Bertrand Russell on Religion (1959)





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Published on Jan 9, 2010

Bertrand Russell (May 1872 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, socialist, pacifist and social critic. Although he spent the majority of his life in England, he was born in Wales, where he also died.

Russell led the British "revolt against idealism" in the early 1900s. He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his protégé Wittgenstein and his elder Frege, and is widely held to be one of the 20th century's premier logicians. He co-authored, with A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, an attempt to ground mathematics on logic. His philosophical essay "On Denoting" has been considered a "paradigm of philosophy." Both works have had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, and philosophy.

He was a prominent anti-war activist, championing free trade between nations and anti-imperialism. Russell was imprisoned for his pacifist activism during World War I, campaigned against Adolf Hitler, for nuclear disarmament, criticised Soviet totalitarianism and the United States of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 1950, Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought."

Comments • 394

Vincent McGrath
To believe in any religion means suspending your disbelief like watching a disney movie and thinking it is true because it makes you 'happy'
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Religion: because saying you're afraid to die is just too hard to admit.
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Scotty Cherryholmes
I have never understood how an intelligent and educated person could believe in a God. Religion seems to me to be something that does not fit in modern society. The Christian faith is probably the most unbelievable. Just makes no sense to me. I support the rights for people to believe in a god and to be able to practice their religion. The evangelicals do concern me. Their provocative "one way" dogma is dangerous. That kind of faith causes hatred and promotes war. All over the world we are seeing many religions acting as reactionaries and becoming fundamentalist. Whether it be Muslims, of Christians, or Jews or Hinduism all have sought to go back in time. In today's Tea Party America it is very difficult to admit that you are an atheist or agnostic. There is a lot fear by the conservatives that there is a war on Christmas or the unfairness of forced school prayer. It was pleasant to watch this interview. The 1950's were a time of reactionaries too. A time of McCarthyism. Bertrand Russell was very brave to express his views openly. Thanks for posting this.
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Ahmed Anssaien
With all the new audiovisual technologies, I've understood every word Bertrand Russell said in this video, yet when a U.S President or a politician talks, it's so full of euphemisms and political terms and jargon that make me feel stupid. There's nothing more amazing than direct language.
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Kop Prophet
The tired, old death-bed conversion bit was deftly batted away by this seasoned thinker - and he didn't even dignify the question on the afterlife.  Christians (like the interviewer) just don't understand that emotional, superstitious and hyperbolic haranguing does not work on people like Russell - they are immune to it.  When asked if he preferred heaven or hell he did not choose hell as some commenters have said - he simply mocks the choice enforced by the question. He completely demystifies his own journey when the interviewer wanted him to rhapsodise about his atheistic empowerment.  He studied it and decided it was all bunk - simple as that. 
The very first question is rather stupid. "Why are you not a Christian?" I would have replied "Why are you not a Hindu?"
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Johann Popper
I see no evidence whatever for any of Russell's dogmas. This interview is a fine example of a rhetorical trick that has succeeded in causing much societal damage: always pretend you've got the default position and put your opponents on an impossible offensive, by definition. You see, Russell adheres to just as many unprovable dogmas as Christians, maybe more. But he never puts himself in a position to have to positively defend any of his beliefs, take for example his ethical principles he casually talks about above as if they are settled, or the definition of God he employed to interpret existential arguments thereof, and so on. Thus, he always appears to have all the answers without having to talk about them. He need only make sweeping statements to the effect that he has judged Christian beliefs to be nonsense, and the implication is that there is a foundation, a universal rational starting place he's got a handle on, wherefrom all significant questions are self-evidently already answered -- that Christians bear the sole responsibility for defending their positive claims -- whereas Russell can, by the contrast he thereby creates, make it appear as if all his positive beliefs are unassailable axioms that need no defending, as if all the world possessed a solid common sense that Christianity alone contradicts and must alone prove. Worse, I believe this rhetorical trick worked on Russell first. He genuinely does not believe he needs to positively defend his many comprehensive beliefs (as all people possess, one way or another), or perhaps he doesn't even realize he does have positive beliefs at all, even though he must if, as he himself claims, he has criteria and definitions for judging the validity of arguments that employ metaphysical terms. At the very least, he must know he holds to some ethical truths, as he discusses above, yet he feels himself so special that he need not explain them to the degree that he demands Christians must explain their own categorically similar dogmas.  Russell was obviously far from stupid, and he seemed kind enough in certain circumstances that most could not hate him -- or, rather, his words -- publicly, but he is not taking sense here. One must imagine, embarrassing though it is, some of the people and situations he put himself in that do not seem so serene and harmless, for example, his abandonment of his wife, his bragging about numerous sexual encounters, and so on. It is simply not entirely honest to pretend a religious judgment is the same as any logical judgment, and the only reasonable reason he might pretend that is the case is that his real likely ethical reasons for rejecting Christianity were too embarrassing for public discussion at the time. He wasn't going to say, for example, "I love orgasming with numerous women and men too much to consider a religion that forbids such behavior." That would be more honest, but not socially acceptable. So he instead rhetorically conflates religious (interpretive) claims with logical claims (empirically verifiable, or, more precisely, necessary deductive by means of axiomatic definitions) in order to make it seem like he rejected Christianity first for some universal rational reason, and just happens to prefer a non-Christian lifestyle incidentally. I think that is psychologically suspect.
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Joe Montejunas
who is the interviewer? she seems so honest and charming
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It feels like in Christianity they're being forced to do good deeds or else go they'll go to "hell". I believe doing good things should be because we want to to help make other people's lives better, not because we're scared we'll burn for all eternity. We should do good deeds because we want to, not because we're being told to; that's just being fake and putting on a false persona. Of course this isn't all of them, but seems like something I'm sure most of them do...
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Zeke Edwards
what a charming and logical man.
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