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Bertand Russell is Known as an Atheist; But Was He, in Fact, Religious?

I recently returned to what Bertrand Russell, perhaps Britain's best known philosopher, had to say about religion.

I recently returned to what Bertrand Russell, perhaps Britain's best known philosopher, had to say about religion. He is well known now for his anti-religious polemic. The lecture, Why I am Not A Christian, marked a seminal moment in the history of 20th century organised, secular humanism. There and elsewhere, he explains why he doesn't believe in God and immortality. He particularly objects to organised religion, which he believes rests on the cultivation of fear. Further, the intransigent commitment that people have to their religious beliefs has made for much that is evil in the world, not least wars.

So much, so familiar, so commendable.

However, there is more to Russell on religion than perhaps meets the eye. For one thing, he was ever conscious of the limits of human understanding and the boundaries of certainty. He wrote a Liberal Decalogue, and the first commandment was, 'Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.' That cuts both ways, whether you're certain God doesn't, as well as does, exist.

For another thing, I reckon there is an important sense in which you can, in fact, say that Russell was religious. It's a part of his character rather than his convictions, seen when he discovers Euclid's axioms. (He was a mathematician.) He also wrote a mystical novel.

But it is perhaps the personal side of his life that speaks most profoundly, and led one of his daughters to write, after he'd died, that he was a religious man. He knew religious experience, which he called 'mystic illumination'. One such moment came to him when a very close friend nearly died. Witnessing that, he was able to stare pain in the face, and it provoked a deep compassion in him, for the world around him. The spiritual greats call that the via negativa, the ability to turn into suffering, rather than away from suffering, and find love in the midst of the darkness.

I'd recommend reading his essay The Essence of Religion as a counterpoint to Why I Am Not A Christian. In it, he advocates a religious sensibility without dogma.

He writes:

'Acts inspired by religion have some quality of infinity in them: they seem done in obedience to a command, and though they may achieve great ends, yet it is no clear knowledge of these ends that makes them seem imperative. The beliefs which underlie such acts are often so deep and so instinctive as to remain unknown to those whose lives are built upon them. Indeed, it may be not belief but feeling that makes religion: a feeling which, when brought into the sphere of belief, may involve the conviction that this or that is good, but may, if it remains untouched by intellect, be only a feeling and yet be dominant in action. It is the quality of infinity that makes religion, the selfless, untrammelled life in the whole which frees men from the prison-house of eager wishes and little thoughts.'

So, I think of Russell as he described himself, an agnostic. Sometimes that agnosticism was atheistically inclined, particularly when it came to railing against dogmas and the church.

But, he is also religiously inclined in his agnosticism, when it comes to a desire for a universal feeling of good and compassion. He realized that we can sometimes gain glimpses of an infinite perspective on life that escapes the humdrum prison-house of the self. He understood that religion, at root, is about feeling, not belief - not least because rational beliefs along cannot lead you into the fullness of life.