Why I Am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell


Seven hundred stars. Read in January 2016.

Just kidding: It’s only five. I’ve just never read a book that I agreed with so closely. This is what my book looks like now that I’ve finished:


And probably half of those blades of grass represent two or more sections on the same page spread. I think I’ve found my philosopher.

I’m shocked by how progressive Russell was in the early twentieth century—most of these essays were written in the 20s and 30s, even one as early as 1903, but they all say things that I still feel radical for believing nearly a century later. About the lack of logic and evidence inherent to religion, of course, and further, the active damage religion causes. But in the more specific details, too: He advocates healthier attitudes toward sex, sex education, masturbation, nudity, and birth control. From what I can tell he was essentially a feminist; if nothing else, he explains how these harmful attitudes toward sex have been explicitly geared toward keeping women in submission. And given the time period it’s surprising how few things he said that wouldn’t be acceptable today—there was an offensive comment each about sex workers and the mentally ill, two groups that I think even now are among the last to gain respect, and a few mentions of “primitive savages,” that kind of thing.

He had so many interesting thoughts about the future, and only one of them seems crazy (the idea that because of scientific progress, the patriarchal family was dissolving and pretty soon children were going to start being raised by the state. He has good reasons for thinking so; it’s just funny because of how decidedly it has not happened. But who knows, maybe it still is in the future, and we’re just not there yet).

This is obviously not all of the passages I marked, but I went through and found several I especially like.

From the preface (yes, it gets good that quickly):

I think all the great religions of the world—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism—both untrue and harmful. It is evident as a matter of logic that, since they disagree, not more than one of them can be true. With very few exceptions, the religion which a man accepts is that of the community in which he lives, which makes it obvious that the influence of environment is what has led him to accept the religion in question.

The conviction that it is important to believe this or that, even if a free inquiry would not support the belief, is one which is common to almost all religions and which inspires all systems of state education. The consequence is that the minds of the young are stunted and are filled with fanatical hostility to those who have other fanaticisms and, even more virulently, to those who object to all fanaticisms. A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering.

From the titular essay, which was a lecture given in 1927, a few points responding to various arguments for God’s existence:

The whole idea that natural laws imply a lawgiver is due to a confusion between natural and human laws. Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way . . . Natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave.

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years.

That is the idea—that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian tradition in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world.

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, 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.

From an essay titled “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” in 1930:

The intellectual objection [to religion] is that there is no reason to suppose any religion is true; the moral objection is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow.

The Christian emphasis on the individual soul has had a profound influence upon the ethics of Christian communities . . . The natural impulse of the vigorous person of decent character is to attempt to do good, but if he is deprived of all political power and of all opportunity to influence events, he will be deflected from his natural course and will decide that the important thing is to be good. This is what happened to the early Christians; it led to a conception of personal holiness as something quite independent from beneficent action, since holiness had to be something that could be achieved by people who were impotent in action. Social virtue came therefore to be excluded from Christian ethics. To this day conventional Christians think an adulterer more wicked than a politician who takes bribes, although the latter probably does a thousand times as much harm.

Christ tells us to become as little children, but little children cannot understand the differential calculus, or the principles of currency, or the modern methods of combating disease. To acquire such knowledge is no part of our duty, according to the church. The church no longer contends that knowledge is in itself sinful, though it did so in its palmy days; but the acquisition of knowledge, even though not sinful, is dangerous, since it may lead to pride of intellect, and hence to a questioning of the Christian dogma.

From the essay called “What I Believe,” which was published as a little book in 1925:

In the ordinary man and woman there is a certain amount of active malevolence, both special ill will directed to particular enemies and general impersonal pleasure in the misfortunes of others. It is customary to cover this over with fine phrases; about half of conventional morality is a cloak for it . . . It is shown in a thousand ways, great and small: in the glee with which people repeat and believe scandal, in the unkind treatment of criminals in spite of clear proof that better treatment would have more effect in reforming them, in the unbelievable barbarity with which all white races treat Negroes, and in the gusto with which old ladies and clergymen pointed out the duty of military service to young men during the War.

Here he is quoting John Stuart Mill, in the essay titled “On Catholic and Protestant Skeptics,” written in 1928:

“My father’s rejection of all that is called religious belief was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual. He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.”

This was particularly meaningful to me, because it’s the same reason I left the church I grew up in. Many Mormons have trouble with the historical inconsistencies of the church’s origins, so that’s what people generally assume when someone leaves it, but I didn’t even have a chance to get to that point. For me, it was the simple fact that my conscience told me certain things were wrong, and there my church was, doing all of those things. That was the end of my belief.

From a brilliantly sarcastic essay called “Nice People,” written in 1931:

Whoever invented the phrase “the naked truth” had perceived an important connection. Nakedness is shocking to all right-minded people, and so is truth.

From an essay called “Freedom and the Colleges” in 1940—which is the year he was asked to teach at the College of the City of New York, and then was prevented from doing so by a religious and conservative backlash that went so far as a court ruling.

Taxpayers think that since they pay the salaries of university teachers they have a right to decide what these men shall teach. This principle, if logically carried out, would mean that all the advantages of superior education enjoyed by university professors are to be nullified, and that their teaching is to be the same as it would be if they had no special competence.

