Why I Am Not a Christian

By Russell, Bertrand | Free Inquiry, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Why I Am Not a Christian


Russell, Bertrand, Free Inquiry


The career of British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) began with groundbreaking work in mathematics and ended with his establishment as the foremost freethinker writing on religion and morals. A prolific author, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. His views were often controversial: his pacificism earned him prison sentences in 1918 and 1961 and his views on sexuality were used to prevent him from becoming a professor of philosophy at the College of the City of New York in the early 1940s.

In the following excerpt from his "Why I Am Not a Christian," Russell delineates his reasons for rejecting Christian churches. He called all the world's major religions "both untrue and harmful."

THE EMOTIONAL FACTOR

I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religions makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it. You know, of course, the parody of that argument in Samuel Butler's book, Erewhon Revisited. You will remember that in Erewhon there is a certain Higgs who arrives in a remote country, and after spending some time there he escapes from that country in a balloon. Twenty years later he comes back to that country. and finds a new religion in which he is worshiped under the name of the "Sun Child," and it is said that he ascended into heaven. He finds that the Feast of the Ascension is about to be celebrated, and he hears Professors Hanky and Panky say to each other that they never set eyes on the man Higgs, and they hope they never will; but they are the high priests of the religion of the Sun Child. He is very indignant, and he comes up to them, and he says, "I am going to expose all this humbug and tell the people of Erewhon that it was only I, the man Higgs, and I went up in a balloon." He was told, "You must not do that, because all the morals of this country are bound round this myth, and if they once know that you did not ascend into heaven they will all become wicked"; and so he is persuaded of that and he goes quietly away.

That is the idea - that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty, practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

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 toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every. mitigation of slavery, 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.

HOW THE CHURCHES HAVE RETARDED PROGRESS

You may think that I am going too far when I say that that is still so. I do not think that I am. Take one fact. You will bear with me if I mention it. It is not a pleasant fact, but the churches compel one to mention facts that are not pleasant. Supposing that in this world that we live in today an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church says, "This is an indissoluble sacrament. …

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