An Atheist’s Daughter
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), a British mathematician and philosopher, was applauded as one of the world’s profound thinkers. In 1959 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature on the basis that he was “a defender of humanity and freedom of thought.” He authored more than 40 books covering such subjects as philosophy, education, sex, and morality.
At times, Russell claimed to be an atheist. In his essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” he wrote: “I do not believe in God” (1957, 5).
On other occasions, he positioned himself as an agnostic. In the volume, Religions of America, Russell was asked to contribute an article titled, “What is an agnostic?”, since he was perceived as being such. In that piece, however, he conceded that “for practical purposes” the agnostics are “at one with the atheists” (Rosten, 1975, 286).
In a bizarre, absolutely unrealistic sense, Russell did not mind being called a Christian. In one essay, in discussing, “Can an Agnostic be a Christian?”, he wrote: “If you mean by a ‘Christian’ a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the cruelties and abominations that at present disfigure it, then, certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian” (Tait, 1975, 289).
Russell’s views of religion and morality caused a furor in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1940 he was fired from the College of the City of New York, and yet, his ideas probably prepared the way for the widespread climate of anti-religious sentiment so prominent in today’s society.
I have been interested in Russell’s writings for many years, and a number of his volumes make their rude presence felt among the noble ones on my shelves. I also have an autobiography, along with several biographies, of the controversial gentleman. I collected them for the sake of analysis and review, and, quite frankly, I have concluded that the noted philosopher was much overrated and erratically inconsistent. In fact, one authority observed that Russell not infrequently argued conflicting ethical positions; he “traversed all of the major positions in contemporary ethics in the course of his writings” (Stolnitz, 511). All of them, that is, except the right one!
Several years ago, while browsing in a bookshop in the east, a volume with Russell’s photograph on the dust cover caught my eye. The title was, My Father—Bertrand Russell, by Katharine Tait.
Katharine Tait was Russell’s only daughter. She was born in London in 1923 and was educated at her parents’ innovative school, Beacon Hill. It was a small academy dedicated to the promotion of “free thought”; in other words, atheistic humanism.
In this fascinating book the author attempts to explain what it was like having Bertrand Russell for a father. It is not a lovely picture. The following glimpses into Russell’s life and teachings come from one who loved him with devotion, though not always agreeing with him. It could not be more objective.
Tait is very candid about her father’s adulterous adventures. “Once my father had freed himself of his original Puritanism, he was never again a one-woman man, though each new love might seem to be the ideal, he did not want to be irrevocably committed” (101-102).
“Having given up strict monogamy with the end of his first marriage, he no longer felt any need to restrict his affections, which he distributed most liberally throughout the rest of his life” (46).
When he was once asked, “if it wasn’t unkind of him to love and leave so many women,” he replied: “Why? Surely they can find other men” (106).
The celebrated figure lived on the “alley cat” level, but such never bothered his skeptical fans; with them, there is no moral code. Or, as Russell himself once put it, “Outside human desire there is no moral standard” (1957, 62). Adolf Hitler and Charlie Manson would have endorsed this philosophical code entirely.
Apparently, however, the British scholar was unwilling to accept the consequences of his own “freedom.” For instance, he felt that “adulterous intercourse” should not “lead to children” (104), for a “stable marriage was important to the children” (102). Apparently it was not “important” in the case of his own daughter.
Though he wanted his sexual license to be unrestrained, when one of his wives became pregnant by another man, Russell was “hurt and angered and wounded in his family pride” (107).
Katharine wrote: “Once I asked him if I should sleep with an amiable young man of my acquaintance. ‘Do you love him?’ ‘No, not really.’ ‘Then I shouldn’t. It’s best to save that for someone you love and not treat it lightly’” (155-156). This was the epitome of inconsistency.
Is it not odd how libertine men can be so protective of their daughters, while caring nothing for the daughters of others? Tait had this interesting comment: “…it turned out that the new morality was no easier and no more natural than the ideal of rigorous life-long monogamy it was intended to replace.” And again: “Free marriage had proved more difficult than he had expected, its failure painful and expensive” (103, 118).
Russell was an ardent proponent of Darwinism. He taught his children that “mankind was no more than an accident of evolution” (178). When he traveled with his family, his daughter recalls, “he suggested that we might lean out the windows when we passed other cars and shout out: ‘Your grandfather was a monkey.’ This was to convince them of the correctness of Darwin’s theory of evolution” (4).
Tait charged: “When he wanted to attack religion, he sought out its most egregious errors and held them up to ridicule, while avoiding serious discussion of the basic message” (188).
It is small wonder that the philosopher had such a depressing outlook upon his fellows. In his autobiography he wrote:
“The sea, the stars, the night wind in waste places, mean more to me than even the human beings I love best, and I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God” (1968, II, 36).
But the confused gentleman could not live with his views.
“Christians were mocked for imagining that man is important in the vast scheme of the universe, even the high point of all creation—yet my father thought man and his preservation the most important thing in the world, and he lived in hopes of a better life to come” (184).
Russell believed that a parent must teach his child “with its very first breath that it has entered into a moral world” (59). And yet, as with all atheists, he had a most difficult time explaining why, if man is simply the produce of natural forces, children should be taught morality. Ms. Tait recalled various conversations relative to moral matters in which she and her father engaged when she was a youngster.
“I don’t want to! Why should I?” she pressed. She noted that a conventional parent might reply: “Because I say so … your father says so … God says so….” Russell, however, would say to his children: “Because more people will be happy if you do than if you don’t.”
“So what?”, she would respond, “I don’t care about other people.”
“But you should,” her father would retort.
In her innocence she would exclaim: “But why?” To her question the redundant rejoinder would be: “Because more people will be happy if you do than if you don’t.”
Tait observed: “We felt the heavy pressure of his rectitude and obeyed, but the reason was not convincing—neither to us nor to him” (184-185).
The confused celebrity could hardly impress his children with any kind of moral sense of responsibility when, as noted above, he himself taught: “Outside human desire there is no moral standard” (1957, 62).
A Vain Search for Peace
As mentioned earlier, Professor Russell once said that “human affection” was but “an attempt to escape the vain search for God.” His daughter declared:
“I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God…. Indeed, he had first taken up philosophy in hope of finding proof of the evidence of the existence of God … Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul [which he did not believe he had—WJ] there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it” (185).
That statement is not quite correct. When God was banished from his heart, he replaced the vacuum with frustration, anger, and atheistic attempts to destroy the faith that flourished in the hearts of others. Such an evil disposition compounds one’s culpability considerably.
The wretchedness of his emotional state at times reached depths of great pathos. In a letter penned in 1920, he wrote:
“But I do know the despair in my soul. I know the great loneliness, as I wander through the world like a ghost, speaking in tones that are not heard, lost as if I had fallen from some other planet” (1968, I, 145).
Ray Monk is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. In his highly acclaimed book, Bertrand Russell—The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921 (xix), he records the words of a poem composed by Russell, and addressed, “To Edith.”
Through the long years
I have sought peace,
I found ecstasy,
I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness.
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.
Such was a fitting epitaph for a tragic life.
- Monk, Ray (1996), Bertrand Russell â€“ The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921 (New York: The Free Press).
- Rosten, Leo, ed. (1975), Religions of America (New York: Simon & Schuster).
- Russell, Bertrand (1957), Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (New York: Simon & Schuster).
- Russell, Bertrand (1968), Autobiography (Boston: Atlantic-Little Brown), Two Volumes.
- Stolnitz, Jerome (1956), â€œBertrand Russell,â€ Encyclopedia of Morals, Vergilius Ferm, ed. (New York: Philosophical Library).
- Tait, Katharine (1975), My Father â€“ Bertrand Russell (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).