Subscribe to Christianity Today

John Hare

Why Bertrand Russell Was Not a Christian

Bertrand Russell's critique of Christianity has been one of this century's most conspicuous. It carried credibility because Russell was generally acknowledged to be a genius of the first rank, and because he attacked with such an intriguing mixture of passion and wit. Now that we have an excellent account of the first half of his life by Ray Monk (whose previous book was a widely acclaimed biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein), I want to raise what has always seemed to me an interesting question: Why did Bertrand Russell hate Christianity so much?

I will be speculating on the basis of Monk's account about the psychological causes of Russell's antipathy. This is risky for a mere philosopher, and I do not claim any psychological expertise. Monk doesn't either. But Russell is so articulate about his own mental states that a substantial account can be constructed without trying to go beyond what he says himself. A trained psychologist will undoubtedly see more, and see more clearly; but there is more than enough material in Russell's own words to license a layman's interest.

There is also something distasteful about an opponent mucking around in the history of somebody's personal life after his death. Should philosophers expect to have their views evaluated in the light of how they lived their lives? This is controversial. Kierkegaard, for example, condemned any attempt to separate the two, especially where the question is a philosopher's relation to God. Ethical and religious knowledge, he said, "has an essential relationship to the existence of the knower." In Russell's case there is an additional reason for overcoming the distaste. He seems to have relished inspection. He expected others to find his life fascinating and was not at all constrained by the usual sense of shame.

Monk's account is, as far as I can tell, factually accurate, and it has the great merit of being written by a philosopher. As Russell says when talking about the biographers of Socrates, he would himself ...

To continue reading

- or -
Free CT Books Newsletter. Sign up today!
Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide