A Liberal Decalogue: Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments of Critical Thinking & Democratic Decency—A brief address for the AGM

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Today is our church's AGM and, consequently, it seems worth briefly articulating why I think it is worth supporting an unusual free-religious community such as this (either by joining as a formal member or by being associated with us as a ‘friend’).

Naturally, I hope that belonging to this particular community brings with it some of the plusses that belonging to any functioning community brings — whether religious or secular —, i.e. company, conversation, friendship, general pastoral support etc.. Of course, we’re by no means perfect at this — who is? — but there’s good evidence that we are all committed to trying hard to improve things by arranging and participating ourselves in pastoral care, in various shared meals, by spending time together in conversation over tea and coffee and Sunday lunch after the service, and through our evening conversations and other occasional social events such as Friday’s fundraising concert.

But, unlike most other religious communities, belonging to this particular church won’t give you ready-made, definite answers to, or off-the-peg beliefs about, life’s stubborn, perennial and perplexing problems. This is because here we are more concerned to gift a person the freedom of opportunity, some critical tools and, we hope, courage genuinely to think through and answer as best we can (using good argument and sound evidence) the complex question of how the world is and our place in it. As a general guide to what’s on offer here perhaps no better words have been offered up than those well-known ones the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1903 in his ‘Letters to a young poet’:

‘I would like to beg you . . . as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.’

It is also important to say neither will this church give you a minister (or spiritual or community leader if you prefer) with whose ideas and practices (religious, philosophical or political) you either can, should, or must, always wholly agree with and who, guru-like, you can begin to follow. Indeed, as the current minister, I will do my level best at every turn to disabuse you of any thought that this might be either a realistic possibility or even a vaguely good and valid idea. Question, seventy-times seven and more, everything I say to you from this lectern because — although I’m always diligent in doing my homework and I try never to mouth-off mere personal opinion — in the long run I’m assuredly going to be proved wrong for a very high percentage of the time; as is, of course, anyone who dares to enter into the public, intellectual space.

So, basic community benefits aside, if this church is neither going to give you the answers to life, the universe and everything, nor a single, charismatic person with whose ideas you can agree and whom you are minded to follow, why on earth join and commit to this church? It’s a very good question and this week whilst I was thinking about how best to answer it I was reminded of a text that many years ago stuck me as highly admirable. Looking at it again I can see how incredibly influential it was upon my own approach to whatever it is that I’m doing here as minister. Indeed, having brought it back to mind, I now wonder why on earth I haven’t introduced you to it before. It is Bertrand Russell’s ‘ten commandments’ found in his 1951 opinion piece in ‘The New York Times Magazine’ called ‘The Best Answer to Fanaticism–Liberalism’ and which had as its subtitle, ‘Its calm search for truth, viewed as dangerous in many places, remains the hope of humanity.’

In this short piece Russell wrote that ‘Liberalism is not so much a creed as a disposition. It is, indeed, opposed to creeds.’ He then continues by writing:

‘But the liberal attitude does not say that you should oppose authority. It says only that you should be free to oppose authority, which is quite a different thing. The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men [and women] should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments. The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive.
          [. . .]
          The teacher who urges doctrines subversive to existing authority does not, if he is a liberal, advocate the establishment of a new authority even more tyrannical than the old. He advocates certain limits to the exercise of authority, and he wishes these limits to be observed not only when the authority would support a creed with which he disagrees but also when it would support one with which he is in complete agreement. I am, for my part, a believer in democracy, but I do not like a regime which makes belief in democracy compulsory.’

Russell then concluded the piece with the ‘Ten Commandments’ that, as a teacher, he should wish to promulgate. They are, quite simply, the same ten commandments I live by in my role as your minister:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband, [wife] or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

So, to conclude, let me make it crystal clear that, from where I’m standing, joining this community (or by supporting it in other ways) is absolutely not to be committed to any -ism, not even the illusive (and, perhaps now, wholly) imaginary thing called ‘Unitarianism’; neither is it to be in anything like full agreement with the current, past or future philosophy or political theology of Andrew Brown, the present minister. Not at all. Joining a church community such as this — under my watch anyway — is simply to attempt each week to create anew and sustain a community that is absolutely committed to the kind of ongoing liberal, critical endeavour spoken of by Russell.

This has always been for me the most important and noble endeavour in life and, along with Russell, I still believe with every fibre of my being that, to reiterate, ‘Its calm search for truth, viewed as dangerous in many places, remains the hope of humanity.’

We are clearly entering a time in our own history and culture when this democratic and critical way of being is once again being viewed as dangerous and, therefore, Russell’s vision is as relevant and needed as it ever was.

It is for this reason — the simple hope for humanity — that I think there exist many very powerful reasons to support and be involved with this community in any way you can. I hope you agree and, if you are not already formally involved, I invite you to consider joining us.