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Science, Religion & Russell

Dateline: May 03, 2000

"SCIENCE, RELIGION & RUSSELL" > Page 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6

Bishop Manning

Manning's basic position was that Russell's appointment had to be revoked, and his argument, as quoted by Thom Weidlich, was as follows:

Can any of us wish our young people to accept these teachings as decent, true or worthy of respect? What is to be said of colleges and universities which hold up before our youth as a reputable teacher of philosophy, and as an example of light and leading, a man who is a recognized propagandist against both religion and morality... The fact that he is intellectually brilliant is certainly no excuse for such action.

As we shall see later on, this basic argument against unpopular ideas being taught or even simply held by professors and teachers hasn't changed at all in the last fifty years.

Bishop Manning didn't stop at letter writing - he worked behind the scenes to get other religious leaders on board with his program to keep Bertrand Russell from teaching at City College. As Weidlich describes him, Manning was a champion of dogmatic theology, fidelity to tradition and military preparedness.

This was quite the opposite of Russell, who was committed to secularism, scientific and critical inquiry, questioning custom and tradition, and pacifism. It is curious that a man who was supposed to be a representative of Christ had stronger military leanings than the atheist philosopher, but Weidlich quotes Manning as asserting that "Jesus Christ does not stand for peace at any price. He stands for righteousness at any cost."

It was thus perhaps inevitable that the two would have come into direct conflict eventually. Indeed, Manning had long hated Russell and had previously dogged his attempts to speak at other universities. The two ably represented two differing and ultimately conflicting ideologies: revealed religion and tradition on the one hand and scientific, critical atheism and secularism on the other. Their discord in New York City may not have been a defining moment in American history, but it is clearly emblematic of so many other conflicts.

Religious Objections

It should be kept firmly in mind that the objections to Russell's appointment were fundamentally religious in nature. Remember that Manning was quoted as critical of Russell as "a man who is a recognized propagandist against both religion and morality." But as Weidlich describes it, they did try to use other arguments:

...He was a foreigner, he was immoral, and - despite what his defenders said - his social beliefs were relevant to his teaching ability because a teacher doesn't impart only facts but morals. Even if he didn't teach his social ideas, just coming to admire him would be bad for the students. Taxes shouldn't go to pay for his odious speech; he could teach in a private but not a public school. Many said that he shouldn't be allowed to teach at City College because his ideas ran counter to the moral principles of New Yorkers, as if the city dwellers were of one mind on such questions...

As Franz Boas, a leading anthropologist observed, people were not specifically not attacking Russell's competency as a teacher or intellectual ability - indeed, they often admitted to both. Instead, they almost exclusively focused on his religious - or anti-religious - views. Boas wrote that he and others were "alarmed by the note of a religious test for appointment which has crept into the public debate."

But there were some interesting differences between Russell's detractors and his supporters. Whereas his detractors attacked his ethical and social views regardless of his professional abilities, his supporters often didn't agree with his ethical and social views. John Dewey, one of Russell's biggest supporters, didn't even like Russell personally.

Despite this, people like Dewey did support the principle of academic freedom. Just as importantly, they knew that Russell approached his views scientifically: he arrived at them via critical thinking and was willing to have them critiqued by others. This is one of fundamental principles not only of science but also of a liberal democracy - a principle not generally shared by religions supposedly based upon divinely revealed truths.

Of course, Weidlich does not hesitate to point out that not all religious groups opposed the appointment of Bertrand Russell. As with today, there was division in the social and political goals of various Christian denominations. So we should be willing to acknowledge that in the conflict between religion and science or between religion and freedom, not all religious people and not all religious groups stand in opposition to science and freedom.



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