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Bertrand Russell - Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?

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Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?

A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas

by Bertrand Russell (1947)

I speak as one who was intended by my father to be brought up as a

Rationalist. He was quite as much of a Rationalist as I am, but he died

when I was three years old, and the Court of Chancery decided that I

was to have the benefits of a Christian education.

I think perhaps the Court of Chancery might have regretted that since.

It does not seem to have done as much good as they hoped. Perhaps you

may say that it would be rather a pity if Christian education were to

cease, because you would then get no more Rationalists.

They arise chiefly out of reaction to a system of education which

considers it quite right that a father should decree that his son

should be brought up as a Muggletonian, we will say, or brought up on

any other kind of nonsense, but he must on no account be brought up to

think rationally. When I was young that was considered to be illegal.

Sin And The Bishops

Since I became a Rationalist I have found that there is still

considerable scope in the world for the practical importance of a

rationalist outlook, not only in matters of geology, but in all sorts

of practical matters, such as divorce and birth control, and a question

which has come up quite recently, artificial insemination, where

bishops tell us that something is gravely sinful, but it is only

gravely sinful because there is some text in the Bible about it. It is

not gravely sinful because it does anybody harm, and that is not the

argument. As long as you can say, and as long as you can persuade

Parliament to go on saying, that a thing must not be done solely

because there is some text in the Bible about it, so long obviously

there is great need of Rationalism in practice.

As you may know, I got into great trouble in the United States solely

because, on some practical issues, I considered that the ethical advice

given in the Bible was not conclusive, and that on some points one

should act differently from what the Bible says. On this ground it was

decreed by a Law Court that I was not a fit person to teach in any

university in the United States, so that I have some practical ground

for preferring

Rationalism to other outlooks.

Don't Be Too Certain!

The question of how to define Rationalism is not altogether an easy

one. I do not think that you could define it by rejection of this or

that Christian dogma. It would be perfectly possible to be a complete

and absolute Rationalist in the true sense of the term and yet accept

this or that dogma.

The question is how to arrive at your opinions and not what your

opinions are. The thing in which we believe is the supremacy of reason.

If reason should lead you to orthodox conclusions, well and good; you

are still a Rationalist. To my mind the essential thing is that one

should base one's arguments upon the kind of grounds that are accepted

in science, and one should not regard anything that one accepts as

quite certain, but only as probable in a greater or a less degree. Not

to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in

rationality.

Proof of God

Here there comes a practical question which has often troubled me.

Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place

they always ask me what is my religion.

I never know whether I should say "Agnostic" or whether I

should say "Atheist". It is a very difficult question and I daresay

that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were

speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to

describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a

conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the

ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist,

because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought

to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods

of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a

logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them

did

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