You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry...

If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.
– Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish,” 1943

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The funny thing is, if you'd shown me this quote ten years ago it would have made me angry (or at least annoyed), because at the time I believed that faith and theology were about becoming more and more certain -- on a rational level -- of the rightness of my opinions.

Now, however, I am not angry. Nor am I afflicted with the false and patronizing pity born of pride. Rather, I feel deeply the Sadness of the pain of Unknowing, and also (sometimes) the gratitude born of glancing experiences of Grace.

To live right is not to be right, but rather to love well, and humbly, and often -- knowing full well that in everything other than that, you may very well be at least a little bit wrong.


  1. I can't say I agree with that quote by Bertran Russell. If someone insists that two plus two is five in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, even after they've had it explained to them, and if they insist on teaching their errors to children in schools, I do not pity them...I get angry.

    1. Russell does throw in the word "probably."

      I think what's being advocated is not "never get angry or you're invariably in the wrong," but rather a general principle, which seems to me to be rather wise.

      I disagree pretty uncompromisingly with Russell on other things, but I'm still gonna give a thumbs up to this one.

      I'm going to assume you're quite an intelligent person and therefore -- since I also assume you're aware how unlikely it is that your anger will change the mind of this theoretically belligerent "two plus two is five parent" -- I wonder if perhaps it could be that your anger response in such a situation is not coming particularly from a desire to right a wrong (since, on a pragmatic level, it just won't work), but rather from somewhere else.

      Where? I have no clue.

      I could very well be horrendously wrong, but I think it's worth contemplating. Emotions are tricky little weasels, and to mix my animalian metaphors, I'll add that I think it's worth paying attention to them if you want to ferret out deeper insight into your own possibly unhealthy emotional subterfuges.

    2. I think it is unhealthy to go around angry in life, but I don't think the natural emotion of anger is an unhealthy one to experience on occasion. I understand what the quote means, and initially one is tempted to agree with it. When it comes to things like politics, I think anger as a response to someone I disagree with would be an unhealthy response that demonstrates more about my inner psyche than anything else. But, when it comes to arithmetic, geography or other sciences, as I say I tend to feel angry when someone "maintains" that two and two are five despite being shown they are wrong.

      I would also disagree with his statement that theology is different than arithmetic because in theology there are only opinions. In my opinion that is not the case.

    3. Fair enough. Like all quotes, I suppose it's only true in some circumstances, dealing with a particular subset of human behavior. We've all observed people (sometimes ourselves) marching around in proud anger over the perceived incorrectness of others' opinions, when really all that was going on was fear.

    4. Not to be an argumentative SOB, but I think it is important to distinguish quotes which are only true in some circumstances from those that seem sensible at first but are in fact total b.s. People tend to cling to quotes like this, and even build their philosophies around them without critiquing them, especially when they come from someone of some fame.

      The claim that the most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way, seems true to me but then he goes on to lump theology into that category in which there is no good evidence either way when in fact many would argue it is closer to arithmetic or geography in that regard. The example of creationism taught in schools is a case in point. Evolution is as scientifically established as basic arithmetic and yet millions of people still claim that there is no good evidence either way. Getting angry when people maintain their theology in that regard is most definitely NOT a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do.

    5. Well, yeah... and maybe I'm just constitutionally passive-aggressive and therefore suspicious of all anger. But I do think of anger as being useful only as a starter-pistol, not as a sustaining driver. It just doesn't work, and it seems to me that if you try to hold onto it for too long, you just end up having contempt for the people who hold the view you see as stupid.

      While I tend to agree with you on evolution (sort of), I also don't feel that it's particularly incompatible with what the Bible was actually trying to say.

      And I understand how people whose faith is a VERY important part of their identity and don't see it the way I do find talk of evolution to be so threatening. They've been educated to anachronistically read the Bible as some sort of science textbook, and therefore are tied to an untenable paradigm that will always, inevitably, lead them into conflicts between their faith and their reason. In those cases they choose faith over reason.

      I think this is unnecessary and a bit sad, but I don't resent them for it. That doesn't make them evil, I don't think... it makes them human. They are NOT the Evil Other. They - like you and I - just want a life that makes sense... a life in which their actions have meaning.

      When they argue about creation they're not arguing about science, they're arguing about their IDENTITY. And getting angry at someone who's insecure about the basis of their identity WILL NOT HELP. Patience sucks, most of the time; but patient, empathetic grace is all, I think, that has a prayer of changing anyone.

      Note: I also don't accept a purely materialistic universe in which the ONLY significance is to be found in existentialist behaviors. On a practical, day-to-day level, this is surely true. HOWEVER, I hold out a hope for something more. I believe in a MYSTERY I cannot comprehend, and that this mystery points to a super-creative-awesome-artist-God.

      Call me nuts if you'd like, that's fine with me...

    6. I don't disagree with what you say here...and I've got no problem with someone who chooses to continue to limit their knowledge to the dark ages if they so wish. But, maybe it's just me, it seems so rare to meet a creationist (for example) who doesn't feel the need to convince everyone else of their folly as well. That's the bit that evokes the anger response, especially since it so often involves teaching known falsehoods to children. If they want to stay in their basement and silently believe that 2+2=5 and all biological species were zapped into place 10,000 years ago, all the power to them, I won't be the least bit pissed off about it.

      I don't think you're nuts, but I do happen to accept a purely materialistic universe. As soon as someone shows me the least bit of evidence to the contrary, I'd be happy to change my mind :)

    7. I guess I just figure... well - there are bigger fish to fry than inaccuracy of belief. Yeah, I'd like it if people were more interested in finding the Truth than in protecting what truth they figure they've already established, but I've got a lotta things that bug me more. Like mountain top removal and fracking. THAT, to me, is worth getting riled up about, because it's immediate and has long-term, super-ugly effects.

    8. How about people who have known false beliefs trying to get their hands on a nuclear weapon so that they can impose their will on millions of people? about people who think that removing a mountain top to more easily get at a fossil fuel doesn't have long-term negative ecological effects, or believe that long-term ecological effects are not important? Or how about someone invading a country in Mesopotamia and killing hundreds of thousands because they (falsely) believed that their deity instructed them to?

      Isn't it all tied together? In my mind there is almost nothing more important in this world than making sure people don't try to impose their mistaken beliefs on others.

      Whoops, I can feel myself getting angry now...

    9. I know exactly what you are talking about. The creationist point of view is used to justify everything in the Bible as being inerrant. That is the SOLE REASON why they want it taught in schools. It has wider implications than just being bad science.

      I am very tolerant of other belief systems. But I do get angry when people use bad science and bad theology as a reason to violate the rights of others. At that point, I think it is justified to say "Wait a minute! This is wrong!"

      I will say however that there definitely is some truth in this article and it is food for thought.

    10. Thanks for your input, Mary. I suppose I'll have to start thinking about all this a bit more, now that my son's coming-of-school-age.

  2. I'm guessing that what makes Anonymous angry about the 2+2=5 parent isn't that they hold that opinion, but that they might want to force that opinion on little Anonymous Jr. a la creationists or what not. That's a different thing than I think Russell is talking about because obviously, that's an action and not just an opinion.

    1. Yeah, fair enough. Anger about injustice is legit, I think. I just tend to think that it's not an emotion that's worth residing in, if your goal is to effect a change. Be angry, braid some cords, yell a bunch, then take actual action.

      I would suggest kidnapping such children and feeding them lots of strawberry ice cream as you inform them of your own, more correct opinions.


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