Philosopher, mathematician, academic, and campaigner for intellectual, social and sexual freedom, and peace and disarmament, Russell was a prominent atheist. He wrote about his worldview in Why I am Not a Christian, and was a member of Humanists UK’s Standing Advisory Council, as well as President of Cardiff Humanists, until his death.
Earl Russell was born into the liberal aristocracy. His godfather was John Stuart Mill. He was one of the great thinkers of this century. He was a philosopher, an outstanding mathematician, a champion of intellectual, social and sexual freedom, a pioneer of new ideas in education, and a writer. He was associated with the Bloomsbury Group. He was given public recognition of his work by being awarded the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Fundamental to his work in formal philosophy was the idea that beliefs should be based on evidence and logical procedures. He applied this idea to his philosophy of life. From about the age of fifteen he became deeply concerned with questions like the existence of god, for which he could find no evidence. At the age of eighteen he became an atheist. He found it a great relief to be free of some of the fears and dogma surrounding religion. He became aware of many instances where religious beliefs opposed humanitarian and scientific progress. Looking at the suspicion, fear and persecution arising from religions over the centuries, Russell came to believe that religious practices have done more harm than good. In his book Why I am Not a Christian, he says that “religions are both harmful and untrue.” When he was asked, in a famous radio debate, how he could explain the existence of the universe, his reply was, “I should say the universe is just there, and that’s all.”
His autobiography, written in 1967, began:
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the sufferings of mankind.”
He was particularly concerned at the suffering caused by war, and campaigned against the Great War of 1914-18. His opposition led him to be sent to prison for six months. However, during the Second World War (1939-45) he renounced pacifism. When nuclear weapons were developed he became one of the earliest supporters of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). When he was a frail, white-haired old man of eighty-nine, he led a mass sit-in in Trafalgar Square for which he received another prison sentence.
In his book Marriage and Morals he expressed his belief in sexual freedom and divorce (he practised what he preached!) and contraception.
Bertrand Russell came to this conclusion: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we instead choose death because we cannot forget our quarrels? Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new paradise; if you cannot, nothing lies before you but universal death.”
Throughout his life he grappled with his own beliefs and the problems of the universe and humanity. He never wavered from his passionate belief that people should practise kind feelings towards each other if the human race is to achieve happiness. He put his belief into practice in his work for peace and disarmament.