Atheists and Agnostics Compendium

Conversation with Bertrand Russell from his essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

INTERVIEWER: Name please.

RUSSELL: Bertrand Russell.

INTERVIEWER: What is your profession?

RUSSELL: Gadfly.

INTERVIEWER: I beg your pardon?

RUSSELL: I sting the mule of dogmatic authority. In the manner of Socrates.

INTERVIEWER: (bewildered) I – I see. Have you ever been in jail?

RUSSELL: Twice. They were interesting experiences.

INTERVIEWER: It’s not something to be proud of.

RUSSELL: Oh, but it is. I thought the slaughter of a generation of young men in World War I was a crime and I said so.

INTERVIEWER: Sedition! And in wartime!

RUSSELL: If the leaders of the world want to fight let them assemble and have at each other. Leave the innocent alone. They wanted to silence me so they locked me up for six months and took my Cambridge professorship away from me.

INTERVIEWER: Serves you right. And when was the other jail term ?

RUSSELL: In 1961. I joined the nuclear disarmament protests. I suppose I didn’t protest loudly enough. I only spent a week in jail.

INTERVIEWER: Did you give a lecture to South London Branch of the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall on March 6, 1927?

RUSSELL: I did.

INTERVIEWER: And was this lecture entitled “Why I am not a Christian?”

RUSSELL: It was.

INTERVIEWER: Are you aware that England is a Christian nation and that religion was established by an act of Parliament?

RUSSELL: Are you aware that the right of protest is also protected by Parliament?

INTERVIEWER: Your statements and your way of life encourage the depravity of our youth. They undercut Christian values. How can you justify… You are a teacher. What kind of role model do you provide?

RUSSELL: A good one, I hope.

INTERVIEWER: (aghast) You’ve been married four times!

RUSSELL: And I’ve received the Nobel Prize for my writings.

INTERVIEWER: You wrote, back in the 1930’s, that sex between a man and woman who are not married to each other is permissible behavior.

RUSSELL: That is correct.

INTERVIEWER: But that’s immoral!

RUSSELL: Only by the standards of Victorian times. I predict that there will come a time when sex before marriage will be looked on as perfectly normal.

INTERVIEWER: (hands up) God forbid!

RUSSELL: Who did you say?

INTERVIEWER: Let’s get back to your lecture at Battersea. What do you have against Christianity?

RUSSELL: A good deal. I believe that Christianity is not fit for human consumption.

INTERVIEWER: How can you hold such a belief?

RUSSELL: Do you want me to repeat the Battersea lecture? Here and now? I spoke for about an hour.

INTERVIEWER: No, no! Of course not! Just for the record I would like you to succinctly state your reasons so that this assembly can judge your blasphemy.

RUSSELL: Well, if I tell you why I am not a Christian I have to tell you two different things: first, why I do not believe in God and in immortality; and, secondly, why I do not think that Christ was the best and wisest of men, although I grant him a very high degree of moral goodness.

INTERVIEWER: I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

RUSSELL: I know you can’t — but I’ll try to be brief. There are many arguments for the existence of God. Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God. The fallacy in this argument is if everything must have a cause, well then, God must have a cause.

INTERVIEWER: Logic chopping!

RUSSELL: No, just logic. I also understand that new studies in quantum physics show that on the subatomic level events occur that do not have a cause. According to the Big Bang theory the universe was, at its beginning, very, very tiny. Perhaps it began as one of those uncaused subatomic fluctuations.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t know what you are talking about. I know that the universe is God’s creation. He is the great creator and law-giver.

RUSSELL: Yes, there is a very common argument is that God exists because the universe is ruled by his Natural Laws. That was a favorite argument all through the eighteenth century, especially under the influence of Sir Isaac Newton and his view of the cosmos. People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for any explanation of the law of gravitation. Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in the somewhat more complicated fashion that Einstein introduced. But I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein.

INTERVIEWER: (relieved) Thank God!

RUSSELL: Who did you say? (They look at each other) If you say, as orthodox theologians do, that God has reasons for giving those laws rather than others -- then God himself must be subject to law. This whole argument from natural law no longer has anything like the strength that it used to have.

INTERVIEWER: All I know is this world is so complicated. It had to be planned. It couldn’t have just happened by accident.

RUSSELL: Ah, the argument for God, the designer, the engineer. I understand this argument has been resurrected by fundamentalist Christians in the United States. They want it taught in their public schools. The colonies are so behind the times. Our Charles Darwin put that argument to bed years ago. When you look into that argument, 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. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than nuclear bombs, starving populations and garbage dumps?

INTERVIEWER: I do not presume to know God’s plan for life. And neither should you. God had a reason for bringing life into this world.

RUSSELL: Yes, yes — and surely he has a reason for taking it out. Because if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is merely a flash in the pan; it is a stage in the decay of the solar system. You see at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions and temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system.
I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions and millions of years hence.

INTERVIEWER: Words, words. You philosophers can spin words that make one dizzy. I only know there must be a God and he is good. And I know that Christ is his son and my Savior.

RUSSELL: Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you about is not really what moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason. Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people's desire for a belief in God.

INTERVIEWER: You are demeaning the substance of religion. The moral teachings of Christ are what make Christianity the great guide for living that it is. He is the greatest of teachers. His way is the way. He is our shepherd. Our leader.

RUSSELL: I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ. I do not know that I could go with Him all the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can. You will remember that He said: "Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-Tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present Prime Minister, for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise you to go and smite him on one cheek.
Then there is another maxim of Christ which I think has a great deal of good in it, but I do not find that it is very popular among our Christian friends. He says, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor." That is a very excellent maxim, but, as I say, it is not much practiced. They are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then, after all, I am not a Christian.

INTERVIEWER: You certainly are not! Our Lord set us an example. He is perfect. We are not. But he shows us the way.

RUSSELL: Well, I do not think he was quite perfect. In fact there is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I don’t feel that any person who is really humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ, certainly as depicted in the Gospels, did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching -- an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t believe there is anything but good in the Son of God.

RUSSELL: But you will find that in the Gospels Christ said: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell." That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: "Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world nor in the world to come." That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of this sort into the world.

INTERVIEWER: But… but…

RUSSELL: (continuing without a pause) Then, of course, you remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming He is going to divide the sheep from the goats, and He is going to say to the goats: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire." I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world, and gave the world generations of cruel torture.

INTERVIEWER: Mister Russell I do not like your tone. Some people have, I admit, committed sin and tried to hide it under the cover of religion but religion gives us our moral code. It shows us how we should act toward our fellow human beings. The Judeo-Christian religion is the very basis of our civilization. It is wrong to undermine it.

RUSSELL: One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; but I have not noticed it. The idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion is nonsense. It is a curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. It is because the church has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness.

INTERVIEWER: What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy, it is to make them good.

RUSSELL: But “good” is a relative term, as Spinoza pointed out 300 years ago. What is good for you may not be good for me. What do you think good is?

INTERVIEWER: It’s simple. Good is to walk in the path of Jesus and to obey the commandments of God.

RUSSELL: And if one does not obey what you call the commandments of God? Does one go to hell?

INTERVIEWER: I don’t know if there really is a place called hell but God will surely, in some way, punish transgressors. My mother used to say, “God doesn’t come down with a stick.” I say to you, beware the wrath of God!

RUSSELL: There you have it. Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly 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 death.

INTERVIEWER: (desperately) But what are we to do? We must have faith that ultimately good will triumph over evil or else what is life for? We all want life to mean something.

RUSSELL: What we want is to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of a God is a conception derived from the ancient oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings.
We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world… (slowly, concluding) A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, the future that our intelligence can create.