JR'S Free Thought Pages
            No Gods  ~ No Masters   


                                                                                                         Great Minds

                                                                         Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) by Paul Edwards

                                                                              From Free Inquiry – Dec 2004/Jan 2005 Issue



Bertrand Russell was probably the most influential unbeliever of the twentieth century. When I was sixteen and living in Melbourne, Australia, 1 came across three of Russell's writings on religion: "A Free Man's Worship" (1903); "Why 1 Am Not a Christian" (1927); and "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?" (1930). I had already been moving in the direction of unbelief, but these essays "fixed" me for good. 1 subsequently discovered that numerous people in very different coun­tries had similar experiences. 1have never seen any reason to change the views I formed at that time under Russell's influence: there is no God, there is no life after death, Jesus was a man, and, perhaps most important, the influ­ence of religion is by and large bad. Furthermore, although it is highly regret­table that all of us must die and that, in Russell's words, the whole of "man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins," one can nevertheless lead a life that is meaningful.

"I am myself," Russell wrote in 1922, "a dissenter from all known religions, and 1 hope that every kind of reli­gious belief will die out. ... I regard reli­gion as belonging to the infancy of human reason and to a stage of devel­opment which we are now outgrowing." In a television interview thirty-seven years later, he slightly qualified this pre­diction. If great wars and great oppres­sors continue so that many people will be leaving very unhappy lives, religion will probably go on, but "if people solve their social problems religion will die out." My only qualification of the last sentence—and one that Russell himself would of course have endorsed—is (hat religion will die if people solve their per­sonal problems. It is these that again and again lead otherwise sensible peo­ple to turn or return to God.

Throughout Russell's life, there repeatedly were rumors that he had abandoned his unbelief and had turned to Christianity. All such statements are totally false. In a letter reproduced in the Humanist of September/October 1998, he was most emphatic that he remained an unbeliever:

Evidently there is a lie factory at work on behalf of the afterlife. How often must I continue to deny that I have become religious? There is no basis whatsoever for these rumors. My views on religion remain those that I acquired at the age of 16, I consider all forms of religion not only false but harmful.'

Russell wavered between calling himself an agnostic and describing himself as an atheist. He evidently did not attach too much importance to this distinction, but he made it clear that if he was to he classified as an agnostic, it would have, to be in a sense in which an agnostic and an atheist are "for practical purposes, at one." In the television interview men­tioned earlier, the interviewer asked Russell, "Do you think it is certain that there is no such thing as God or simply that it is just not proven?" "No," Russell answered, "1 don't think it is certain there is no such thing—I think it is on exactly the same level as the Olympic gods, or the Norwegian gods; they also may exist, the gods of Olympus and Valhalla. I can't prove they don't, but I think that the Christian God has no more likelihood than they had. I think they are a bare possibility." He explained his views more fully in an interview pub­lished in Look magazine in 1953. An agnostic, in any sense in which he can be regarded as one. Russell said, "may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice." Russell never considered the views of "sophisti­cated" theologians like Paul Tillich, who regard the true God as "Being itself"—a reality so far transcending all observ­able objects that it cannot be described in ordinary terms. I am sure that Russell would have agreed with the critics who regard this kind of theology as meaning­less rather than false or doubtful.

On survival after death, Russell's posi­tion is similarly negative. All the evidence indicates that what we regard as our men­tal life is "bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy" There is every reason to believe that mental life ceases when the body decays. Russell admits that this argument is "only one of probability" but adds that "it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based." It is conceivable that evidence from psychical research might change the balance of probability some day; but, writing in 1925, Russell considered such evidence far weaker "than the physio­logical evidence on the other side." This conclusion seems to me weaker than what is justified.1 do not see that consciousness could exist without a physical foundation. The only survival belief not affected is res­urrection of the body, but this view seems pure moonshine. One is inclined to quote here Heinrich Heine's advice to leave the heavens to the angels and sparrows.

