A Passionate Rationalist
by Jim Herrick
from the book Against the Faith
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was, literally, heir to the nineteenth-century liberal tradition: his grandfather, Lord John Russell, had been Prime Minister and his godfather was John Stuart Mill. He was sufficiently of the Establishment to have once referred, in his early life, to the government as 'We', but the long standing tradition of dissent in his family stretched back to William Russell, who, when sentenced to execution for alleged complicity in the Rye House Plot (1683), ordered his chaplain to write a life of Julian the Apostate to argue that resistance against authority may be justified. His grandmother's grandfather had been 'cut by the County for saying that the world must have been created before 4004 B C. because there is so much lava on the slopes of Etna' (Autobiography). Bertrand Russell's dissent and doubt were to extend much further. He inherited a fearless individualism, and the texts which his grandmother inscribed in the fly-leaf of his Bible affected him profoundly: 'Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil' was precisely observed and 'Be strong, and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord Thy God is with Thee wheresoever thou goest' was followed in what Russell saw as the cause of humanity rather than the Lord.
In his long life spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries he became a renowned and controversial philosopher, atheist, publicist and political reformer. He is, perhaps, the most famous and most passionate rationalist of the century, like Voltaire a polymath whose gifts lay in lucid and witty exposition and dramatic publicity for diverse causes -- conscientious objection, education, rational morality, world peace -- as much as any single piece of original work. He wrote at the opening of his Autobiography:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
Russell's parents, Lord Amberley and Kate Stanley, were acquainted with Mill and his circle and involved in radical politics. Lord Amberley's brief foray into Parliament was discontinued because of his controversial support for birth control. He embarked on a laborious study of world religions, from which he extracted a universal religion published as An Analysis of Religious Belief (1877). His detailed examination of scriptures from all over the world led him to conclusions which echo the views of eighteenth-century deists such as Shaftesbury:
No man can truly oppose their religion [the adherents of universal religion] for he who seems hostile to it is himself but one of the notes struck by the Unknowable Cause, which so plays upon the vast instrument of humanity as to bang harmony out of jangling sounds, and to bring the universal chords of truth from the individual discords of error. Scientific discoveries and philosophic inquiries, so fatal to other creeds, touch not the universal religion.
Lady Amberley also held radical views, especially on the position of women. Her mother, Lady Stanley, was 'an eighteenth-century type, rationalistic and unimaginative, and contemptuous of Victorian goody-goody priggery' (Autobiography). She was one of the founders of Girton College and declared that 'so long as I live there shall be no chapel at Girton'. Russell recalls noisy arguments in her house at Sunday luncheon between her sons who variously espoused Catholicism, Unitarianism, freethought, positivism and Mohammedanism: 'A favourite trick of my Uncle Lyulph at Sunday luncheon was to ask: "Who is there here who believes in the literal story of Adam and Eve?" His object in asking the question was to compel the Mohammedan and the priest to agree with each other, which they hated doing.'
Russell's mother died from diphtheria when he was only two and two years later his heartbroken father died from bronchitis and lack of will to live. Russell moved to Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, where the former Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, lived in retirement. He died soon after Bertrand's arrival and Lady Russell was the dominant influence on his upbringing. He was not sent to school since his elder brother Frank had in Lady Russell's view fallen under bad influence at public school. A sombre puritanical regime and a succession of tutors provided a lonely and gloomy childhood. His self-education was assisted by the range of his grandfather's library. He learnt much of Shelley's poetry by heart.
In his teens he kept a diary written in Greek characters for secrecy. At the time of his sixteenth birthday it recorded his sorrow that he did not share the religious belief of others:
I should like to believe my people's religion, which was just what I could wish, but alas, it is impossible. I have really no religion, for my God, being a spirit shown merely by reason to exist, his properties utterly unknown, is no help to my life. I have nor the parson's comfortable doctrine that every good action has its reward, and every sin is forgiven. My whole religion is this: do every duty, and expect no reward for it, either here or hereafter.
