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Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects [Paperback]

Bertrand Russell
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Book Description

Oct. 30 1967
Dedicated as few men have been to the life of reason, Bertrand Russell has always been concerned with the basic questions to which religion also addresses itself -- questions about man's place in the universe and the nature of the good life, questions that involve life after death, morality, freedom, education, and sexual ethics. He brings to his treatment of these questions the same courage, scrupulous logic, and lofty wisdom for which his other work as philosopher, writer, and teacher has been famous. These qualities make the essays included in this book perhaps the most graceful and moving presentation of the freethinker's position since the days of Hume and Voltaire.

"I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue," Russell declares in his Preface, and his reasoned opposition to any system or dogma which he feels may shackle man's mind runs through all the essays in this book, whether they were written as early as 1899 or as late as 1954.

The book has been edited, with Lord Russell's full approval and cooperation, by Professor Paul Edwards of the Philosophy Department of New York University. In an Appendix, Professor Edwards contributes a full account of the highly controversial "Bertrand Russell Case" of 1940, in which Russell was judicially declared "unfit" to teach philosophy at the College of the City of New York.

Whether the reader shares or rejects Bertrand Russell's views, he will find this book an invigorating challenge to set notions, a masterly statement of a philosophical position, and a pure joy to read.

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Devastating in its use of cold logic. - The Independent

The most robust as well as the most witty infidel since Voltaire and he can not fail to sharpen mens sense of what is entailed both in belief and unbelief. - The Spectator

What makes the book valuable is life-long uncompromising intellectual honesty. - Times Literary Supplement

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

Why I Am Not a Christian

This lecture was delivered on March 6, 1927, at Battersea Town Hail under the auspices of the South London Branch of the National Secular Society.

As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is "Why I Am Not a Christian." Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians -- all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on -- are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.

What Is a Christian?

Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature -- namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian. Of course, there is another sense, which you find in Whitaker's Almanack and in geography books, where the population of the world is said to be divided into Christians, Mohammedans, Buddhists, fetish worshipers, and so on; and in that sense we are all Christians. The geography books count us all in, but that is a purely geographical sense, which I suppose we can ignore. Therefore I take it that when 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.

But for the successful efforts of unbelievers in the past, I could not take so elastic a definition of Christianity as that. As I said before, in olden days it had a much more full-blooded sense. For instance, it included the belief in hell. Belief in eternal hell-fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in hell.

The Existence of God

To come to this question of the existence of God: it is a large and serious question, and if I were to attempt to deal with it in any adequate manner I should have to keep you here until Kingdom Come, so that you will have to excuse me if I deal with it in a somewhat summary fashion. You know, of course, that the Catholic Church has laid it down as a dogma that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason. That is a somewhat curious dogma, but it is one of their dogmas. They had to introduce it because at one time the freethinkers adopted the habit of saying that there were such and such arguments which mere reason might urge against the existence of God, but of course they knew as a matter of faith that God did exist. The arguments and the reasons were set out at great length, and the Catholic Church felt that they must stop it. Therefore they laid it down that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason and they had to set up what they considered were arguments to prove it. There are, of course, a number of them, but I shall take only a few.

The First-cause Argument

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.) That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question 'Who made God?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

The Natural-law Argument

Then there is a very common argument from natural law. That was a favorite argument all through the eighteenth century, especially under the influence of Sir Isaac Newton and his cosmogony. 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 explanations of the law of gravitation. Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion. We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature. And a great many things that have been regarded as laws of nature are of that kind. On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than k formerly was. Quite apart from that, which represents the momentary state of science that may change tomorrow, the wh...

