General Question

JHUstudent's avatar

How do you feel about this quote from Bertrand Russell about God?

Asked by JHUstudent (692points) May 16th, 2011

Russell said “And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.”

I know that this is somewhat of a cliche “argument” against God, basically asking ‘why would he be so harsh against those who don’t believe?’ but I think it’s a statement worth considering.

In my opinion, the closest scenario to a real life situation is a child having an overly strict father with a bad and somewhat violent temper. We all (probably) know a father out there who was overly angry at his kids for not adhering to his standards and/or rules, and in turn, that child being afraid everytime their dad came home from work. I acknowledge that there is something to be said about parents setting guidelines for their kids and doing their best to put their kids on a certain path. However, in my opinion, it’s the parents that, on a personal level, can relate to their children and appreciate their different opinions, beliefs, behaviors, what have you, that have the most succesful relationships with their kids.

In short, I agree with Russell. It’s hard to believe in a God who has such a hard time understanding or even accepting those who don’t believe in him.

Sorry about the long thread, just want to see the differing opinions out there. What’re your thoughts on Russell’s quote here?

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43 Answers

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I doubt there’s a person on the planet who really knows anything of substance about god or spirit or higher power or the unmoving mover. Whatever you want to call it.

Therefore, I agree with Russell’s statement. It’s hard for me as someone who believes in Spirit but not in the Christian god to imagine an Old Testament vengeful god.

[Edited to add: welcome to Fluther.]

gailcalled's avatar

Here’s a similar and timely remark from Stephen Hawking.

Aster's avatar

” I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.”
I would just have liked to have asked Russell, “you think God has an uneasy vanity? How do you know this when you’re an Atheist?”
I read the book. BR was so pompous and made these obnoxious remarks. We cannot know the “mind” of God. It’s ridiculous. Surely he knew this.

jrpowell's avatar

I agree with the sentiment. I’m agnostic and the thought that I would have to worship something to get a prize is revolting.

Aster's avatar

“He says: “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Oh? Well, I’m hear to tell you that Aster says there IS an afterlife and it’s no fairy story. But I’m not famous so more people will say, “he says it’s so it must be true.” That’s stupid.

Aster's avatar

Russell also said he found it crazy that nuns would bathe in their habits as if God can’t see through fabric. If they do, in fact, bathe in their habits, which I doubt, they do not do it thinking they’ll make God uncomfortable. this is insane. He thought he knew everything. Hey! Maybe Russell was God!

Coloma's avatar

Well…IF, there is such a thing as reincarnation, that would explain things nicely. How COULD a ‘God’ judge, if we are all in various states of evolutionary consciousness?

Brings to mind the ‘there are no accidents.’

I have never bought into the punishing, judgemental God of fundementalism.

Personally I like the idea that we keep on going through various states of incarnation until..we evolve enough to become Godlike ourselves, pure enough to evaporate into the pure white light of consciousness. ;-)

iamthemob's avatar

I’m of the mind that any God would indeed be concerned with our belief in him…but in the sense that the belief would lead men and women to work to improve themselves. Of course, that belief isn’t necessary to do that, but I don’t think that the concern with what we think about God need wholly be relegated to God having some sort of vanity…just, perhaps, concern.

What I find incomprehensible is that he wants us to follow particular nitpicky rules of behavior where such behavior is neutral. Where people call out various acts as sin based on little more than the Bible or the Koran or whatever else…and he really cared that we followed those rules and believed in them…well…I think he would have insisted on making his presence known, and the rules clear, and in place from the beginning.

So it’s not so much that I believe that God could not have such concern or vanity. But it’s certainly that if he really did care, it’s not that he’s simply a poor parent, but almost an abusive one.

AdamF's avatar

Some very nice quotes from Russell here as well, if you’re interested.

With respect to the listed quote, hard not to agree with it. The Abrahamic god has “man made” written all over it….and the men doing the making had some rather unpleasant aspirations for their god, unfortunately.

Blackberry's avatar

I think it’s sad that we’re even questioning this and it shows how pervasive religion is, especially the monotheistic religions. “Oh, but why would god wipe out so many people in the old testament?”, because god is a douchebag or it doesn’t exist, duh lol.

