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IsThereaGod?

(commissionedby,butneverpublishedin,IllustratedMagazine,in1952) byBertrandRussell ThequestionwhetherthereisaGodisonewhichisdecidedonverydifferentgrounds bydifferentcommunitiesanddifferentindividuals.Theimmensemajorityofmankind accepttheprevailingopinionoftheirowncommunity.Intheearliesttimesofwhichwe havedefinitehistoryeverybodybelievedinmanygods.ItwastheJewswhofirst believedinonlyone.Thefirstcommandment,whenitwasnew,wasverydifficultto obeybecausetheJewshadbelievedthatBaalandAshtarothandDagonandMoloch andtherestwererealgodsbutwerewickedbecausetheyhelpedtheenemiesofthe Jews.Thestepfromabeliefthatthesegodswerewickedtothebeliefthattheydidnot existwasadifficultone.Therewasatime,namelythatofAntiochusIV,whenavigorous attemptwasmadetoHellenizetheJews.Antiochusdecreedthattheyshouldeatpork, abandoncircumcision,andtakebaths.MostoftheJewsinJerusalemsubmitted,butin countryplacesresistancewasmorestubbornandundertheleadershipofthe MaccabeestheJewsatlastestablishedtheirrighttotheirpeculiartenetsandcustoms. Monotheism,whichatthebeginningoftheAntiochanpersecutionhadbeenthecreed ofonlypartofoneverysmallnation,wasadoptedbyChristianityandlaterbyIslam,and sobecamedominantthroughoutthewholeoftheworldwestofIndia.FromIndia eastward,ithadnosuccess:Hinduismhadmanygods;Buddhisminitsprimitiveform hadnone;andConfucianismhadnonefromtheeleventhcenturyonward.But,ifthe truthofareligionistobejudgedbyitsworldlysuccess,theargumentinfavorof monotheismisaverystrongone,sinceitpossessedthelargestarmies,thelargest navies,andthegreatestaccumulationofwealth.Inourowndaythisargumentis growinglessdecisive.ItistruethattheunChristianmenaceofJapanwasdefeated.But theChristianisnowfacedwiththemenaceofatheisticMuscovitehordes,anditisnot socertainasonecouldwishthatatomicbombswillprovideaconclusiveargumenton thesideoftheism.

Butletusabandonthispoliticalandgeographicalwayofconsideringreligions,which hasbeenincreasinglyrejectedbythinkingpeopleeversincethetimeoftheancient Greeks.Eversincethattimetherehavebeenmenwhowerenotcontenttoaccept passivelythereligiousopinionsoftheirneighbors,butendeavouredtoconsiderwhat reasonandphilosophymighthavetosayaboutthematter.Inthecommercialcitiesof Ionia,wherephilosophywasinvented,therewerefreethinkersinthesixthcenturyB.C. Comparedtomodernfreethinkerstheyhadaneasytask,becausetheOlympiangods, howevercharmingtopoeticfancy,werehardlysuchascouldbedefendedbythe metaphysicaluseoftheunaidedreason.TheyweremetpopularlybyOrphism(towhich Christianityowesmuch)and,philosophically,byPlato,fromwhomtheGreeksderiveda philosophicalmonotheismverydifferentfromthepoliticalandnationalistic monotheismoftheJews.WhentheGreekworldbecameconvertedtoChristianityit combinedthenewcreedwithPlatonicmetaphysicsandsogavebirthtotheology. Catholictheologians,fromthetimeofSaintAugustinetothepresentday,havebelieved thattheexistenceofoneGodcouldbeprovedbytheunaidedreason.Theirarguments wereputintofinalformbySaintThomasAquinasinthethirteenthcentury.When modernphilosophybeganintheseventeenthcentury,DescartesandLeibniztookover theoldargumentssomewhatpolishedup,and,owinglargelytotheirefforts,piety remainedintellectuallyrespectable.ButLocke,althoughhimselfacompletelyconvinced Christian,underminedthetheoreticalbasisoftheoldarguments,andmanyofhis followers,especiallyinFrance,becameAtheists.Iwillnotattempttosetforthinalltheir subtletythephilosophicalargumentsfortheexistenceofGod.Thereis,Ithink,onlyone ofthemwhichstillhasweightwithphilosophers,thatistheargumentoftheFirstCause. Thisargumentmaintainsthat,sinceeverythingthathappenshasacause,theremustbe aFirstCausefromwhichthewholeseriesstarts.Theargumentsuffers,however,from thesamedefectasthatoftheelephantandthetortoise.Itissaid(Idonotknowwith whattruth)thatacertainHinduthinkerbelievedtheearthtorestuponanelephant. Whenaskedwhattheelephantrestedupon,herepliedthatitresteduponatortoise. Whenaskedwhatthetortoiserestedupon,hesaid,"Iamtiredofthis.Supposewe changethesubject."ThisillustratestheunsatisfactorycharacteroftheFirstCause argument.Nevertheless,youwillfinditinsomeultramoderntreatisesonphysics, whichcontendthatphysicalprocesses,tracedbackwardintime,showthattheremust havebeenasuddenbeginningandinferthatthiswasduetodivineCreation.They carefullyabstainfromattemptstoshowthatthishypothesismakesmattersmore intelligible.

