JR'S Free Thought Pages
                           No Gods  ~ No Masters   


           Religion and Education ~ Bertrand Russell 

 Religion is a complex phenomenon, having both an individual and a social aspect. At the beginning of historical times, religion was already old: throughout history, increase of civilization has been correlated with decrease of religiosity. The earliest religions of which we know were social rather than individual: there were powerful spirits who punished or rewarded the whole tribe according as individual members of the tribe behaved offensively or pleasantly. The feelings of the spirits, as to the sort of behaviour that was offensive or pleasant, were ascertained by induction and recorded in priestly tradition. If an earthquake or a pestilence destroyed the inhabitants of some region, prudent men would inquire which of their habits were peculiar, and decide that such habits were in future to be avoided. This point of view is by no means extinct. I knew a Vicar in the Church of England who thought that the defeat of the Germans in the Great War was due to their fondness for the Higher Criticism, since lie held that the Creator of the universe objects to textual exegesis of Hebrew manuscripts.

Religion, as its advocates are in the habit of telling us, is the source of the sense of social obligation. When a man did something displeasing to the gods, they were apt to punish not only the guilty individual but also the whole tribe. Consequently his conduct was a matter of general concern, since private vices caused public calamities. This point of view still dominates the criminal law. There are sexual abnormalities for which men suffer imprisonment, although, from a rational standpoint, their behaviour concerns only themselves; if any justification of their punishment is to he attempted, it must be based upon what befell the Cities of the Plain, since only so can their con­duct make any difference to the community. It is a curious fact that the things to which the gods object are seldom things that would do much harm if they did not arouse the divine wrath. They object to one’s eating pork or eating beef or marrying one’s deceased wife’s sister; in the time of King David, God objected to a census, and slew so many people by a pestilence that King David’s statistics were rendered worthless. The Aztecs’ gods insisted on human sacrifice and cannibalism before they would show favour to their worshippers. Nevertheless, although the moral codes resulting from religion have been curious, it must be admitted that it is religion that has given rise to them. If any morality is better than none, then religion has been a force for good.

Although religion began as an affair of the tribe, it early developed also a purely individual aspect. From about the sixth century BC, widely separated movements began in the ancient world, which concerned themselves with the individual soul and with what a Christian would call salvation. Taoism in China, Buddhism in India, the Orphic religion in Greece, and the Hebrew prophets, all had this character: they arose from the perception that the natural life is sor­rowful, and from the search for a way of life which should enable men to escape misfortune, or at least to bear it. At a not much later date Parmenides inaugurated the great tradition of religious philosophy by his doctrine of the unreality of time and the oneness of all things. From him as ancestor come Plato, Plotinus, the Fathers, Spinoza, Hegel, Bergson, and all the philosophers of mysticism. From the Hebrew prophets comes the type of religion which is concerned less with metaphysics than with righteousness; this type is predominant in Protestantism. In every form of Christianity there is both a moral and a metaphysical element, owing to the fact that Christianity arose from an intimate blend of Judaism and Hellenism; but on the whole, as Christianity traveled westward, it became less metaphysical and more moral. Islam, except in Persia, has always had only a very slight element of metaphysics, while the religions emanating from India have been predominantly philosophic.

Ever since the rise of individual religion, the personal and the institutional elements in the religious life have been at war with one another. The institutional elements have usually been politically the stronger, since they were supported by priests and endowments and traditions, as well as by government and the law. Personal religion is a private matter, which should in no way concern the community. But institutional religion is a matter of great political importance. Wher­ever institutional religion exists, property is connected with it, and a man can make a living by advocating its tenets, but not (or not so easily) by opposing them. In so far as education is influenced by religion, it is influenced by institutional religion, which controls ancient foundations, and in many countries controls the State. At present, in most of the countries of Western Europe, religion dominates the education of the rich, while it has less influence on the education of the poor. This is to some extent a political accident: where no one religion is strong enough to impose itself on the State, State schools cannot teach the doctrines of a particular sect, but schools supported by the fees of the pupils can teach whatever parents think worth paying for. In England and France, largely as a result of this state of affairs, the rich are much more religious than the urban poor. When I say they are ‘religious’, I am using the word in a political sense: I do not mean that they are pious, nor even necessarily that they give a metaphysical assent to Christian dogma, but only that they support the Church, vote with it in legislative questions, and wish their children to be in the care of those who accept its teaching. It is for this reason that the Church is still important.

