Introduction

By Madigan, Timothy J. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Madigan, Timothy J., Free Inquiry


Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was one of the twentieth century's leading intellectuals and social reformers. It is altogether fitting that FREE INQUIRY magazine honor him on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, for no other individual has surpassed him in defending the ideal of freedom to inquire.

He twice served prison sentences because of his views, the first time in 1918 due to his opposition to the First World War, the second time in 1961 due to his opposition to nuclear weapons. And he managed, during the nearly fifty-year interval between, to upset an endless stream of people with his unconventional and controversial opinions.

While humanists can admire his contributions to the field of philosophy and his perspectives on marriage and morals, nuclear disarmament, educational reform, and a host of other social issues, it is surely his writings on religion that have made him a worthy member of the humanist pantheon. In the essay "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?," first published in 1930, he wrote that "My own view on 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." Throughout his long life, he was a vociferous opponent of obscurantism, dogmatism, and superstition, all of which he felt were advocated by the dominant religious organizations of the Western world. It is hard to imagine another figure of his prominence who would write an essay with the bold title "Why I Am Not a Christian." In it, he proclaimed: "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." He never once recanted from this forthright position.

There is some irony in Russell's incessant criticism of religion, which can best be seen in the following passage from his Introduction to the book Why I Am Not a Christian (Simon and Schuster, 1957):

The conviction that it is important to believe this or that, even if a free inquiry would not support the belief, is one which is common to almost all religions and which inspires all systems of state education. The consequence is that the minds of the young are stunted and are filled with fanatical hostility both to those who have other fanaticisms and, even more virulently, to those who object to all fanaticisms. …

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