The British God


The British Empire was the most extensive empire the world has ever seen, but by 1952 when Bertrand Russell wrote the famous essay which introduced the Celestial  Teapot to the world, it was on its last legs.

The following argument, taken from that essay, although it purports to be a discussion on the truth of monotheism, is not one that was likely ever to have been used as proof of the existence of Almighty God.

But, if the truth of a religion is to be judged by its worldly success, the argument in favor of monotheism is a very strong one, since it possessed the largest armies, the largest navies, and the greatest accumulation of wealth. In our own day this argument is growing less decisive. It is true that the un-Christian menace of Japan was defeated. But the Christian is now faced with the menace of atheistic Muscovite hordes, and it is not so certain as one could wish that atomic bombs will provide a conclusive argument on the side of theism.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

But if the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient God is accepted, then it  follows, that this god has the power to determine who will have the largest armies, the largest navies, and the greatest accumulation of wealth.

By the time, ‘Is there a God?’ was written, that was no longer the British.

The God of  Status Quo

The hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, written by the Irish, Anglican clergy wife Mrs Alexander in 1848 contained the following much derided verse.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Mrs Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander

I am not certain what Mrs Alexander meant, but it is possible to understand this as meaning that the present status quo is the will of God, and therefore should not be opposed.  Whatever is, is right, and one should accept one’s divinely appointed position in the class system.

This is how the Stuart kings Charles I, and James II, had understood their position, as divinely appointed rulers.  As their fate shows, Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and James II was forced into exile in 1690 after being defeated at the Battle of the Boyne, this was not a view that was universally held by their subjects, nor by any God who actually exists.

The position of the Stuart kings was similar to that of the kings of Lilliput in Swift’s Tale.

In like manner, the disbelief of a divine providence renders a man uncapable of holding any publick station: for, since kings avow themselves to be deputies of Providence, the Lilliputians think nothing can be more absurd, than for a prince to employ such men as disown the authority under which he acteth.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part One:  A Voyage to Lilliput 1726

The fictional threat to the Lilliputian King, and the real threat to the Stuarts came not from those who didn’t believe in Providence, but those who held that the rulers were not doing the Will of Providence.

Providence is like Gulliver, an unreliable ally to those in power.  ‘The rich man in his castle,’ verse isn’t the problem with Mrs Alexander’s hymn. It could as easily be understood as a threat against those in higher position, who fail to act as the Deity, or His spiritual representatives – the clergy and their wives, think they should. Their higher status can be rescinded.

The problem is the concept of Almighty God.  A concept that lends itself too easily to might is right, and that whatever is, is good.  With Christianity seen as a way of controlling the masses and making them more amenable to the interests of those in power.

An interpretation that as the fate of the Stuart kings demonstrates was capable of having nasty consequences, and not just for those at the bottom of the pecking order.

The God of Empire

It might seem obvious that those with the largest armies, largest navies and greatest accumulation of wealth have the most power, and the greatest personal security.

As the young George Orwell discovered during the time he spent in the Imperial Police in Burma (1922-1927), the wielders of power are very far from free themselves; forced into role of Power’s earthly representative, by those whom the pecking order of empire demands they must have the respect of.

And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.

George Orwell Shooting an Elephant  1936

Those who wish to be Omnipotence’s earthly representatives, pay a  high price.  The maintenance of power is a constant struggle.

Charles Darwin was very much a child of Empire, born in 1809 during the rise of the second British Empire.  The first had been lost with the American War of Independence in 1783.  This theology of constant struggle was encapsulated into his theory of evolution, and given voice most memorably in Herbert Spencer‘s phrase, “survival of the fittest.”

Survival of the fittest, should be understood, as survival of those that are best fitted to their environment. A principle that Jonathan Swift, over eighty years before Darwin was born, put into the mouth of the fictional scientists called in to provide a scientific explanation for Gulliver’s existence by the King of Brobdingnag – the land of the giants.

They all agreed, that I could not be produced according to the regular laws of nature: because I was not framed with a capacity of preserving my life, either by swiftness, or climbing trees, or digging holes in the earth.  They observed by my teeth, which they viewed with great exactness, that I was a carnivorous animal;  yet most quadrupeds being an over-match for me;  and field-mice, with some others, too nimble, they could not imagine how I should be able to support myself, unless I fed upon snails and other insects; which they offered by many learned arguments to evince, that I could not possibly do.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part Two:  A Voyage to Brobdingnag 1726

The enhanced survival and reproductive fitness of those that are best adapted to their environment, is a very mundane explanation for the complexity and wonder of life.  It is no wonder that Spencer’s phrase is frequently misunderstood, even by those who should know better, as meaning survival of the powerful.   Evolutionary success to those who defeat their rivals.