Among liberal-minded laymen, one meets, not infrequently, the view that the Church has ceased to be a weighty factor in the life of the community. This is, to my mind, a profound error. The law of marriage and divorce, though not quite what most ecclesiastics would wish, retains absurdities and cruelties - such as the refusal of divorce for insanity - which would not survive a week but for the influence of Christian Churches. Open opponents of Christianity are handicapped ways in competition with those who are more pious or more in practice, many posts are not open to avowed atheists, who more ability to achieve success than is required by the orthodox. It is in education, more than anywhere else, that institutional religion is important at the present day. In England, all public schools and almost all preparatory schools are either Anglican or Roman Catholic. It is sometimes said, by freethinking parents who send their children to such schools, that most people react against their education, and that therefore it is as well to teach falsehood to the young in order that, after they have reacted, they may believe what is true. This argument is a mere excuse for timid conventionality, which a moment’s reflection shows to be statistically fallacious. The immense majority of adults believe through life most of what they were taught in youth. Countries remain Protestant, Catholic, Moslem, or whatever they may be, for centuries on end, whereas if the doctrine of reaction were true they ought to change their religion in each gener­ation. The very men who advance such an argument for having their children taught orthodoxy show, by their conduct, how little they have reacted. If you believe privately that two and two are four, but avoid, proclaiming this opinion, and hold it right that public money should be spent in teaching your children and the children of others that two and two are five, your effective opinion, from a social point of view, is that two and two are five, and your private personal conviction to the contrary becomes unimportant. So those who, while not themselves religious, believe a religious education to be desirable, have not in any effective way reacted against their own religious education, however they may protest to the contrary.

Many of those who do not give an intellectual assent to the dogmas of religion, hold that religion, nevertheless, is harmless and perhaps even beneficent. On this point I find myself at one with the orthodox, as opposed to what are called ‘liberal’ thinkers: it seems to me that the question whether there is a God and whether we persist after death are important, and that it is well to think as truly as possible on these matters. I cannot take the politician’s view that, even if there he not a God, it is desirable that most people should think there is, since this belief encourages virtuous conduct. Where children are concerned, many freethinkers adopt this attitude: bow can you teach children to be good, they ask, if you do not teach them religion? How can you teach them to he good, I should reply, if you habitually and deliberately lie to them on a subject of the greatest importance? And how can any conduct which is genuinely desirable need false beliefs as its motive? If there are no valid arguments for what you consider ‘good’ conduct, your conception of goodness must be at fault. And n any case it is parental authority rather than religion that influences the behaviour of children. ‘What religion mainly does is to give them certain emotions, not very closely bound up with action, and not, for the most part, very desirable. Indirectly, no doubt, these emotions have effects upon behaviour, though by no means such effects as religious educators profess to desire. This, however, is a subject to which I shall return later.

The bad effects of religious education depend partly upon the particular doctrines taught and partly upon the mere insistence that various doubtful propositions are known to be true. Whether these propositions are in fact true or not may be non-discoverable, but in attempting to make the young regard them as certain, religious teachers are teaching what is false, since whether true in fact or not, the propositions in question are emphatically not certain. Take, for example, the future life. On this matter men confess their ignorance: the evidence is insufficient, and suspension of judgment is the only rational attitude. But the Christian religion has pronounced in favour of a future life, and the young who are brought up under its influence are taught to regard survival after death as a certainty. “What does it matter?” the reader may say, “the belief is comforting, and cannot do any harm.” I should reply that it does harm in the following ways:

First: any exceptionally intelligent child, who discovers by reflection that the arguments for immortality are inconclusive, will be discouraged by his teachers, perhaps even punished; and other children who show any inclination to think likewise will be discouraged from conversation on such topics, and if possible prevented from reading books that might increase their knowledge and their reasoning power.

