Bertrand Russell (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)

Bertrand Russell on Morality and Dogma

A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

Morality. A word that we just love tossing around casually in everyday life. Girl in short skirt make you get a boner? How immoral! But why do you not accuse the same to that shirtless guy who just happens to have beautifully sculpted abs walking in openly in broad daylight? Last time I checked, women can get horny too.

Then, in religion, there is the concept of “sin”. Sinners are unpeople. Because they are sinners and have broken some sort of moral code specified by religion, they are not to be shown mercy. Hang ’em, crucify ’em, burn ’em in oil, for they have gone against the word of God!

Our standard of morality is based on old beliefs and superstition, not on rationality. We often dodge the hard questions about morality, putting them aside and discouraging open discussion on them by labelling it as a “taboo”. Bertrand Russell has an interesting take on the influence of religious dogma in shaping our standards of morality.

In his short classic, What I Believe, Russell writes the following

Current morality is a curious blend of utilitarianism and superstition, but the superstitious part has the stronger hold, as a natural, since superstition is the origin of moral rules. — Bertrand Russell, What I Believe, Chapter 3

According to Russell, our standards of morality are a unique blend of utilitarianism and communal superstition. In this case, Russell regards religion as the source of superstition. Russell then explains that the “wrong” act could invoke the wrath of gods and invite disaster upon the people. Most of these beliefs are to be accepted without question, no matter how stupid they may be. For example, as I was growing up in Bali, I was told to never point at a banyan tree. If I did, then the mystical “dwellers” of the tree would break my finger. Then, as I reached the age of reason, I realized that the belief was actually a way to tell people not to directly point at someone. Because in Bali, that’s really rude. You can see how this kind of thinking then gives birth to the concept of sin, which is then used by religion as a means to create a moral code.

Now, we move towards Russell’s critique of religious dogma, which he thinks is far from love and rationality.

[…] superstition […] involves needless cruelty, and would be swept away if people were actuated by kindly feelings towards their neighbours. But the defenders of traditional morality are seldom people with warm hearts, as may be seen from the love of militarism displayed by Church dignitaries. One is tempted to think that they value morals as affording a legitimate outlet for their desire to inflict pain; the sinner is fair game, and therefore away with tolerance! — Bertrand Russell, What I Believe, Chapter 3

Russell’s critique is more than relevant today, as I witness many cases of religious intolerance unfold in the daily lives of Indonesians. Extremists, or as they call themselves “defenders of dogma”, are people who need to be pitied due to their cold hearts and love for violence. Too many people today are accusing one another of not following their “ideal” version of a moral code according to their dogma (which is based on superstition), rather than spreading messages of love and unity and thinking rationally… or accepting rational reasons why they shouldn’t murder another person just because they believe in a different imaginary friend. This will eventually lead to society’s ruin.

Next, Russell also criticizes the influence of superstition or traditional dogma on education. In education, superstition is dangerously destructive. One of Russell’s critiques which resonates with me is the influence of religious dogma in sex education. I would like to divert your attention to a wonderful article published in Think Nusantara. It is about how Indonesian society “demonizes” proper sexual education just because it goes against conservative values. It’s a no-brainer that children need to be taught about their reproductive organs in a scientific manner so that they know the dangers of unprotected sex and the spread of STDs. Yet, the community lashes against a condom campaign aimed at increasing awareness of STDs. This is all pretty ironic, considering that many children nowadays have access to porn and are more than proud to show off their porn collection online. This happens because our people tend to believe that discussing sex openly is a taboo and goes against tradition, even though, according to Russell, sex is one of our most basic needs as humans and is essential in maintaining our presence on this little blue dot. Adolescents should not be fed with obscure superstition about sex, such as “kissing makes you pregnant” or “a virgin always bleeds the first time”, because these unbased rumors are unproven in science.

Another bad effect of superstition on education is the absence of instruction about the facts of sex. The main physiological facts ought to be taught quite simply and naturally before puberty at a time when they are not exciting. At puberty, the elements of an unsuperstitious sexual morality ought to be taught. Boys and girls should be taught that nothing can justify sexual intercourse unless there is mutual inclination. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church, which holds that, provided the parties are married and the man desires another child, sexual intercourse is justified however great may be the reluctance of the wife. — Bertrand Russell, What I Believe, Chapter 3

Maybe we cannot completely eliminate all outdated dogmas in our society. Without dgmas, we might not even have a system of norms to begin with. But religious dogmas have lived way past their glory days. They should be revised to be relevant with the times in order to create a society that is more advanced and moral. Because in the end, morality is not always linked to tradition or dogma, but also science, love, and knowledge. As Russell writes,

A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

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With love,

The Aho Talk! Team

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