Soon even the First Cause was to vanish when he was convinced by a sentence in J. S. Mill's Autobiography '"Who made me?" cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question "Who made God?".' He read Gibbon, and Milman's History of Christianity, and Gulliver's Travels unexpurgated. 'The account of the Yahoos had a profound effect upon me, and I began to see human beings in that light.'
Two consolations for the loss of faith and the yahoodom of humanity were his realization that he was very clever and his passion for pure mathematics. He overheard an uncle referring to his progress and 'realizing that I was intelligent, I determined to achieve something of intellectual importance if it should be at all possible'. The appeal of mathematics lay partly in his 'delight in the power of deductive reasoning' and partly in the appeal of a universe which 'operates according to mathematical laws' and a hope 'that human actions, like planetary motions, could be calculated if we had sufficient skill.' (He could not calculate the stormy emotions of his own life.) An impersonal universe attracted him: 'I like mathematics because it is not human & has nothing in particular to do with this planet or with the whole accidental universe -- because, like Spinoza's God, it won't love us in return.'
The horizons of Pembroke Lodge were enlarged for him at seventeen with his study at a crammer's in Southgate for a Cambridge scholarship and with his visits to his uncle in Hindhead, Surrey, and friendship with the neighbouring Pearsall Smith family. The crammer brought him merciless teasing from English 'gentlemen' and a scholarship at Trinity College. The Pearsall Smith acquaintanceship introduced him to progressives such as Shaw, Frederic Harrison and the Webbs, and to Alys Pearsall Smith with whom he fell deeply in love.
At Cambridge Russell's life was lit with the friendship and intellectual stimulus which had been absent from Pembroke Lodge. Alfred North Whitehead, who had recommended his scholarship, was his teacher, colleague and in due course collaborator. His many friends included the Trevelyan brothers and G. E. Moore, whose philosophy was eventually to influence him profoundly. The elite debating club, the Apostles, elected him into their company. Here it was that he heard Moore read a paper which began, 'In the beginning was matter, and matter begat the devil, and the devil begat God'. 'The paper ended with the death first of God and then of the devil, leaving matter alone as in the beginning' (Autobiography).
Russell's interest in the logical basis of mathematics led him to a fascination with philosophy. After gaining his mathematics degree, he decided to study Moral Sciences for a year. After completing the Moral Sciences Tripos, he fumed to the foundation of geometry for a fellowship thesis and the basis of ethics for a paper to be read to the Apostles. Meanwhile, at the age of twenty-one he had inherited sufficient means to ensure financial independence and persuaded Alys Pearsall Smith, whom he had courted for three years, to marry him. Alys came from a rich American Quaker family of temperance campaigners. Lady Russell vehemently opposed the marriage, but Russell, after agreeing to spend three months in Paris in the diplomatic service, proved that no opposition could cool his ardour. They were married in 1894 at a Quaker Meeting House in London. 'Don't imagine that I really mind a religious ceremony,' he wrote in a letter to his fiancee 'any ceremony is disgusting & the mere fact of having to advertise the most intimate thing a little more or less doesn't make much odds'.
Russell's marriages, extra-marital affairs and his book Marriage and Morals became notorious and were attacked by those who wished to couple atheism and immorality. His marriage with Alys which lasted nearly thirty years, although with complete separation for nearly half of it, was deeply unhappy and sexually unsatisfactory; both parties were by turn patient, bitter and despairing. In middle age Russell found years of repressed sexuality and loneliness were unleashed, and his quest for fulfilment and companionship might be seen as a response to the loneliness and puritanism of his childhood. His affairs with Ottoline Morrell and with the actress Constance Malleson each resulted in a life-long correspondence and friendship. His marriage to Dora Black brought intellectual and idealistic partnership and longed-for children; his marriage to Patricia Spence brought assistance with his work and faithful support at a difficult time; his final marriage to Edith Finch brought profound contentment, though the cynic might wonder whether its stability was due to the waning energy of old age.
