Listen to ‘Why I Am Not a Christian,’ Bertrand Russell’s Powerful Critique of Religion (1927)

The English logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was convinced that the religions of the world are not merely untrue, but that they do grievous harm to people. That conviction is very much in evidence in his 1927 speech, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” read here in its complete form by the British actor Terrence Hardiman.

Russell begins by establishing a very general and inclusive definition of the term “Christian.” A Christian, for the purposes of Russell’s argument, is one who believes in God and immortality and also in Christ. “I think you must have at the very lowest a belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men,” says Russell. “If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not believe you have any right to call yourself a Christian.”

Beginning with the belief in God, Russell points out the logical fallacies in several of the most popular arguments for the existence of God, starting with the early rational arguments and moving along what he sees as the “intellectual descent” of Christian apologetics to some of the more recent arguments that have “become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.” Russell then goes on to explain why Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, has neither superlative wisdom nor superlative goodness. Although Russell grants Christ “a very high degree of moral goodness,” he asserts that there have been wiser and better men.

The speech was published in 1957 in the book Why I am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. The text is available online, and you can click here to open it in a new window. This recording will be added to our Free Audio Books collection. Although Russell is addressing the majority religion of his own country, he is equally critical of all religions. He leaves off with these words:

The whole conception of 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, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. 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 free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.

Related content:

Face to Face with Bertrand Russell: ‘Love is Wise, Hatred is Foolish’

Bertrand Russell and F.C. Copleston Debate the Existence of God, 1948

Bertrand Russell’s ABC of Relativity: The Classic Introduction to Einstein



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Comments (17)
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  1. ayo says . . . | February 13, 2013 / 12:40 pm

    The perpetual anti-religious stuff posted here is becoming rather grating.

    Wittgenstein became a Christian at 29 and had an intellect towering over that of Russel, so much so that Russel wrote of Wittgenstein a mere 5 years after taking him under his wing:

    “His criticism, ‘tho I don’t think he realized it at the time, was an event of first-rate importance in my life, and affected everything I have done since. I saw that he was right, and I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy”

    So this subtle nonsense of ‘intelligence = dismissal of religion’ in its entirety is a botched oversimplification of an extremely nuances and complex matter. I am only slightly relieved to hear the spheal on here being given from Bertrand Russel over some twit like Sam Harris or the late Hitchens.

  2. GMc says . . . | February 13, 2013 / 6:48 pm

    @ayo: Agree, basically. I disagree with the intelligence comparison. Russell was brilliant and, in any case, it’s beside the point. As to the “subtle nonsense,” it’s not so subtle, but it is nonsense. Good comment.

  3. ayo says . . . | February 13, 2013 / 8:52 pm

    @GMC

    I agree, I adore Russell, and he was a complete genius and eloquent to boot. I read his Principia Mathmatica in my undergrad. Unfortunately, he is now largely irrelevant in both math and philosophy. He is mostly used for trite displays such as this, with a few witty/insightful sounding quotes remarking on this or that.

    Wittgenstein undid and surpassed his attempts; Wittgenstein was unquestionably more intelligent than Russell. But I agree that point out the intelligence of a man who believes or disbelieves in God/religion is hardly an argument. I brought it up as a relevant counter example to the unspoken, yet zealously purported notion of intelligent men universally disregarding religion.

    I expect this business from reddit, but would like to see it toned down a bit more on sites like this.

  4. Mathieu says . . . | February 14, 2013 / 12:32 am

    @ayo: Since the post doesn’t claim that ‘intelligence = dismissal of religion’, isn’t it rather uncharitable to assume that the point of these posts is to make that argument? And even if it were granted that this website had an anti-religious bias, isn’t it still uncharitable to construe the implied claim as an easily falsified universal generalization, rather than the evidentially supported claim that intelligence is correlated with non-belief? Perhaps someone is making the oversimplification you claim, but I’m not sure who it is.

    In any case, Russell is wonderfully lucid and I’m glad to see him make an appearance here.

  5. Veronika says . . . | February 14, 2013 / 6:36 am

    @ayo We’re bombarded with pro-religious messages everywhere else in our lives. At least here you have the option to scroll past the rationalism that offends you.

    We can’t escape having religion rammed down our throats IRL. If you find it ‘grating’ to have your superstitions challenged, go somewhere else. There sure are enough places where ‘anti-religious’ talk is not tolerated.

  6. MerryMarjie says . . . | February 14, 2013 / 8:30 am

    I’m very glad to see the piece by Russell on this website. It is called “Open Culture,” after all.

  7. Derek C. F. Pegritz says . . . | February 14, 2013 / 4:15 pm

    Wise words that ring true nearly one hundred years later. In fact, they ring MORE true today than they did even in Russell’s day, considering the ridiculous atavastic fundamentalism that has so poisoned Christianity (and Islam) in the present century.

  8. Hanoch says . . . | February 15, 2013 / 8:01 am

    In less than 20 years after Mr. Russell’s essay attacking religion, the anti-religious forces of Nazism and Communism arose to wreak damage and destruction on the world of a level previously unknown to mankind. In light of what history has since demonstrated, I find it fascinating that Mr. Springer can label Mr. Russell’s polemic as a “powerful critique.” I suppose the left is so inherently hostile to religion because of the extent to which religion opposes the leftist worldview, and thus any anti-religion argument made by an otherwise gifted intellectual — no matter how shoddy — is seized upon in an attempt to bolster their broken ideology.

