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 How I Came By My Creed  (1929)*

By Bertrand Russell

My outlook on the world is, like other people’s, the product partly of circumstance and partly of temperament. In regard to religious belief, those who were concerned with my education did not, perhaps, adopt the best methods for producing an unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy. My father and mother were freethinkers, but one of them died when I was two years old and the other when I was three, and I did not know their opinions until I grew up. After my father’s death I lived with my grandmother, who was a Scotch Presbyterian but at the age of seventy became converted to Unitarianism. I was taken on alternate Sundays to the parish church (Episcopalian) and to the Presbyterian church, while at home I was instructed in the tenets of the Unitarian faith. I liked the parish church best because there was a comfortable family pew next to the bell rope, and the rope moved up and down all the time the bell was ringing; also because I liked the royal arms which hung on the wall, and the beadle who walked up the steps to the pulpit after the clergyman to close the door upon him at the beginning of the sermon. Moreover, during the service I could study the tables for finding Easter and speculate upon the meaning of Golden Numbers and Sunday Letters and enjoy the pleasure of dividing by ninety; neglecting fractions.

But I was not taught to suppose that everything in the Bible was true, or to believe in miracles and eternal perdition. Darwinism was accepted as a matter of course. I remember a Swiss Protestant tutor, whom I had when I was eleven, saying to me, “If you are a Darwinian I pity you, for it is impossible to be a Darwinian and a Christian at the same time.” I did not at that age believe in the incompatibility, but I was already certain that if I had to choose, I should choose to be a Darwinian. I continued, however, to believe devoutly in the Unitarian faith until the age of fourteen, at which period I became exceedingly religious and consequently anxious to know whether there was any good ground for supposing religion to be true. For the next four years a great part of my time was spent in secret meditation upon this subject; I could not speak to anybody about it for fear of giving pain. I suffered acutely, both from the gradual loss of faith and from the necessity of silence.

The first dogma which I came to disbelieve was that of free will. It seemed to me that all motions of matter were determined by the laws of dynamics and could not therefore be influenced by the human will, even in the instance of matter forming part of a human body. I had never heard of Cartesianism, or, indeed, of any of the great philosophies, but my thoughts ran spontaneously on Cartesian lines. The next dogma which I began to doubt was that of immortality, but I cannot clearly remember what were at that time my reasons for disbelieving in it. I continued to believe in God until the age of eighteen, since the First Cause argument appeared to me irrefutable. At eighteen, however, the reading of Mill’s Autobiography showed me the fallacy in this argument. I therefore definitely abandoned all the dogmas of Christianity, and to my surprise I found myself much happier than while I had been struggling to retain some sort of theological belief.

Just after arriving at this stage I went to the University, where for the first time in my life I met people to whom I could speak of matters that interested me. I studied philosophy and under the influence of McTaggart became for a time a Hegelian. This phase lasted about three years and was brought to an end by discussions with G. E. Moore. After leaving Cambridge I spent some years in more or less desultory studies. Two winters in Berlin I devoted mainly to economics. In 1896 I lectured at Johns Hopkins University and Bryn Mawr on non-Euclidean geometry. I spent a good deal of time among art connoisseurs in Florence, while I read Pater and Flaubert and the other gods of the cultured nineties. In the end I settled down in the country with a view to writing a magnum opus on the principles of mathematics, which had been my chief ambition ever since the age of eleven.

Indeed, it was at that very early age that one of the decisive experiences of my life occurred. My brother, who was seven years older than I was, undertook to teach me Euclid, and I was overjoyed, for I had been told that Euclid proved things, and I hoped at last to acquire some solid knowledge. I shall never forget my disappointment when I found that Euclid started with axioms. When my brother read the first axiom to me, I said that I saw no reason to admit it; to which he replied that such being the situation we could not go on. Since I was anxious to go on, I admitted it provisionally, but my belief that somewhere in the world solid knowledge was obtainable had received a rude shock.

The desire to discover some really certain knowledge inspired all my work up to the age of thirty-eight. It seemed clear that mathematics had a better claim to be considered knowledge than anything else; therefore it was to the principles of mathematics that I addressed myself. At thirty-eight I felt that I had done all that it lay in my power to do in this field, although I was far from having arrived at any absolute certainty. Indeed, the net result of my work was to throw doubts upon arithmetic which had never been thrown before. I was and am persuaded that the method I pursued brings one nearer to knowledge than any other that is available, but the knowledge it brings is only probable, and not so precise as it appears to be at first sight.

At this point, therefore, my life was rather sharply cut in two. I did not feel inclined to devote myself any longer to abstractions, where I had done what I could without arriving at the desired goal. My mood was not unlike that of Faust at the moment when Mephistopheles first appears to him, but Mephistopheles appeared to me not in the form of a poodle but in the form of the Great War. After Dr. Whitehead and I had finished Principia Mathematica, I remained for about three years uncertain what to do. I was teaching at Cambridge, but I did not feel that I wished to go on doing so forever. From sheer inertia I was still occupied mainly with mathematical logic, but I felt—half unconsciously—the desire for some wholly different kind of work.

