(Note: Russell described himself both as an agnostic and an atheist. For most of his adult life Russell maintained that religion is little more than superstition and, despite any positive effects that religion might have, it is largely harmful to people.)
(18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. At various points in his life he considered himself a liberal, a socialist, and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had never been any of these in any profound sense. He was born in Monmouthshire, into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Britain.
Russell had a distinguished background: His grandfather Lord John Russell introduced the Reform Bill of 1832 and was twice prime minister; his parents were both prominent freethinkers; and his informal godfather was John Stuart Mill. Orphaned as a small child, Russell was reared by his paternal grandmother under stern puritanic rule. That experience powerfully affected his thinking on matters of morality and education. When you have endured such tragedies as Bertrand Russell has, at such a young age, the question of any authority or organized social order was always challenged, leading to the re-formation of the Ten Commandments.
Below is Russell’s secular revision of the Ten Commandments:
The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
I find it quit fascinating when I read about how people arrive to the life they have chosen to live. Russell’s life story was colored with death and deep loss, from a very vulnerable age of 2, after the sudden loss of his mother. Soon after, his older sister died and several years later he lost his father and grandfather. By the time Bertrand was six he had lost four members of his immediate family– survived by one brother seven years older named Frank.
Stated in his autobiography, Russell, haunted by his ongoing romance with suicide, overcoming such dark compulsions for tragedy, nonetheless, he grew to be a world renowned humanist and prolific commentator of Religion. Awarded-dismissed-married-imprisoned-divorced and married again four times over, Bertrand Russell lead of life of controversy and social-political reform. Here is a synopsis on how he viewed Religion.
Russell’s Views on Religion:
“Russell described himself both as an agnostic and an atheist. For most of his adult life Russell maintained that religion is little more than superstition and, despite any positive effects that religion might have, it is largely harmful to people. He believed religion and the religious outlook (he considered communism and other systematic ideologies to be forms of religion) serve to impede knowledge, foster fear and dependency, and are responsible for much of the war, oppression, and misery that have beset the world. He was a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association and President of Cardiff Humanists until his death.“
As with his philosophical stance, Russell’s positions on social issues developed as a reaction against extremes in his own experience. He believed that cruelty and an admiration for violence grew from inward or outward defects that were largely an outcome of what happened to people when they were very young. Pacifism could not be effected politically; a peaceful and happy world could not be achieved without deep changes in education.
Over the course of his long career, Russell made significant contributions, not just to logic and philosophy, but to a broad range of subjects including education, history, political theory and religious studies. In addition, many of his writings on a variety of topics in both the sciences and the humanities have influenced generations of general readers. Russell summarized his personal philosophy by saying, “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
Overview of Russell’s Life
After a life marked by controversy—including dismissals from both Trinity College, Cambridge, and City College, New York—Russell was awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
Noted for his many spirited anti-war and anti-nuclear protests, Russell remained a prominent public figure until his death at the age of 97.
- 1. A Chronology of Russell’s Life
- 2. Russell’s Work in Logic
- 3. Russell’s Work in Analytic Philosophy
- 4. Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions
- 5. Russell’s Neutral Monism
- 6. Russell’s Social and Political Philosophy
- Other Internet Resources
- Related Entries
Interested readers may also wish to listen to sound clips of Russell speaking.