In their early years of marriage Russell and Alys much enjoyed travel, for pleasure and study. They visited Berlin in 1895 and Russell set about a study of the German Social Democratic Party. He recalled a moment one spring morning in the Tiergarten when he planned to 'write a series of books in the philosophy of sciences, growing gradually more concrete as I passed from mathematics to biology; I thought I would also write a series of books on social and political questions, growing gradually more abstract'. His plan to write the most technical (and abstruse) books and the most popular journalism was fully achieved. His first published work. German Social Democracy (1896), arose from a series of lectures he gave at the London School of Economics and placed German socialism in the tradition of Saint-Simon and Robert Owen, while also suggesting a debt to Kant and Hegel which turned it from a political party into a 'self-contained philosophy of the world and of human development', making it 'a religion and an ethic'. Russell was later to characterize forms of socialism and Marxism as religious and strongly to oppose their doctrinaire nature and tendency to produce fanaticism.
Having been awarded a six-year fellowship at Trinity College for his work on the foundation of geometry, Russell pondered his first major original work The Principles of Mathematics (1903). A preliminary in the seven years' work was his liberation from Hegelian idealism which felt, he wrote, 'as if I had escaped from a hot-house onto a wind-swept headland'. The work was given further stimulus when he attended the International Congress of Philosophy, Logic and the History of Science in Paris in 1900.
Russell related changes in his philosophical outlook to moments of personal insight about his feelings for others. He recalled that a consciousness of his love for Mrs Whitehead made him consider 'loneliness in general, & how only love bridges the chasm -- how force is the evil thing, & strife is the root of all evil & gentleness the only balm'. He became 'infinitely gentle' for a time and 'turned against the S. African war & imperialism'. He pinpointed a similar moment of crisis when smitten with despair and anguish at his realization that he did not love Alys. In the initial stage of emotional turmoil he completed The Principles of Mathematics 'because the oppression of it grew unendurable'. After nearly a year of depression, they travelled to Italy to stay with Aly's sister, who was married to the art critic Bernard Berenson. Now, in Fiesole on the hills surrounding Florence, he tried to come to terms with his unhappiness by writing out his philosophy of life in the essay A Free Man's Worship. It is written in passionate, lyrical prose untypical of Russell's usual lucidity. He finds humanity placed in a purposeless, impersonal universe -- a position which much twentieth-century thought has been forced to accept, relish or deny. He writes of a world 'purposeless' and 'void of meaning', 'which Science presents for our belief' and proposes:
That Man is the product of causes which had not prevision of the end they were achieving; are but the outcome of accidental collocation of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the age, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
Russell describes how Man, feeling 'the oppression of his impotence before the powers of Nature', has created gods to worship which were at first savage forces and then a God 'all-powerful and all-good'. The world is not good, yet we wish to worship either force or goodness: 'Shall we worship Force or Goodness? Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own consciences?' Russell rejects the worship of force 'to which Carlyle and Nietzsche and the creed of Militarism have accustomed us' and proclaims that 'man's true freedom' lies in his 'determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments'.
Russell argues that happiness and wisdom, given our unachievable desires, are only reached by renunciation and resignation -- values which he recognizes have been found in religions. He concludes with an affirmative picture of Man 'proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power'. The essay is not entirely typical of Russell -- indeed, he came to be cynical of this approach 'because no gospel will stand the test of life'. But it expresses a powerful strand of thought of man not so much 'Against the Faith' as 'without a faith'.
Writing A Free Man's Worship did not purge Russell of his unhappiness, and intermittent despair was countered by walking tours and work. His magnum opus, written in collaboration with A.N. Whitehead, was Principia Mathematica, which contained an attempt to find a logical foundation for mathematics and was published in 1910-1913. The authors were only able to resist the publisher's attempt to shorten it by subsidizing the publication themselves, thus earning, as Russell put it, 'minus £50 each by ten years' work'.