ThescholasticargumentsfortheexistenceofaSupremeBeingarenowrejectedby mostProtestanttheologiansinfavorofnewargumentswhichtomymindarebyno meansanimprovement.Thescholasticargumentsweregenuineeffortsofthoughtand, iftheirreasoninghadbeensound,theywouldhavedemonstratedthetruthoftheir conclusion.Thenewarguments,whichModernistsprefer,arevague,andthe Modernistsrejectwithcontempteveryefforttomakethemprecise.Thereisanappeal totheheartasopposedtotheintellect.Itisnotmaintainedthatthosewhorejectthe newargumentsareillogical,butthattheyaredestituteofdeepfeelingorofmoral sense.Letusneverthelessexaminethemodernargumentsandseewhetherthereis anythingthattheyreallyprove. Oneofthefavouriteargumentsisfromevolution.Theworldwasoncelifeless,and whenlifebeganitwasapoorsortoflifeconsistingofgreenslimeandother uninterestingthings.Graduallybythecourseofevolution,itdevelopedintoanimalsand plantsandatlastintoMAN.Man,sothetheologiansassureus,issosplendidaBeing thathemaywellberegardedastheculminationtowhichthelongagesofnebulaand slimewereaprelude.Ithinkthetheologiansmusthavebeenfortunateintheirhuman contacts.TheydonotseemtometohavegivendueweighttoHitlerortheBeastof Belsen.IfOmnipotence,withalltimeatitsdisposal,thoughtitworthwhiletoleadupto thesementhroughthemanymillionsofyearsofevolution,Icanonlysaythatthemoral andaesthetictasteinvolvedispeculiar.However,thetheologiansnodoubthopethat thefuturecourseofevolutionwillproducemoremenlikethemselvesandfewermen likeHitler.Letushopeso.But,incherishingthishope,weareabandoningthegroundof experienceandtakingrefugeinanoptimismwhichhistorysofardoesnotsupport. Thereareotherobjectionstothisevolutionaryoptimism.Thereiseveryreasonto believethatlifeonourplanetwillnotcontinueforeversothatanyoptimismbased uponthecourseofterrestrialhistorymustbetemporaryandlimitedinitspurview. Theremay,ofcourse,belifeelsewherebut,ifthereis,weknownothingaboutitand havenoreasontosupposethatitbearsmoreresemblancetothevirtuoustheologians thantoHitler.Theearthisaverytinycorneroftheuniverse.Itisalittlefragmentofthe solarsystem.ThesolarsystemisalittlefragmentoftheMilkyWay.AndtheMilkyWay isalittlefragmentofthemanymillionsofgalaxiesrevealedbymoderntelescopes.In thislittleinsignificantcornerofthecosmosthereisabriefinterludebetweentwolong lifelessepochs.Inthisbriefinterlude,thereisamuchbrieferonecontainingman.If reallymanisthepurposeoftheuniversetheprefaceseemsalittlelong.Oneis