The philosophy of might is right, and to the victor belongs the spoils was re-imagined as scientifically endorsed truth, and science rather than religion became the endorser of the righteousness of power.

Richard Dawkins is very much a child of empire, born in the British Colony of Kenya, as the Empire was nearing its death throes.  His religious views can be understood as a rant against the faithless god of empire. The god who gives power only to those who can take it.

The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight. If scientific theories could vote, evolution would surely vote Republican.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

As you can see he doesn’t speak highly of evolution either.  This despite the fact that one of the brute facts that the theory has to explain is the existence of altruistic behaviour in the natural world.

The Religion of Empire

Karl Marx had this in common with many of the British ruling class, he regarded religion as the opium of the people.  The difference being that he didn’t think this was a good thing. Richard Dawkins still thinks opiating the people is a good idea.  To the extent that in this 2006 article he contemplates, for the post – religious world he envisions as the ideal, the origination of non-religious memes that would encourage people to act against their own Darwinian interests.

Let’s put it even more bluntly. From a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb. And yes, it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged – which is the purpose of my article. How can we do it? How shall we take the minority of super nice humans that we all know, and increase their number, perhaps until they even become a majority in the population? Could super niceness be induced to spread like an epidemic? Could super niceness be packaged in such a form that it passes down the generations in swelling traditions of longitudinal propagation?

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

The Right Honourable The Earl Russell, otherwise known as Bertrand Russell was so taken up with the notion that the purpose of religion  is the control of the masses, in the name of a God of Power, that he was unable to understand the argument in favour of belief, made by the American philosopher and psychologist William James.

There is a moralistic argument for belief in God, which was popularized by William James. According to this argument, we ought to believe in God because, if we do not, we shall not behave well. The first and greatest objection to this argument is that, at its best, it cannot prove that there is a God but only that politicians and educators ought to try to make people think there is one. Whether this ought to be done or not is not a theological question but a political one.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

What William James Really Said

For William James the God that really existed, was not the god of power, but the God of Love.  His belief that behind all that is lay the Power of Love, freed him to act as though it was true.  Belief in this God freed him to be the man he wanted to be.

William James was a psychologist as well as a philosopher, and he understood the power of nudge.  We conform to social expectations.  It was shown, for instance, that Asian women, reminded just before a maths test that they were women did worse than in the control situation, while if they are reminded that they were Asian they did better.

To see why this might be so consider the following quote.

 We all know people (is it significant that the ones I can think of are mostly women?) to whom we can sincerely say: “If only everybody were like you, the world’s troubles would melt away.” The milk of human kindness is only a metaphor but, naïve as it sounds, I contemplate some of my friends and I feel like trying to bottle whatever it is that makes them so kind, so selfless, so apparently un-Darwinian.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

This sounds very female friendly, but it is in fact setting a norm for female behaviour – nicer than men.

When people do not act according to the expected norm, they can be subjected to hostility. This attitude that women should be nicer than men, may explain Richard Dawkins  Dear Muslima letter; an attack on atheist blogger Rebecca Watson, whom he clearly felt had somehow transgressed expected standards of behaviour, by suggesting that male atheists should refrain from harassing women in lifts.

Conforming to stereotype is instinctive. The fact that people may feel threatened when human elements within their world do not act as expected, and respond with hostility, may explain why this is so.

The good news here is that we can get to pick our own stereotype, the Being in whose Image we wish to be moulded. The bad news is that others may fail to recognize our right to do so and react with hostility

William James chose the God of Love, over the god of power.

Richard Dawkins talks a good game, but the fact that he sees standards as something to be imposed on other people, rather than lived by himself, does suggest that he is still the servant of the god of power.

These standards can be understood, in the way William James did as personal, or they can be understood in the abstract. We pick them up from the society around us as implicit guides to behaviour.

It is only when we become explicitly aware of them, that we can reject or embrace their claim upon us.

And yes dear scientific rationalist, in this sense you too have a god.

Science herself consults her heart when she lays it down that the infinite ascertainment of fact and correction of false belief are the supreme goods for man. Challenge the statement, and science can only repeat it oracularly, or else prove it by showing that such ascertainment and correction bring man all sorts of other goods which man’s heart in turn declares.

