Books on Science and Religion #41: The Atheism of Bertrand Russell

Books on Science and Religion #41: The Atheism of Bertrand Russell

Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

April 5, 2015

Bertrand_RusselOne of the most fascinating and accomplished thinkers of the 20th century – and probably its most respected atheist – was the English philosopher Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell.

Lord Russell – from a very prominent and very old aristocratic British family – has a resume rarely equaled. Here are the Wikipedia summaries:

He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege, colleague G. E. Moore, and his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. … His philosophical essayOn Denotinghas been considered a “paradigm of philosophy”... His work has had a considerable influence on philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics.

Russell’s philosophical contributions alone make him one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century. But, he was also one of its leading logicians:

Honourable_Bertrand_RussellWith A. N. Whitehead he wrote Principia Mathematica, an attempt to create a logical basis for mathematics. His work has had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and computer science (see type theory, type system).

These were just his technical achievements. He also was one of the century’s leading activists:

Russell was a prominent anti-war activist; he championed anti-imperialism and went to prison for his pacifism during World War I. Later, he campaigned against Adolf Hitler, then criticized Stalinist totalitarianism, attacked the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War and was an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament. In 1950 Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literaturein recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought“.

For Baha’is and like-minded thinkers, his belief in world unity and world peace – and his activism towards those goal – are exemplary. In The Expanding Mental Universe, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1959 (the text can be found here), he described humanity as moving towards unity:

From a very early time, human beings have been divided into groups which have gradually grown larger, passing, in the course of ages, from families to tribes, from tribes to nations, and from nations to federations. Throughout this process, biological needs have generated two opposite systems of morality: one for dealings with our own social group; the other for dealings with outsiders

One bodyReligion, he tells us, teaches us to love our neighbors and desire their happiness.  These teachings, often ignored, are becoming a “condition of survival”:

But in the new world, the kindly feeling towards others which religion has advocated will be not only a moral duty but an indispensable condition of survival. … Human society as a whole is becoming, in this respect, more and more like a single human body; and if we are to continue to exist, we shall have to acquire feelings directed toward the welfare of the whole in the same sort of way in which our feelings of individual welfare concern the whole body and not only this or that portion of it.

Russell’s Search for Certainty

What was the nature of Russell’s atheism? And why is it still widely respected? More on Russell’s atheism latter as I consider the second question first.

John Russell
John Russell, 1st Earl Russell and Bertrand Russell’s grandfather. He served as Prime Minister on two occasions during the mid-19th century.

Clearly, much of the respect for Russell’s atheism is due to the extraordinary breadth and depth of his accomplishments. But equally clearly, it was the sincerity and integrity of his search for truth that has gained him our trust. Nick Spencer, in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, gives us some biographical background.:

Having lost his mother, father and sister before the age of three, Russell was brought up by his grandparents in an atmosphere that was stifling even by late Victorian standards. He abandoned his grandparents’ Christianity early and much of the rest of life, intellectual and personal, was spent in search of certainty.

Russell first looked to find this certainty in mathematics, launching on a search for “a mathematics of human behaviour as precise as the mathematics of machines” and for an ethics based on science, mathematics, and logic. It was very much a mystical – and spiritual – search:

In 1901, Russell had a quasi-mystical experience when staying with Alfred and Evelyn Whitehead. He recollected in his Autobiography feeling the ‘unendurable … loneliness of the human soul’, impenetrable to all except ‘the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached’. ‘Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty … and a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable.’

principia mathematicaPhilosophy “which should make human life endurable” was – for Russell – mathematical and Platonic. It was about an abstract realm where “beauty, truth and goodness were to be located” that would offer “some temporary relief from the confusing pain of being human.”

The results that Russell achieved in his search for that philosophy, summarized in the monumental Principia Mathematica, were stunningly influential, but nonetheless fell short of what Russell had intended. The “Austrian logician Kurt Gödel conclusively proved not only that they had not done what they set out to do but, worse, that it could not be done. Certainty, of the type Russell sought, was impossible.”

He wrote in his autobiography that:

I have not had even the somewhat abstract God that Spinoza allowed himself to whom to attach my intellectual love … I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God … I have loved a ghost.

Russell’s Atheism

Russell’s atheism is a problematic affair, with many claiming that he wasn’t really an atheist at all, but rather that he was agnostic.  (See, for example, Bertrand Russel the agnostic, one of seven excellent articles on Russell recently in the Guardian written by Clare Carlisle. Or see Was Bertrand Russell An Atheist or Was He Really an Agnostic? on the Bertrand Russel Society website. Or see Russell’s own thoughts – What is an Agnostic – where he seems to put himself in the agnostic category.)