Then came the war, and I knew without the faintest shadow of doubt what I had to do. I have never been so whole-hearted or so little troubled with hesitation in any work as in the pacifist work that I did during the war. For the first time I found something to do which involved my whole nature. My previous abstract work had left my human interests unsatisfied, and I had allowed them an occasional outlet by political speaking and writing, more particularly on free trade and votes for women. The aristocratic political tradition of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which I had imbibed in childhood, had made me feel an instinctive responsibility in regard to public affairs. And a strong parental instinct, at that time not satisfied in a personal way, caused me to feel a great indignation at the spectacle of the young men of Europe being deceived and butchered in order to gratify the evil passions of their elders.

Intellectual integrity made it quite impossible for me to accept the war myths of any of the belligerent nations. Indeed, those intellectuals who accepted them were abdicating their functions for the joy of feeling themselves at one with the herd, or in some instances from mere funk. This appeared to me ignoble. If the intellectual has any function in society, it is to preserve a cool and unbiased judgment in the face of all solicitations to passion. I found, however, that most intellectuals have no belief in the utility of the intellect except in quiet times.

Again, popular feeling during the war, especially in the first months, afforded me a keen though very painful scientific interest. I observed that at first most of those who stayed at home enjoyed the war, which showed me how much hatred and how little human affection exist in human nature educated on our present lines. I saw also how the ordinary virtues, such as thrift, industry, and public spirit, were used to swell the magnitude of the disaster by producing a greater energy in the work of mutual extermination. I feared that European civilization would perish, as indeed it easily might have done if the war had lasted a year longer. The feeling of security that characterized the nineteenth century perished in the war, but I could not cease to believe in the desirability of the ideals that I previously cherished. Among many of the younger generation, despair has produced cynicism, but for my part I have never felt complete despair and have never ceased, therefore, to believe that the road to a better state of affairs is still open to mankind.

All my thinking on political, sociological, and ethical questions during the last fifteen years has sprung from the impulse which came to me during the first days of the war. I soon became convinced that the study of diplomatic origins, though useful, did not go to the bottom of the matter, since popular passions enthusiastically supported governments in all the steps leading up to the war. I have found myself also unable to accept the view that the origins of wars are always economic, for it was obvious that most of the people who were enthusiastically in favor of the war were going to lose money by it, and the fact that they themselves did not think so showed that their economic thinking was biased, and that the passion causing the bias was the real source of their warlike feeling. The supposed economic causes of war, except in the case of certain capitalistic enterprises, are in the nature of a rationalization: people wish to fight, and they therefore persuade themselves that it is to their interest to do so. The important question, then, is the psychological one—“Why do people wish to fight?” And this leads on from war to a host of other questions concerning impulses to cruelty and oppression in general. These questions in their turn involve a study of the origins of malevolent passions, and thence of psychoanalysis and the theory of education.

Gradually, through the investigation of these questions, I have come to a certain philosophy of life, guided always by the desire to discover some way in which men, with the congenital characteristics which nature has given them, can live together in societies without devoting themselves to making each other miserable. The keynote of my social philosophy, from a scientific point of view, is the emphasis upon psychology and the practice of judging social institutions by their effects upon human character. During the war all the recognized virtues of sober citizens were turned to a use which I considered bad. Men abstained from alcohol in order to make shells; they worked long hours in order to destroy the kind of society that makes work worth doing. Venereal disease was thought more regrettable than usual because it interfered with the killing of enemies. All this made me acutely aware of the fact that rules of conduct, whatever they may be, are not sufficient to produce good results unless the ends sought are good. Sobriety, thrift, industry, and continence, in so far as they existed during the war, merely increased the orgy of destruction. The money spent on drink, on the other hand, saved men’s lives, since it was taken away from the making of high explosives.

Being a pacifist forced one into opposition to the whole purpose of the community and made it very difficult to avoid a completely antinomian attitude of hostility to all recognized moral rules. My attitude, however, is not really one of hostility to moral rules; it is essentially that expressed by Saint Paul in the famous passage on charity. I do not always find myself in agreement with that apostle, but on this point my feeling is exactly the same as his—namely, that no obedience to moral rules can take the place of love, and that where love is genuine, it will, if combined with intelligence, suffice to generate whatever moral rules are necessary. The word “love,” however, has become somewhat worn with usage and no longer conveys quite the right shade of meaning. One might start at the other end, from a behaviorist analysis, dividing movements into those of approach and those of withdrawal. In some of the humblest regions of the animal kingdom creatures can be divided, for example, into the phototropic and photophobic—that is, those which approach light and those which fly from it.

The same kind of distinction applies throughout the animal kingdom. In the presence of a new stimulus there may be an impulse of approach or an impulse of retreat. Translated into psychological terms, this may be expressed by saying that there may be an emotion of attraction or an emotion of fear. Both, of course, are necessary to survival, but emotions of fear are very much less necessary for survival in civilized life than they were at earlier stages of human development or among our prehuman ancestors. Before men had adequate weapons, fierce wild beasts must have made life very dangerous, so that men had reason to be as timorous as rabbits are now, and there was an ever-present danger of death by starvation, which has grown enormously less with the creation of modern means of transport.

At the present time the fiercest and most dangerous animal with which human beings have to contend is man, and the dangers arising from purely physical causes have been very rapidly reduced. In the present day, therefore, fear finds little scope except in relation to other human beings, and fear itself is one of the main reasons why human beings are formidable to each other. It is a recognized maxim that the best defense is attack; consequently people are continually attacking each other because they expect to be attacked. Our instinctive emotions are those that we have inherited from a much more dangerous world, and contain, therefore, a larger proportion of fear than they should; this fear, since it finds little outlet elsewhere, directs itself against the social environment, producing distrust and hate, envy, malice, and all uncharitableness. If we are to profit fully by our new-won mastery over nature, we must acquire a more lordly psychology: instead of the cringing and resentful terror of the slave, we must learn to feel the calm dignity of the master. Reverting to the impulses of approach and withdrawal, this means that impulses of approach need to be encouraged, and those of withdrawal need to be discouraged. Like everything else, this is a matter of degree. I am not suggesting that people should approach tigers and pythons with friendly feelings; I am only saying that since tradition grew up in a more dangerous world, the present-day occasions for fear and withdrawal are less numerous than tradition would lead us to suppose.

It is the conquest of nature which has made possible a more friendly and cooperative attitude between human beings, and if rational men cooperated and used their scientific knowledge to the full, they could now secure the economic welfare of all—which was not possible in any earlier period. Life and death competition for the possession of fertile lands was reasonable enough in the past, but it has now become a folly. International government, business organization, and birth control should make the world comfortable. for everybody. I do not say that everybody could be as rich as Croesus, but everybody could have as much of this world’s goods as is necessary for the happiness of sensible people. With the problem of poverty and destitution eliminated, men could devote themselves to the constructive arts of civilization—to the progress of science, the diminution of disease, the postponement of death, and the liberation of the impulses that make for joy.

Why do such ideas appear Utopian? The reasons lie solely in human psychology—not in the unalterable parts of human nature, but in those which we acquire from tradition, education, and the example of our environment. Take, first, international government. The necessity for this is patent to every person capable of political thought, but nationalistic passions stand in the way. Each nation is proud of its independence; each nation is willing to fight till the last gasp to preserve its freedom. This, of course, is mere anarchy, and it leads to conditions exactly analogous to those in the feudal ages before the bold, bad barons were forced in the end to submit to the authority of the king. The attitude we have toward foreign nations is one of withdrawal: the foreigner may be all right in his place, but we become filled with alarm at the thought that he may have any say in our affairs. Each state, therefore, insists upon the right of private war. Treaties of arbitration, Kellogg Peace Pacts, and the rest are all very well as gestures, but everybody knows that they will not stand any severe strain. So long as each nation has its own army and navy and air force, it will use them when it gets excited, whatever treaties its government may have signed.

There will be no safety in the world until men have applied to the rules between different states the great principle which has produced internal security—namely, that in any dispute, force must not be employed by either interested party but only by a neutral authority after due investigation according to recognized principles of law. When all the armed forces of the world are controlled by one world-wide authority, we shall have reached the stage in the relation of states which was reached centuries ago in the relations of individuals. Nothing less than this will suffice.

The basis of international anarchy is men’s proneness to fear and hatred. This is also the basis of economic disputes; for the love of power, which is at their root, is generally an embodiment of fear. Men desire to be in control because they are afraid that the control of others will be used unjustly to their detriment. The same thing applies in the sphere of sexual morals: the power of husbands over wives and of wives over husbands, which is conferred by the law, is derived from fear of the loss of possession. This motive is the negative emotion of jealousy, not the positive emotion of love. In education the same kind of thing occurs. The positive emotion which should supply the motive in education is curiosity, but the curiosity of the young is severely repressed in many directions—sexual, theological, and political. Instead of being encouraged in the practice of free inquiry, children are instructed in some brand of orthodoxy, with the result that unfamiliar ideas inspire them with terror rather than with interest. All these bad results spring from a pursuit of security—a pursuit inspired by irrational fears; the fears have become irrational, since in the modern world fearlessness and intelligence, if embodied in social organization, would in themselves suffice to produce security.

The road to Utopia is clear; it lies partly through politics and partly through changes in the individual. As for politics, far the most important thing is the establishment of an international government—a measure which I expect to be brought about through the world government of the United States. As for the individual, the problem is to make him less prone to hatred and fear, and this is a matter partly physiological and partly psychological. Much of the hatred in the world springs from bad digestion and inadequate functioning of the glands, which is a result of oppression and thwarting in youth. In a world where the health of the young is adequately cared for and their vital impulses are given the utmost scope compatible with their own health and that of their companions, men and women will grow up more courageous and less malevolent than they are at present.

Given such human beings and an international government, the world might become stable and yet civilized, whereas, with our present psychology and political organization, every increase in scientific knowledge brings the destruction of civilization nearer.


*  Bertrand Russell, “How I Came by My Creed,” The Realist 1, no.6 (Sep 1929), 14-29  Also as “What I Believe,” The Forum 82 (Sep 1929), 129-34