Secondly: since most people whose intelligence is much above the average are nowadays openly or secretly agnostic, the teachers in a school which insists on religion must be either stupid or hypocritical, unless they belong to that small class of men who, owing to some kink, have intellectual ability without intellectual judgment. ‘What happens in practice is that men who intend to adopt the scholastic profession begin at an early age to close their minds against adventurous thoughts; they become timid and conventional, first in theology and then, by a natural transition, in everything else; like the fox who had lost his tail, they tell their pupils that it is good to be timid and conventional; after they have done this for a sufficient length of time, their merit is observed by the authorities, and they are pro­moted to positions of power. The type of man who can keep his job as a teacher and make a success of his career is thus largely determined by the theological or other tests which, explicitly or implicitly, limit the choice of teachers, and exclude from the teaching profession most of those who are best fitted to stimulate the young both intellectually and morally.

Thirdly: it is impossible to instill the scientific spirit into the young so long as any propositions are regarded as sacrosanct and not open to question. It is of the essence of the scientific attitude that it demands evidence for whatever is to be believed, and that it follows the evidence regardless of the direction in which it leads. As soon as there is a creed to be maintained, it is necessary to surround it with emotions and taboos, to state in tones vibrant with manly pathos that it contains ‘great’ truths, and to set up criteria of truth other than those of science, more especially the feelings of the heart and the moral certainties of ‘good’ men. In the great days of religion, when men be­lieved, as Thomas Aquinas did, that pure reason could demonstrate the fundamental propositions of Christian theology, sentiment was unnecessary: St Thomas’s Summa is as cool and rational as David Hume. But those days are past, and the modem theologian allows himself to use words charged with emotion so as to produce in his reader a state of mind in which the logical cogency of an argument will not be too closely scrutinized. The intrusion of emotion and sentimentality is always the mark of a bad case. Imagine the methods of religious apologists applied to the proposition 2+2-4. The result would be something as follows: ‘This great truth is acknowledged alike by the busy man of affairs in his office, by the statesman engaged in the computation of the national revenue, by the booking-office clerk in his efforts to meet the claims of the so-called “rush hour”, by the innocent child buying lollipops to delight his baby brother, and by the humble Eskimo counting his catch of fish on the frozen shores of the Arctic ocean. Can so unanimity have been produced by anything other than a deep human recognition of a pro­found spiritual need? Shall we listen to the sneering skeptic who would rob us of the shining heritage of wisdom handed down to us from times less out of touch with the infinite than our age of jazz? No! A thousand times No!’ But it may be doubted whether boys would learn arithmetic better by this method than by those in vogue at present.

For such reasons as we have been considering, any creed, no matter what, is likely to be harmful in education when it is regarded as exempt from the intellectual scrutiny to which our more scientific beliefs are subjected. There are, however, various special objections to the kind of religious instruction to which, in Christian countries, a large percentage of children are exposed.

In the first place, religion is a conservative force, and preserves much of what was bad in the past. The Romans offered human sacrifices to the gods as late as the second Punic War, but apart from religion they would not have done anything so barbaric. Similarly in our own day men do things from religious motives which, apart from religion, would seem intolerable cruel. The Roman Catholic Church still believes in hell. The Anglican Church, as a result of a decision of the lay members of the Privy Council against the opposition of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, does not regard hell as de fide; nevertheless, most Anglican clergymen still believe in hell. All who believe in hell must regard vindictive punishment as permissible, and therefore have a theoretical justification for cruel methods in education and the treatment of criminals. The immense majority of ministers of religion support war whenever it occurs, though in peace­time they are often pacifists; in supporting war, they give emphatic utterance to their conviction that God is on their side, and lend religious support to the persecution of men who think wholesale slaughter unwise. While slavery existed, religious arguments were found in support of it; nowadays, similar arguments are found in support of capitalistic exploitation. Almost all traditional cruelties and injustices have been supported by organized religion until the moral sense of the lay community compelled a change of front.

In the second place, the Christian religion offers comforts to those who accept it, which it is painful to have to forgo when belief fades. Belief in God and a future life makes it possible to go through life with less of stoic courage than is needed by skeptics. A great many young people lose faith in these dogmas at an age at which despair is easy, and thus have to face a much more intense unhappiness than that which falls to the lot of those who have never had a religious upbringing. Christianity offers reasons for not fearing death or the universe, and in so doing it fails to teach adequately the virtue of courage. The craving for religious faith being largely an outcome of fear, the advocates of faith tend to think that certain kinds of fear are not to be deprecated. In this, to my mind, they are gravely mistaken. To allow oneself to entertain pleasant beliefs as a means of avoiding fear is not to live in the best way. In so far as religion makes its appeal to fear, it is lowering to human dignity.