  9. Mike Springer says . . . | February 15, 2013 / 4:17 pm

    Hanoch,

    The phrase “powerful critique” was not mine. As with newspapers and other text media, the editor has the final say on headlines. But if you’re so convinced that Russell’s critique is not powerful, you’ve done absolutely nothing to refute it. Indeed, you’ve given no indication that you’ve even listened to Russell’s words, or read them. If this bothers you so much why don’t you make an effort and isolate some aspect of Russell’s argument that you think is false and defeat it with your own impeccable reasoning?

    Your political commentary is a complete non sequitur. Since when is religion the exclusive domain of conservatives? There are many on the left who feel they are supported in their views by their religion. In particular, there are many liberals who feel that Jesus was very much one of them. And when it comes to atheism, there have been plenty of nonbelievers on the right. (Remember Ayn Rand?) It’s ridiculous.

  10. Mark Joseph says . . . | February 15, 2013 / 7:28 pm

    I see that the first two posters talk about “this subtle nonsense of ‘intelligence = dismissal of religion’ in its entirety is a botched oversimplification of an extremely nuances and complex matter.” And, of course, Sam Harris is a twit.
    OK, I’ll bite. What evidence do you have that acceptance of religion, 400 years after Galileo, is anything but anti-intelligent? What evidence do you have in favor of religion being true? What evidence do you have in favor of *your* religion being the true one, as opposed to the tens of thousands of other, false ones?

  11. Hanoch says . . . | February 16, 2013 / 5:54 pm

    Mr. Springer:

    You started off your post by describing Mr. Russell, in 1927, as insisting that religion causes “grievous harm to people.” Perhaps you believe that the examples of Nazism and Communism do “absolutely nothing to refute” Mr. Russell’s point, but I believe that these anti-religious ideologies — not religion — have been the primary causes of “grievous harm to people” in modern history. Thus, I think the historical evidence is fairly compelling that the absence of religion has led to far greater human misery than when it thrives and imposes at least some moral restraint on human beings’ actions. Has harm been done in the name of religion? Obviously. But nothing remotely on the scale of what has occurred when societies have fallen into the grip of anti-religous ideologies.

    On the issue of politics, I never claimed that religion is “the exclusive domain of conservatives” and it is “ridiculous” to assert that I did. There are religious and non-religious people on both the political left and right. My point, however, was that the anti-religious stridency of the type reflected in Mr. Russell’s writing almost always emanates from those on the far left, and it seems that can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that many religious tenets are in direct opposition to leftist political aspirations.

  12. Mike Springer says . . . | February 17, 2013 / 12:20 am

    Hanoch,

    Again: You give absolutely no indication that you’ve listened to or read Russell’s speech. As for my phrase, “grievous harm,” you clearly didn’t understand it. That’s evident when you write, “Has harm been done in the name of religion? Obviously.” (Very judicious of you to grant that, by the way.) If you had read or listened to Russell you would know that he was not talking about extrinsic harm–as in, to repeat your phrase, harm done “in the name of” religion–but instead he was talking about the sort of harm that is intrinsic to the very nature of religion, about the impediment it poses to human progress by systematically discouraging the free exercise of reason. Why don’t you read or listen to Russell’s speech and then address his specific points, instead of dragging out the anti-atheist boilerplate?

    Your actual arguments are outside the scope of my piece, which concerns the 1927 speech. But if you knew even a little about Russell you would know that he believed that Nazism and Communism, with their systematized dogmas, were evils that bore a strong family resemblance to religion. (Perhaps you should read Russell’s 1956 essay, “Why I Am Not a Communist.”) Your political comments are (again) completely outside the scope of the article. So I won’t wade into that swamp.

  13. Nisan 5702 says . . . | May 4, 2013 / 5:04 pm

    Does the term “Blowhard” express the wisdom of secular philosophers & scientists ???
    The secular cannot comprehend the spiritual ???
    Perhaps the contribution to the world of Judaism to/in morals, ethics, & reality of God is to be negated as well. The Ten Plagues, and the Red Sea crossing, the Ten Commandments. Personal responsibility for behavior is immoral ???
    Thanks ‘Berti’ !!!

  14. HowBow says . . . | June 15, 2013 / 11:51 am

    Belief without evidence is opinion.
    Faith is opinion.
    Religion began in ignorance and fear.
    Religions differ so they cannot be all be right but they can all be wrong.
    There has never been any rational evidence of the supernatural. Judeo/Christian morality is like
    Judeo-Christian algebra.

  15. SHAWSHEE says . . . | June 15, 2013 / 2:33 pm

    HOPEFULLY HOWBOW HAS A HIGHER POWER THOUGH.
    THAT WILL BE GOOD ENOUGH.

  16. David M. Brown says . . . | December 24, 2013 / 7:08 pm

    Did Russell argue that personal responsibility is immoral?

  17. Name Redacted says . . . | March 8, 2014 / 2:04 pm

    These comments just add more evidence of what I now consider to be the obvious. Never underestimate the stupidity of the average american.

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