2000 Years of Disbelief: Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

Bertrand Russell in 1957. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 1996). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

One of the twentieth century’s most brilliant thinkers and writers, the iconoclastic Bertrand Russell, wrought changes in many fields, from mathematics and philosophy to social protest, freethought, and sexual morality.

Russell was born into a titled English family and educated at Cambridge University, where he became a lecturer in logic and mathematics. In the early 1900s, he wrote monumental books outlining a rational basis for mathematics and repudiating idealism, i.e., the belief that objects and experiences are products of the mind.

Had he limited himself to abstractions, Russell might be remembered solely as an academic luminary. Instead, he plunged into public protest, writing attacks on religion and denunciations of all sides in World War I. For one article, he was fined; for another, he was jailed for six months and fired from his Cambridge post. (In prison, a jailer asked Russell his religion, to which Russell replied “agnostic.” The jailer had never heard of such a belief, but muttered, “I guess we all worship the same God.”)

After the war, Russell championed reform movements and wrote crusading books and papers at an astounding rate. His essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” first given as a speech at Battersea Town Hall in 1927, became a classic refutation of supernaturalism. He and his second wife opened an avant-garde school in which children were taught in a liberated atmosphere free from taboos and punishments. He constantly advocated scientific and liberal thinking in opposition to religion and dogmatism.

From 1938 to 1944, Russell taught at various American universities, but the New York State Supreme Court barred him from City University of New York because of his irreligion and advocacy of sexual freedom. He returned to Cambridge, and was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in literature as “the champion of humanity and freedom of thought.”

Russell’s sense of moral urgency never slackened. At age eighty-nine he was arrested for demonstrating against thermonuclear weapons.

A dozen years before Russell’s death, biographer Alan Wood summarized him: “He is certainly the leading questioner of our times. He started by asking questions about mathematics and religion and philosophy, and he went on to question accepted ideas about war and politics and sex and education, setting the minds of men on the march, so that the world could never be quite the same as if he had not lived.”

Russell’s views on religion

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear … fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.”- Why I Am Not a Christian, 1927

“The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings.” — ibid.

“One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it. … You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.” — ibid.

“You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” — ibid.

“Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did, we do not know anything about him…. I am concerned with Christ as he appears in the gospels, taking the gospel narrative as it stands, and there one finds some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, he certainly thought that his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time….There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that he believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. … This doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture.” — ibid.

“We can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by the help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.” — ibid.

“There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dares not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.” — Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1954

“My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.” — Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? 1930

“Christ taught that you should give your goods to the poor, that you should not fight, that you should not go to church, and that you should not punish adultery. Neither Catholics nor Protestants have shown any strong desire to follow his teaching in any of these respects…. What is true of Christianity is equally true of Buddhism. The Buddha was amiable and enlightened; on his deathbed he laughed at his disciples for supposing that he was immortal. But the Buddhist priesthood — as it exists, for example, in Tibet — has been obscurantist, tyrannous, and cruel in the highest degree.” — ibid.

“The intolerance that spread over the world with the advent of Christianity is one of its most curious features…. From the age of Constantine to the end of the seventeenth century, Christians were far more fiercely persecuted by other Christians than they were by the Roman emperors.” — ibid.

“It is no credit to the orthodox that they do not now believe all the absurdities that were believed 150 years ago. The gradual emasculation of the Christian doctrine has been effected in spite of the most vigorous resistance, and solely as the result of the onslaughts of freethinkers.” — ibid.

“So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the gospels in praise of intelligence.” — Peter’s Quotations

“Christians hold that their faith does good, but other faiths do harm…. What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm…. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence…. We are told that faith could remove mountains, but no one believed it; we are now told that the atomic bomb can remove mountains, and everyone believes it.” — ibid.

“Most people whose intelligence is much above the average are, nowadays, openly or secretly agnostic.” — What Great Men Think of Religion, by Ira Cardiff

“Throughout history, increase of civilization has been correlated with decrease of religiosity.” — ibid.

“Religion encourages stupidity, and an insufficient sense of reality.” — ibid.

“I am myself a dissenter from all known religions and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out.” — ibid.

“A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of this free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.” — ibid.

“Religions, which condemn the pleasures of sense, drive men to seek the pleasures of power. Throughout history, power has been the vice of the ascetic.” — Be Reasonable: Selected Quotations for inquiring Minds

“More and more people are becoming unable to accept traditional beliefs. If they think that, apart from these beliefs, there is no reason for kindly behavior, the results may be needlessly unfortunate. That is why it is important to show no supernatural reasons are needed to make men kind and to prove that only through kindness can the human race achieve happiness.” — The Faith of a Rationalist, BBC broadcast, 1953

“We read in the Old Testament that it was a religious duty to exterminate conquered races completely, and that to spare even their cattle and sheep was an impiety. Dark terrors and misfortunes in the life to come oppressed the Egyptians and Etruscans, but never reached their full development until the victory of Christianity.” — “ldeas That Have Harmed Mankind,” Unpopular Essays, Simon & Schuster, 1950), p. 149

“Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false.” — ibid.

“Dogma demands authority, rather than intelligent thought, as the source of opinion; it requires persecution of heretics and hostility to unbelievers; it asks of its disciples that they should inhibit natural kindliness in favor of systematic hatred.” — “Philosophy and Politics,” Unpopular Essays, p. 20

“The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their aban donment. This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology.” — ibid., p. 15

“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.” — “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish,” Unpopular Essays, p. 104

“Life on this planet is almost certainly temporary. The earth will grow cold, or the atmosphere will gradually fly off, or there will be an insufficiency of water, or, as Sir James Jeans genially prophesies, the sun will burst and all the planets will be turned into gas…. Of course, such an event is of little importance from the point of view of orthodox theology, since men are immortal, and will continue to exist in heaven and hell when none are left on earth.” — ibid., p. 84

“Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.” — ibid.

“The twin concepts of sin and vindictive punishment seem to be at the root of much that is most vigorous, both in religion and politics.” — Unpopular Essays

“Belief in a Divine Mission is one of the many forms of certainty that have afflicted the human race.”- ibid.

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good evidence exists.” — Skeptical Essays, 1961

Excerpted from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 1996. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

A (very) Brief History of Bertrand Russell

Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)

A Conversation with Bertrand Russell (1952)

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