It is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common.

Collective wisdom, alas, is no adequate substitute for the intelligence of individuals. Individuals who opposed received opinions have been the source of all progress, both moral and intellectual.

Which made me think of Frank Zappa saying that progress is not possible without deviation from the norm, and also poor Rudolph (for the cynical angle):


From a 1954 essay called “Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?”

If a theology is thought necessary to virtue and if candid inquirers see no reason to think the theology true, the authorities will work to discourage candid inquiry. In former centuries they did so by burning the inquirers at the stake. In Russia they still [in 1954] have methods which are little better; but in Western countries the authorities have perfected somewhat milder forms of persuasion. Of these, schools are perhaps the most important: the young must be preserved from hearing the arguments in favor of the opinions which the authorities dislike, and those who nevertheless persist in showing an inquiring disposition will incur social displeasure and, if possible, be made to feel morally reprehensible. In this way, any system of morals which has a theological basis becomes one of the tools by which the holders of power preserve their authority and impair the intellectual vigor of the young . . . As soon as it is held that any belief, no matter what, is important for some other reason than that it is true, a whole host of evils is ready to spring up.

This is certainly the attitude I grew up with; Mormons are very afraid of exposure to “apostates,” and warned constantly to keep themselves safe by avoiding anything critical of the church. It’s funny to think of myself as an ex-Mormon now, because if there’s any connotation to that epithet for me, it’s totally positive—but when I was growing up, the phrase marked someone as a kind of villain, a person who would actively try to trick me away from the gospel. (I didn’t intend for this to be a post about my leaving the LDS church, and this isn’t at all what I was thinking about while I read the book, but in writing about it I can’t help seeing all the connections.)

If the church is not now as bad as the Soviet Government, that is due to the influence of those who attacked the church: from the Council of Trent to the present day, whatever improvements it has effected have been due to its enemies.

I see this as an incredibly important point, actually. Because people love their religions, understandably, and they want to believe the best of them. They look at their church and they understand that it used to be worse, that those things were bad, but they think that the church has gotten better, and it’s doing its best. But religion shouldn’t get credit for making the changes they were forced, by their enemies, to make. (The Mormon church banned black people from its priesthood, and they only stopped doing it in 1978—fourteen years after the Civil Rights Act. They didn’t do it because God suddenly decided it was time (as they claim), or because they suddenly understood that it was racist. They did it because they had to, because it was almost fucking 1980, and the world around them wouldn’t have accepted it anymore.)

When two men of science disagree, they do not invoke the secular arm; they wait for further evidence to decide the issue, because, as men of science, they know that neither is infallible. But when two theologians differ, since there are no criteria to which either can appeal, there is nothing for it but mutual hatred and an open or covert appeal to force. Christianity, I will admit, does less harm than it used to do; but that is because it is less fervently believed.

This seems like a statement that might draw criticism, but at the same time I feel like it’s completely self-evident. The Bible is very violent, and historically so was Christianity. That’s not the case anymore, but it’s not because the Bible changed—it’s because people no longer believe they have to adhere literally to its every word.

The most dangerous features of Communism are reminiscent of the medieval church. They consist of fanatical acceptance of doctrines embodied in a sacred book, unwillingness to examine these doctrines critically, and savage persecution of those who reject them.

If there is any such thing as “evil,” I believe this is it. Not an outside force, not a devil causing people to “fall” from goodness. Evil is entirely human, and it’s in the way we treat anyone who’s not exactly like us.

From the last and shortest essay, “Religion and Morals,” in 1952:

I do not believe that a decay of dogmatic belief can do anything but good. I admit at once that new systems of dogma, such as those of the Nazis and the Communists, are even worse than the old systems, but they could never have acquired a hold over men’s minds if orthodox dogmatic habits had not been instilled in youth. Stalin’s language is full of reminiscences of the theological seminary in which he received his training. What the world needs is not dogma but an attitude of scientific inquiry combined with a belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin or by a Deity imagined in the likeness of the believer.

I wholeheartedly agree. I know it sounds terrible if you’re religious, but I don’t mean it spitefully; I genuinely believe that the world can’t really move forward as long as we’re all divided by religion. It keeps people living according to the morals of the past; it convinces them that “earthly” problems are only temporary, and will be sorted out after we’re dead; it requires cognitive dissonance and encourages confirmation bias. The whole structure of religion, everything about the way it teaches people to think, is in opposition to a peaceful, rational, egalitarian society.

As long as we divide humanity into mutually exclusive worldviews that talk about “unbelievers” and “infidels,” we can’t possibly hope to stop fighting over them. As long as people grow up learning to accept “facts” with no evidence, we’ll have no defense against people like Donald Trump, who just say whatever is convenient for them utterly regardless of what exists in reality. There will never be world peace, or any kind of equality worldwide, until we’ve gotten rid of religion. Every time I see an article about the increasing secularism in the world, I feel a tiny spark of hope, and I try not to let it be crushed by the knowledge of how long it will be before we get there.

In the meantime, I can’t wait to read more Bertrand Russell.

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