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Bertrand Russell on Religion, with Buddhist Commentaries

Albert Shansky believes many of Russell’s opinions on religion are surprisingly in tune with those of the Buddhists.

Those familiar with Bertrand Russell (1872- 1970) will know that he had opinions on a wide and eclectic variety of subjects. This article will deal mainly with his theological development and his attitude towards organized religion. His early interest in religion was aroused at the age of fourteen or fifteen when, for fear of ridicule and derision, he confided his thoughts to a diary, using a cryptic language based on Greek letters and phonetics. At this tender age he was surprised to learn that his view of ethics was embodied in the Utilitarianism propounded by John Stuart Mill. He then rejected free will, immortality, and questioned his belief in God.

However, until the age of eighteen, the year he entered Cambridge to study mathematics and philosophy, he continued to believe in God, because he thought the First- Cause Argument (that there must be a God because everything must have some ultimate cause) to be irrefutable. He soon had to give up this position due to the influence of Mill, who had pointed out that it gave no answer to the question, “Who made God?”

At Cambridge, Russell was mentally pulled in opposing directions, first by McTaggart, who was a Hegelian, then by G.E. Moore. McTaggart, dominating the philosophical outlook at Cambridge while Russell was there, claimed to be an atheist, but firmly believed in personal immortality. Inspired by Moore, Russell eventually moved away from Hegel’s philosophy. At about this time, Russell discovered the ‘angry men’ – principally Nietzsche – who felt their outlook on life justified anger. The young admired their boldness and passion because it became an outlet for their own feelings of revolt against parental authority. At this juncture, it might prove fecund to examine some of the early entries in his boyhood diary. It must be remembered that Russell was thinking about philosophical questions and was emotionally driven by doubt as to the fundamental dogmas of religion. He states in his entry for March 19, 1888,:

“I mean today to put down my grounds for belief in God. I may say, to begin with, that I do believe in God, and that I should call myself a theist, if I had to give my creed a name. Now, in finding reasons for believing in God, I shall only take account of scientific arguments. This is a vow I have made, which costs me much to keep, and to reject all sentiment. To find the scientific grounds for a belief in God, we must go back to the beginning of all things. We know that, if the present laws of nature have always been in force, the exact quantity of matter and energy now in the universe must always have been in existence, but the nebular hypothesis points to no distant date for the time when the whole universe was filled with undifferentiated nebulous matter. Hence, it is quite possible that the matter and force now in existence may have had a creation which clearly could be only by divine power. But, even granting that they have always been in existence, yet whence comes the cause which regulates the action of force on matter? I think they are only attributable to a divine controlling power which I accordingly call God.”

It is interesting that Russell could write the above and still hold a firm disbelief in free will, immortality (life eternal) and the soul. I maintain that the search for a dimension of the self outside both time and words was the main preoccupation of Russell. He goes on to say that, among a variety of influences lying below the surface of consciousness, there begins somewhere and sometime the need to search. This search is a search for God. For our purposes, I would say that God is Certainty, that which is unchanging, which gives us identity and meaning. At the same time, the search raises the question of how to carry on a meaningful existence where God is not. There remains an aspect of the mind that receives little or no attention in the West, except as an adjunct to the appreciation of art that is ‘irrational’. That is to say, the mind is nonconceptual, the self cannot be located in it. The self can be realized only by “throwing oneself off a hundred-foot pole”, as Zen puts it, the nonsensical leap into the void that is not a void.

Buddhism would hold that the discovery of the self is and always has been the most crucial aspect of life. This is why the ancient Buddhists used every occasion in life to ‘wake up’ the aspirants with whom they came in contact. To ‘wake up’ means to become aware of the mind-built dream, which in our ignorance we believe is reality; to see, suddenly, that this is not the case is to be at once enlightened. To deepen this enlightenment is the Buddhist life. For with deepening of enlightenment comes understanding, and with understanding comes compassion.

Russell married his first wife at seventeen, and entered Cambridge at eighteen. He and his wife, Alys, spent the next few years, among other things, investigating the German Social Democratic party, which resulted in the publication of his first book German Social Democracy in 1896. The next few years were devoted to writing a book on Leibniz (1900) and a work on the philosophy of mathematics (1903). In 1907, he stood for election to parliament, unsuccessfully, on women’s rights. During World War I, Russell was a pacifist and in 1918 he was sentenced to six months imprisonment for a pacifist article he wrote in the Tribunal. On his arrival at the prison gate, the warden asked Russell to state his religion, whereupon Russell replied that he was an agnostic. The warden remarked with a sigh, “Well, religions are many, but I guess they all believe in the same God.”

The essay which perhaps reveals most clearly Russell’s position on religion and God is Why I Am Not A Christian. In it, he explicitly disclaims a belief in God and immortality. He sets out to refute the traditional arguments for the existence of God, and goes on to do the same with the moral character of Christianity. He believed quite strongly that religion was tied to a moral factor. That is, he felt that few people know of the arguments for the existence of God, but that most believe in a God because they think that to do so prevents wickedness. There is a contradiction however, “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 1935, Russell published a series of questions and answers in Look Magazine explaining what an agnostic is. An agnostic is not an atheist, according to Russell. The atheist knows there is not a God, while the agnostic suspends judgement, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. The agnostic also holds that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable. Sin is not considered a useful notion by agnostics. They do not believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but hold it to be legendary and think its moral teaching sometimes good. Most agnostics admire the life and moral teachings of Jesus; Russell would place him on a level with Buddha.

Since there is no evidence for their existence, agnostics do not believe in Heaven or Hell. Of the great religions of history, Russell preferred Buddhism because it had the smallest element of persecution. Buddhism has no God, does not profess a soul, and does not believe in a hereafter. It relies on an inward examination rather than outward entreaty. In this context, it would be of greater interest to an agnostic than any other religion.

Souls and Time

Also in 1935, Russell wrote a book, In Praise of Idleness, in which the question ‘what is a soul?’ was posed. Russell points out that modern science gives no indication whatever of the existence of the soul. Mind and matter are merely convenient ways of organizing events. There can be no reason for supposing that either a piece of mind or a piece of matter is immortal. The most essential characteristic of mind is memory, and, as Russell says, there is no reason whatever to suppose that the memory associated with a given person survives that person’s death.

Time, habit and memory fit as functions of what we call mind. What accounts for our concept of time? Buddhism considers the phenomenon on the following principles: the self, here understood as a perceiving awareness, is also a function. It is a function because it is a manifestation of subjective awareness. Function implies movement, movement implies direction, direction implies space. Movement in space gives rise to the concept of time, since time is recognizable only by measuring movement in space. Time is a function of movement in space and this is the way that time is apprehended by the mind.

Time is said to move, as we have just shown, linearly, from a concept of the future, through a theoretical present to a concept of the past. As time thus passes, however, serial phenomena occur, or as we may term them here, events. We can say, therefore, that events are a function of time. Where time is, there events are also; where there is no time, there cannot be phenomena.

This idea has been summed up by the Zen master, Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto school of Zen in Japan.

“Being-time means that time is being. Every existent thing (phenomena) is time … in this world there are millions of objects and that each one is, respectively, the entire world … when one perceives that fact, (one perceives that) every object, every living thing is the whole, even though it itself does not realize it. As there is no other time than this, every beingtime is the whole of time: one blade of grass, every single object is time (…). Do not regard time as merely flying away; do not think flying away is its sole function. For time to fly away there would have to be a separation (between it and things). Because you imagine that time only passes, you do not learn the truth of beingtime.”

This is an interesting passage if only for the fact that it is comparatively recently that physicists have arrived at similar conclusions, which hold that time can exist only where there is a mind to perceive its apparent existence. For our present purposes, what is important to grasp is that behind phenomena, there is ultimate reality, which is misapprehended by what we may justifiably call a split in our mental attitude, our habitual way of looking at things. This dichotomy is caused by the mind (subjectivity) projecting apparent objects by means of apparent subjects. In other words, subjective ‘I’ gives rise to objective ‘I’, which perceives and interprets other objects. ‘Objects’ here also mean the objects of thought, that is, abstractions such as concepts, images, ideas, etc. Because these objects are a product of the mind’s projection, they are no more real than the projected images on the cinema screen, with which we become so imaginatively and emotionally involved. Reality, Buddhism maintains, is that which is before a thought arises, since thought is the precursor to misinterpretation of our real nature. Buddhism asks us to turn our looking inward and thereby apprehend the pure subjectivity that we in fact are.