Russell may take credit for having completed the critique of the ontological argument under­taken by Kant. In "My Philosophical Development," an essay written in 1946 but not published until after Russell's death, he correctly notes that Kant saw what existence is not, but not what exis­tence is. According to Russell, the word exists belongs to a class of what he and other pioneers of modern logic called "logical constants": words like or, and, not, possible, and all. All these words have a clear meaning and play an impor­tant role in our language, but they are not the names of characteristics, natural or supernatural or of things or any kind of reality, familiar or mysterious. If I say "At the reception I shall wear a black or a blue tie," everybody understands this statement, although I cannot point to any thing or characteristic that is designated by "or." The use of the word or indicates that I am engaging in the operation of disjunction rather than, for example, the operation of conjunction or negation; and the fact that I cannot anywhere in the world detect "or-ness" does not deprive the word or of its meaning or usefulness. Similar remarks apply to all the other logical constants. That "exists" is a logi­cal constant and, more specifically, what logicians mean by a quantifier, can easily be seen when one reflects that in any existential statement we can remove the word exists from the content-part and insert "there is" or "there are" into what we might call the "logical machinery" part without in any way changing the mean­ing of the original statement. "Cats exist" can be rewritten as "There is something, X, which is a cat," or more simply, "There are cats," or "There is a cat"; and quite clearly "there is" or "there are" are not expressions that designate a character­istic. Russell has provided an elegant for­mulation of this analysis using terminol­ogy that has become familiar to students of modern logic. When we make an exis­tential statement, we are asserting that a certain propositional function results in a true proposition upon the replacement of the variable by a suitable constant. Thus, "Cats exist" is equivalent to "the propositional function X is a cat' is true for some value of X" (e.g., my neighbor's cat Miranda). Similarly, "Unicorns do not exist" is equivalent to "the propositional function 'X is a unicorn' is false for all values of x." The grammatical form of "Cats exist" is highly misleading. It sug­gests that what we are talking about, our subject, is cats, and that we are ascribing the characteristic of existence to them. In fact, "cat" is the predicate and the sub­ject is "x" or "something." "Cats exist" means "Something is a cat." For a com­prehension of this analysis, it is neces­sary to possess a certain intellectual flexibility and to be able to look beyond grammatical appearances: we have to be able to engage in the mental "twist" of transferring the ostensible subject (cats) to its proper position of predicate. We shall see later that there are quite a few philosophers, notably Heidegger and his followers, who are unable to perform this "twist" and who believe that all things that exist share a common (and "unfindable") characteristic named by "exists." Russell discusses the cosmological argument in Why I Am Not a Christian. He tells us of the influence on him of a passage in John Stuart Mill's Autobiography:

When I was a young man and was debating these questions very serious­ly in my mind, I for a long time accept­ed the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Will's Autobiography, and I found there this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the fur­ther question 'Who made God?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything with­out cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in this argument.... There is no reason why the world could not have come into being with­out a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no rea­son to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the power of our imagination.

There is an extended discussion of the contingency form of the cosmological argument in the BBC debate on the existence of God between Russell and Father Copleston (1948).2 Copleston insists that the causal explanation of a phenomenon does not really make it "intelligible" unless we trace it back to a "necessary being." This is not so, and it can be shown that the very notion of a neces­sary being involves a serious confusion.

Perhaps Russell's main contribution to the critique of the cosmological argu­ment was his introduction of Georg Cantor's set theory to a wider public. Cantor had shown that the notion of an infinite series does not involve any con­tradiction, as Kant and various meta­physicians had assumed. There may be physical reasons for supposing that the universe has not always existed, but this assumption cannot be ruled out on any purely logical grounds. In the first volume of his Autobiography, Russell reprints an amusing letter from Cantor to him, in which he describes Kant as "yonder sophistical philistine, who was so bad a mathematician," and then calls him "this abominable mummy." Russell relates that Cantor gave him one of his books with an inscription on the cover: "I see your motto is 'Kant or Cantor.'"

Religion and Science, a book pub­lished in 1935, contains a chapter enti­tled "Cosmic Purpose," in which the the­sis of some religious scientists that the universe was created in order to pro­duce human beings is subjected to a devastating critique:

This earth is a very small corner of the universe, and there are reasons for supposing it by no means typical of the rest       Before the Copernican revolution, it was natural to assume that God's purposes were specially concerned with the earth, but now this has become an implausible hypothe­sis. If it is the purpose of the cosmos to evolve mind, we must regard it as rather incompetent in having pro­duced so little in such a long time.

Even if we accept the view that the pur­pose of the universe is especially con­cerned with "our little planet," the notion that the universe exists "for man" is grossly implausible:

The earth (unless we use enough poi­son gas to destroy all life) is likely to remain habitable for some consider­able tune, but not for ever ... we shall in any case all be destroyed when the sun explodes and becomes a cold white dwarf, which we are told by [Sir James] Jeans, is to happen in about a million million years, though the exact date is still somewhat uncertain.

Later in the same chapter, Russell discusses the question, "Is what has happened hitherto evidence for the good intention of the universe?" Needless to say, the answer is that it is not:

If I were granted omnipotence and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as the final cause of all my efforts. Man, as a curious accident in a back-water, is intelligible: his mixture of virtues and vices is such as might be expected to result from a fortuitous origin. But only abysmal self-compla­cency can see in Man a reason which omniscience could consider adequate as a motive for the Creator.

