|IS THERE A GOD?
(Commissioned by, but never published in,
Illustrated Magazine, in 1952)
|Bertrand Russell Born: May 18, 1872 in Ravenscroft,
Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales
Died: Feb 2, 1970 in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth,
Is There a God?
The question whether there is a God is one
which is decided on very different grounds
by different communities and different individuals.
The immense majority of mankind accept the
prevailing opinion of their own community.
In the earliest times of which we have definite
history everybody believed in many gods.
It was the Jews who first believed in only
one. The first commandment, when it was new,
was very difficult to obey because the Jews
had believed that Baal and Ashtaroth and
Dagon and Moloch and the rest were real gods
but were wicked because they helped the enemies
of the Jews. The step from a belief that
these gods were wicked to the belief that
they did not exist was a difficult one. There
was a time, namely that of Antiochus IV,
when a vigorous attempt was made to Hellenize
the Jews. Antiochus decreed that they should
eat pork, abandon circumcision, and take
baths. Most of the Jews in Jerusalem submitted,
but in country places resistance was more
stubborn and under the leadership of the
Maccabees the Jews at last established their
right to their peculiar tenets and customs.
Monotheism, which at the beginning of the
Antiochan persecution had been the creed
of only part of one very small nation, was
adopted by Christianity and later by Islam,
and so became dominant throughout the whole
of the world west of India. From India eastward,
it had no success: Hinduism had many gods;
Buddhism in its primitive form had none;
and Confucianism had none from the eleventh
century onward. But, if the truth of a religion
is to be judged by its worldly success, the
argument in favor of monotheism is a very
strong one, since it possessed the largest
armies, the largest navies, and the greatest
accumulation of wealth. In our own day this
argument is growing less decisive. It is
true that the un-Christian menace of Japan
was defeated. But the Christian is now faced
with the menace of atheistic Muscovite hordes,
and it is not so certain as one could wish
that atomic bombs will provide a conclusive
argument on the side of theism.
But let us abandon this political and geographical
way of considering religions, which has been
increasingly rejected by thinking people
ever since the time of the ancient Greeks.
Ever since that time there have been men
who were not content to accept passively
the religious opinions of their neighbors,
but endeavoured to consider what reason and
philosophy might have to say about the matter.
In the commercial cities of Ionia, where
philosophy was invented, there were free-thinkers
in the sixth century B. C. Compared to modern
free-thinkers they had an easy task, because
the Olympian gods, however charming to poetic
fancy, were hardly such as could be defended
by the metaphysical use of the unaided reason.
They were met popularly by Orphism (to which
Christianity owes much) and, philosophically,
by Plato, from whom the Greeks derived a
philosophical monotheism very different from
the political and nationalistic monotheism
of the Jews. When the Greek world became
converted to Christianity it combined the
new creed with Platonic metaphysics and so
gave birth to theology. Catholic theologians,
from the time of Saint Augustine to the present
day, have believed that the existence of
one God could be proved by the unaided reason.
Their arguments were put into final form
by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth
century. When modern philosophy began in
the seventeenth century, Descartes and Leibniz
took over the old arguments somewhat polished
up, and, owing largely to their efforts,
piety remained intellectually respectable.
But Locke, although himself a completely
convinced Christian, undermined the theoretical
basis of the old arguments, and many of his
followers, especially in France, became Atheists.
I will not attempt to set forth in all their
subtlety the philosophical arguments for
the existence of God.
There is, I think, only one of them which
still has weight with philosophers, that
is the argument of the First Cause. This
argument maintains that, since everything
that happens has a cause, there must be a
First Cause from which the whole series starts.
The argument suffers, however, from the same
defect as that of the elephant and the tortoise.
It is said (I do not know with what truth)
that a certain Hindu thinker believed the
earth to rest upon an elephant. When asked
what the elephant rested upon, he replied
that it rested upon a tortoise. When asked
what the tortoise rested upon, he said, "I
am tired of this. Suppose we change the subject."
This illustrates the unsatisfactory character
of the First-Cause argument. Nevertheless,
you will find it in some ultra-modern treatises
on physics, which contend that physical processes,
traced backward in time, show that there
must have been a sudden beginning and infer
that this was due to divine Creation. They
carefully abstain from attempts to show that
this hypothesis makes matters more intelligible.
The scholastic arguments for the existence
of a Supreme Being are now rejected by most
Protestant theologians in favor of new arguments
which to my mind are by no means an improvement.
The scholastic arguments were genuine efforts
of thought and, if their reasoning had been
sound, they would have demonstrated the truth
of their conclusion. The new arguments, which
Modernists prefer, are vague, and the Modernists
reject with contempt every effort to make
them precise. There is an appeal to the heart
as opposed to the intellect. It is not maintained
that those who reject the new arguments are
illogical, but that they are destitute of
deep feeling or of moral sense. Let us nevertheless
examine the modern arguments and see whether
there is anything that they really prove.
