Article – “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization (1930)”

Dec 24, 2023

Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? (1930)

”My own view on religion is that of Lucretius.* I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others …

The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured; the chief obstacle to its utilization for that purpose is the teaching of religion. Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.”

— Bertrand Russell, Russell on Religion (1999), Part. IV: Religion and Morality, Essay. 16: Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to
Civilization?(1930), pp. 175-6

Along with Why I Am Not a Christian (1927) Russell’s Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?(1930) ranks as one of the philosopher’s most incendiary anti-religious and popular writings. Now, for almost a century, it continues to provoke a strong reaction among the pious. The ideas contained within this essay were and still often are, considered controversial, contentious and – to some of the religious – blasphemous. Bertrand Russell helped open the door to the demystification of religion, writing in plain language at a time when people had been told for centuries that serious discussions about God required a detailed knowledge of Latin, Church history and theology. Russell believed none of this:

”Those who say that God is beyond the human mind profess to know a great deal about God. They do not really mean God is beyond comprehension, only partly beyond comprehension. And generally they mean that He is beyond the comprehension of your mind and not beyond the comprehension of theirs.”

— Bertrand Russell, The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, paper 35, volume 10

Russell was a passionate philosopher and mathematician who was outraged by what he considered humankind’s irrational beliefs and needless cruelties.

”Men tend to have the beliefs that suit their passions. Cruel men believe in a cruel God, and use their belief to excuse their cruelty. Only kindly men believe in a kindly God, and they would be kindly in any case.”

— Bertrand Russell, London Calling (1947), p. 18

Russell wrote and spoke to be understood. His clarity of expression reflects the clarity of his thought. Unlike many philosophers, Russell is well-known for his lucid and elegant prose style. In his philosophical works, there is little abstract jargon nor do we find many flowery expressions. Russell valued getting to the point. To this day both scholars and the general public continue to gain new insights into Russell’s thought.

  • Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher. He wrote extensively during the late Roman Republic, was highly well known and respected, yet only one of his works survive – the philosophical poem De rerum natura, which concern the tenets and philosophy of Epicureanism, usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. By today’s definitions, neither Epicurus nor Lucretius were atheists. But the Epicurean gods of Ancient Greece and Rome were personifications of the forces of nature, and like everything else in the Epicurean cosmos, entirely material, composed of atoms. The gods were altogether lacking in interest and power to intervene in human affairs.

The historian Ada Palmer has labelled Lucretius’s thought as “proto-atheistic”. She qualifies her use of this term, cautioning that it is not to be used to say that Lucretius was himself an atheist in the modern sense of the word, nor that atheism is a teleological necessity, but rather that many of his ideas were taken up by 20th and 21st-century atheists, such as can be found in the New Atheism movement. For example, the late Christopher Hitchens uses On the Nature of Things as the first chapter in his best selling anthology The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (2007).

Bertrand Russell’s criticism of religion was highly influenced by Lucretius which he often noted. According to Lucretius, religion gives rise to the unreasonable desire, or is born of the desire, to make man at home in what seems to be an uncaring world. It therefore cannot be the path to happiness. Russell wholeheartedly agreed.

“Rest, brother, rest. Have you done ill or well Rest, rest, There is no God, no gods who dwell Crowned with avenging righteousness on high Nor frowning ministers of their hate in Hell.”

— Lucretius