It was not until the 1920s that he expressed most strongly his feeling that religious belief was pernicious. For some years he attempted to understand the religious feelings of his lover Ottoline Morrell. He defined, in a more generous way than in his later essays, the difference between himself and the religious believer in a letter to her:
What you call God is very much what I call infinity. I do feel something in common in all the great things -- something which I should not think of quite as you do, tho' it is very mysterious & I really don't know what to think of it -- but I feel it is the most important thing in the world & really the one thing that matters profoundly. It is to me as yet a mystery -- I don't understand it. I think it has many manifestations -- love is the one that seems to me the deepest & that I feel most when I am very deeply moved. But truth is the one I have mainly served, & truth is the only one I always feel the divinity of ...
I think Christ was right to put love of God before love of my neighbour. Only I don't think God exists ready-made. I think he is an idea we can conceive & can do something to create. tho' he will never exist fully. That is why human actions are important -- because God does not exist already. There is of course one great difference between your beliefs and mine. I do not think any spiritual force outside human beings actually helps us -- there may be such a force, but if so it is only as incarnated in human beings that it helps us. Therefore I cannot pray or lean on God. What strength I need I must get from myself or those whom I advise. And this view does seem to me nobler, sterner, braver than the view which looks for help from without, besides seeming to me truer.
His ideas on religion were further expounded in the paper 'Mysticism and Logic' which became one of his best-known essays and in which he dealt more harshly with religious belief.
Another influence of Ottoline upon his writings was the stimulus to explain philosophical problems to the non-specialist reader. When he was first asked to write a shilling volume for the Home University Library to present The Problems of Philosophy to the masses, he rejected the idea, but he in fact produced a small masterpiece, refined by his constant clarification of the text in conversation with Ottoline. He came to feel the value of philosophy to the 'man in the street': it keeps alive 'that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge', but above all it enlarges man's interests beyond 'the circle of his private interests' and 'in such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophical life is calm and free'.
Russell, to whom philosophy never seemed to bring great serenity, entered a period of hectic public activity on the outbreak of the First World War. His opposition to the war and defence of the rights of conscientious objectors transformed him from a well-known academic into a figure of national renown. His initiation into politics had taken place in 1907 when he stood as a candidate for Parliament for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in the Wimbledon constituency in South London. He was never at ease in the political world of compromise and deals, but was grateful that 'ten days of standing for Parliament brought me more relations with concrete realities than a life-time of thought'. The concrete realities included a rat released to disturb a public meeting and an egg which gave Alys a black eye as she accompanied him on the hustings. Henceforth, his political activities were limited. He stood as a parliamentary candidate for Chelsea in the 1920s and became entitled to a seat in the House of Lords on the death of his elder brother in 1931, but his activities were essentially extra-parliamentary and single issue campaigns.
From his opposition to the First World War in his forties to the campaign against the use of nuclear weapons in his eighties and nineties, he was powered by the emotion expressed in his despondent observation of the enthusiastic jingoism in the months following August 1914: 'Hardly anyone seems to remember common humanity -- that war is mad horror & that deliberately to cause the deaths of thousands of men like ourselves is so ghastly that hardly anything can justify it.' His quarrel was with particular wars (at the outset of the First World War he thought at first that a neutral Britain and America could impose peace on a warring Europe) and particular forms of warfare (he saw no justification for the genocide that atomic warfare would create) rather than a consistent, logical pacifist crusade. Although he was deeply attached to the landscape of England, he disliked nationalism which he saw as a kind of religion from which humanity must progress:
Men have learned gradually to free their God from the savagery with which the primitive Israelites endowed him; few now believe that it is his pleasure to torture most of the human race in an eternity of hell-fire. But they have not learned to free their national ideals from the ancient taint. Devotion to the nation is perhaps the deepest and most widespread religion of the present age. Like the ancient religions, it demands its persecutions, its holocausts, its lurid, heroic cruelties; like them, it is noble, primitive, brutal and mad.