Science and Religion

Russell applied his excellent understanding of modern science and mathematics to religious questions, in his important book The Scientific Outlook. For example, the question of whether or not we have free will is of great importance in theology, and some people claim that quantum mechanics, by introducing randomness into nature, showed that we did have free will. Russell demonstrates that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle does nothing whatever to prove that the course of nature is not determined. It shows merely that the old space-time apparatus is not quite adequate to the needs of modern physics.

Russell argued on theological questions with Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans, both notable scientists. Jeans deduces religion from the fact that atoms obey the laws of mathematics. He argues that the world must have been created by a mathematician for the pleasure of seeing these laws in operation. To begin with, Russell replies, it seems probable that any world could be brought by a mathematician of sufficient skill within the scope of general laws. Therefore, the mathematical character of modern physics is not a fact about the world, but merely a tribute to the skill of the physicist. Russell goes on to say that, secondly, if God were as pure a mathematician as Jeans supposes, He would have no wish to give a gross external existence to His thoughts.

Eddington says, “As a scientist I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang; unscientifically, I feel equally unwilling to accept the implied discontinuity in the Divine nature. But I can make no suggestion to evade the deadlock”. Russell responds by saying that we certainly cannot infer from this that the world was made by a Creator. To infer a Creator is to infer a cause, and causal inferences are only admissible in science when they proceed from observed causal laws. Using the second law of thermodynamics, that is, that hot atoms and cold atoms eventually reach equilibrium of temperature, Russell shows that God also had to be created at some remote period.

Cosmic Purpose

Cosmic Purpose was the next big concept in which Russell became embroiled. This concept seems to be palatable both to some modern scientists who are not hostile to religion and some liberal theologians. Cosmic Purpose means that evolution has a direction toward something ethically valuable. The doctrine has three forms – theistic, pantheistic and emergent. The theistic form holds that God created the world and decreed the laws of nature because He foresaw that in time, some good would be evolved. In this view, the purpose exists consciously in the mind of the creator, who remains external to His creation. Those who hold this view, such as the Bishop of Birmingham, maintain that “there is a rationality in the universe akin to the rational mind of man”, and that “this makes us doubt whether the cosmic process is not directed by a mind”. Russell retorts that there may be a Being of infinite power who chooses that children should die of meningitis and older people of cancer. To Russell, these things occur as the result of evolution. If, therefore, evolution embodies a divine plan, these occurrences must also have been planned. And an omnipotent Being who created a world containing evil not due to sin must Himself be at least partially evil.

According to the brand of pantheistic evolution embraced by J.B.S. Haldane, there is not, strictly speaking, any such thing as dead matter, nor is there any living matter without something of the nature of consciousness; and, to go one step further, there is no consciousness which is not in some degree divine. One can, therefore project from a single personality to God. We, therefore, recognize that God is not only outside us, but within and around us. Russell responds to these pantheistic concepts of Haldane by stating that there is no sharp line between living and dead matter; the majority of biologists think that living matter is really a physicochemical mechanism. Russell continues, “if our bodily actions all have physiological causes, our minds become causally unimportant.” For this reason, Russell believes that physics and chemistry are supreme. The belief that personality is mysterious and irreducible has no scientific basis, and is accepted because it is flattering to our self-esteem. Russell concludes the argument with Haldane by stating, “the pantheistic doctrine of Cosmic Purpose, like the theistic doctrine, suffers from the difficulty of explaining the necessity of a temporal evolution. If time is not ultimately real, as all pantheists believe, why should the best things in the history of the world come late rather than early?”

The doctrine of emergent evolution, however, does accept the reality of time. One of its proponents, Samuel Alexander (1839-1938), points out that dead matter, living matter and mind have appeared successively; life emerges from matter and mind from life. A ‘minded’ being is also a living being, but one of such complexity as to carry mind or perhaps, a better word is consciousness. He goes on to say that it suggests a further existence beyond mind called deity, and the being which possesses it is God. Russell responds that the philosophy of emergent evolution is unsatisfactory because, in order to escape from determinism, prediction is made impossible, and yet, adherents of the theory predict the future existence of God. Russell’s concluding refusal of Cosmic Purpose is as follows:

Those who believe in Cosmic Purpose think the world will go on evolving in the same direction and they hold that what has already happened is evidence of the good intentions of the universe. This is all open to question.

