Atheist of the Month for October 2015: Bertrand Russell

Considered by many to be one of the most prominent intellectuals of the 20th century, Lord Bertrand Russell was many things. He was a logician, a philosopher, an author, an essayist, a social critic and a political activist. He is generally recognized as one of the founders of modern analytical philosophy, along with G.E. Moore, and is credited for giving rise to logical atomism – the philosophical belief that the world consists of ultimate logical “facts”, or “atoms”, that cannot be broken down any further. In addition to philosophy, he made many important contributions to a wide range of different subjects such as political theory, ethics, educational theory, and, of course, religious studies.

Lord Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell
Lord Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell

A prominent atheist, Lord Russell never shied away from discussing religious matters. At a time when it was considered taboo or unseemly to question the validity of faith or religion, Russell championed skepticism, logic, and critical thinking. One of his more famous contributions among the atheist community was an analogy he coined to explain why the burden of proof must be assumed by the one making a claim, and not the one who rejects the claim. This analogy is known as “Russell’s Teapot”:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

– Bertrand Russell for Illustrated magazine in 1952

He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year. He was also a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association and President of Cardiff Humanists. He held both positions until his death in 1970.