WasCy's avatar

Russell wasn’t arguing “against God” with that argument so much as “against a particular and very narrow interpretation of what God wants from humans”.

marinelife's avatar

The Judeo-Christian god is very much on the model of man instead of vice versa. Understandable, really, since that is what we have to work with: our knowledge of human behavior.

dxs's avatar

After reading the old testament, he also is pretty mean to people that do believe. Poor Moses made one sin and bam! banished…He seems so evil and almost show-offy in the old testament. I don’t know if that it just how the writers portrayed him or what.

Brian1946's avatar

I agree with Russell in that if there is a deity, it probably isn’t concerned with whether planetary scatterings of insignificant organisms (including humans) are aware of or believe in its existence.

However, if there is one, I don’t share his implicit assumption that it’s male.
Why would such a being even need a sex anyway? If it’s eternal, it seems that there wouldn’t be any need for it to reproduce.

I think the portrayal of the above as a male human says more about the narcissism of some theists, than it does about any discernible reality.

Zaku's avatar

I think Russell’s statement is fair satirical commentary on the misled focus of some Christians.

Qingu's avatar

I think the quote serves to reinforce that all the gods on the table are clearly the creations of humans. If this were the case, you’d expect such gods to exhibit human personality traits like vanity and jealousy.

6rant6's avatar

It seems to me that the holy triumvirate – loving, jealous and omniscient – are mutually exclusive. I mean, if you know what will happen (how people will react) why set them up for failure? Unless of course, you don’t like them in the first place. And then, how can you get bent out of shape for how they behave (after you created them)? What the fuck were you thinking in the first place?

I wouldn’t take a photo of myself, edit it, and put it on a display with bad lighting and then say, “Oh bad picture! Thou art to be punished! Into the flames with thou!” Really, I am less vain than that. And less judgmental. And not nearly that stupid.

So, yeah.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Just another one of the many contradictions in our idea of deity. @6rant6 Good example of a deity that created us and then didn’t like what he created – so blamed us! @Blackberry I am not sure in what context your comment was, but “douchbag” or “not real” are the only two conclusions I arrive at as well.

Blackberry's avatar

@Skaggfacemutt I just have seen the question a lot (I’ve asked the question as well). It’s trivial to try to pick apart whatever people think god is, as if it’s an actual person. Like we’re going to delve into its psyche and figure out what’s going on in its head like it’s Charlie Sheen lol.

LostInParadise's avatar

I have trouble with the idea of a God being harsh to anyone. If people do the right thing out of fear or out of expectation of reward, are they really being good? It seems to me that to be truly good, you have to be willing to do the right thing, even if you derive no benefit from it beyond the satisfaction of having done the right thing.

Nullo's avatar

Russel is yet another person who drew his conclusions prematurely.

It’s not so much that God doesn’t understand or accept the unbelievers; more like the unbelievers don’t want anything to do with Him. The Bible, just nearly the whole entire thing, is about God making a way for Man to be saved. Starts waaaaaaaaaay back in Genesis Ch. 3. To put it another way, God gives you a choice: an eternity with Him, or an eternity without Him.

More specifically, God has a lot of patience (‘saintly’ doesn’t even begin to describe it), and zero tolerance for sin – part of why we have the Old Testament is to convey these points. Most people (and by ‘most’ I mean ‘all’) have sinned. He forgives, but you have to ask for forgiveness.

@LostInParadise Why do you assume that it’s any different for Christians? Salvation is pretty much a given. Death is an instant win. While there is a rewards-in-heaven system, it excludes cases that are not genuine. Correction isn’t fear-driven, but rather stems from a desire to please and honor God.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Nullo , How can anyone be genuinely good if they know that they will be punished for being bad and rewarded for being good? How could anyone who believes that not be affected? Religions that incorporate this belief make true morality impossible.

fundevogel's avatar

This isn’t really an argument, its a speed bump. No one, including Russell, is an atheist because they don’t think god will punish them for it if he does turn out to be real. The point of the statement is to point out the ethical shortcomings of a god that would damn people for having a different perspective on how the universe works or to assuage the concern of more liberal believers when it comes to the fate of unbeliever’s souls.

I don’t really see why Russell should be involved in this at all. This reasoning is ubiquitous. I doubt he was the first person to express it and he certainly won’t be the last. If you want to debate Russell and his theological views don’t do it over a something that is really no more applicable to him than it is to pretty much every other atheist out there. The guy had a lot to say, an awful lot of it more interesting than this.

“Sin is geographical.”