William James The Will to Believe : and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy 1897

The Will to Power

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) regarded the Will to Power as a standard that the superior human, the Übermensch  would embrace.

It was the open embrace of power by the fascists  of mid – twentieth century Europe that perhaps convinced George Orwell that the empires that replaced the British would be worse.

I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.

George Orwell Shooting an Elephant  1936

The following passage  from Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s mock sincere eulogy about the wondrous labour of disinterested virtue that was the first British Empire  roused George Orwell’s ire against him, and at least in part inspired his piece of vitriolic confirmation bias: Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver’s travels 1946

But this description, I confess, doth by no means affect the British nation, who may be an example to the whole world for their wisdom, care, and justice in planting colonies; the liberal endowments for the advancement of religion and learning;  their choice of devout and able pastors to propagate Christianity: their caution in stocking their provinces with people of sober lives and conversation from this the mother kingdom; their strict regard to the distribution of justice, in supplying the civil administration through all their colonies with officers of the greatest abilities, utter strangers to corruption: and to crown all, by sending the most vigilant and virtuous governors who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside , and the honour of the king their master.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part Four:  A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms  1726

George Orwell both knew the evils of the power of empire and was in denial about it.  The empire was for him what theologian Peter Rollins identifies as the sacred object.  Both knowing that it has failed and being in denial, he projects the blame unto the ungrateful subjects, firstly the Burmese and then Jonathan Swift, a man who like Richard Dawkins was born of English parents in a British colony, although in his case the colony was Ireland. (Ireland didn’t become part of the United Kingdom until the Act of Union of 1800.)

Evidently Swift’s animus is, in the first place, against England. It is ‘your Natives’ (i.e. Gulliver’s fellow-countrymen) whom the King of Brob-dingnag considers to be ‘the most pernicious Race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth’, and the long passage at the end, denouncing colonization and foreign conquest, is plainly aimed at England, although the contrary is elaborately stated. The Dutch, England’s allies and target of one of Swift’s most famous pamphlets, are also more or less wantonly attacked in Part III. There is even what sounds like a personal note in the passage in which Gulliver records his satisfaction that the various countries he has discovered cannot be made colonies of the British Crown:

George Orwell  Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver’s travels 1946

Swift, as he was entitled to, identified as both English and Irish, and if he had been able to get a post within the Church of England, would have remained there.  There is not the least reason to think that he hated England.

Paranoia and finding scapegoats, is as Peter Rollins points out in, “You’d better give me what I’ve never had. Some thoughts on nostalgia paranoia and ontic shock.” is a lot nastier than nostalgia for the sacred object, that was never what you thought it was.  However if you must do it picking on someone who has been dead over 200 years is at least not likely to cause much distress of your target.

The doctrine of the Übermensch, where the over-man is understood as the stereotype that superior people are aiming to conform to, is not conducive to forming empires.  As Swift pointed out the successful running of empires requires men willing to subvert their best interests to the interests of the ultimate power, that that was in Swift’s day represented by the king .  To regard the power of the empire rather than their personal power  as paramount, is inconsistent with the idea of the Übermensch.  Realizing this I suddenly think a lot more highly of  Nietzsche than I had previously.

The Real Fundamentalist

Peter Rollins in The Divine Magician tells the story of the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman auditioning to join the Special Forces.

They are interviewed separately and each given a gun and told to go into the next room and kill whoever is there.

The Englishman walks in and finds his best friend in the room and refuses to shoot.  The Scotsman  finds the same, but reasons that the bullets in his gun must be blanks and shoots anyway. (He is fortunately right.)

The Irishman when he realizes that the gun is shooting blanks, is forced to beat his friend to death with a chair.

The story is better told in The Divine Magician.

Peter Rollins identifies the Scotsman as the real fundamentalist, one who at least at a certain level is aware that a deception is being practiced. I would however argue that all three were fundamentalists, valuing the voice of power, and its value system  above the human.  Even the Englishman behaved as  a fundamentalist;  one who had a crises of faith, yet still accepted the values of the system he was operating in.

I think that Richard Dawkins in “Atheists for Jesus,” misrepresented the teachings of Judaism. References to both the God of Love and the God of Power can be found in the Old Testament.  But one of the things that he has got right is that the original Christian message was a revolt against fundamentalism and the valuing of religious and political systems more highly than the people they are there to serve. (Niceness had nothing to do with it.  It may get you walked on, it doesn’t get you crucified.)

To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006


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