The Task of Rationalism

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John Russell
John Russell (1856 -1937)
Edward Clodd
Edward Clodd (1840 – 1930)
The Task Of Rationalism
The Task Of Rationalism
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Inaugural Conway Memorial Lecture delivered at South Place Institute 16 March 1910. Presumed to be chaired by Edward Clodd and presented by John Russell.

Russell defines Rationalism as “the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason, and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority.”

He refers to Moncure Conway’s view of Rationalism as a form of religion, in which the religious sentiment is transferred from a supernatural to a scientific basis, with the aim of bettering the human condition and increasing human happiness. This religious principle, Russell argues, should focus on promoting the good and opposing the bad, and should determine the Rationalist’s every activity, public and private.

Having defined the Rationalist’s position, Russell then defines the Rationalist’s task. This is three-fold: – 1) Personal 2) Corporate 3) Public. The personal task is to live his life fully by the light of reason. The corporate is to help establish centres where freethinkers can meet, examine ideas, and propagate Rationalist culture. The public is to engage in politics, but dispassionately and objectively.

Russell expresses opposition to war when it is no more than nationalistic aggression, and to all wars waged by Christianity.

The final section of the lecture advocates a national system of secular education, and strongly echoes Conway’s views on education. Education should be orientated toward the ethical and practical issues of life, developing children’s capacities for fellow-feeling, love, and power of independent judgment. In schools, a pro-scientific spirit of intellectual freedom and honesty should prevail; and children should be encouraged to be spontaneous and self-expressive.

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