As a pacifist he lost his lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and achieved the half-sought martyrdom of six months' imprisonment. He discovered his ability to influence large audiences and found that exhaustive campaigning brought a sense of fulfillment: 'Quite lately I have somehow found myself -- I have poise and sanity. I no longer have the feeling of powers unrealized within me, which used to be perpetual torture.'
His encounter with war and pacific resisters made him conscious of 'the volcanic side of human nature', of the violence of feelings amongst patriots and pacifists. An anti-war meeting in the Brotherhood Church, Southgate, was broken up by violence. He had earlier written to Ottoline: 'What is wrong with men's opposition to war is that it is negative. One must find other outlets for people's wildness, and not try to produce people who have no wildness.' Nor did Russell underestimate the passionate aspect of human nature, writing from prison to Constance Malleson:
I must, I must, before I die, find some way to say the essential thing that is in me, that I have never said vet, a thing that is not love or hare or pity or scorn, but the very breath of life, fierce and coming from far away, bringing into human life the fearful passionless force of nonhuman things ... I want to stand for life and thought -- thought as adventure, clear thought because of the intrinsic delight of it, along with the other delights of life. Against worldliness, which consists in doing everything for the sake of something else, like marrying for money instead of love. The essence of life is doing things for their own sakes ... I want to stand at the rim of the world, and peer into the darkness beyond, and see a little more than others have seen of the strange shapes of mystery that inhabit that unknown night ... I want to bring back into the world of men some little bit of new wisdom. There is a little wisdom in the world; Heraclitus, Spinoza, and a saying here and there. I want to add to it, even if only ever so little.
In the subsequent inter-war decades Russell added to the sum of ideas and books more than a little with numerous popular books which were undertaken as journalistic tasks to support himself. Like Thomas Paine, he had the gift of expressing himself with great force and clarity directly to the common reader. One of his most controversial books was The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, written after a visit to Russia in 1920. He had welcomed the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, but the reality quickly disillusioned him and he found himself 'infinitely unhappy in this atmosphere -- stifled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty and the life of impulse'. Like Diderot, he was given the opportunity to talk to a Russian leader, but Lenin did not have the time to listen to his ideas that Catherine the Great had found to give ear to the French philosophe. Russell was impressed with Lenin's strength, which 'comes, I imagine, from his honesty, courage, & unwavering faith -- religious faith in Marxian orthodoxy, which takes the place of the Xtian martyr's hope of paradise, except that it is less egotistical. He has as little love of liberty as the men who suffered under Diocletian & retaliated (on heretical Xtians) when they acquired power.'
A year later he visited China, where he was invited to give a course of lectures at the university in Peking. He thought China was 'what Europe would have become if the 18th century had gone on till now without industrialism or the French revolution' and was delighted to observe that 'people seem to be rational hedonists, knowing very well how to obtain happiness'. He became so ill with pneumonia that a report of his death was published in a Japanese paper and he had the rare pleasure of reading in his own obituary in a missionary paper that 'missionaries may be pardoned for heaving a sigh of relief at the news of Mr Bertrand Russell's death'. He wrote in his Autobiography: 'I was told that the Chinese said that they would bury me by the Western Lake and build a shrine to my memory. I have some slight regret that this did not happen, as I might have become a god, which would have been very chic for an atheist.'
He shared with his second wife, Dora Black, an interest in progressive education -- an interest that was given practical impetus as they brought up their own children. They started a school at Beacon Hill in Sussex with the intention, in Dora's words, of 'providing a really modem education which, instead of training young children to maintain every prejudice of traditional society, or teaching them new dogmas, should try to help them to think and work for themselves, and so fit them for meeting the problems of the changing world they will have to face when they grow up'. Dora and Bertrand, like Owen and Carlile, saw education as a tool for enlightenment and social change. The school was notorious. An apocryphal story told how the local vicar was greeted at the door by a young child with no clothes on; to his exclamation, 'Oh, my God!', the child replied, 'There is no God'. In fact, the local rector was quite friendly with the children.
