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.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

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

by | Permalink | Comments (23) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (23)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • ayo says:

    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.

  • ayo says:


    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.

  • Mathieu says:

    @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.

  • Veronika says:

    @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.

  • MerryMarjie says:

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

  • 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.

  • Hanoch says:

    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.

  • Mike Springer says:


    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.

  • Mark Joseph says:

    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?

  • Hanoch says:

    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.

  • Mike Springer says:


    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.

  • Nisan 5702 says:

    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’ !!!

  • HowBow says:

    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.

  • SHAWSHEE says:


  • Name Redacted says:

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

  • Mephistopheles Faustus says:

    Ayo: To give it straight: your comment shows that you are incapable of thinking. I bet you my bottom dollar, you do not know a tuppence worth of knowledge on Wittgenstein either. All you do is shut your mind completely and then tried to sound as if you have an opinion. HAVE YOU READ AND THINK at all? If thinking is too hard for you and can only quote other people without knowing anything, take it from Hemingway: “All thinking men are atheist”.

    I guarantee you that Hemingway got it right. I bet you my NECK that I can prove this to ANYONE. If you see any christian/religious Nobel Prize winner, tell him from me: I KNOW he has not used intellect properly.

  • haley says:

    what was russells main point ? or thesis?

  • Chad A. Fisher says:

    I can’t escape having anti-religion rammed down my throat IRL. Just some food for you to chew on.

  • Peter Coopers says:

    The evaluation of the value of religion is a matter of looking at their emotional, psychological or any worth for mankind. In that context there is much to complain about: for example, many wars were supported by religions of all kinds.

    The website’s part on Russel’s speech contains this statement by Russel: “The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms.”
    That in itself does only describe a possible historical development of our concept of God.
    It does not address the more fundamental question: Do we have conclusive evidence that life came about without a God – a superhuman Being who is the cause of life? For many this seems a passed station, evolution answered this.

    However, there are facts from the fields of biology and paleontology that give reason to ask this question again. For example:
    1. A scientis at a Plant Breeding Research institute in Germany concludes that “Mutations cannot transform an original species [of plant or animal] into an entirely new one. This conclusion agrees with all the experiences and results of mutation research of the 20th century taken together as well as with the laws of probability.”
    2. A zoologist says about the fossil record: “The intervals of time that separate
    the fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent.”

    Now, if the proposed mechanism (mutations in combination with natural selection) does not generate new life forms and the fossil record does not give any evidence of a lineage, what is the basis for accepting evolution as a fact? And these are only two of the many issues around the concept of evolution.
    Naturally, this does not in any way prove the existence of a God.

    But there are pointers that do give such support:
    1. In the Pre-Cambrium period a great diversity of life appears suddenly, with new body plans and complex features like eyes, guts etc. Pre-existing life forms are in no way fit to be an ancestor for these new animal types. The information in the genes of these animals necessary for their functioning, where did it come from? Intelligence is the only known source of such type of information.
    2. The Bible contains information which at the time of writing was not available ad scientific accurate, some examples:
    – The earth is “hanging upon nothing”(1500 BC);
    – Aminals bring forth “according to their kind” – observed in the fossil record too;
    – The earth is spherical in shape (700 BC).

    Religion has a terrible record which cannot be ignored or justified, this in itself does not rule out the existence of a God or tell us that religion’s actions are approved by that God. In fact, although the Bible is often misused, it does condemn religious hypocrisy and give guiding principles which lead man to a better way of life.

  • Noel says:

    ” perpetual anti- religious….”
    You can’t handle reality so you whine in public.
    It would be better to just shut up and keep it to yourself.

  • Boo says:

    If we hold the idea that Wittgenstein was correct over Russell because he was more intelligent, doesn’t it also hold true that Russell is correct over the writer of the post due to his undoubted superior intelligence?

  • Julius says:

    The conditions encompassing your introduction to the world isn’t quite so significant as the chance to carry on with life.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.