[Perhaps those who find it impossible to embrace religious faith can still get some of the benefits of religion if they see that faith propositions can not only be well within the realm of possibility, but are often supported by substantial evidence—though never coercive and often indirect—and that it is as unreasonable to insist on incontrovertible empirical evidence for such faith beliefs as it would be to insist on a guarantee of success for such risky ventures as getting married or starting a business. Faith beliefs, by their very nature, cannot be self-evident, logically coercive, or empirically verifiable. If faith is to be the free element in thought, the counterpoise to logic which is the necessary element, faith must be in the nature of a venture or an experiment. Is faith then, particularly religious faith, possible to rational man? Bertrand Russell thought not, as he makes clear in the following letter to Goldie Lowes Dickinson dated July 16, 1903, ‘...what we have to do, and what privately we do do, is to treat the religious instinct with profound respect, but to insist that there is no shred or particle of truth in any of the metaphysics it has suggested: to palliate this by trying to bring out the beauty of the world and of life, so far as it exists, and above all to insist upon preserving the seriousness of the religious attitude and its habits of asking ultimate questions.’ Despite the fact that Russell was never able to overcome his intellectual objections to religious faith, the following excerpts from his personal letters—his public writing and utterances on religion convey a very different tone—leave no doubt that he, like many other sceptics, recognized the value of the religious attitude to life. But is the thing [see bolded text], which so affected him in certain moods or mental states, the sort of thing which ought to be judged according to the rationalist tradition in Western thought? In other words, does it really make sense to ignore the possibility that these thoughts and feelings may answer to a objective, transcendent reality merely because this reality cannot analyzed, or articulated in precise terms, or confirmed by the methods of empirical science?]
[Russell was present when the wife of his collaborator Alfred North Whitehead was undergoing an unusually severe bout of pain due to heart trouble. He was 29 at the time, and in the following excerpt from his autobiography he described the effect this experience had on him.]
She seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of
agony, and the sense of the solitude of each human soul
suddenly overwhelmed me. Every since my marriage, my
emotional life had been calm and superficial. I had forgotten
all the deeper issues, and had been content with flippant
cleverness. Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath
me, and I found myself in quite another region...
At the end of those five minutes, I had become a completely different person. For a time, a sort of mystic illumination possessed me. I felt that I knew the inmost thoughts of everybody that I met in the street, and though this was, no doubt, a delusion, I did in actual fact find myself in far closer touch than previously with all my friends, and many of my acquaintances. Having been an Imperialist, I became during those five minutes a pro-Boer and a Pacifist. Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty, with an intense interest in children, and with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable. A strange excitement possessed me, containing intense pain but also some element of triumph through the fact that I could dominate pain, and make it, as I thought, a gateway to wisdom. The mystic insight which I then imagined myself to possess has largely faded, and the habit of analysis has reasserted itself. But something of what I thought I saw in that moment has remained always with me, causing my attitude during the first war, my interest in children, my indifference to minor misfortunes, and a certain emotional tone in all my human relations.
[From a letter dated August 26, 1902 to Goldie Lowes Dickinson when Russell was 30]
The unmystical, rationalistic view of life seems to me to omit all that is most important and most beautiful. It is true that among unmystical people there is no truth unperceived, which the mystic might reveal; but mysticism creates the truth it believes in, by the way in which it feels the fundamental facts—the helplessness of man before Time and Death, and the strange depths of feeling which lie dormant until some one of the Gods of life calls for our worship. Religion and art both, it seems to me, are attempts to humanise the universe—beginning, no doubt, with the humanising of man. If some of the stubborn facts refuse to leave one’s consciousness, a religion or an art cannot appeal to one fully unless it takes account of those facts. And so all religion becomes an achievement, a victory, an assurance that although man may be powerless, his ideals are not so.
[From a letter dated June 11, 1915 to his lover Ottoline Morrell when Russell was 43]
How passionately I long that one could break through the prison walls in one’s own nature. I feel now-a-days so much as if some great force for good were imprisoned within me by scepticism and cynicism and lack of faith. But those who have no such restraint always seem ignorant and a little foolish. It all makes one feel very lonely.
