritual in Christianity by Alan Watts

This is a very different look at Christianity from how it is commonly understood. It says that Christianity is not so much a historical faith of God’s actual dealings with mankind; it is mythological in character, telling a story with symbols – a story that is told, not just in Christianity, but in the core teachings of all of the world’s religions. I suppose you might call this Mystic Christianity. The idea is that you have to get past all the dross of conventional religion to find the nuggets of truth that are intuited at the heart.

Is there anything to this notion? Well, yes, at least to a degree. For instance, consider the prevalence of the number 12: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples of Christ, etc. The significance of this is the twelve months of the year, with the sun (Jesus) at the centre. The notion of the incarnation (God becoming man) is viewed, not as a historic event that happened once for all time, but as a symbol of the divine and earthly natures of all men. We are all both God and creature. To comprehend this, you have to appreciate consciousness as something more profound than how it is considered within the constraints of materialistic science.

Before reading this book, I was already in touch with hints of what Watts’ explains. The idea of God having two natures (Father and Son) was not as absurd to me as it is to most atheists, because I had already come to appreciate that consciousness has metaphysical roots that are non-dual. There is little-me here in the material realm and big-me running the show from beyond space-time. But both are me.

While this was an interesting read, and by far the strangest book on Christianity I’ve delved into, I’m not sold on the idea that there is any value to be had in attempting to restore Christianity to some sort of mystic relevance. Christianity, for the most part, has long been interpreted as a historical record of God’s dealings with mankind. The idea of convincing the world that it is better treated symbolically can only happen after the world has been convinced that it is non-historical – at any which point ex-believers will be disenchanted at having been conned all their lives and will have no wish to translate the fictions of their imprisonment into symbols of genuine metaphysical worth. At least, that’s how being an ex-Christian makes me feel. Perhaps Watts’ approach to Christianity will have some relevance to a lapsed Catholic who has been trying long and hard to make something good out of it.

I personally feel that the way forward for metaphysics is to lose all religious and spiritual garb and to integrate with modern scientific language. For instance, understanding man as the Infinite focused to a point of limited awareness within space-time. That works a lot better for me than talking about man realising his godhood through his union with Christ the God-man.

An interesting and unique book, packed with a staggering amout of research by way of footnotes. But ultimately of no more value than a historical curiosity.

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

From the author who penned the classic teen angst novel The Catcher in the Rye, we have nine short stories collected in one volume. The stories are univerally domestic in nature, mostly consisting of conversations between regular people. They are saved from being boring by their sheer oddness, with titles like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” and “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.” The characters often possess eccentric traits, and Salinger tells their stories with an edgy realism devoid of any melodrama. The downfall of the stories is that most of them are anticlimactic, ending on a note that leaves the reader unsatisfied, and more than once confused. Either that, or I’m just thick.

Admittedly, the sheer oddness (yet believability) of the stories sometimes made them stick in the mind long after reading, as I pondered “What the hell was that all about?” My favourites were “The Laughing Man,” a tale about a boy scout leader who tells a ongoing saga to his boys on the bus about a disfigured superhero of sorts; and “Teddy,” the story of a ten-year-old boy who possesses a spirituality beyond his years.

All things considered, though, this was a book that I found more tiresome than enjoyable.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

We begin with a scenario that resembles life in an 18th or 19th century country village, namely Waknuk in the land of Labrador. People live in cottages, get around on horses, farm the land. But soon we are given clues that this is not a tale from the past, but the future. The religion of this land is a version of Christianity that emerged from the ashes of a global apocalypse generations before. This was presumably a nuclear war, given that the chief religious preoccupation is the preservation of the “True Image.” Anything born with a genetic aberration is labelled an abomination in the sight of God, and is killed, including human babies.

David Strorm, the protagonist, is one such abomination, except he slipped through the net unnoticed due to the nature of his mutation. He is one of a small group of people who are able to communicate with each other mentally over distance. They all know that if they should be found out, they would be hunted down and killed. To survive they would have to run away to the Fringes – badlands where mutants of all kinds live. When the inevitable happens, only one thread of hope remains – another telepathic voice, very faint, calling from far, far away.

When I first read this book, aged fifteen, the anti-religious subtext was almost completely lost on me. Now, as a thirty-eight-year-old ex-Christian, this tale has more relevance to my life than ever, especially regarding the dangers of group-think and the need to protect oneself from the power of the religious herd, for the great “crime” of being different.

David’s Uncle Axel is an interesting character. He is a retired sailor, someone how has seen much more of the world than most people, and so he regards the small-minded religious people around him with quiet disgust. To me he represents the person who dares to educate himself beyond the confines of his upbringing. Uncle Axel is, symbolically, the old individualist who is wise to the dangerous ways of the herd. As David’s friend and confidante, he stands apart from the others adults as the one force of genuine good amid the callous hand-me-down standards of the world around him.

The book gets really brave in its closing chapters, where Wyndham uses the story to convey a message about the nature of existence as a game of survival of the fittest, where nothing is ever in stasis. Mutation, far from being a crime against nature, is the driving force of progress, and the idea of a true finished image of God in man is, by implication, a farce. The closing chapters will make or break the book for some readers, as Wyndham is conveying harsh truths about life that few are willing to face.

For me, this is perhaps Wyndham’s finest tale, topping even The Day of the Triffids. It’s also one of my personal favourite novels of all time.