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The Atheism of Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley

Bertrand Russell spent the first thirty years of his life as a subject of Queen Victoria, in an era of profuse material prosperity, political toughness, social inequality and assiduous church-going. He was born a member of the over-privileged class which then controlled all departments of government, including the Established Church; and is indeed, though he dislikes being reminded of it, a belted Earl. What I miss from this collection of talks and essays is a short biographical statement about Russell’s childhood and adolescence that would justify so provocative title as Why I Am Not A Christian:the sort of statement provided by the late Dr. Ernest Jones in his account of the younger Freud to explain certain intemperate obsessions which vitiate the elder Freud’s psychological researches. The resentful hatred implicit in all Russell’s discussions of early religious and moral training suggests that he lived as a child under constant threats of hellfire, and as an adolescent under frantic obsessions of sexual guilt.

Warm human affection being apparently denied him, and success at games eluding him because of myopia, he began to cultivate his intellect (which will have left him even lonelier in a sternly anti-intellectual Public School society)and by the turn of the century had become one of Britain’s foremost mathematicians.Then, though mathematic genius is as short-lived a flower as athletic prowess—it slowly wilts after the middle twenties—he presently achieved equal eminence in logic and metaphysics. His main obsession seems to have been the desire to free himself from the terrors of his youth, and to free others exposed to the same cruel conditioning.

A courageous free-thinker in the line of John Wilkes, Tom Paine, and Charles Bradlaugh, he has long played the part of fugleman to the “Stage Army of the Good”—as we British call the small band of earnest liberal thinkers who come marching up with banners, slogans,protests and placarded manifestos wherever personal freedom is threatened,justice burked, or sabres rattled.

Generous emotion often beguiles Russell into unsupportable statements. Thus he asserts that “millions of unfortunate women” were burned as witches by mediaeval Christians, when any historian could have warned him to strike three zeros off this estimate; even so, many of these victims were real witches, members of a pre-Christian fertility cult, who died as martyrs to their faith. Again, as an example of senseless superstition, he cites the Deuteronomic ban on seething a kid in its mother’s milk. Brief enquiry would have shown that this was a practical rule, directed by the Temple authorities against participation in a heathen rite. The Orphic formula, “like kid I have fallen into milk,” refers to this sacrifice.

Russell’s single-minded pursuit of intellectual and moral freedom tempts him to censure Jesus of Nazareth himself, his principal charges being that Jesus believed in hellfire, threatened his hearers with it if they refused to obey him, and decried family affection. On the contrary, however, Jesus (like his saintly predecessor Hillel) preached God’s mercy as extended to the full wherever a man showed the least spark of repentance for sins of greed, faithlessness,cruelty or the like. Hell, in Hillel’sand Jesus’ view, was reserved for those who deliberately and maliciously chose the path of evil. Jesus also insisted on perfect family affection, except in the rare case of one member choosing the path of evil: after all attempts to restrain him had failed, he might be regarded as dead.

Often Russell, though hedging himself with an unresolved doubt as to Jesus’ historical existence, uses the Gospels as a stick to beat Christians with:

 Christ taught that you should not fight, that you should not go to Church, that you should not punish adultery.

True, Jesus was orthodox enough to discourage armed rebellion against the Romans, arguing that in the approaching Battle of Armageddon the legionaries would be more effectively engaged by hosts of avenging angels than by undisciplined Galilean peasants armed only with daggers. But to forbid warfare on moral grounds would have been to condemn Moses and his fellow-Israelites for defending themselves against their enemies in the Wilderness, and Joshua for seizing the Promised Land.

Nor did he forbid his disciples to attend synagogue services—“Church” did not yet exist—but himself expounded Scripture in the synagogues of Nazareth and Capernaum. He certainly never forbade the punishment of adultery. This would have been to gainsay the Mosaic Law, not one jot or tittle of which, he declared, should ever pass away; but once, it seems, when a woman was charged with using witchcraft for adulterous purposes in some Samarian village—Jerusalem is historically ruled out as the scene of the incident, and so is plain adultery as the charge—Jesus counselled a scrupulous observation of Deuteronomy xvii. 2-7: the first stones must be flung at the witch, not by the crowd at large, but by the eye-witnesses of her crime. He then courageously reminded these that, to avoid Divine wrath, they must be free from sin themselves before they let fly. Thus he saved the woman’s life and gave her an opportunity for repentance.