One of the favourite arguments is from evolution.
The world was once lifeless, and when life
began it was a poor sort of life consisting
of green slime and other uninteresting things.
Gradually by the course of evolution, it
developed into animals and plants and at
last into MAN. Man, so the theologians assure
us, is so splendid a Being that he may well
be regarded as the culmination to which the
long ages of nebula and slime were a prelude.
I think the theologians must have been fortunate
in their human contacts. They do not seem
to me to have given due weight to Hitler
or the Beast of Belsen. If Omnipotence, with
all time at its disposal, thought it worth
while to lead up to these men through the
many millions of years of evolution, I can
only say that the moral and aesthetic taste
involved is peculiar. However, the theologians
no doubt hope that the future course of evolution
will produce more men like themselves and
fewer men like Hitler. Let us hope so. But,
in cherishing this hope, we are abandoning
the ground of experience and taking refuge
in an optimism which history so far does
There are other objections to this evolutionary
optimism. There is every reason to believe
that life on our planet will not continue
forever so that any optimism based upon the
course of terrestrial history must be temporary
and limited in its purview. There may, of
course, be life elsewhere but, if there is,
we know nothing about it and have no reason
to suppose that it bears more resemblance
to the virtuous theologians than to Hitler.
The earth is a very tiny corner of the universe.
It is a little fragment of the solar system.
The solar system is a little fragment of
the Milky Way. And the Milky Way is a little
fragment of the many millions of galaxies
revealed by modern telescopes. In this little
insignificant corner of the cosmos there
is a brief interlude between two long lifeless
epochs. In this brief interlude, there is
a much briefer one containing man. If really
man is the purpose of the universe the preface
seems a little long. One is reminded of some
prosy old gentleman who tells an interminable
anecdote all quite uninteresting until the
rather small point in which it ends. I do
not think theologians show a suitable piety
in making such a comparison possible.
It has been one of the defects of theologians
at all times to over-esti-mate the importance
of our planet. No doubt this was natural
enough in the days before Copernicus when
it was thought that the heavens revolve about
the earth. But since Copernicus and still
more since the modern exploration of distant
regions, this pre-occupation with the earth
has become rather parochial. If the universe
had a Creator, it is hardly reasonable to
suppose that He was specially interested
in our little corner. And, if He was not,
His values must have been different from
ours, since in the immense majority of regions
life is impossible.
There is a moralistic argument for belief
in God, which was popularized by William
James. According to this argument, we ought
to believe in God because, if we do not,
we shall not behave well. The first and greatest
objection to this argument is that, at its
best, it cannot prove that there is a God
but only that politicians and educators ought
to try to make people think there is one.
Whether this ought to be done or not is not
a theological question but a political one.
The arguments are of the same sort as those
which urge that children should be taught
respect for the flag. A man with any genuine
religious feeling will not be content with
the view that the belief in God is useful,
because he will wish to know whether, in
fact, there is a God. It is absurd to contend
that the two questions are the same. In the
nursery, belief in Father Christmas is useful,
but grown-up people do not think that this
proves Father Christmas to be real.
Since we are not concerned with politics
we might consider this sufficient refutation
of the moralistic argument, but it is perhaps
worthwhile to pursue this a little further.
It is, in the first place, very doubtful
whether belief in God has all the beneficial
moral effects that are attributed to it.
Many of the best men known to history have
been unbelievers. John Stuart Mill may serve
as an instance. And many of the worst men
known to history have been believers. Of
this there are innumerable instances. Perhaps
Henry VIII may serve as typical.
However that may be, it is always disastrous
when governments set to work to uphold opinions
for their utility rather than for their truth.
As soon as this is done it becomes necessary
to have a censorship to suppress adverse
arguments, and it is thought wise to discourage
thinking among the young for fear of encouraging
"dangerous thoughts." When such
mal-practices are employed against religion
as they are in Soviet Russia, the theologians
can see that they are bad, but they are still
bad when employed in defence of what the
theologians think good. Freedom of thought
and the habit of giving weight to evidence
are matters of far greater moral import than
the belief in this or that theological dogma.
On all these grounds it cannot be maintained
that theological beliefs should be upheld
for their usefulness without regard to their
There is a simpler and more naive form of
the same argument, which appeals to many
individuals. People will tell us that without
the consolations of religion they would be
intolerably unhappy. So far as this is true,
it is a coward's argument. Nobody but a coward
would consciously choose to live in a fool's
paradise. When a man suspects his wife of
infidelity, he is not thought the better
of for shutting his eyes to the evidence.