remindedofsomeprosyoldgentlemanwhotellsaninterminableanecdoteallquite uninterestinguntiltherathersmallpointinwhichitends.Idonotthinktheologians showasuitablepietyinmakingsuchacomparisonpossible. Ithasbeenoneofthedefectsoftheologiansatalltimestooverestimatethe importanceofourplanet.Nodoubtthiswasnaturalenoughinthedaysbefore Copernicuswhenitwasthoughtthattheheavensrevolveabouttheearth.Butsince Copernicusandstillmoresincethemodernexplorationofdistantregions,thispre occupationwiththeearthhasbecomeratherparochial.IftheuniversehadaCreator,it ishardlyreasonabletosupposethatHewasspeciallyinterestedinourlittlecorner.And, ifHewasnot,Hisvaluesmusthavebeendifferentfromours,sinceintheimmense majorityofregionslifeisimpossible. ThereisamoralisticargumentforbeliefinGod,whichwaspopularizedbyWilliam James.Accordingtothisargument,weoughttobelieveinGodbecause,ifwedonot, weshallnotbehavewell.Thefirstandgreatestobjectiontothisargumentisthat,atits best,itcannotprovethatthereisaGodbutonlythatpoliticiansandeducatorsoughtto trytomakepeoplethinkthereisone.Whetherthisoughttobedoneornotisnota theologicalquestionbutapoliticalone.Theargumentsareofthesamesortasthose whichurgethatchildrenshouldbetaughtrespectfortheflag.Amanwithanygenuine religiousfeelingwillnotbecontentwiththeviewthatthebeliefinGodisuseful, becausehewillwishtoknowwhether,infact,thereisaGod.Itisabsurdtocontend thatthetwoquestionsarethesame.Inthenursery,beliefinFatherChristmasisuseful, butgrownuppeopledonotthinkthatthisprovesFatherChristmastobereal. Sincewearenotconcernedwithpoliticswemightconsiderthissufficientrefutationof themoralisticargument,butitisperhapsworthwhiletopursuethisalittlefurther.Itis, inthefirstplace,verydoubtfulwhetherbeliefinGodhasallthebeneficialmoraleffects thatareattributedtoit.Manyofthebestmenknowntohistoryhavebeenunbelievers. JohnStuartMillmayserveasaninstance.Andmanyoftheworstmenknowntohistory havebeenbelievers.Ofthisthereareinnumerableinstances.PerhapsHenryVIIImay serveastypical.

Howeverthatmaybe,itisalwaysdisastrouswhengovernmentssettoworktouphold opinionsfortheirutilityratherthanfortheirtruth.Assoonasthisisdoneitbecomes necessarytohaveacensorshiptosuppressadversearguments,anditisthoughtwiseto discouragethinkingamongtheyoungforfearofencouraging"dangerousthoughts." WhensuchmalpracticesareemployedagainstreligionastheyareinSovietRussia,the theologianscanseethattheyarebad,buttheyarestillbadwhenemployedindefence ofwhatthetheologiansthinkgood.Freedomofthoughtandthehabitofgivingweight toevidencearemattersoffargreatermoralimportthanthebeliefinthisorthat theologicaldogma.Onallthesegroundsitcannotbemaintainedthattheologicalbeliefs shouldbeupheldfortheirusefulnesswithoutregardtotheirtruth. Thereisasimplerandmorenaiveformofthesameargument,whichappealstomany individuals.Peoplewilltellusthatwithouttheconsolationsofreligiontheywouldbe intolerablyunhappy.Sofarasthisistrue,itisacoward'sargument.Nobodybuta cowardwouldconsciouslychoosetoliveinafool'sparadise.Whenamansuspectshis wifeofinfidelity,heisnotthoughtthebetterofforshuttinghiseyestotheevidence. AndIcannotseewhyignoringevidenceshouldbecontemptibleinonecaseand admirableintheother.Apartfromthisargumenttheimportanceofreligionin contributingtoindividualhappinessisverymuchexaggerated.Whetheryouarehappy orunhappydependsuponanumberoffactors.Mostpeopleneedgoodhealthand enoughtoeat.Theyneedthegoodopinionoftheirsocialmilieuandtheaffectionof theirintimates.Theyneednotonlyphysicalhealthbutmentalhealth.Givenallthese things,mostpeoplewillbehappywhatevertheirtheology.Withoutthem,mostpeople willbeunhappy,whatevertheirtheology.InthinkingoverthepeopleIhaveknown,Ido notfindthatontheaveragethosewhohadreligiousbeliefswerehappierthanthose whohadnot. WhenIcometomyownbeliefs,Ifindmyselfquiteunabletodiscernanypurposeinthe universe,andstillmoreunabletowishtodiscernone.Thosewhoimaginethatthe courseofcosmicevolutionisslowlyleadinguptosomeconsummationpleasingtothe Creator,arelogicallycommitted(thoughtheyusuallyfailtorealizethis)totheviewthat theCreatorisnotomnipotentor,ifHewereomnipotent,Hecoulddecreetheend withouttroublingaboutmeans.Idonotmyselfperceiveanyconsummationtoward whichtheuniverseistending.Accordingtothephysicists,energywillbegraduallymore evenlydistributedandasitbecomesmoreevenlydistributeditwillbecomemore useless.Graduallyeverythingthatwefindinterestingorpleasant,suchaslifeandlight,