As a master of metaphysics, Russell has little difficulty in demolishing the stock Catholic philosophical arguments held to prove the existence of God: the First Cause Argument, the Natural Law Argument, the Moral Argument, the Argument from Design, the Remedying of Injustice Argument. But he cannot avoid granting de facto recognition to the idea of God, since trustworthy statistics show a constant increase of religious worship in the United States throughout the present century. At the worst, God persists as a solemn metaphor for the Ultimate: even agnostics will say “God only knows.” What is more, the editor includes in this collection a lyrical early essay (1903), A Free Man’s Worship, which grants God a favorable mention. Russell does not altogether disavow this piece, but excuses it as “the outcome of an experience not unlike what religious people call conversion … I became suddenly and vividly aware of the loneliness in which most people live, and passionately desirous of finding ways of diminishing this tragic isolation.” His view there is that mankind has been condemned to live in a hostile universe, but that:

…In this lies man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

Organized religion is to him an infection of the hostile world, “a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the human race.” He himself has not entirely escaped the infection: “the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl” is a slavish phrase borrowed from the Evangelical pulpit. Nevertheless:

Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.  

His further contention that free-thinking had won mankind more benefits than had the exercise of so-called Christian charity, by forcing on the Church successive mitigations of its cruel and heartless reign, was later challenged by the rise of Stalinism and Hitlerism, movements clearly derived from Godless free-thinking. Russell side-stepped the issue by noting that Stalin had been trained for the Orthodox priesthood; and that Hitler was using the methods of the Spanish Inquisition to secure executive power.

By way of an appendix, Professor Edwards records an unfortunate occurrence in 1940, when Russell was appointed Professor of Philosophy at New York City College, a State-supported institution. His duties were to lecture on the relation of logic to science, mathematics, and philosophy; also on the reciprocal influence of metaphysics and scientific theory. A bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church protested against the appointment. Despite Russell’s philosophical eminence, could he be trusted not to infect the students with his militant atheism, his advocacy of pre-marital sexual commerce, his recommendation of nudism, and his condonation of marital unfaithfulness? The Faculty stood fast, but Tammany Hall and the Catholics supported the Episcopalians, and a convenient tax-payer was found to file suit in the New York Supreme Court for voiding Russell’s appointment on moral grounds. As a result, Judge McGeehan revoked it as an “insult to the American people.” However, Russell was soon lecturing with acclaim at Harvard, an endowed university not subject to veto from the tax-paying populace, and his much-publicized championship of intellectual freedom later won him the Nobel Prize for Literature—an award that caused some surprise, since he had made no notable contribution to literature as such. Still, Professor Edwards notes, it could be applauded as a nasty smack in the eye for the Episcopal Church, Judge McGeehan, and Tammany Hall.

At the age of 86, Russell still boldly declares that, in his opinion, “all the great religions of the world, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism, are both untrue and harmful.” He includes Communism (though plainly no religion, but an avowedly materialistic faith) to scotch the charge passionately flung at him by the American press, that he is a dangerous Red. But must Jews regard the omission of Judaism from his list as a denial of its greatness, or does he hesitate (for anti-anti-Semitic reasons) to make out a case for its harmfulness? We may never know.

Another collection of essays on the same general subject, Religion Without Revelation, has been re-published by a distinguished colleague of Russell’s—Professor Julian Huxley, sometime Director-General of UNESCO. It first appeared thirty years ago, but is now brought up to date. Huxley (born 1887) was somewhat luckier in his early life than Russell. He recalls that, as children, he and his brother Aldous “escaped invocation of the fear of Hell and the wrath of God in relation to the ordinary delinquencies of boyhood.” Their father being a son of the celebrated biologist Thomas Huxley, and their mother a granddaughter of the equally celebrated pedagogue, Dr. Arnold of Rugby, “the home atmosphere combined puritan morality with religious unorthodoxy, and intellectual freedom with a sense of the ultimateness and supreme value of truth and goodness.” The brothers, it appears, were given no formal religious education at home, apart from certain simple prayers introducing the word “God,” and some brief account of Jesus’ life; a regimen that kept them uncomfortably out of touch with their orthodox school-fellows. Polite visits to church at Christmas, Easter and Harvest Thanksgiving, but no regular church-going, made the young Julian Huxley feel cheated of religious communion, his native birthright. A passionate devotion to wild-flowers and poetry could not supply this lack, nor could the intellectual exercises which he imposed on himself in a resolve to serve the world by patient scientific research. Yet he had this in common with the young Bertrand Russell: that his family’s awesome reticence on all sexual matters confused and disturbed him, as also did his guilty sense of belonging to the governing class.

Huxley’s education at Eton, a school for tough, rich Empire-builders, culminated in a nervous break-down; but he never felt the urge to become an aggressive free-thinker and, though now holding that “God is one of several hypotheses and an inadequate one,” admits that a religious devotee is happier than a skeptic, and that it is necessary to believe in something. Alas, in what can a conditioned skeptic believe? Christian dogma, when he came to examine it, left him cold and, like Russell, he decided that science alone could provide a satisfactory basis for belief—by ruling out all faiths dependent on revelation or magic. He writes that “myths are irrational, being founded on incomplete knowledge and false premises” and, disagreeing with Russell’s view that all religions are necessarily evil, longs for a single sensible one which will some day unify all spiritual aspirations and all knowledge.

A short essay in this collection deals with the defeat of the old magical gods by the new improved philosophical gods; but he concludes that the Christian God, who eventually triumphed over his unimproved rivals, is now in rapid decline:

Today he can no longer be considered as the controller of the universe in any but a Pickwickian sense. Operationally he is beginning to resemble not a ruler, but the last fading smile of a comic Cheshire Cat… 

(It looks as if Huxley was subjected to severe religious pressure at his preparatory school and at Eton; surely so gentle a man would not otherwise have indulged in such jauntily vulgar metaphor?) And he quotes various definitions of religion. Huxley himself, basing his view on the writings of Drs. R. R. Marett and Rudolph Otto, defines religion as awe of what is sacred.

It is strange that he did not take the simple scientific precaution of finding the etymology and therefore the original meaning, of “religion.” The Roman Catholics preach that the Latin religio represents re-ligio, “the sense of being bound back to God.” But that cannot be, since re, the first syllable, is long, not short, and Lucretius, an early writer, spells the word relligio. The ll denotes an elision; and the only consonant that could have been elided before the second i is an m. Thus relligio must be formed from rem legere: “to choose the very thing”; which confirms Frazer’s view (based on a lifelong study of European folk customs) that religion is the exact art of propitiating the external powers.

Huxley, as a small boy, turned religious in this original sense when he spontaneously initiated a private rite one Easter: every year he would visit a neighboring copse before breakfast to pick great armfuls of white cherry blossom for the saining of his puritanical home—the sacredness of the day and the sense of pilgrimage, he writes, drew out his suppressed feelings of holiness. Though unaware that Easter had once been a pagan festival of the Love-goddess Eostre, to whom white fruit-blossom was offered, he chose the very thing in her honor, and further confirmed the religious peculiarity of his rite by never picking flowers before breakfast on any other day of the year. This religious custom fell into desuetude after four Easters, as his inspired sense of holiness was gradually stifled by formal education; a change which he does not, however, connect with the intellectual pursuits to which he was devoting himself, though he quotes as a parallel Wordsworth’s similar experiences in the Intimations of Immortality. The fact is that “philosophy” not only (as stated by Lucretius) rids man of religious terrors, but also banishes that sense of illumination which from time to time lightens the heart.

Huxley rests great hopes on the scientific spirit, which

…is making its influence felt by its uncompromising hostility to all the magical or semi-magical or superstitious elements in religion; its insistence upon natural law; its achievements in controlling nature; its narrowing down the field of the supernatural towards a vanishing point. If the process continues— and in spite of conflict there is every appearance of its so doing—religious thought is due to enter on a new phase of relative stability, based upon the naturalistic and humanistic outlook brought in by the scientific spirit… 

Unlike Russell, Huxley is in favor of Jesus to the degree of ascribing to him the “great discovery” that perfect love of God casts out fear—which happens to have been orthodox Pharisaic doctrine preached long before the Christian era. He also cheerfully ascribes to St. Paul the pre-Christian Jewish doctrine that God is a Universal Deity who offers salvation to all who obey His Law—irrespective of race, rank, or sex. And he flatly contradicts Russell by glorifying Christianity for its “dethronement of false primitive values based on cruelty and pride, and their replacement by love, mercy, sacrifice and humility.”

True religion implies awe, ecstasy, possession, the hair rising on the worshipper’s nape, tears of joy breaking from his eyes: in this condition he soon learns to choose the very thing. Huxley’s talk of a universal religion on science, “that shall unite man in brotherhood,” is as woolly as such talk must always be. Religion needs bite, and science can never supply the necessary teeth. The pursuit of science (to borrow its own jargon) produces no abnormal psychosomatic effect in its devotees. At its best, it furnishes fascinating intellectual problems for a few bright research-fellows to solve, and makes possible the manufacture of numerous labor-saving amenities. But it also destroys numerous ancient amenities; dulls the minds of its countless mechanical servitors; separates man more and more from his natural context in wild nature; and so far enthrones intellect as the greatest of all human attributes as to remove all checks on its irresponsible functioning.

It is a pity that these two philosophers cannot overcome their complacency at having somehow kept sane, throughout the emotional hazards of childhood, by the exercise of stern intellectual self-discipline, will not pause to consider dispassionately, in practical terms, whether myth and magic should be extinguished by science. Had they been born into some as yet unmissionized African tribe, they would not have suffered from the torturing sexual inhibitions of their Victorian childhood, or from any aggrieved sense of having been given the wrong sort of religious training. Soul-shaking magical initiation rites at puberty would have taken care of that: for one great mistake of the Christian Church has been a failure to combine the ceremony of First Communion with a dramatic religious disclosure of sexual mysteries. They might also have learned to respect myth as the practical authorization of social change by priestly fable and drama. Someone—I have forgotten who, forgive me!—called man a religious animal, and religious he must continue to be, because of the uncontrollable imaginative processes which take over the human mind when its crucial function is in abeyance.

Another great mistake of the Church has been to freeze its myths beyond the point where they can be unfrozen. If the Christian God finally abdicates and is succeeded by some more immediately potent deity or deities, the reason will be that his myth no longer corresponds with recent developments in the Western social system. He is still presented as an absolute Oriental male monarch, too holy ever to reveal himself in public, whose existence is apprehended only by a symbolic male dove, his spiritual emanation; and whom mortals cannot approach unless they have first secured the good offices of his sole son. This son, formerly a mortal, is said to have been parthenogenously born from a mother who, though now assumed to Heaven, does not participate in his godhead. The Father-god’s royal court consists of winged, sexless angels having no other functions but to offer him perpetual adulation, and to stand ready with swords and spears for battle against those hosts of darkness whose evil machinations he strangely permits.

In modern republics and in constitutional monarchies (often ruled by queens) this myth makes little sense. If the system, refined by the ancient Greeks, Libyans, Palestinians and Irish, and perpetuated by present-day Africans, of keeping divine myths abreast of the times, had been maintained in the Western world for the last two millennia, all the major social and political changes that have meanwhile occurred would be wholesomely incorporated in Christian dogma. For the United States, God would now appear as a sage, democratic, always accessible, President; assisted by his son, an industrious Vice- President; by arch-angels, acting as his Secretaries of State; and by angels, as representatives of various sectional interests.

How long any such myth continued viable would depend, of course, on the survival of the present wholly masculine idea-system; for one can credibly postulate the system’s eventual collapse, even without atomic wars, and recourse thereupon taken to the underdeveloped riches of the female mind. Such a change would restore to myth either goddesses or such bi-sexual deities (importations from West Africa) as figure powerfully in Haitian Voodoo. I mention this possibility because, apart from Russell’s concern for the harassed working mother of pre-Welfare State Britain, and his advocacy of frequent pre-marital, and occasional extra-marital, sexual adventures; and apart from Huxley’s scorn for the mawkish sentimentality of certain female church-goers, there is hardly a mention in either book—and none in Aldous Huxley’s more ambitious Perennial Philosophy—of a most crucial religious question, namely the proper spiritual relation of the sexes. Priestesses were banished from all civilized countries with the downfall of the Olympians, because the Church would not trust women to direct even the religious affairs of women. Does their continued exclusion from religious life, except as deaconesses, Sunday-school teachers, and the like, make for social stability? Would the triumph of science—most women are distinctly short on science—improve their position?

As a scientist, Huxley advocates naturalistic religion. Anthropology is, of course, a department of science, and scientists are concerned with recording and classifying primitive customs before they die out. The primitive habit of objectifying human aspirations, fears and obsessions by calling them “gods” is as logically tenable as the scientific habit of coining abstractions and formulating laws. Moreover, gods, though courteously named “immortal,” can at least be challenged and superseded by deities corresponding more closely with natural passionate human demands: demands never satisfied by immutable scientific laws and abstractions. But primitive religion is entailed in magic, which scientists consider based on false premises.

Dr. Arnold defined religion as “morality tinged with emotion.” “Tinged,” forsooth! Religious morals, in a healthy society, are best enforced by drums, moonlight, fasting, dancing, masks, flowers, divine possession; though Professors Russell and Huxley are unlikely to accept this thesis. As a boy, Russell invoked Apollo, the cold God of Science, to rescue him from the Infernal demons that oppressed his childhood; Huxley, in his turn, invoked Apollo to smother the social embarrassment caused by having privately felt awe for Our Lady of the Wild Things. Both now believe Apollo capable not only of superseding the senile Christian God, but of initiating a new Golden Age of perfect naturalistic freedom. Will even their fellow-scientists agree with them?

One odd emotional phenomenon, common to both books, is an inveterate hatred of Roman Catholicism. I am reminded of Nell Gwynn: when her sedan-chair was mobbed by an angry London crowd, who mistook her for the extravagant Duchess of Kendall, King Charles II’s Catholic mistress, she looked out through the curtains and cried with spirit: “Let me be, good people! I am the King’s Protestant whore.” English ruling-class conditioning has made both Huxley and Russell (now decorated with the Order of Merit), Queen Elizabeth II’s Protestant atheists.