To support the school Russell continued to write prolifically and to accept opportunities of lucrative American tours. Among his popular books were Marriage and Morals (1929) and The Conquest of Happiness (1930). It was not a conquest which he found easy and the then controversial view that divorce ought to be made easier was reached from personal experience. He separated from Dora and the school in 1935 and married Patricia Spence in the following year. His hand-to-mouth free-lance existence gave him insufficient opportunity for philosophical study and he was pleased to return to this when he gave a course of lectures on Language and Fact at Oxford in 1938. Despite his doubts about breaking away from England at a time when war loomed, he accepted a post as visiting professor of philosophy at Chicago in 1938-9. He moved from there to California University, where friction with the President led him to resign on the expectation of a position at the College of the City of New York in 1940. The refusal to confirm the appointment, because of the pressure of religious groups led by Bishop Manning, became a cause célèbre. Both his book Marriage and Morals and his personal life led to the oldest of charges against the unbeliever -- immorality. Despite opposition the New York Board of Education appointed him; but the appointment was challenged in the State Supreme Court by a student's parents on the grounds that he was an alien who had not passed a competitive exam for the post and who advocated sexual immorality. Russell was amused, not to say flattered. by the brief of the lawyer opposing him, with its accusation that he was 'lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fibre'. He concluded that his only predecessors were Apuleius and Othello. The case was tried by a Roman Catholic, Justice McGeehan, whose biased judgement contained the memorable indictment that the appointment would establish 'a chair of indecency'. Russell lost the case and the American academics belatedly rallied to defend freedom of speech. On the title page of a later book, Russell included amongst a list of his distinctions -- 'Judicially pronounced unworthy to be Professor at the College of the City of New York (1940)'.
Russell, supporting his children in American higher education, went through considerable hardship during the Second World War. His earning capacity as a lecturer was at first much reduced by the notoriety arising from the New York College case. He was saved by an invitation to deliver the William James lectures at Yale, and then by the patronage of a wealthy American, Dr Abbott Barnes, who contracted him to lecture for five years on the history of philosophy. The William James Lectures developed into his last important philosophical work, An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth. The lectures for the Barnes foundation, although not completed because of quarrels with Dr Barnes, led him to write his History of Western Philosophy, which eventually became such a world-wide best-seller that he enjoyed financial security for the remainder of his life.
Russell had not opposed the Second World War. In 1940 he sent his views to Kingsley Martin for publication in the New Statesman: 'I am still a pacifist in the sense that I think peace the most important thing in the world. But I do not think there can be any peace in the world while Hitler prospers, so I am compelled to feel that his defeat, if at all possible, is a necessary prelude to anything good; I should have felt as I do if I had lived in the time of Genghis Khan.' He agonized over whether to return to England and accepted an invitation to return to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1944 with relief.
During the post-war era, Russell, in his seventies, experienced a brief halcyon period as a figure of fame, almost returning to the Establishment. He was awarded the OM and the Nobel Prize for literature, invited to lecture all round the world and given the chance to become a pundit or. the expanding media of radio and television. His undiminished vigour while on a lecture tour in Norway enabled him to swim to safety when his plane came down in Trondheim Fjord. The remainder of his life was dominated by his detestation of war and his crusade against nuclear weapons. The zeal of his conviction and the various tactics which he was prepared to adopt soon removed him from his pedestal and put him back in the controversial zones of opposition where he had spent most of his life. He said in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for literature.
The atom bomb and the bacterial bomb, wielded by the wicked communist or the wicked capitalist as the case may be, make Washington and the Kremlin tremble, and drive men further and further along the road to the abyss. If matters are to improve, the first and essential step is to find a way of diminishing fear. The world at present is obsessed by the conflict of rival ideologies, and one of the apparent causes of conflict is the desire for the victory of our own ideology and the defeat of the other.
