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Let us begin by trying to be clear as to what we mean by “free thought.” This expression has two senses. In its narrower sense it means thought which does not accept the dogmas of traditional religion. In this sense a man is a “free thinker” if he is not a Christian or a Mussulman or a Buddhist or a Shintoist or a member of any of the other bodies of men who accept some inherited orthodoxy. In Christian countries a man is called a “free thinker” if he does not decidedly believe in God, though this would not suffice to make a man a “free thinker” in a Buddhist country.I do not wish to minimize the importance of free thought in this sense. I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. I do not believe that, on the balance, religious belief has been a force for good. Although I am prepared to admit that in certain times and places it has had some good effects, I regard it as belonging to the infancy of human reason, and to a stage of development which we are now outgrowing...
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Copyright © 2016 by Bertrand Russell
Published by Perennial Press
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CHAIRMAN’S INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS
FREE THOUGHT AND OFFICIAL PROPAGANDA
I HAVE COME HERE TO-NIGHT, partly because I want to hear Mr. Russell, and partly because of an old affection for South Place and its traditions. I myself have been for more than forty years a professional teacher; and it is as a teacher—who thirty-seven years ago was dismissed for refusing religious conformity—that I most easily approach the problem of free thought. Though systems of education professing to teach men and women how to think have been in use in Europe for, perhaps, three thousand years, we have not yet reached that degree of success which would be shown if most educated people came to much the same conclusions on the great problems of life from a study of the same evidence. Everywhere you have rebels; but ninety per cent. of French or American students of history come to French or American conclusions, and eighty-five per cent. of English students come to English conclusions; eighty per cent. of Eton boys hold Eton political opinions all their lives; ninety per cent. of the Irish Catholic population of the United States seem to hold generation after generation identical opinions on religion and politics which are not held by the vast majority of Americans. It may be said that in these cases only one kind of evidence is allowed to reach the students in each institution. But everybody reads newspapers, and talks with his neighbours, and travels, and visits museums; and most intelligent people read books and magazines. Sooner or later much of the same evidence reaches us all. I myself believe that one of the main reasons why we do not to a greater degree draw the same conclusions from that evidence is that we do not really learn the difficult art of thought. A boy at school is taught to memorize and to understand mathematical formulæ or foreign languages or scientific statements. But in weighing evidence the effort of memorizing, and even the effort of understanding, are not of the first importance. The effective process is a sort of painful and watchful expectancy. A schoolboy or a college student finds that he has an uncomfortable sense of unreality in repeating some accustomed formula, or writing an essay to enforce some accustomed line of argument. He shrinks from that feeling, as all animals shrink from discomfort. If he were taught what are the conditions of effective thought, and were encouraged to act on that lesson, he would know that it is only by resolutely fastening on such vague and painful premonitions, and forcing them to come into full consciousness and disclose their deeper causes and tendencies that he can arrive at new truth or make some old truth his own.
But who is going to tell him this secret? Every day in London thousands of clever and sympathetic boys and girls begin the day by sitting through three-quarters of an hour of the dreary “Cowper-Temple” instruction which consists, as Bishop Temple once said, of teaching at everybody’s expense what nobody believes. They may be conscious or half-conscious of a feeling of unreality; but, even if they have not been taught that it is a sacred duty to “struggle against doubt,” they shrink, as the cleverest of them feel that the teacher is shrinking, from any further exploration on that path.
Perhaps some day the teachers and students of the ordinary school and college subjects may learn something from those little isolated institutions where men and women try to prepare themselves for the creative arts. The young painter or sculptor or member of a group of young poets is often queerly ignorant and one-sided. But he lives in another world from that of the big conventional sixth-form boy at Harrow or St. Paul’s, or the hockey-playing athlete of a girls’ High School, because he has felt the pain and the exhilaration reached through pain by which alone new truth and new beauty are born into the world.
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