Tuesday, February 02, 2010


In memory of Bertrand Russell

Forty years ago today, mathematician, philosopher, peace and human rights activist Bertrand Russell died at the age of 97. Russell has appeared in these pages before, in a discussion of Russell’s paradox.

Today, in Russell’s memory, we’ll give him this page to speak for himself. Specifically, he’ll talk about his view of religious belief, in this clip on YouTube, embedded below. I’ll help him out by posting a transcript below the video.

Q: Why are you not a Christian?

Russell: Because I see no evidence whatever for any of the Christian dogmas. I’ve examined all the stock arguments in favour of the existence of God, and none of them seem to me to be logically valid.

Q: Do you think there’s a practical reason for having a religious belief, for many people?

Russell: Well, there can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. That’s quite... at least, I rule it out as impossible. Either the thing is true, or it isn’t. If it is true, you should believe it, and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t. And if you can’t find out whether it’s true or whether it isn’t, you should suspend judgment. But you can’t... it seems to me a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful, and not because you think it’s true.

Q: I was thinking of those people who find that some kind of religious code helps them to live their lives. It gives them a very strict set of rules, the rights and the wrongs.

Russell: Yes, but those rules are generally quite mistaken. A great many of them do more harm than good. And they would probably be able to find a rational morality that they could live by if they dropped this irrational traditional taboo morality that comes down from savage ages.

Q: But are we, perhaps the ordinary person perhaps isn’t strong enough to find this own personal ethic. They have to have something imposed upon them from outside.

Russell: Oh, I don’t think that’s true, and what is imposed on you from outside is of no value whatever. It doesn’t count.

Q: Well, you were brought up, of course, as a Christian. When did you first decide that you did not want to remain a believer in the Christian ethic?

Russell: I never decided that I didn’t want to remain a believer. I decided... between the ages of 15 and 18, I spent almost all my spare time thinking about Christian dogmas, and trying to find out whether there was any reason to believe them. And by the time I was 18, I’d discarded the last of them.

Q: Do you think that that gave you an extra strength in your life?

Russell: Oh, I don’t... no, I should’t have said so, neither extra strength nor the opposite. I mean, I was just engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

Q: As you approach the end of life, do you have any fear of some kind of afterlife, or do you feel that that is just...

Russell: Oh, no, I think that’s nonsense.

Q: There is no afterlife?

Russell: None whatever.

Q: Do you have any fear of something that is common amongst atheists and agnostics, who have been atheists or agnostics all their lives, who are converted just before they die, to a form of religion?

Russell: Well, you know, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as religious people think it does. Because religious people, most of them, think that it’s a virtuous act to tell lies about the death beds of agnostics and such. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t happen very often.

1 comment:

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

I can hardly believe that I have the cojones to disagree with Bertrand Russell, but I have to disagree when he says "there can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true."

Of course there can. If you believe a pile of comforting dogma, you can worry less (e.g. because you know you're going to heaven) and focus on other things and end up happier.

I'm not a believer at all, but I believe that religion evolved for a good reason, which is that it comforts people (with pretty lies) and frees up their mental energies for the business of life. Study after study (mostly post-Russell) show that religious people are happier and live longer. That doesn't make them right, but it does mean that there is probably "a practical reason for believing what isn’t true." If he had said "logical" instead of "practical" I'd have no beef with him. (Which is good, since he was, and I am, strictly vegetarian.