“So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence.”

“The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” (clearly @Aster misspoke regarding Russell’s opinion of his own knowledge)

“Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.”

“What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.”

“One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.”

“I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

“The place of the father in the modern suburban family is a very small one, particularly if he plays golf.”

“To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy.”

“Mrs. Sanger’s pamphlet on birth control, which is addressed to working women, was declared obscene on the ground that working women could understand it.”

“There is no need to worry about mere size. We do not necessarily respect a fat man more than a thin man. Sir Isaac Newton was very much smaller than a hippopotamus, but we do not on that account value him less.”

6rant6's avatar

@nullo So infinite patience… unless there’s something he doesn’t like. Sounds like a two-year old to me.

Aster's avatar

He believed fathers have “small” roles esp if they play golf? I disagree. Ask any man of any age who never had a father how he would have liked it if “dad” had been in the home just a little bit. Golf or no golf.
His “good grounds” for belief are subjective. Man is satisfied with “bad” beliefs? Meaning, belief systems Russell disregards as fairy stories.
I was relieved to read, though, that he thinks we should question his beliefs too. I can’t do this anymore; pc has a virus or something.

fundevogel's avatar


“He believed fathers have “small” roles esp if they play golf? I disagree. Ask any man of any age who never had a father how he would have liked it if “dad” had been in the home just a little bit. Golf or no golf.”

Regarding the role of the father the Russell quote was not judgement call but an observation and prediction. He saw that women were less and less dependent on husbands in child rearing and reproduction. Like it or not single parenting has become more and more common, perhaps in part because women realized there wasn’t much point in keeping a husband that wasn’t much of a part of the family.

“His “good grounds” for belief are subjective. Man is satisfied with “bad” beliefs? Meaning, belief systems Russell disregards as fairy stories”

Russell argues consistently to use reason and evidence to sort good beliefs from bad. I don’t think relying on evidence and reason has subjective value. Evidence and reason are quantifiable things, that’s pretty much the opposite of subjective and the very reason why they should be employed when establishing if a claim is based on “good grounds” or not.

Russell had no qualms with calling religion out but he certainly didn’t limit his derision of bad beliefs to religion. He’s got a bit to say about Decartes and Hegel’s conclusions as well and noted Aristotle’s conviction that men had more teeth than women could have been sorted quickly if he would have only asked Mrs. Aristotle to open her mouth. He starts spitting venom when children are taught to feel guilty about human sexuality.

Plucky's avatar

How I feel about the quote: I feel the author is talking mainly about the christian god. And, I quite agree.

starsofeight's avatar

Russell, like all self-centered individuals, loves his own stature to the point that he will always bite at the knees of taller people.

fundevogel's avatar

@starsofeight Taller people can take it. Unless they aren’t actually that tall and Russell takes off their nose. Curiously I am not aware of Russell having any issue with Tycho Brahe.

quarkquarkquark's avatar

Russell was a great logician and a brilliant mind, but the fallacy of his admittedly offhand argument is that it’s based around his conception of God. Clearly the God of the New Testament and of the Koran is one that does care whether we believe in him or not. That’s just how it is.

iamthemob's avatar

@quarkquarkquark – I think the fallacy of your argument, though, is that you assume that he God of the OT and the NT is an independent entity from the authors of those texts.

It’s not that he’s talking about a God that exists, but rather God as others have portrayed him.

quarkquarkquark's avatar


a. That’s not a fallacy, because the thesis at the root of my assumption has not been disproven and
b. I am not a theist, I’m simply pointing out that Russell’s conception of God does not match up with the conceptions of those he’s reacting to.
c. I tire of hearing atheists attempt to end perfectly reasonable philosophical discussions with a statement like “well, there obviously isn’t a God”.

So I don’t assume that there’s an independent entity separate from the authors. But the authors have portrayed an independent entity that, as I said, does not match up with Russell’s conception. What I perhaps did not state clearly enough is that its the portrayal doesn’t match up with Russell’s view, not an actual God that I have some knowledge of. In fact, Russell’s sentiment would make more sense in view of this abstract notion of an omnipotent, omniscient God. Then we could say, well, such a creature probably wouldn’t care whether or not we believed in him. But it’s explicit in portrayals of God that he does care. That’s where I’m coming from.

AdamF's avatar

@quarkquarkquark I’m confused.