willdisappearso,atleast,theyassureus.Thecosmosislikeatheatreinwhichjust onceaplayisperformed,but,afterthecurtainfalls,thetheatreisleftcoldandempty untilitsinksinruins.Idonotmeantoassertwithanypositivenessthatthisisthecase. Thatwouldbetoassumemoreknowledgethanwepossess.Isayonlythatitiswhatis probableonpresentevidence.Iwillnotassertdogmaticallythatthereisnocosmic purpose,butIwillsaythatthereisnoshredofevidenceinfavoroftherebeingone. Iwillsayfurtherthat,iftherebeapurposeandifthispurposeisthatofanOmnipotent Creator,thenthatCreator,sofarfrombeinglovingandkind,aswearetold,mustbeof adegreeofwickednessscarcelyconceivable.Amanwhocommitsamurderis consideredtobeabadman.AnOmnipotentDeity,iftherebeone,murderseverybody. Amanwhowillinglyafflictedanotherwithcancerwouldbeconsideredafiend.Butthe Creator,ifHeexists,afflictsmanythousandseveryyearwiththisdreadfuldisease.A manwho,havingtheknowledgeandpowerrequiredtomakehischildrengood,chose insteadtomakethembad,wouldbeviewedwithexecration.ButGod,ifHeexists, makesthischoiceinthecaseofverymanyofHischildren.Thewholeconceptionofan omnipotentGodwhomitisimpioustocriticize,couldonlyhavearisenunderoriental despotismswheresovereigns,inspiteofcapriciouscruelties,continuedtoenjoythe adulationoftheirslaves.Itisthepsychologyappropriatetothisoutmodedpolitical systemwhichbelatedlysurvivesinorthodoxtheology. Thereis,itistrue,aModernistformoftheism,accordingtowhichGodisnot omnipotent,butisdoingHisbest,inspiteofgreatdifficulties.Thisview,althoughitis newamongChristians,isnotnewinthehistoryofthought.Itis,infact,tobefoundin Plato.Idonotthinkthisviewcanbeprovedtobefalse.Ithinkallthatcanbesaidisthat thereisnopositivereasoninitsfavour. Manyorthodoxpeoplespeakasthoughitwerethebusinessofscepticstodisprove receiveddogmasratherthanofdogmatiststoprovethem.Thisis,ofcourse,amistake. IfIweretosuggestthatbetweentheEarthandMarsthereisachinateapotrevolving aboutthesuninanellipticalorbit,nobodywouldbeabletodisprovemyassertion providedIwerecarefultoaddthattheteapotistoosmalltoberevealedevenbyour mostpowerfultelescopes.ButifIweretogoontosaythat,sincemyassertioncannot bedisproved,itisintolerablepresumptiononthepartofhumanreasontodoubtit,I shouldrightlybethoughttobetalkingnonsense.If,however,theexistenceofsucha

teapotwereaffirmedinancientbooks,taughtasthesacredtrutheverySunday,and instilledintothemindsofchildrenatschool,hesitationtobelieveinitsexistencewould becomeamarkofeccentricityandentitlethedoubtertotheattentionsofthe psychiatristinanenlightenedageoroftheInquisitorinanearliertime.Itiscustomary tosupposethat,ifabeliefiswidespread,theremustbesomethingreasonableaboutit. Idonotthinkthisviewcanbeheldbyanyonewhohasstudiedhistory.Practicallyallthe beliefsofsavagesareabsurd.Inearlycivilizationstheremaybeasmuchasonepercent forwhichthereissomethingtobesaid.Inourownday....ButatthispointImustbe careful.WeallknowthatthereareabsurdbeliefsinSovietRussia.IfweareProtestants, weknowthatthereareabsurdbeliefsamongCatholics.IfweareCatholics,weknow thatthereareabsurdbeliefsamongProtestants.IfweareConservatives,weare amazedbythesuperstitionstobefoundintheLabourParty.IfweareSocialists,weare aghastatthecredulityofConservatives.Idonotknow,dearreader,whatyourbeliefs maybe,butwhatevertheymaybe,youmustconcedethatninetenthsofthebeliefsof ninetenthsofmankindaretotallyirrational.Thebeliefsinquestionare,ofcourse, thosewhichyoudonothold.Icannot,therefore,thinkitpresumptuoustodoubt somethingwhichhaslongbeenheldtobetrue,especiallywhenthisopinionhasonly prevailedincertaingeographicalregions,asisthecasewithalltheologicalopinions. Myconclusionisthatthereisnoreasontobelieveanyofthedogmasoftraditional theologyand,further,thatthereisnoreasontowishthattheyweretrue.Man,insofar asheisnotsubjecttonaturalforces,isfreetoworkouthisowndestiny.The responsibilityishis,andsoistheopportunity. FromBertrandRussell,"IsThereaGod?"(1952),inTheCollectedPapersofBertrand Russell,Volume11:LastPhilosophicalTestament,194368,ed.JohnG.SlaterandPeter Kllner(London:Routledge,1997),pp.54348.