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Thoughts on Big Al and his Pal Big Bert

Two of the Greatest Minds and Ethical Influences of the 20th C

By JR, January 2022


Of course the title refers not to physically large naked apes but rather two of the most powerful and influential intellects of the 20th century who were both recipients of the Nobel Prize. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) not only were the owners of formidable minds but good friends who had parallel moral sensibilities and world views. Both men were free thinkers, atheists, sceptics, anti-authoritarians, anti-war pacifists [1], anti-capitalists, socialists [2] and social justice warriors. Both had utter contempt for the irrationalities and tyrannies of religion for which the business oriented churches represent institutionalized structured superstition. Both men despised regimentation, hierarchy and especially the uniformed military and police, were appalled at the docility and obedience to authority of the average person and the inability and/ or refusal to think. Russell claimed that people would rather die than think and Einstein who wrote “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.”

From my experience of eight decades I’ve learned that unquestioning obedience seems to very well suit the conservative/religious mind, especially in the United States of Jesus commonly called Amerika. Despite growing secularization in the USA and throughout the rest of the world, only about 10% of the population living in the Republic of Guns and Bibles do not believe in god, one of the lowest levels of atheism in the Western World. For scientists this statistic is a mirror image of the general population with only 10% believing in a sky tyrant. [3] But many Americans, and to a lesser extent Canadians and Western Europeans, believe in New Age mumbo jumbo, a third believe the Earth has been visited by aliens, over forty percent believe in ghosts and millions believe that the 1969 Apollo moon landings were staged.

Many people refuse to discus either religion or politics, two of the most important topics for any society with a pretence to democracy. Some free thinkers, perhaps rightly, claim that debating a religionist is futile because anyone who has not been reasoned into his beliefs cannot be reasoned out of them. This is probably true; others perhaps don’t want to insult and ruffle the thin-skinned emotional feathers of the devout since it may affect their prayers or golf game. The late Christopher Hitchens had no problem with insulting believers who once claimed “I hope I am not offensive by accident”. Watch his clip on Fox News following the death of Jerry Fallwell as he demolishes the doltish Sean Hannity here. Hitchens had a gift for invective and caustic humour when he said “If you gave Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox”. But religions are not neutral; in fact they are harmful to both the individual and a free society just as conservatism and its offshoot fascism, which is now re-emerging in many places in the world (including the US) do irreparable harm. But I digress.

Back to Big Bert and Big Al. Bertrand Russell spent six months in jail for his outspoken views against the butchery of the First World War, imploring primarily young working class men to not join the needless slaughter of other working class men. So who benefits from war? Surely I don’t need to answer that one for the reader. But Bert spent his time behind bars productively, writing an excellent volume on the philosophy of mathematics. But in his long life of 98 years he was a radical to the very end, even having been thrown in jail in his late eighties for demonstrating against militarism, the horrors of the Vietnam War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Like his good friend Al he considered patriotism, propaganda and nationalism to be three of the worst idiocies endemic to the modern capitalist imperialist state. Russell defined patriotism as “the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons” and his buddy Al defined nationalism as “an infantile disease” akin to a mind virus. Seldom will you find a genuine free thinker who is either a cop of soldier. I cannot resist quoting H. L. Mencken at this point:


Both of these remarkable human beings have had a significant influence on my thinking, in addition to Noam Chomsky, A. C. Grayling, Michael Parenti, the two Richards (Dawkins and Feynman), anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin, Victor Serge and Emma Goldman and too many others that would take pages to list. These intellectual giants clarified the necessity of a scientific outlook, scepticism and anti-authoritarianism – and most important, to never stop questioning. As Thomas Huxley advised, “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something” who in this quip defines a polymath as well as anyone.                                                                                                  

Al and Bert collaborated on an anti-war and anti-nuclear weapon manuscript published in 1955 (the year of Big Al’s death) called the Russell-Einstein Manifesto [4] which was endorsed by many leading intellectuals and scientists of the Cold War era lunacy. The emergence of nation states has been one of the plagues on human history, constructed on the venalities of xenophobia, nationalism, patriotism and war. And there has forever been the myths of religion with its priests and preachers (in the West it has been Christianity which had its own murderous wars over subtle differences in dogma) acting as propagandists, flag wavers and cheerleaders for the military (populated by naďve working class men killing other working class men) in every plundering colonial venture and imperialist rich man’s war.

I close with two brilliant quotes among many by Bert and Al:

The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits – Albert Einstein

I regard religion as a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery for the human race – Bertrand Russell


[1] Both Einstein and Russell detested the military, police forces and any other formation that included any and all groups and institutions that required uniforms or special hats. I would include the inane boy scouts and youth military regiments such as the air head cadets which serve primarily as platforms of indoctrination into nationalism and patriotism, serving as preparations for future intellectually challenged gun toting cops and soldiers (hired goons for the state). I was naive enough to experiment with both and lasted as much as a week with the scouts that insisted on “God Save the Queen” and “Oh Canada” after each boring ritualized session. I refused to participate is such ludicrous puerile rituals. In the case of the Air Cadets, the intolerable marching, saluting and loud mouthed room temperature IQ sergeant (reminding me of a school yard bully) was enough to last less than a day. Military service is one of the schemes used by our power elites to inculcate unquestioning docility and obedience and, when needed, turn them into fascistic killer apes on command. In the US, land of Guns and Bibles, joining the military or becoming a cop are two of the few job options that pay a liveable wage with benefits and pension. Suffice to say, as a cop or soldier you will likely be brain dead before you reach retirement age

George Bernard Shaw rightly referred to patriotism as “a pernicious psychopathic form of idiocy” and military service producing “moral imbecility, ferocity and cowardice”. My mentors Al and Bert would surely agree. Religion and patriotism are lethal toxic brews: “Onward Christian Soldiers” as pious brainwashed alpha males dying for your country in the rich man’s war is always mentioned but never killing for your country. Einstein was right when he predicted that following a nuclear World War III, and assuming anyone is still alive, World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones.”

[2] Read Big Al’s 1949 essay “Why Socialism” here:

Monthly Review | Why Socialism?

Yes, we can do better than the uncaring socio-economic calamity we call neo-liberal capitalism in which 8 billionaires have more wealth than half the planet’s population. Although there is nothing inevitable about these institutions: religion, the military, police forces and capitalism are all an evolutionary offshoot of our primate origins and the semi-intelligent ape.

[3] Only 5% of biologists and 7.5% of physicists believe in a sky daddy.

[4] The manifesto began with, “In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the Governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them“. The document is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s in which the barbaric anti-communist hysteria of the Korean War had just ended and the even longer and more barbaric one in Vietnam was about to begin. The United States was instrumental in both these wars and continues to be the major threat to world peace.

As Bertrand Russell once wrote, “If war no longer occupied men’s thoughts and energies, we could, within a generation, put an end to all serious poverty throughout the world.” - Unpopular Essays, 1950

Both Russell and Einstein would concur with H. L. Mencken when he wrote:

“What I got in Sunday school was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities and the Christian God preposterous.... The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves groveling before a being who, if he really exists, deserves to be denounced instead of respected.” - H. L. Mencken



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