You state “Clearly the God of the New Testament and of the Koran is one that does care whether we believe in him or not. That’s just how it is.”

Russell says ”“And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.”

You then state “I’m simply pointing out that Russell’s conception of God does not match up with the conceptions of those he’s reacting to.”

Russell is making a very clear statement about the difficulty he has in understanding why a god would possess the precise properties that you describe the Abrahamic god as possessing (ie caring about whether we believe in him).

How does that not “match up”?

quarkquarkquark's avatar

Russell is responding to the notion of a Christian God. This is implied, but hopefully we can agree on that. But let’s break it down anyway.

“If there were a God, I think it very unlikely…” We can take God in this phrase to mean two things. Either a. any omnipotent, omniscient being responsible for the birth of the universe and the initiation of all living species—a Prime Mover—or b. specifically a Christian God.

If we take the meaning as a, then the statement is less controversial. Russell is saying “I don’t understand why any omnipotent, omniscient being would care whether or not we believe in him”. But in that case, he’s not really responding to the idea of a Christian God. He’s saying that by his idea of God, which forms sort of the barest skeleton of the Christian God, the idea of this “vanity” makes no sense. Which is true. But it doesn’t function as a response to Christian theology—it’s begging the question. It’s saying “By my conception of God, the qualities of your conception of God make no sense.”

Regardless, I don’t think that’s the sense in which he means “God”. I think he means b, and you can tell me if you agree. If he does mean b, then he’s making what amounts to an empty statement. He’s saying “Well, the qualities of a Christian God just don’t make sense to me”. And, I mean, they don’t to me either, or to most rational people. But it is one of the traits of the Christian God to care about whether or not people believe in Him. Excuse my repeated paraphrasing, but in this case another, simpler version might be “And if there were a Christian God, I think it very unlikely that He would have the qualities of a Christian God.” This is a logically invalid statement, although it does open up a whole can of worms regarding identity and reference that Russell eventually confronted in his own writings on formal logic.

AdamF's avatar

I don’t see any reason to assume that he is making the circular argument “And if there were a Christian God, I think it very unlikely that He would have the qualities of a Christian God.”.

I think all he is saying is close to but broader than what you also indicate, “Well, the qualities of a Christian God just don’t make sense to me”.

There are a range of god ideas out there, ranging from the irrational to the irrelevant. All I can read into his statement is an attempt to highlight what he sees as one particular strange personality trait that many theist’s appear comfortable assigning to their own god.

Qingu's avatar

I agree that the Christian and Muslim gods, as described by those religions, really do care a lot about whether you worship them.

You can say they’re fictional characters, because a “real” god would obviously not care.

quarkquarkquark's avatar

@AdamF, I’m comfortable with that interpretation. I’m trying to point out that it’s based no more in logical thought than the assumption he’s questioning. I agree—it’s a strange trait—but it comes readymade with an explanation. I’m looking at the argument as circular through simple substitution:

1. ”“And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.”

God = Christian God
“to to offended by those who doubt His existence” = to have one quality of a Christian God

2. “And if there were a Christian God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to have one quality of a Christian God.” Meaningless.

He either means a Christian God or he doesn’t. If you don’t want to get into it as formally as I am, then Russell’s argument is about as shaky as any supposedly logical argument against God’s existence. “Well, the qualities of a Christian God just don’t make sense to me” is not a novel sentiment. Russell is expressing it in an eloquent way, and he’s wrapping it in the trappings of his logician’s education, but what I was trying to point out with my original comment is that his argument is no more complex than the thought that I’ve boiled it down to.

I thought the more formal approach would help because, as I said, he either means a Christian God or he doesn’t. You clearly believe there is a flaw in my reasoning somewhere (and there often is in this sort of discussion), but I would be grateful if you would point it out specifically.

AdamF's avatar

Maybe I’m just not interpreting his quote as anything more than a mere comment, rather than something more akin to a formal proof.

The wording “I think it very unlikely” emphasizes to me that this is just an opinion of his and nothing more.

So if we’re both comfortable with the interpretation I wrote above, maybe the only difference between us is our expectation for what he was trying to demonstrate by stating this….I think he was just expressing his view on the matter.

iamthemob's avatar

@quarkquarkquark -

I think that the problem with your argument still hasn’t been dealt with, and it may be because the assumed conclusion you seem to think Russel reaches in the above is that “there is no God.”