He found peace himself in his last marriage to Edith Finch and in his rural home in Wales. In his nineties, there were numerous rumours that, with the approach of death. he had returned to religion. He thanked the American Humanist Association 'for bringing to my attention these continuing rumours of my imminent conversion to Christianity' and commented: 'Evidently there is a lie factory at work on behalf of the after-life. How often must I continue to deny that I have become religious. There is no basis whatsoever for these rumours. My views on religion remain those which I acquired at the age of sixteen. I consider all forms of religion not only false but harmful. My published works record my views.' He claimed, perhaps mischievously, that he had contemplated compiling an illustrated joke-book about the Bible, but had dropped the idea since it would cause offence.
Russell had no need to compile such a book to consolidate his reputation as an anti-religious atheist. He had become the best-known media rationalist, expounding on the radio discussion programme The Brains Trust, broadcasting a talk on 'What I believe' end participating in an extended radio debate with the distinguished Jesuit Father Copleston on 'The Existence of God'.
One of the most clear-cut expressions of his beliefs had been given in a lecture entitled 'Why I Am Not a Christian' delivered for the National Secular Society in Battersea Town Hall in 1927. After consideration of the first cause argument, the natural law argument, the argument from design, the moral arguments for deity and the argument for remedying injustice, he concluded that no argument in favour of the existence of the deity could convince him. In his debate with Copleston, he considered the arguments with more philosophical subtlety and accepted the appellation 'agnostic' on the ground that he could not prove the non-existence of God. (An argument frequently used by believers to force unbelievers to soften their terms by accepting their opponents' definition; 'Atheist' means without a concept of God that is logically convincing, not with proof that God does not exist.) Elsewhere he was frequently happy to refer to himself as an atheist. For all the complexity of the debate, he adjudged that '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.'
In an essay on 'What I believe', published in 1925, Russell had made his doubts about immortality clear: 'All the evidence goes to show what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based.'
The same essay betrayed an over-confident faith in science: 'Physical science is thus approaching the stage where it will be complete, and therefore uninteresting ...' -- the kind of overstatement which has produced something of a reaction against science in recent years. But it was central to Russell, as to all the figures in this book, that 'It is not by prayer and humility that you cause things to go as you wish, but by acquiring a knowledge of natural laws' (Autobiography).
Russell could be acerbic in his attitude to Christianity, never more so than in 'Why I am not a Christian'. He thought Christ made some good points such as ']udge not lest ye be judged' and 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor', but he thought that most Christians did not take much notice of them. He observed that 'historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all', but thought that Christ as presented in the Gospels had many defects, including his teaching about a Second Coming and Hell, and his exhortation to 'take no thought for the morrow'. The history of Christianity he depicted as a lamentable story and commented that 'you find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs'. Somewhat sweepingly (and perhaps for the benefit of his audience of secularists) he remarked: 'You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.' Elsewhere he wrote: 'My own view of religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others' ('Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?').
Personal frailty came to Russell in his last few years. But he was well cared for by his wife and enjoyed family life, observing the countryside, reading and writing letters. He knew that his body was giving way and observed: 'I do so hate to leave the world.' On 2 February 1970, aged ninety-seven, he died. A simple gathering commemorated' his departure at Colwyn Bay crematorium.
In contrast to the deists and sceptics of the early eighteenth century, Russell was able to publish and publicize his views on religion without fear of imprisonment and without too much vilification of his personality. He was passionately concerned with the future of a world in which it was impossible to be as optimistic about human nature or the beneficence of the natural world as the Enlightenment philosophes had been. Looking back on his life at the end of his Autobiography he commented on the ferocity of twentieth-century wars and twentieth-century ideologies: 'Communists, Fascists, and Nazis have successfully challenged all that I thought good, and in defeating them much of what their opponents have sought to preserve is being lost. Freedom has come to be thought weakness, and tolerance has been compelled to wear the garb of treachery. Old ideals are judged irrelevant, and no doctrine free from harshness commands respect.' Most of those individuals represented in these pages would be forced to agree with his admission that 'I may have thought the road to a world of free and happy human beings shorter than it is proving to be...' Nevertheless, many of those Against the Faith, including myself, still share his 'pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle: to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them.'