And I cannot see why ignoring evidence should
be contemptible in one case and admirable
in the other. Apart from this argument the
importance of religion in contributing to
individual happiness is very much exaggerated.
Whether you are happy or unhappy depends
upon a number of factors. Most people need
good health and enough to eat. They need
the good opinion of their social milieu and
the affection of their intimates. They need
not only physical health but mental health.
Given all these things, most people will
be happy whatever their theology. Without
them, most people will be unhappy, whatever
their theology. In thinking over the people
I have known, I do not find that on the average
those who had religious beliefs were happier
than those who had not.
When I come to my own beliefs, I find myself
quite unable to discern any purpose in the
universe, and still more unable to wish to
discern one. Those who imagine that the course
of cosmic evolution is slowly leading up
to some consummation pleasing to the Creator,
are logically committed (though they usually
fail to realize this) to the view that the
Creator is not omnipotent or, if He were
omnipotent, He could decree the end without
troubling about means. I do not myself perceive
any consummation toward which the universe
is tending. According to the physicists,
energy will be gradually more evenly distributed
and as it becomes more evenly distributed
it will become more useless. Gradually everything
that we find interesting or pleasant, such
as life and light, will disappear -- so,
at least, they assure us. The cosmos is like
a theatre in which just once a play is performed,
but, after the curtain falls, the theatre
is left cold and empty until it sinks in
ruins. I do not mean to assert with any positiveness
that this is the case. That would be to assume
more knowledge than we possess. I say only
that it is what is probable on present evidence.
I will not assert dogmatically that there
is no cosmic purpose, but I will say that
there is no shred of evidence in favor of
there being one.
I will say further that, if there be a purpose
and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent
Creator, then that Creator, so far from being
loving and kind, as we are told, must be
of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable.
A man who commits a murder is considered
to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if
there be one, murders everybody. A man who
willingly afflicted another with cancer would
be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if
He exists, afflicts many thousands every
year with this dreadful disease. A man who,
having the knowledge and power required to
make his children good, chose instead to
make them bad, would be viewed with execration.
But God, if He exists, makes this choice
in the case of very many of His children.
The whole conception of an omnipotent God
whom it is impious to criticize, could only
have arisen under oriental despotisms where
sovereigns, in spite of capricious cruelties,
continued to enjoy the adulation of their
slaves. It is the psychology appropriate
to this outmoded political system which belatedly
survives in orthodox theology.
There is, it is true, a Modernist form of
theism, according to which God is not omnipotent,
but is doing His best, in spite of great
difficulties. This view, although it is new
among Christians, is not new in the history
of thought. It is, in fact, to be found in
Plato. I do not think this view can be proved
to be false. I think all that can be said
is that there is no positive reason in its
Many orthodox people speak as though it were
the business of sceptics to disprove received
dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove
them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I
were to suggest that between the Earth and
Mars there is a china teapot revolving about
the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would
be able to disprove my assertion provided
I were careful to add that the teapot is
too small to be revealed even by our most
powerful telescopes. But if I were to go
on to say that, since my assertion cannot
be disproved, it is intolerable presumption
on the part of human reason to doubt it,
I should rightly be thought to be talking
nonsense. If, however, the existence of such
a teapot were affirmed in ancient books,
taught as the sacred truth every Sunday,
and instilled into the minds of children
at school, hesitation to believe in its existence
would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle
the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist
in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor
in an earlier time. It is customary to suppose
that, if a belief is widespread, there must
be something reasonable about it. I do not
think this view can be held by anyone who
has studied history. Practically all the
beliefs of savages are absurd. In early civilizations
there may be as much as one percent for which
there is something to be said. In our own
day.... But at this point I must be careful.
We all know that there are absurd beliefs
in Soviet Russia. If we are Protestants,
we know that there are absurd beliefs among
Catholics. If we are Catholics, we know that
there are absurd beliefs among Protestants.
If we are Conservatives, we are amazed by
the superstitions to be found in the Labour
Party. If we are Socialists, we are aghast
at the credulity of Conservatives. I do not
know, dear reader, what your beliefs may
be, but whatever they may be, you must concede
that nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths
of mankind are totally irrational. The beliefs
in question are, of course, those which you
do not hold. I cannot, therefore, think it
presumptuous to doubt something which has
long been held to be true, especially when
this opinion has only prevailed in certain
geographical regions, as is the case with
all theological opinions.
My conclusion is that there is no reason
to believe any of the dogmas of traditional
theology and, further, that there is no reason
to wish that they were true. Man, in so far
as he is not subject to natural forces, is
free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility
is his, and so is the opportunity.
From Bertrand Russell, "Is There a God?"
(1952), in The Collected Papers of Bertrand
Russell, Volume 11: Last Philosophical Testament,
1943-68, ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner
(London: Routledge, 1997), pp.