Bertrand Russell was an extremely intelligent, witty and entertaining writer, and I enjoyed most of this book in the way I would have enjoyed a very good comment thread on Goodreads; perhaps the book in question was the Bible, or The God Delusion
, or one of Ann Coulter's more demented outpourings. Russell has set the ball rolling with a provocative review, designed to tease and infuriate people with religious sympathies; he then proceeds to dispatch the resulting army of trolls, to the amusement of all those who consider themselves skeptical about religion. "You really ought to turn it into a book!" says some well-meaning participant towards the end of the debate. Everyone has forgetten this remark five minutes after it's been made. But Russell, to general amazement, comes back a couple of weeks later and says he's done it and uploaded the result to Smashwords: it's available for $1.99. A few people download the PDF and post reviews saying it's pretty damn good, and it proceeds to sell a fair number of copies.
As the title suggests, the book undertakes to examine various areas in which Religion and Science find themselves in conflict with each other, and considers the grounds on which we might prefer one to the other; I trust no one will be surprised to see Science winning every round. After a brief introduction, Russell gives you a broad hint at what he's planning in the second chapter, which is largely concerned with Galileo and his battle against the nefarious forces of the Inquisition. Russell expresses his admiration for Galileo's Dialogues on the Two Greatest Systems of the World
, a transparently rigged pretence at an even-handed comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric systems, and then borrows all Galileo's rhetorical devices: he confuses the facts, misrepresents the Church's side of the argument, sets up and demolishes strawmen, and delights the scientists in his audience while infuriating the churchmen. Galileo, according to everyone who can read him (unfortunately, I do not read Italian) was very funny, and Russell appears to be no worse than his illustrious predecessor. As you can see in my reading notes, there were numerous passages I immediately had to copy out for the benefit of my fellow Goodreaders.
A lot of the book, I felt, was basically entertainment. Towards the end, though, it started getting more serious, and I was reminded that Russell was a good philosopher and an excellent logician. In particular, I very much liked his brief and trenchant analysis of ethics. Science, argues Russell, cannot pronounce on ethics, but this is for the simple reason that statements in the realm of ethics are not within the purview of objective knowledge in the first place: they can always be paraphrased as expressions of personal desire or preference, and hence are purely subjective. This argument is probably well known to modern philosophers, but I had not seen it before and Russell puts the case nicely.
In the conclusion, Russell suddenly sobers up and tells you what he's really talking about. It's not the Christian Church; it's the new religions of Fascism and Communism, which, as he says, have already killed more intellectual dissidents than the Church did in the last three centuries. You remember that he's writing shortly before World War II. He can see what most people are still trying to pretend isn't there, and he has every reason to be desperately worried. All the clowning around was just to get your attention; you thought you'd avoided being fooled, but he's tricked you at a deeper level than you were expecting. Nice work, Russell. If you really were on Goodreads, I would start following your reviews.