1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
Science, Religion & Russell

Dateline: May 03, 2000

Introduction

Why is it that religion and science always seem to come into conflict? What fundamental differences must exist for them to continually fall onto opposite sides of important issues? This article will explore not only how religion and religious belief can conflict with science, but indeed how they can conflict with the basic principle of democracy and freedom.

I have been fortunate enough to receive a copy of Thom Weidlich's new book Appointment Denied: The Inquisition of Bertrand Russell. Although it is primarily about an infamous episode in the history of Bertrand Russell and American higher education, Weidlich also makes a point of explaining how larger issues are involved - not simply the obvious question of academic freedom, but also how and why religion and revealed truth come into conflict with science and critical thinking.

Unfortunately, in this story, religion won and science lost - to the detriment of both freedom and education. However, that doesn't mean that it doesn't have much to teach us. These issues of how much power religion should have over the lives of non-adherents and how much voice religious leaders should have in government policies are still very current.

Bertrand Russell himself pointed out at the time that what was happening to him also happened to other professors much less famous than he - but of course without nearly the publicity and with even more unfortunate outcomes. As I shall describe below, not much has changed in fifty years - professors can still have a lot to fear from capricious administrators and religious dogmatism.

Thom Weidlich does a fantastic job of not only explaining what happened to Bertrand Russell in his attempt to teach at the City College in New York City, but also of shedding light on the varying personalities of the key players in this drama. I will be relying heavily on Weidlich's book here, but I won't go into all of the different facets of the case which he explains much better than I could.

I encourage anyone interested in Bertrand Russell, academic freedom, or the conflict between religion and science to read this book. Quite a lot has been written about Bertrand Russell and he is one of the preeminent philosophers for most atheists, especially considering his insightful critiques of Christianity in his famous work Why I Am Not A Christian. But until now, not a lot has been written concerning this particular episode in his life, and it is really worth learning more about.



Just the Facts

In 1940, Bertrand Russell was widely considered one of the greatest philosophers of the day. At the time he was teaching at UCLA in California, having left his home in Britian to escape the war both for the safety of his family and due to his personal commitment to pacificism. One evening in late February, New York City's Board of Higher Education unanimously voted to give him an appointment to the faculty of the publicly funded City College.

The board certainly knew who Russell was, and their goal was to improve the quality of education at City College, not to mention its prestige. It wasn't every college or university which could boast such a distinguished writer and lecturer on its staff, and Russell was probably the most distinguished appointment in the college's nearly one hundred year history.

However, the reaction was quite the opposite of what was expected: it created a firestorm of hostility and protest, mostly fed by local religious leaders. It all started with a letter from the Right Reverend William T. Manning, the head of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese in New York. This letter appeared in the city's major newspapers and attacked Russell's more liberal views regarding human sexuality, marriage, divorce and morality.


Next Page
> Bishop Manning & Religious Objections > Page 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6

Discuss in my forum

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.