Another problem is how poorly informed he is about religion, or perhaps it is better to say, how slapdash and unconcerned for fact and accuracy he was in his writings on the topic. Here is how Clare Carlisle puts in as she – charitably – summarizes his positions in Bertrand Russell on the science v religion debate:

Bertrand Russell did not consider himself an expert on ethics and religion, and it is true that his writing on these subjects lacks the originality and sophistication of his philosophical work on mathematics. His criticisms of religion are often similar – in essence if not in tone – to opinions voiced by contemporary atheists: he argued that religious beliefs cause wars and persecution, are moralistic and oppressive, and foster fear.

Russell Science and ReligionRobert Graves, the well-known English author and poet, puts it kindly, if rather more succinctly, in a 1957 New Republic review called The Atheism of Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley:

Generous emotion often beguiles Russell into unsupportable statements. Thus he asserts that “millions of unfortunate women” were burned as witches by mediaeval Christians, when any historian could have warned him to strike three zeros off this estimate …  Again, as an example of senseless superstition, he cites the Deuteronomic ban on seething a kid in its mother’s milk. Brief enquiry would have shown that this was a practical rule, directed by the Temple authorities against participation in a heathen rite.

Even a perfunctory look at Russell’s Religion and Science bears this out. He makes careless statements that he should have known were false. Here is the what he says on the first page of his first chapter:

Between religion and science there has been a prolonged conflict, in which, until
the last few years, science has invariably proved victorious.

Of course, religion and science, as is now widely known, were never in any prolonged conflict. Rather, there was a strong push in the 19th and early 20th century by various authors promoting their own idea that there was prolonged sectarian or ideological reasons. Unfortunately, almost the whole of Religion and Science is marred by a stereotyped – and uncritical – exposition of a received point of view. Here we can probably excuse him on the grounds that he was simply a victim of the prejudices of the day and his class.

But in the very next sentence, he writes:

But the rise of new religions in Russia and Germany, equipped with new means of missionary activity provided by science, has again put the issue in doubt, as it was at the beginning of the scientific epoch, and has made it again important to examine the grounds and the history of the warfare waged by traditional religion against scientific knowledge.

Russel Why I'm not a ChristianThis is simply egregious and risible, suggesting as it does that Russell was unwilling to honestly face the political consequences of the materialism and the social Darwinism that appear to have been central to his then (1935) worldview.

So, what are his views – both atheistic or agnostic?  Here is how I summarize it, if that is possible:

1. Religions are untrue and harmful. Or as Graves puts it: “At the age of 86, Russell still boldly declares that, in his opinion, “all the great religions of the world, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism, are both untrue and harmful.”

2. Philosophical arguments attempting to prove the existence of God are wrong. Graves, again: “As a master of metaphysics, Russell has little difficulty in demolishing the stock Catholic philosophical arguments held to prove the existence of God: the First Cause Argument, the Natural Law Argument, the Moral Argument, the Argument from Design, the Remedying of Injustice Argument.”  However, if you read what he says about them, his arguments are very lazy.

3. Science replaces religion. He believed in an “almost utopian vision of scientific progress” and even endorsed eugenics, according to Clare Carlisle in Bertrand Russell on the science v religion debate.

4. Religion is based on fear.  Here is how he puts it in Why I am not a Christian:

Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – 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. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.

This is one of the hardest of Russell’s ideas about religion to swallow. Graves, in 1958, concludes that “The resentful hatred implicit in all Russell’s discussions of early religious and moral training suggests that he lived as a child under constant threats of hellfire, and as an adolescent under frantic obsessions of sexual guilt.”

Russell A free man's worship5. And, from the description of Russell’s interests and background above, we can safely conclude that much of Russell’s atheism – or agnosticism – stemmed from his belief that truth and certainty were to be found in mathematics and logic, not religion.

6. And finally, Russell seemed to be a victim of a materialism that saw the world devoid of meaning. According to Russell’s account in A Free Man’s Worship, written in 1903:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave … all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

There is much more to say about Russell’s thought – and much more to explore in his fascinating spiritual and mystical side. But I’m at more than 2000 words, so I will have to leave much unsaid.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we consider Wittgenstein – that most marvelous and chameleonlike of philosophers – as well as Ayer and the logical positivists.


This is the 41th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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