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I came across this very interesting quote, but it is giving me some confusion. Since Russel was a philosopher I thought it was best to come to the Philosophy stack exchange. And this is by no means a religious debate, or a debate of Russel's logic, I just want to understand his perspective. Though, I guess if you want to give a little of your opinion, that's up to you.

“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 can 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 that 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.”

― Bertrand Russell, in Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas (1947 or 1949)

Why would he say to the man in the street he was an atheist? If he believes he can produce no evidence for any god(s) of any religion I don't see why this makes him change to having the belief that there is conclusively no god(s). Is he implying that because there are so many religions that they all must not be true?

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    You ask us specifically to "give a little of your opinion" which makes this sound like its goal is precisely to be "primarily opinion-based."... – virmaior Aug 18 '14 at 8:06
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    Somewhat related: Augustine in the City of God (newadvent.org/fathers/120104.htm) actually does put forward arguments that the belief in the Roman pantheon is not internally coherent in the way that belief in a single God is. – James Kingsbery Aug 18 '14 at 18:11
  • @virmaior My first paragraph clearly states that's not what I want. When you quoted me that was not something I was asking for, just an option if one felt it was necessary. – Gᴇᴏᴍᴇᴛᴇʀ Aug 18 '14 at 19:35
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    Interesting question. I understand what Russell is saying but much as you seem to conclude I feel it makes him a poor philosopher, For me he is an example of how not to do philosophy and this quote would just be more evidence, I see what he's saying. It's that as a thinker he is agnostic but that as a temperamental human being with hopes and fears he feels safer ignoring logic and reason for a comforting belief. . – PeterJ Feb 15 '18 at 13:09
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The quotation is incomplete and Russell's thought is cut off right in the middle. The full quote by Russell continues thus:

"… 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 not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line."

Russell seems to be saying that he would employ the term "atheist" as it he perceives it to be used by non-philosophically trained people ("ordinary man in the street") in order to communicate his position more readily, the rationale being that his attitude toward a personal God is similar to the attitude (possibly even religious) laypeople might entertain towards Homeric gods. (Russell here exploits the trope that every person is an atheist wrt to some supposedly existing deities.)

A further point Russell seems to make here is that a non-philosophically trained audience would not be interested in the subtle distinction between 'not believing in X because there's no evidence for X' and 'proving that X does not exist' and would use "atheism" as a shorthand for both, indiscriminately.


Please note: Russell uses terms here following the classical distinction between atheist (roughly "I know that there is no God") and agnostic (roughly "I don't know for sure if there's (no) God"). There are more elaborate distinctions. On these more elaborate accounts, Russell's own position is that of an agnostic atheist.

  • Isn't atheist just the negation of theist? (Atheist = not a theist?) If so, then there is no real distinction between atheist and agnostic. – Dan Christensen Aug 18 '14 at 16:38
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    Or agnostic is just a type of atheist -- open-minded as opposed to hard-line? – Dan Christensen Aug 18 '14 at 17:17
  • How about, I don't believe in your god probably for the same reasons you don't believe in Zeus? – Dan Christensen Aug 18 '14 at 17:29
  • There are some pretty big differences between Zeus and the Abrahamic God though (one is a being that resides in a particular place, the other is not; one was created, the other was not...). – James Kingsbery Aug 18 '14 at 18:18
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    The not-strictly-litteral interpretation of parts of the Bible is not recent. Many in the first centuries AD wrote about this (see en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegorical_interpretations_of_Genesis). In fact, the only-litteral interpretation is recent, coming in to prominence 500 years ago. You may still disagree, but the idea that science debunked Genesis is contrary to fact. – James Kingsbery Aug 19 '14 at 11:43
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Why would he [Russell] say to the man in the street he was an atheist?

All but the most belligerent of us are capable of working with multiple definitions of the same terms -- of atheist and agnostic in this case. Russell seems to prefer the man on the street's view that atheism is simply not believing in any gods.

If he believes he can produce no evidence for any god(s) of any religion I don't see why this makes him change to having the belief that there is conclusively no god(s).

He is not changing his beliefs.

Is he implying that because there are so many religions that they all must not be true?

No. He is discussing the various meanings of the words atheist and agnostic. He is not arguing against religion here.

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To add more context, this quotation is his response to the situation he's chosen to consider in this section of his essay. "Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion". The difficulty here is not about his beliefs, it's about how he can accurately answer that question when posed by some official or other.

So, he's not changing his beliefs, he's changing the label he uses when describing his beliefs to different audiences.

Russell assumes that to a philosophical audience the word "atheist" means "a person whose beliefs entail the non-existence of God", whereas "agnostic" means "a person who thinks there is no conclusive argument for or against the existence of God" (he explicitly states here that he thinks there is no conclusive argument against God. He has let it go without saying that he thinks there's no conclusive argument for God either).

Therefore, to a philosophical audience he uses the word "agnostic" to describe his beliefs. He can't present a proof of God's non-existence from his own priors, which is what a "pure philosophical audience" would understand by the word "atheist".

Then, Russell assumes that to the ordinary man in the street, "atheist" means "a person who does not believe in God". By this definition, Russell is an atheist, since "God exists" is not among his beliefs.

Basically he's advocating talking to people in their own language rather than getting too hung up on the proper philosophical definitions at all times. Therefore that there's no contradiction in describing himself as an agnostic in one context and an atheist in another. In particular he sees no contradiction in publicly describing himself as an atheist and nevertheless believing that one cannot prove the non-existence of God.

By raising the Olympian Gods as an example I think he is also teasing those who want to draw what he believes to be an overly-pedantic distinction between agnosticism and atheism. He asserts (rightly or wrongly) that there are many things other than the Christian God in which we don't believe, and which if absolutely pressed we would acknowledge can't be disproved either, but we don't go around in everyday life saying that we're agnostic on the subject.

Is he implying that because there are so many religions that they all must not be true?

No, he's saying that because he describes himself in everyday language as not believing in the Olympian Gods, and because (he says) his disbelief in those Gods is of a kind with his disbelief in the Christian God and every hypothetical God, that he should also describe himself in everyday language as an atheist. He's not describing anyone who disbelieves in the Olympian Gods and believes in the Christian God, and he's not saying that just because a person disbelieves in the Olympian Gods then they should be an atheist.

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