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you're reading this review -- Buy this book Feb. 22 2004
By "efoff"
Unbelievable. That is the only word for the negative reviews....If you don't want anything other than a good laugh, sort these reviews with the most negative first. Who do these people think they are, calling Bertrand Russell a "fool" and a "hack"? And do those reviewers who cite to Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letter to Romans, the Epistles to Timothy et al, do they really think that is "evidence" to refute Mr. Russell's positions?
Many years ago, during my first year in college, my humanities teaching assistant explained to our little section that there are basically two writing styles: Kant and Russell. Russell worked hard to write clearly, and consequently, readers of his works are able to chart the inconsistentcies and changes in his philosophy over time. Kant's style, on the other hand, was to write in such a manner that no one in their right mind could be certain what Kant was trying to say. As a result, everyone today still believes Kant to be brilliant. Our section was to strive to be Russell, and not Kant (The sucess of our striving was largely mixed and debatable, but that is beside the point).
Russell is a good writer--and this book adresses the subject. For me (and I am speaking only for myself here--I'm not calling anyone a fool or a pervert or trying to create a strawman. If you think I am, my e-mail address is available, so please write me--if you care. I'll edit this review), this book addresses Blaise Pacal's rationale for "faith:" If you believe in the christian god, and there is no god--you really have not lost anything. But if you do not believe in the christian god (or whatever system of beliefs is at issue), and it turns out to be "true"--why, you've lost a whole big bunch, swimming around in that lake of fire.....
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Confrontational and controversial March 25 2004
I admit that reading a book with the title "Why I am Not a Christian" on the bus while to my right a fellow traveler studied the New Testament made me feel quite ill at ease. The title seems to suggest that the author is an argumentative dissenter - and the reader by implication too, since he seems to enjoy this kind of literature.
Then, why read a collection of essays that are for the most part over 70 years old?
Firstly, for the clear style and the straightforward logic of Russell. He does not beat about the bush: "My own view on religion is that of Lucretius [a Roman philosopher of the first century BC, author of "On the Nature of the Universe"]. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race."(24). This statement sums it up nicely for Bertrand Russell; and as expected, Russell's answer to the questions in the titles of the essays "Has Religion made useful Contributions to Civilization?" (1930), "Do we survive Death?" (1936), and "Can Religion Cure our Troubles?" (1954) is a resounding NO.
Secondly, as a warning how overly optimistic we tend to be when it comes to improving human beings by scientific means. Today, some people think that humans can be genetically "improved". In the 1930s, some people - including Russell - thought "that hatred and fear can, with our present psychological knowledge and our present industrial technique, be eliminated altogether from human life."(45) Well, three quarters of a century later we still live in a time of hatred and fear.
Thirdly, for the often unusual and surprising angle from which Russell looks at the seemingly familiar. Take the Renaissance and the French writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), for example.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great reading Feb. 29 2004
Bertrand Russell is a terrific writer, and the essays collected in this book represent some of his best work. As the title makes clear, most of the book is dedicated to Russell's thoughts on religion, which are somewhat less than flattering. Be aware of what you're getting into, though. If you want a thorough treatment on the rationality of religious belief in a philosophical context, you're better off with something like George H. Smith's "Atheism: The Case Against God." Russell is more concerned with the social and moral effects of religion, which is certainly no less interesting, but it's a somewhat different topic.
The Amazon review of this book mentioned that some of the essays included herein are outdated, since they deal with contemporary social and ethical concerns of the early twentieth century. That may be true, but I still found them to be very interesting reading. Reading about the social character of an age through the eyes of someone like Russell, rather than in a book of history, seems to make that part of our past all the more real. It's interesting to see what the world was like at the time, and where Russell thought it was going. Sometimes there are surprises about what's gotten better and what's gotten worse.
In addition to Russell's essays, the book includes an appendix which details the manner in which Russell was prevented from teaching philosophy at New York City College, which is also interesting reading, if rather disturbing. The number and the zealotry of those calumniators to whom the idea of a prominent atheist teaching philosophy was such anathema were simply disgusting.
If you're interested in reading the freethinker's point of view, you could do little better than Russell. He is far more engaging than most philosophers, and all of these essays are thoughtful and well worth your time.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An honest discussion
I admire Bertrand for his other volumes like "the history of Western Philosophy". I really wanted to hear his take on why he rejects Christianity and I was not... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Harold Wise
3.0 out of 5 stars Inferior Philosophy Bitterly Communicated
Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian is not as intellectually forceful as I expected it to be. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Gaboora
5.0 out of 5 stars Great stuff, very well written.
I first read this years ago, and it turned me from a christian plagued by doubts and maddened by my religion into a fufilled atheist. Read more
Published on Dec 20 2005 by Joshua
1.0 out of 5 stars Refuted long ago
Russell's arguments have been refuted a long time ago by the likes of Greg Bahnsen, Gordon Clark, and Vincent Cheung. Read more
Published on July 15 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars Very Saddened ....Bertrand Russell now finding the truth :(
Very Saddened ....Bertrand Russell and Smith both now finding the truth in Hell :(
Published on July 15 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars The Scourge of Faith
Christianity or a belief in God has been doing so much harm to the world that one barely knows where to begin when discussing the issue. Read more
Published on April 19 2004 by Drew Hunkins
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Thinker
Although I don't agree with all of his points (calling Communism a religion in the preface!?!?), I still find Russell to be a very good writer. Read more
Published on April 19 2004 by Hunter H
1.0 out of 5 stars More atheistic drivel
Why do atheists always act like their so much smarter than everyone else? Why does any philosopher for that matter? I had to the main essay in a philosophy class. Read more
Published on April 4 2004 by some guy
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucid, thought-provoking and witty
This is a briliiant book. No question about it. Russell sets out with great clarity his reasons for rejecting the Christian religion and any other form of faith. Read more
Published on Jan. 12 2004 by "shreerams"
5.0 out of 5 stars Some of the reviewers have missed the point
When I first picked up this book over five years ago I think I may have agreed with some of the people giving this book a low rating. Read more
Published on Dec 4 2003 by millerc
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