[From a letter dated September 29, 1916 to his lover Colette (Constance Malleson) when Russell was 44]
In some way I can’t put into words, I feel that some of our thoughts and feelings are just of the moment, but others are part of the eternal world, like the stars—even if their actual existence is passing, something—some spirit or essence—seems to last on, to be part of the real history of the universe, not only of the separate person. Somehow, that is how I want to live, so that as much of life as possible may have that quality of eternity.
[From a letter dated October 23, 1916 to his lover Colette when Russell was 44]
I am strangely unhappy because the pattern of my life is complicated, because my nature is hopelessly complicated; a mass of contradictory impulses; and out of all this, to my intense sorrow, pain to you must grow. The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite—the beatific vision—God—I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found—but the love of it is my life—it’s like passionate love for a ghost. At times it fills me with rage, at times with wild despair, it is the source of gentleness and cruelty and work, it fills every passion that I have—it is the actual spring of life within me.
[From a letter dated July 5, 1918 to his lover Colette when Russell was 46]
My Colette, my Soul, I feel the breath of greatness inspiring me through our love—I must, I must, before I die, find some way to say the essential thing that is in me, that I have never said yet—a thing that is not love or hate or pity or scorn, but the very breath of life, fierce, and coming from far away, bringing into human life the vastness and the fearful passionless force of non-human things.
[From a letter dated July 30, 1918 to Miss Rinder when Russell was 46]
All moral condemnation is utterly against the whole view of life that was then new to me but is now more and more a part of my being. I am naturally pugnacious, and am only restrained (when I am restrained) by a realization of the tragedy of human existence, and the absurdity of spending our little moment in strife and heat. That I, a funny little gesticulating animal on two legs, should stand beneath the stars and declaim in a passion about my rights—it seems so laughable, so out of all proportion. Much better, like Archimedes, to be killed because of absorption in eternal things. And when once men get away from their rights, from the struggle to take up more room in the world than is their due, there is such a capacity of greatness in them. All the loneliness and the pain and the eternal pathetic hope—the power of love and the appreciation of beauty—the concentration of many ages and spaces in the mirror of a single mind—these are not things one would wish to destroy wantonly, for any of the national ambitions that politicians praise. There is a possibility in human minds of something mysterious as the night-wind, deep as the sea, calm as the stars, and strong as Death, a mystic contemplation, the ‘intellectual love of God.’ Those who have known it cannot believe in wars any longer, or in any kind of hot struggle. If I could give to others what has come to me in this way, I could make them too feel the futility of fighting. But I do not know how to communicate it: when I speak, they stare, applaud, or smile, but do not understand.
[From a letter dated August 11, 1918 to Miss Rinder when Russell was 46]
It is quite true what you say, that you have never expressed
yourself—but who has, that has anything to express?
The things one says are all unsuccessful attempts to say
something else—something that perhaps by its very
nature cannot be said. I know that I have struggled all my
life to say something that I never shall learn how to say. And
it is the same with you. It is so with all who spend their lives
in the quest of something elusive, and yet omnipresent, and
at once subtle and infinite. One seeks it in music, and the
sea, and sunsets; at times I have seemed very near it in
crowds when I have been feeling strongly what they were
feeling; one seeks it in love above all. But if one lets oneself
imagine one has found it, some cruel irony is sure to come
and show one that it is not really found.
The outcome is that one is a ghost, floating through the world without any real contact. Even when one feels nearest to other people, something in one seems obstinately to belong to God and to refuse to enter into any earthly communion—at least that is how I should express it if I thought there was a God. It is odd isn’t it? I care passionately for this world, and many things and people in it, and yet...what is it all? There must be something more important, one feels, though I don’t believe there is. I am haunted—some ghost, from some extra-mundane region, seems always trying to tell me something that I am to repeat to the world, but I cannot understand the message. But it is from listening to the ghost that one comes to feel oneself a ghost. I feel I shall find the truth on my deathbed and be surrounded by people too stupid to understand—fussing about medicines instead of searching for wisdom. Love and imagination mingled; that seems the main thing so far.
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