Fact and Fiction, a collection of some of Russell's writings of the 1950s, contains a story with the title "The Theologian's Nightmare." Dr. Thaddeus, the theologian, dreams that he has died and gone to heaven. Much to his aston­ishment, the janitor has never heard of "this thing called 'man.'" Librarians are called in who finally locate information on the earth and tell Dr. Thaddeus that he is "an infinitesimal animalcule on a tiny body revolving around an insignifi­cant member of a collection of three hun­dred billion stars which is only one of many millions of such collections." The Copernican revolution, Russell writes:

... will not have done its work until it has taught men more modesty than is to be found among those who think man sufficient evidence of Cosmic Purpose.

Russell shares the view of Hume, Nietzsche, Freud, and many other free­thinkers that religion, so far from mak­ing people "moral," has by and large the opposite effect. He deplores the repres­sive sexual morality and also the con­tempt for the body that has gone hand in hand with Christianity. These cause per­versions and endless misery. There is also the tendency to persecute members of other religions and above all unbe­lievers. Most religious believers dimly realize that their views are not based on evidence and are either simply the result of early indoctrination or of some irrational need. This is so even when they offer arguments and "evidence." The unbeliever, especially if he is highly educated and unapologetic for his views, disturbs them and, in Russell's words, they become "furious." In the old days, they could have the unbeliever burnt. The "burning" days are over, but, as Nietzsche observed, "they love us now because they can no longer kill us."

Their love frequently takes strange forms, as in the 1940 case in New York City in which a bigoted judge, egged on by unscrupulous politicians, found Bertrand Russell "judicially unfit" to be a teacher at City College.3

In Russell's Freedom and Organ­ization (1934), a history of Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century, there are character sketches of several of the political leaders. Those noted for their attachment to Chris­tianity do not come off very well. Kindness in general and sympathy for the underdog are not part of their make-up. This book, incidentally, which is unjustly forgotten, has an extended dis­cussion of Marxism. Russell saw consid­erable virtue in historical materialism, but he maintained that "chance" often plays a significant role not allowed for in the Marxist scheme. Freedom and Organization contains priceless accounts of the defenders of child labor, the American politicians who defended slavery, Thomas Carlyle and Heinrich von Treitschke, the American "robber-barons," and three of the most pious monarchs: Leopold I of Belgium, Wilhelm II of Germany, and Nicholas II of Russia. It is a book not to be missed by lovers of great writing. There are chuck­les on every page, but the purpose is very serious—to explain how Europe could have sunk into the senseless war of 1914-1918.

In the course of his first visit to England in the fall of 1934, Rudolf Carnap met Bertrand Russell. "I was deeply impressed by his personality," Carnap wrote in his autobiography, "the wide horizon of his ideas, from techni­calities of logic to the destiny of man­kind, his undogmatic attitude in both theoretical and political questions, and the high perspective from which he looked at the world and at the actions of men." Others who met Russell have left similar descriptions. Brand Blanshard who, unlike Carnap, disagreed with Russell on many basic philosophical issues, paid a visit to him in the 1940s, when Russell was living in the coun­try near Bryn Mawr. He recalled one of Russell's remarks about William James's The Will to Believe: "Isn't it immoral?" James seemed to Blanshard to be saying that there were circum­stances under which it was legitimate to believe something because it would be to one's advantage to believe it. To Russell, Blanshard adds, "that seemed a sin against the light."4

Russell did not neglect such very human questions as how we should face death. "I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive," he wrote in "What I Believe," an essay published in 1925, but "I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of my annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose then-value because they are not everlasting." In 1951, he returned to the subject, and he concluded a moving discussion of old age and the prospect of death, when he himself was nearing eighty, with the advice to make one's interest gradually wider and more impersonal:

The wise man should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what he can no longer do, and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

There have been several vicious attacks on Russell's character in recent years. An excellent response to them by Professor Thomas Nagel may be found in the New Republic of May 7, 2001.



1.   Yours Faithfully, Bertrand
ed. Ray Perkins (La Salle, HI.:
Open   Court   Publishing  Company,
2002), p. 410.

2.    The text of this debate is printed
the British, but not the American,
edition of Why I Am Not a Christian
and Other Essays on Religion
York: Scribner, 1957). Copleston could
not get the permission of his Jesuit
superiors for allowing the debate
to be published in America. It is
also now available in The Existence
of God, ed. John Hick (New York:
Scribner,  1964), and in the third
edition of Paul Edwards and Arthur
Pap, A Modern Introduction to Philo-
sophy (New York: The Free Press
[Macmillan], 1973).

3.    For details of this odious case,
see my appendix to Russell's Why I
Am Not a Christian and Other Essays
on Religion.
It should be remembered
that this case occurred early in 1940,
when Hitler was winning on all fronts.
I have always felt that there is a kind
of unspoken "international" of reac-­
tionaries, and several of the ones in
America, even though they did not
approve of all of Hitler's acts, were
encouraged by his successes.

4.  Dialogue, Canadian Philosophical Review, 1969, p. 606



                                                                             For Home: