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Russell Fought for Scientific Honesty

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One of the twentieth century's most brilliant thinkers and writers, the iconoclastic Bertrand Russell wrought changes in many fields, from mathematics and philosophy to social protest, freethought, and sexual morality.

Russell was born into a titled English family and educated at Cambridge University, where he became a lecturer in logic and mathematics. In the early 1900s, he wrote monumental books outlining a rational basis for mathematics and repudiating idealism; i.e., the belief that objects and experiences are products of the mind.

Had he limited himself to abstractions, Russell might be remembered solely as an academic luminary. Instead, he plunged into public protest, writing attacks on religion and denunciations of all sides in World War I. For one article, he was fined; for another, he was jailed for six months and fired from his Cambridge post. (In prison, a jailer asked Russell his religion, to which Russell replied "agnostic." The jailer had never heard of such a belief, but muttered, "I guess we all worship the same God.")

After the war, Russell championed reform movements and wrote crusading books and papers at an astounding rate. His essay "Why I Am Not a Christian", first given as a speech at Battersea Town Hall in 1927, became a classic refutation of supernaturalism. He and his second wife opened an avant-garde school in which children were taught in a liberated atmosphere free from taboos and punishments. He constantly advocated scientific and liberal thinking in opposition to religion and dogmatism.

From 1938 to 1944, Russell taught at various American universities, but the New York State Supreme Court barred him from City University of New York because of his irreligion and advocacy of sexual freedom. He returned to Cambridge, and was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in literature as "the champion of humanity and freedom of thought".

Russell's sense of moral urgency never slackened. At age eighty-nine he was arrested for demonstrating against thermonuclear weapons.

A dozen years before Russell's death, biographer Alan Wood summarized him: "He is certainly the leading questioner of our times. He started by asking questions about mathematics and religion and philosophy, and he went on to question accepted ideas about war and politics and sex and education, setting the minds of men on the march, so that the world could never be quite the same as if he had not lived."

Russell's views on religion

"Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear ... fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand."- Why / Am Not a Christian, 1927

"The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings." - ibid.

"One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.... You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the 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." - ibid.

"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." - ibid.

"Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did, we do not know anything about him.... I am concerned with Christ as he appears in the gospels, taking the gospel narrative as it stands, and there one finds some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, he certainly thought that his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time....There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that he believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.... This doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture." - ibid.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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