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. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

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.