In the third place, when religion is taken seriously, it involves viewing this world as unimportant in comparison with the next, thereby leading to the advocacy of practices which cause a balance of misery here below on the ground that they will lead to happiness in heaven. The chief illustration of this point of view is in questions of sex, which I shall consider in the next chapter. But there is undoubtedly, in those who accept Christian teaching genuinely and profoundly, a tendency to minimize such evils as poverty and disease, on the ground that they belong only to this earthly life. This doctrine falls in very conveniently with the interests of the rich, and is perhaps one of the reasons why most of the leading plutocrats are deeply religious. If there is a future life, and if heaven is the reward for misery here below, we do right to obstruct all amelioration of terrestrial conditions, and we must admire the unselfishness of those captains of industry who allow others to monopolize the profitable brief sorrow on earth. But if the belief in a hereafter is mistaken, we shall have thrown away the substance for the shadow, and shall be as unfortunate as those who invest a lifetime’s savings in enterprises that go bankrupt.

In the fourth place, the effect of religious teaching upon morality is bad in various ways. It tends to sap self-reliance, especially when it is associated with the confessional; through teaching the young to lean upon authority, it often makes them incapable of self-direction I have known men who had been educated as Roman Catholics and who, when they lost their faith, behaved in ways which must be regarded as regrettable. Some would say that such men show the moral utility of religion, but I should say quite the opposite, since the weakness of will which they display is a direct result of their education. Moreover, when religion is presented as the only ground for morality a man who ceases to believe in religion is likely to cease to believe in morality. Samuel Butler’s hero in The Way of all Flesh raped the housemaid as soon as he ceased to be a Christian. There are many sound reasons for not raping housemaids, but the young man in question had not been taught any of them, he had only been taught that such acts are displeasing to God In view of the fact that, in our day, loss of faith is a quite probable occurrence, it is imprudent to base all morality, even the indispensable minimum, upon a foundation so likely to give way.

Another morally undesirable aspect of religious education is that it underestimates the intellectual virtues. Intellectual impartiality, a most important quality, it regards as positively bad; persistent attempts to understand difficult matters it views, at best, with tol­eration. The individuals whom it holds up for admiration in the present day are seldom men of first-rate intelligence; when they are, it is because of some folly to which they have given utterance in a foolish moment. Owing to the identification of religion with virtue, together with the fact that the most religious men are not the most intelligent, a religious education gives courage to the stupid to resist the authority of educated men, as has happened, for example, where the teaching of evolution has been made illegal. So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence, and in this respect ministers of religion follow gospel authority more closely than in some others. This must be reckoned as a serious defect in the ethics taught in Christian educational establishments.

The fundamental defect of Christian ethics consists in the fact that it labels certain classes of acts ‘sins’ and others ‘virtues’ on grounds that have nothing to do with their social consequences. An ethic not derived from superstition must decide first upon the kind of social effects which it desires to achieve and the kind which it desires to avoid It must then decide, as far as our knowledge permits, what acts will promote the desired consequences; these acts it will praise, while those having a contrary tendency it will condemn Primitive ethics do not proceed in this way. They select certain modes of behaviour for censure, for reasons which are lost in anthropological obscurity. On the whole, among successful nations, the acts condemned tend to be harmful, and the acts praised tend to be beneficial, but this is never the case as regards every detail. There are those who hold that originally animals were domesticated for religious reasons, not from utility, but that the tribes which tried to domesticate the crocodile or the lion died out, while those which chose sheep and cows prospered. Similarly, where tribes with different ethical codes conflicted, those whose code was least absurd might be expected to be victorious. But no code with a superstitious origin can fail to contain absurdities. Such absurdities are to be found in the Christian code, though less now than formerly. The prohibition of work on Sunday can be defended rationally, but the prohibition of play and amusement cannot. The prohibition of theft is, in general, sound, but not when it as applied, as it was by the Churches in post-war Germany, to prevent public appropriation of the property of exiled princes. The superstitious origin of Christian ethics is most evident in the matter of sex; but this is so large a subject that it demands a separate chapter.                 (1932)

                                                            For Home: