“There can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true”: Bertrand Russell on his unbelief

May 19, 2015 • 3:30 pm

In only 3.5 minutes, this great video disposes of many of the “utility” arguments for belief that constantly swarm about us like annoying flies.

I may have posted this some time in the last six years, but I can’t be arsed to look it up, and at any rate I hear that Richard Dawkins tw**ted this today, so I watched it and felt the good vibes across the years.  Who said that the atheists of yore were less strident?!

The money quote, which faitheists should internalize:

“It seems to me a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.”

106 thoughts on ““There can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true”: Bertrand Russell on his unbelief

  1. I saw that tweet first thing this morning and watched the video – which I’ve seen a dozen times now – what a great way to start the day!

    1. btw, fwiw, I just noticed that Dr. Dawkins just tw**ted favourably about your new book and this site.

      1. Since I’m at it, Sam Harris also mentioned the book and said that a podcast with Jerry is coming soon 🙂

  2. “There can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true.”

    Russell is often one of the names offered when Sophisticated Theists™ and even faitheists complain that gnus are hopelessly thoughtless and much less in tune with what religion is and does than our “old” forebears.

    Yet this sentence would unquestionably be met with a contemptuous rehearsal of the Courtier’s Reply, were it uttered by any of the current big atheist names.

    1. Yep, he sounds just like Richard Dawkins, “Either a thing is true or it isn’t, if it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you shouldn’t.” How strident.

      1. …and how low-brow, how un-nuanced, how unsophisticated! No appreciation for how truth works. Either a thing is true or it isn’t, ha! How can he not see the vast continuum of possibilities between those poles?!

        1. There are an infinite number of real numbers n such that 3 < n < 5.

          2 + 2 = n

          How do I rate on a scale of sophistication?

          1. Let’s see…let me just grab my Big Book O’ Sophistication…ah, here it is…trying to use numbers/mathematics to prove god…that’s an 8.7 on the Polkinghorne scale. Well done!

  3. I’m going to just go ahead and disagree with Russell on a few points. While I agree that its a

    fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true

    , how many believers actually believe in something they don’t think is true? I’d say none. They may fool themselves into believing things, but they really do believe them.
    I also think he’s wrong that there’s no practical reason to believe things that aren’t true. To a large extent this argument depends on your value judgement of knowing ‘the truth’ but I still think there are examples that refute it. For example,
    You’re on a passenger ship that’s slowly sinking and there’s no chance of rescue. Would it be good/practical/useful to tell the passengers that rescuers are coming to fish them out of the water? I’d say yes. The despair they’d feel when they realize they’d been lied to wouldn’t be much worse than if they had known the truth all along and would be far outweighed by the comfort they’d feel up to that point. In a way we’re all passengers on a sinking ship. Religion is how some of us deal with it.

    1. You miss Russells point. They believe it because it’s useful, and don’t even think about whether it’s true or not.

      1. They believe it because it’s useful, and don’t even think about whether it’s true or not.

        Of course, but it seems to me that Russell is claiming that people make the conscious decision to believe in something because its useful. I think they’re led to those beliefs through emotional need and then use ad hoc faulty reasoning to justify it. I think it a bit strong to call this a ‘fundamental treachery’ etc etc.

      2. You’re probably right. I’ve listened to it again and it really sounds to me as if he’s referring to the motivations of believers, but he must be referring to the utility arguments used by apologists ( many of whom are atheists) for belief in the supernatural.

      3. This reminds me of a phrase Mark Twain used a number of times, I think from “Letters from the Earth”:

        “These people believe that they believe in God…”

      4. Yep, a very religious friend of mine was talking about his decision to dedicate his life to Jesus, and his final assertion in favour of the whole project was “It works, it really does.” Nothing about how true it all is, just how useful.

    2. So, in the end, you are saying that believers actually believe in something they don’t think is true. (Or believe is true because somebody credible provided it as a comforting lie that than believing it because they determined its truth for themselves… “Oh, could I see the rescuers’ message, please?”)


      1. Isn’t that the point of Pascal’s Wager? Believing something because of potential consequences rather than an assessment of its truth value?

    3. I think many religious people are very uncomfortable about making a distinction between a belief being true and a belief being useful — when it comes to their own beliefs. The Little People Argument, that “ordinary people aren’t strong enough” to live a life without pleasant illusions, is frequently trotted out to humble the atheist. The interviewer even does this with Russell in this short clip. The benevolent lie is a marvelous thought experiment.

      But who really applies it to themselves lying to themselves?

      That’s where it gets dicey. People kinda do. But you’re right. They don’t want to follow this line to the obvious conclusion so instead they try to change the question from whether they’re holding a belief because it’s useful rather than true to the question of whether being useful isn’t really a rather amazing way of discovering that something IS true.

      Wouldn’t God make sure someone found Him (or Her or It) by placing a need deep inside each person? A need only He can satisfy? Sure He would — ask CS Lewis! Aren’t feelings and reactions vital to a recognition of art, beauty, and love, all of which are counted as signs of the divine? Sure they are — ask Karen Armstrong! And so forth and so on as they muddle religion with philosophy and aesthetics while attempting to shove some sort of utilitarian ethics into the mush.

      Frankly, by the time a religious believer admits that they believe because religion helps them cope they’ve either become an atheist pretending to believe — or, maybe more often — they’ve become what the philosophers call a ‘bullshitter,’ professing beliefs while not caring a whit whether they’re true or not.

      1. “Wouldn’t God make sure someone found Him (or Her or It) by placing a need deep inside each person?”

        Or better yet, wouldn’t God make sure everyone knew of His existence by placing that one piece of undeniable information deep inside each and every person? Logically a God that existed and that was omnipotent to the point of being the Creator of the universe, and that wanted/desired every person to know of His existence, would necessarily caused this to happen. (It is impossible for an omnipotent entity to want/desire a thing, and that thing not manifest itself by the mere act of wanting it. I.e., the universe is said to have come into existence as it is merely by way of God wanting it to come into existence.)

        So the existence of one person who does not have knowledge of the existence of such an entity is proof enough that there is no such entity.

        1. Any very smart entity — let alone an all-knowing all-powerful creator god — would have no trouble figuring out what it would take to convince humans of its existence. These days, all you’d have to do is hold a press conference.

          That the gods must rely on so many different “official” spokespeople, all of whom are in violent disagreement with each other, is overwhelming evidence that, at best, they are doing their damnedest to remain incognito…and, even then, not doing a very good job at it….


        2. This is known formally as the Argument from Nonbelief. I’ve got Ted Drange’s book on the subject which is, like everything he writes, thorough and devastating.

          Thus you see the shifty and unconvincing attempts by the faithful to explain that knowledge of God is like knowledge of existence, or maybe knowledge of love. People who claim to not believe are either perverse, confused, or simply not human enough to consider seriously.

          That they can play this game while simultaneously bragging about how it takes a leap of faith beyond all reason to believe in God is one of the great mysteries of the human mind and its amazing capacity for being an ass.

    4. When Russell talks about believing something “because you think it’s true”, he’s not indulging in tautology; he means “because you have good reason for thinking it’s true”. Mere utility is not a good enough reason.

      Regarding your sinking-ship thought experiment, I don’t think it holds water. It’s no more ethical for a captain to withhold such information from passengers than it is for a doctor to withhold a terminal diagnosis from a patient. “You can’t handle the truth” is not just a condescending Little People argument; it also needlessly undermines a person’s autonomy to prepare for their own death as they see fit. So no, it’s neither good nor useful to lie to people in that way.

      1. And who’s to say one of those little people won’t come up with a way to save some lives that the crew hadn’t thought of.
        Arrogance can be lethal.

        1. I am not sure of the point you’re making with regard to arrogance; perhaps you can elaborate. However, with regard to truth, wouldn’t a person be a whole hell of a lot more likely to come up with a way to save people if they knew the truth about whether help is already on the way? I don’t see how knowing no one is there to rescue you would do anything but provide motivation to think outside the box.

          1. The point I tried to make was that the arrogance of thinking it would be best to lie to the passengers could result in unnecessary deaths.
            Apologies, these things always seem clear in my head.

          2. Well then, we are on the same page. As the saying goes, two heads are better than one! (Excepting the fact that everyone then looks at you like you have two heads.)

    5. I think both your points are wrong.
      Although the other comments cover it I will reiterate too.
      The first point was in answer to the proposition that belief can be practical even if is false, he was not addressing those that really believe.
      And the sinking ship analogy is flawed for the two reasons other wise commented on.
      People may come up with a solution, but primarily people most certainly are entitled to prepare for their own death. There may be last words to loved ones, last acts, last devotions for the religious etc.
      It would be arrogant and contemptible to withhold such information.

      1. The sinking ship analogy is flawed to the extent that we can really be sure its hopeless. We’d have to be as sure as we are that we will all eventually die.
        The issue of whether to tell people presents a conundrum in that its arrogant and presumptuous not to tell people while at the same time one can recognize that they’re better off. For my part, I’d always want to know the truth if I knew there was a truth too know.
        Lets say a small group of astronomers discovered with absolute certainty that in one year the earth would be instantly incinerated by a gamma ray burstar. I’d want to know this. And if I did I’d spend the next year in abject despair knowing I’d die, my children would die and all life on earth would end. In a year my family would huddle together waiting for the end. If I didn’t know, we’d live our lives with all our petty worries and joys and be struck down in a year in the course of our day without knowing what hit us. I can objectively say the second alternative is FAR better, but at the same time I want to know whats coming

        1. I can objectively say the second alternative is FAR better

          With respect, you can’t. You’re not in a position to know with certainty how other people will react to the news of impending doom. Not everyone will choose to surrender to abject despair.

          People working hard at unrewarding jobs to save for the future will not thank you for shielding them from the knowledge that that future will never come. For some, maintaining a futile illusion will not be better than changing their priorities and enjoying the time they have left.

          Again, it’s presumptuous to assume you’re better equipped to know what’s good for people than they are themselves, and that your standard of “good” is objectively the best.

    6. I heartily disagree with this sentiment! How easily you presume to deny truth to others; we all die eventually and one’s final hours are undoubtedly the most precious and not to be squandered by someone else’s choice. Being self-aware is quintessentially human and being aware (of reality) is inextricably and totally the stuff of that. To willfully deny someone knowledge of their final minutes is the same logic which served religion to deny the realities of all the minutes of another’s life.

    7. I don’t think your example really applies. The captain who is telling the lie is not ‘believing because it is useful’; he believes nobody is coming. He is lying to the passengers because he thinks that is a useful course of action. The passengers aren’t ‘believing because it is useful’ either, they are believing because the captain has told them people are coming to rescue them. Nobody in your example is believing something merely because it is useful.

  4. I wonder who the interviewer was. I thought she had an upper class, East Coast American (US) accent until I saw the CBC logo at the end.

    1. The interviewer is Elaine Grand if this is from the Jan 7th 1959 edition of CBC’s “Close Up” programme.

      1. The Principia Mathematica must be one of the most unreadable books ever produced, and in the end proven to be a pointless exercise.

        Despite all this it is still a great work.

          1. Logic and math are the same, but they are incomplete and inconsistent in any but trivial axiomatic systems. That’s what Gödel proved, and it rocked the world of mathematics and sent Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem to the dustbin.

          2. As I remember, the positivists became less positive and postmodernism was born. Or something like that.

          3. Gödel doesn’t give any comfort to PoMo bullshit, even if the PoMoists like to think he does. It’s just like Chopra and Quantum Mechanics….


          4. You mean “incomplete or inconsistent”. Consistency is possible (and desirable), but only at the cost of completeness.

          5. Indeed, we might be seeing a real-world manifestation of that in physics. Nobody’s yet been able to reconcile Quantum Mechanics with Relativistic Mechanics and vice-versa. That’s most likely the usual “we don’t yet have enough observations and insight to understand what’s going on.” But we can also expect that there may well be some range of scales which cannot be both completely and consistently described.

            Again, that’s probably not the case with modern physics…but, if we ever run into such a clash, it would have a definite resemblance to our current predicament.


  5. Russell’s autobiography is a MUST read — a kind of aristocratic version of a Dickensian childhood: both his parents died when he was 3 and he was sent off to live with two maiden aunts who were strictly religious and told him continually how lucky he was that his parents were dead. As an adult he discovered the reason for this was because his parents had been atheists and his mother had had an affair which (horror of horrors) his father had accepted and approved of.

    As a teenager, growing up in considerable isolation, he figured it out for himself that all this God stuff couldn’t possibly true.

    Went to jail for 6 months for opposing Britain’s involvement in World War 1. They even tried to conscript him, but the military couldn’t find him because they didn’t realize he was in jail.

    His History of Western Philosophy is not just a philosophy text, but also, if you read the connecting/general chapters on historical context, doubles as an extraordinarily insightful and wide-ranging history of the church — rarely flattering, occasionally praising, and sometimes hilarious.

    1. The autobiography is in 3 volumes which I have, right here on the shelf next to my copy of WEIT. Next to that is an empty slot to hold the Albatross.

        1. I misspoke myself. It looks like I only have 2 volumes which take us up to 1944. The third volume ends at 1967. Volume 1 is 350 pages, volume 2, 400 pages. I’m guessing volume 3 would have to be about the same length.

          1. Thanks for checking, Rick. According to the list on my spreadsheet I already have the book – in my basement. Got to check tomorrow to see how many volumes. I think it’s a PB. so probably just one. Bought it eons ago.

    2. You have me interested. I perhaps should have it, as person who went and got a philosophy degree just cos, and who values Russell greatly I shall look around for it.

      1. The first volume especially interesting and quite moving. His parents faced their deaths (from TB) knowingly and bravely.

        His experiences at the time of the outbreak of WWI are extraordinary to read. Mass hysteria in favor of it, and him quite alone and watching the whole world go mad….

        The second volume has his visit to Russia is fascinating. Also recounted in his short book Theory & Practice of Bolshevism, written in 1923, in which he likens Bolshevism to a religion. (Hitchens recommends the book very highly.)

    3. I recall him saying that whilst being inducted into the prison system, he answered one of the standard questions “what is your religion?” with “I’m agnostic”.

      The warder replied “Hmm, haven’t heard of that one. But I suppose we all worship the same God anyway”.

      Russell claimed that that remark cheered him up for a week 🙂

  6. Russell’s work influenced me greatly in my early twenties. I found him to be a very refreshing source of clear thought.

    I think the book that was most valuable to me was “The Conquest of Happiness”, as I was suffering from depression at the time. Russell’s straightforward no bullshit approach to the subject was invaluable.

  7. ‘Arsed’, Professor? Have you been picking up English pronunciation from the delightful Ms Cunk?

      1. Careful. We’ll have you defecting to the UK (where you would be very welcome and not have to put up with quite so many religious fanatics).

  8. Russell’s ‘Face to Face’ interview with John Freeman (BBC 1959) is up on youtube: nice old buffer, and secular god-son to J.S. Mill, who in turn was educated by Jeremy Bentham. That takes you from 1748 to 1970. The video’s worth 30 mins of your time. x

  9. In my experience, clinical psychologists are another group who encourage you to believe things based on usefulness rather than truth. I wonder whether readers think that Russell’s quote should equally apply to them.

    1. There’s a nuance to that which I think is relevant.

      There are a great many approximations which we know for a fact aren’t true but remain incredibly useful, with Newtonian Mechanics being one of the most obvious. Another noteworthy example is that the Earth is flat; we all know it isn’t, but we also all act as if it is when navigating about town.

      If you accept that these approximations aren’t true but that they remain useful, you get the best of both worlds. You don’t have to compute a Relativistic geodesic in order to make your way to the drugstore, but you really ought to know that you could, and that you would have to if you wanted to predict Mercury’s orbit with any degree of accuracy.

      At this point, you could make an argument that religion isn’t true but provides an useful approximation…but that claim also falls flat in short order. There not only is no evidence of any sort of deity whatsoever, we’ve known at least since the time of Epicurus that there aren’t any powerful moral agents at large within the sphere of human influence. As I like to put it: “Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?”

      About all you’re left with is literary analysis of the texts…and, again, they go <splat /> the instant you prod them. Jesus orders the death of all non-Christians (Luke 19:27) in a parable about how he himself will lead the charge to kill all non-Christians in the Battle of Armageddon. Even in his signature speech, the Sermon on the Mount, he unambiguously makes plain that he will infinitely torture all men who’ve ever looked admiringly at a woman. This is a love god!?

      And if you have to strip away so much of modern religions that nothing is left…why pretend that there’s anything useful worth approximating in them?


      1. I see where your argument breaks down. Jesus’ world was limited to the middle east and I believe their emergency number is 112. Most people in the middle east are Muslim or Jewish and we know Jesus dosn’t care about them so he doesn’t bother calling.

      2. Couple of things.
        You have mentioned Jeebus being unhappy with guys looking admiringly at a women. Do you mean the adultery in heart thing?

        I was arguing with a Christian on youtube a while ago (that Christianity was writ in blood and torture) and he said that the bible never sais hell is actually fire. But it seems to say that in said sermon?

        It has been a strange slightly jarring peculiarity, to me, of Americanism, that the word drugstore slides of the vernacular tongue so readily on one hand and you (we) have a war on drugs, on the other.
        I gather a drugstore is a very common general purpose shop and not even necessarily a pharmacy.
        And not a shop where you go to buy your drugs?

        1. You have mentioned Jeebus being unhappy with guys looking admiringly at a women. Do you mean the adultery in heart thing?

          It’s in the Sermon on the Mount, and “being unhappy” is putting it inordinately mildly:

          Matthew 5:27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

          28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

          29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

          Look at a woman, “lust after her,” and fail to immediately gouge out your own eyes…and it’s hell for you.

          I was arguing with a Christian on youtube a while ago (that Christianity was writ in blood and torture) and he said that the bible never sais hell is actually fire.

          The technical term for your Christian YouTubber is, “Liar for Jesus.” It’s plain as day in multiple verses all over the place; just flip to any random page of the Gospels and, likely as not, you’ll find it staring at you. Since I just happen to have the Sermon on the Mount in front of me:

          Matthew 5:21 Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

          22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

          It has been a strange slightly jarring peculiarity, to me, of Americanism, that the word drugstore slides of the vernacular tongue so readily on one hand and you (we) have a war on drugs, on the other. I gather a drugstore is a very common general purpose shop and not even necessarily a pharmacy. And not a shop where you go to buy your drugs?

          Pretty much every drugstore is going to have a pharmacy at the back. Typically, the majority of the retail shelf space is devoted to over-the-counter medications and other healthcare items. There’s also frequently a fair amount for cosmetics, “health and beauty” supplies (shampoo, feminine hygiene, toiletries, that sort of thing). Not uncommonly, there will be small amounts of space for miscellaneous stuff…office supplies, candies, magazines, whatever. Generally no more than you’d find in a regular supermarket, if even that much. A photo processing lab (all digital these days, of course) is not uncommon.

          But, overwhelmingly, it’s the pharmacy, over-the-counter medications, and other stuff related to health and personal care.

          “Drugs” is a generic term for any sort of pharmaceuticals; the two terms are pretty much freely interchangeable. Context is almost always enough to identify the type, but you can use “prescription,” “over-the-counter,” and illicit” as a modifier when necessary.

          The “war on drugs” is understood to be a war on, as many people put it, some drugs, and really just the modern recapitulation of prohibition. The first time we tried it with alcohol, it was universally recognized as a most spectacular failure. Today, the target is not alcohol (nor tobacco nor caffeine nor…) but rather mostly marijuana, the forms of cocaine preferred by lower-income minorities, and a few other recreational substances…and the failure is far more spectacular than it was with alcohol, but it’s so amazingly profitable for the police forces that we’re basically stuck with both it and the powerful corruption it’s engendered in the police. After all, they can seize pretty much any property they want on mere suspicion and can still auction it off even if no charges are ever brought.



          1. Thanks, I was mistaken about the drugstore then, they seem to be the same as our pharmacies, with the good stuff out the back and a variety of consumer goods at the front.
            I thought they may have been like the Quiki Mart.

            On the Jeebus thing, I hadn’t connected the eye thing directly with the looking on a women with lust. I wonder if meek mild Jimi Cater really meant that.

            Yes, liars for Christ. Delusions for Christ. It is all there for all to see. To say nothing of the endless parade of priests of all sorts preaching that very thing, psychologically traumatizing young mind as they go.

            Jeebus, Meek mild peace loving psychotic mass murderer with a god complex.

            It is really funny, if it weren’t so serious.

            The drug war thing will I believe, and certainly hope is looked back on as one of the worst state sanctioned evils there has ever been.

          2. I think you might have pinpointed the difference. Here, the pharmacy is typically just the portion that deals with prescription medication. Many hospitals have pharmacies. A company that’s a pharmacy typically only deals with prescription medications; a drugstore is a store with a pharmacy and also sells over-the-counter medications and related healthcare, etc., products.

            Some of the liars for Jesus are garden variety conmen. Others are sincerely deluded, typically initially by their experiences with Sunday School Jesus — a god who shares damned little but his name with the Jesus of the Bible. It’s the candy used to hook the kids; by the time they’re old enough to recognize the discrepancy, the walls of cognitive dissonance have been built so high and strong that tearing them down can be nigh on impossible. “Oh, no; Jesus couldn’t possibly be one of those gods that wants to kill all non-believers; Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And if that’s not right, then everything else comes crashing down, and I’m really a bad person for falling for this, and my parents are bad people for indoctrinating me, and and and and….”


          3. And, the Christian when faced with the words turned to metaphor and allegory. Though whatever he tried to claim was meant, it always came back to some form of inflicted suffering.

            Looking admiringly at women, with respect, is part of the spice of life.

          4. Yeah…that’s the instant defense for Luke 19:27. “It’s an allegory!” Well, yes. But what is it an allegory of? Why, of exactly what Jesus himself is going to do come Armageddon….


          5. Sorry it took so long to reply, if you get this. I have to go through all the old stuff when II get time.

            Luke eh! I just looked it up. Typical, killing and slaughter left right and centre and they try and spin it by calling allegory and metaphor. Why isn’t the whole notion of jeebus and gob and all the other crap, allegory and metaphor too. Seems they write their own bible as they go.

            But as you say what is it an allegory off, there seems be enough information to think the worst.

            Also they pop up with a response to the atrocities saying well they are not true Christians, they can’t be because a Christian is only some one who does what jeebus says.

            Also apparently it is all the King James translation fault, burning in hell isn’t the proper translation or some crap.

            Thanks for the info on pharmacies.

  10. Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher, but I don’t agree that it’s “a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.” Rather, I think it’s just plain impossible. Belief is not voluntary.

    Could you, like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast? I don’t think so. I think Alice was correct when she said “There’s no use trying, one can’t believe impossible things.”

    1. Well, not exactly. The philosopher van Leeuwen has a paper claiming that believers don’t see the “truths” of their faith in the same way as we (or they) see nonreligious truths. They are perceived to be quasi-fictional, but beneficial.

    2. In the interview Russell said it was impossible, as you suggest. I think he means if you think you might want to, that would be illogical.

    3. As PCC says, what the religious mean by “belief” here is often something a bit different. They mean all of the following and more:

      A statement of principles or dogmatic assertions whose value lays in their effect on your life
      A story you back in some nebulous way.

      “Belief in God” deliberately conflated with “Trust the God-character” (as in, Do you trust Harry Potter… invoking your feelings about the character and obscuring the question of the character’s reality).

      Given areas where you can’t really know, what will you choose to assume?

      Of course they have these slippery notions about belief because it works, psychologically, to help them preserve their religion. Clarity IS the enemy, so every muddying tactic, even incompatible ones deployed serially, is embraced.

      There was a time, on my exit from religion, when I was feeling nervous about not believing the the things I was “supposed to believe”. But then I realized what an odd statement that was: “supposed to believe”. If I was “supposed to believe” the moon was made out of cheese, for example, I would be out of luck. I could not will myself to believe the moon was made of cheese, not if my life and the lives of all my relations depended on it. At best, I might pretend to. That’s when I started to realize what a slippery game my fellow Christians were playing with the idea of “belief”, and also when I realized that I wasn’t choosing to be an atheist, I was merely observing the fact… I don’t believe (in the ordinary sense), and therefore I won’t “believe” in the religious sense.

      1. Thank you for the insight from someone who has been there and done that. I was never a believer so I can only speculate about what thought processes may be going through a believers mind. I think I was in the ball park. But, not really surprising since what you describe is common in humans period, believers or not. That’s what science is all about, methodoligies to try and counter such typical human characteristics.

    4. Human psychology is a strange and opaque thing. I suspect that all of us have some “sincere mercenary beliefs.” I.e. beliefs we hold in part because they materially benefit us, but which we will sincerely defend on non-mercenary or non-selfish grounds such as ‘it is rational’ or ‘the evidence supports it.’

      In fact if I had to guess, I would expect this to be a common trait not just among humans but any other animals with similar reasoning power. There’s an evolutionary advantage to following courses of action that are materially beneficial to you. Given two critters, the first who balks at doing something beneficial to them because they think its wrong, and the second which wholeheartedly believes that the beneficial act is right, not wrong, which do you think has the survival advantage? Which is more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation? Considering this, would it be so surprising, then, if critters like us evolved a psychological capacity to develop sincere beliefs in courses of action that are ‘merely’ beneficial to us? (Merely here meaning there is really no other good justification for doing them.)

      This goes back to Feynman’s famous ‘we are the easiest ones to fool’ comment. He was talking about biases in data interpretation, but it applies to psychology as it relates to morals and social policy too; most of us are probably very good at fooling ourselves into thinking that what is good for us is morally or socially right.

      1. Considering this, would it be so surprising, then, if critters like us evolved a psychological capacity to develop sincere beliefs in courses of action that are ‘merely’ beneficial to us?

        The field of study you’re looking for is known as, “Cognitive Dissonance Theory.”


  11. There’s a secondary point here implied by Russell’s main point. Not only is it not useful to hold a belief for utility instead of truth, it can be detrimental to you and useful to others to do so. It is immensely useful to those running a religion to have the commoners hold untrue beliefs. After all, why overthrow an imam, pope, or king if you believe that a Supreme Dictator will eternally torment you for doing it?

    1. Or conversely, that someone who has done wrong and got away with it will still be punished in the end. God will get that imam, pope or king so don’t make a big fuss.

      Also, suffering here and now earns you rewards after you are dead so take a deep breath and think of what it will be like in the hereafter.

  12. An introductory text for those interested in this topic:

    Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatic-belief-god/

    “Pragmatic arguments are relevant to belief-formation, since inculcating a belief is an action. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of pragmatic arguments that have to do with belief-formation. The first is an argument that recommends taking steps to believe a proposition because, if it should turn out to be true, the benefits gained from believing that proposition will be impressive. This first kind of pragmatic argument we can call a ‘truth-dependent’ pragmatic argument, or more conveniently a ‘dependent-argument,’ since the benefits are obtained only if the relevant state of affairs occurs. … The second kind of pragmatic argument, which can be called a ‘truth-independent’ pragmatic argument, or more conveniently, an ‘independent-argument,’ is one which recommends taking steps to believe a certain proposition simply because of the benefits gained by believing it, whether or not the believed proposition is true. This is an argument that recommends belief cultivation because of the psychological, or moral, or religious, or social, or even the prudential benefits gained by virtue of believing it.”

  13. The biggest fudge come from the feeling that you don’t ever want to meet your ultimate destiny – death. The inner self imagines there must might be a way to cheat death. When a priest tells you on a weekly basis what your inner self secretly wants to hear, a small bit of self deception grows until you suddenly hear yourself telling others you believe what you know you is not true.

    1. It is an odd sort of arrangement. Most of the time, everyone does sort of know that it is not believable. Churches read our prayer requests and pray for people every week, and every week they continue to get sick and die like the rest of humanity, at basically the same rate and proportions and everyone, everyone, knows this at some level. Churches read texts supposedly from God himself that tell them to sell all they have and give it to the poor, yet the parking lot is full of BMWs, or at least Toyotas. Religious people assert all their lives their preference for the hereafter to the here-and-now, but indulge just as much in weight loss programs, health food fads, and ultimately chemotherapy, as all the rest. They cry true tears of sorrow when relatives die, while telling everyone that they are happy that the relative is in a better place.

      Religion is like making all of life into a sort of euphemism, where we say and pretend, and when we squint sort of believe in a way not unlike I sort-of believe that Harry Potter is real (he *feels* real to me… like a friend), but don’t actually believe because it’s unbelievable. Rare is the person who really acts as though they believe it through and through, the way we believe through and through in gravity… and those people are usually regarded as mad, even by the devout.

      1. In my experience many believers truly believe what they say they believe. Yes they are sad and cry when loved ones die, but they will be together again in heaven. I don’t think this is pretend, at all. It is believed literally.

        About the Christian texts commanding giving possessions to the poor, this really got to me when I was young, as a huge hypocrisy.

      2. Such deception, of the self and others, is insidious and therefore a treachery. Society bears this burden like a heavy suit of hardened mud.

  14. My own favorite Russell quote:
    “I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultess, this must weigh againt it.” (From the “Skeptical Essays”)

  15. My favourite Quote of his “What we need is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out.” not a bad dictum to go by.

  16. If you have posted this video before, it was prior to my following your website. Thank you for posting it now. I really enjoyed seeing and hearing this fine person, and getting some new reading recommendations from the comments.

    One bit I liked was Russell’s account of his abandoning faith between the ages of 15 and 18. (Same here, but I humbly add with far less intellectual ability on my part.) That might be a typical age for discarding belief. Maybe if people get through that age into adulthood, they can keep religious belief in a separate compartment apart from rational thinking?

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