Suffering and Desire

In his book The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley considers all the ‘higher’ religions as linked by what he calls the “unitive knowledge of God”. He points out that it is the absence of God and the assertion of the ego, which creates the suffering that is common to all humanity. In making this point, he cites many sources, including Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart, and St Philip Neri. His own incisive analysis is equally revealing. He describes suffering as the result of the urge to separateness, or craving for independent and individual existence. He then says that this craving for an individualized existence can manifest itself on all levels, from the merely cellular to the fully conscious. In the first case, he speaks of impulse, passion, desire, self-will, sin; in the second, he describes what is happening as illness, injury, functional and organic disorder. In both cases, the craving for separateness results in suffering, not only for the craver, but also for the craver’s sentient environment – other organisms in the external world , or other organs within the same organism.

Christianity has produced the Devil to account for this seduction; Buddhism says that it is simply deluded desire rooted in ignorance. The Buddhist conception of craving and the results of craving are not confined to a world where goodness on the one side is opposed to evil on the other. Valuable as such a split would be, it is, nevertheless, like the imaginary lines of latitude and longitude on a globe – useful in the matter of orientation, but with no real existence.

Sin and Guilt

In January 1948, Horizon published a paper carrying the views of Russell on sin. In it Russell states that many psychoanalysts equate sin with guilt which they believe, is innate. Russell disagrees, believing that the origin of the sense of guilt in the young to be fear of punishment or disapproval by parents or whoever is in authority. It was Russell’s belief that, in order for guilt to result from punishment or disapproval, it is necessary that authority is to be respected. Russell is quick to point out that many people who do not believe in God, nevertheless have a sense of sin. Sin, as originally conceived, was merely something forbidden. Sin in archaic times (ancient Judea), changed from collective punishment to individual punishment. Sin for the individual, involves humility, whereas sin for our enemies, involves pride. The extreme of humility is to be found in original sin. According to this doctrine, Adam and Eve were created with free will, and chose to eat the apple, which means that they chose evil, thereby corrupting their souls. From that moment, their progeny needed Divine Grace to guide them in living virtuously. Adam’s transgression has caused us all to deserve punishment. Most people today think this is unjust. According to Russell, there are many who see no injustice when the analogy takes place in politics. According to Dr Tennant, in his book The Concept of Sin, sin consists in acts of will that are in conscious opposition to a known moral law, revealed by God. Russell states that if sin means disobedience to the known will of God, then sin is impossible for those who do not believe in God, or do not think they know His will. But if sin means disobedience to the voice of conscience, then it can exist independently of theological beliefs.

According to Buddhism, sin can have no substantiality, being mind-constructed. This, however, raises a problem. It must be admitted that there is a perceiving; there is suffering; there is stimulation. What then, is responsible for all this? This is a dilemma of identity. Russell comes near to self-realization in the Buddhist sense. This, in fact, is the way to understanding of the nirvanic kind

In this article I’ve tried to give an historical overview of the writings of Bertrand Russell on God and religion, with commentaries from a Buddhist perspective. The purpose in doing this was to show that, in his withdrawal from Christian liturgy, he used reasoning very much akin to Buddhist thinking and teachings.

It must be remembered that Russell was part of a generation which looked on metaphysics with disdain. Rudolph Carnap, the American philosopher said, “The danger lies in the deceptive character of metaphysics, it gives the illusion of knowledge without actually giving any knowledge.” Another is the British philosopher, A.J. Ayer, for whom every metaphysician inevitably and unwittingly writes sheer nonsense.

The logical positivists spent their lives searching for truth through a mathematical formula. Russell, instead of rejecting religious teachings out-of-hand, puts forth his doubts by logical counter-argument. Buddhism does the same. Buddhists do not believe in a God, or a soul, or a hereafter. They do not say these things do not exist. They merely say that Enlightenment is attainable through an inward view of the mind.

© Dr Albert Shansky 2000

Albert Shansky is a research chemist, a philosopher (in which capacity he is Vice President of the International Institute for Field- Being) and an ordained Buddhist lay monk.


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