Quality Essays, but No Voltaire

Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian And Other Essays On Religion And Related Subjects is a worthwhile read, even decades later.  However, as much as I enjoy Russell as both an author and a philosopher, much of his satirical humor falls flat, hence the title.

The titular essay feels much like a rehashing of the standard arguments against logical assertions of the existence of God, though to be fair in 1927 they may have been somewhat fresher.  In any case, it may be fairer to simply title it “Why I Am an Atheist.”  That said, there is little insight to be gained if the reader is even slightly versed in the topic.  Russell’s prose is concise and clear, but that alone may not be enough to warrant a reading.  This is sadly the case for many of the essays focused purely on religion or ethics.  To be clear, I think this book would be a fantastic starting point for someone just beginning to investigate religion or Russell as a person, but it just doesn’t offer much to someone already well-read on the topics.

To get the bad out of the way, Nice People is a beautiful example of failed satire.  It comes off far too condescending, not to the target of the satire, but to the reader.  Reading it reminds me of talking to that one guy that everyone knows, the one who thinks he’s hilarious but in reality is just awkward.  Thankfully, this is the only essay that falls to this lack of quality.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Fate of Thomas Paine was both interesting and educational.  Paine has always been someone who was in the periphery of my historical vision, but never the main focus.  This essay managed to raise and answer a good number of questions related to him.  The most interesting part was how applicable the situation from the late 1700’s was to Russell’s time, and in fact still is today.  I’m sure there are much better biographical resources regarding Paine, but for a brief 20 page essay, Russell did well at hitting the major points and piquing interest.

The best part of the book for me was something that wasn’t even written by Russell himself.  The editor has a well-researched appendix that focuses on the lawsuit that prevented Russell from teaching at the College of the City of New York.  The prose here is vitriolic and sarcastic at points, which unfortunately detracts from it, but after reading through the whole thing I can understand the source.  It both amazes and terrifies me that public opinion and the legal system could be subverted to rail against one man.  The scariest part about it is that there are far too many parallels to today’s society.

I’m glad I read this when I did: after a large chunk of fiction.  It fits well as a reentry to non-fiction, and should contrast nicely with the next book I plan to read, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed.

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