My criticism of your argument is that Russel appears only to be saying that the Christian God seems more a reflection of man’s vanity than anything else.

So, it’s about the validity of assuming the God described by the NT and OT is anything but a fictional character described in those works. So when you say that the God of the NT/OT is one concerned with people’s belief in him it’s only good criticism is assuming such a God actually would exist or would be what God is like. That’s what Russel’s criticism itself criticizes.

So what you see as the problem of Russel’s criticism is more the criticism itself. As it criticizes the NT/OT version of God, it must necessarily be based on a different way of viewing God.

And really, it’s pretty clear that, given the time and culture Russel was located in, he was mostly thinking of the NT/OT God.

Therefore, your argument as it progresses above becomes inconsistent with the substitution above, because (1) you first argue that the “problem” is Russel’s personal concept of God, and then (2) argue that he must be thinking about the NT/OT God. I think you’re right, but substitution as you see it in 2. above incorrectly includes “Christian God” in the first part, whereas it only belongs in the second part. It should be this:

1. ”“And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.”

“God” and “He” = any God (i.e., anything that could be God)
“to to offended by those who doubt His existence” = to have one quality of the NT/OT God

2. “And if there were [any God], I think it very unlikely that [any God] would have such an uneasy vanity as [to have one quality of the NT/OT God].”

As @AdamF points out, the above substitution shows it as an opinion. It also is a more consistent representation of what you seem to point out from the beginning – that it is based on Russel’s idea of what God could be versus the description of the NT/OT God.

quarkquarkquark's avatar

Just to clarify—I was fairly sure that he was talking about a Christian God through the whole quote; I just offered “any God” as the necessary alternative. Also, what you’ve broken down as my arguments in the paragraph beginning “Therefore,” were not intended to be a linear progression; those are alternative approaches. Sorry for the confusion.

I think I agree with your account of Russell’s argument; you seem to have rephrased my approach but are refuting the context of my conclusion. We’re agreeing that Russell’s statement is basically this: it is inconsistent with the definition of an omnipotent, omniscient being that such a creature would care whether or not people believe in Him.


This is where I have the trouble that I spelled out best in my third post in this thread. It’s simply not a claim based in logical argument; it is, like @AdamF pointed out and you agree, just an opinion. I think we just all agreed. The reason I felt it necessary to break it down so strictly was that the statement’s eloquence seems to lend it an authority that it doesn’t have. I have great respect for Bertrand Russell, but I think he could have done better and often did.

I have heard this quote frequently in discursive context, and it makes an elegant point. But, as we’ve now worked through, the point boils down not to logic but to a personal sentiment which seems to satisfy common sense.

iamthemob's avatar


We do agree on most of the issues it seems. But I would disagree that the opinion isn’t based on a logical argument. We can’t assume what it was based on, but we can construct a logical argument that supports the opinion. As I share the opinion with Russel independently from him, I would argue it as follows:

If there is a creator God, such a God either does or does not affect our daily lives.

A creator God (G) may be both, or one, or neither of the following: omnipotent, omniscient.

Omnipotence (P) means the power to do anything, imaginable or not.

Omniscience (K) entails knowledge of all that has occurred, is occurring, and will occur.

If a G intervenes in our lives, and is P, then it must be that all that occurs is according to the will or permission of G.

If a G is K, then G created the universe with the knowledge that everything would happen as it does, and therefore the universe exists and everything happens due to the will, desire or approval/permission of G.

Therefore, if G is either K or P, such G would not allow disbelief to happen if it were not already part of what G wanted or needed to happen.

Since that is the case, such G is responsible for disbelief.

If so, it is fundamentally unfair for such G to hold any person responsible for disbelief, as if G thought it unnecessary or wrong it would not exist.

If humanity actually has free will, and therefore it is our choice to disbelieve or not believe, it is still unfair to hold an individual person responsible for not believing because G has set up the rules in a manner where it knows it is withholding information or knowledge, or causing things or knowing things would happen, that will inevitably lead the person to disbelief. (e.g., imagine a teacher teaching a student that 2+2=5, and then failing them on a test for putting that as an answer).

Therefore, any G either P or K cannot care what an individual thinks about it or whether such individual believes in it. This is most true for a G both P and K (GPK) as it is for one who is either P or K (GP or GK).

The Christian God (CGod) is a G that is both P and K (CGod = GPK). He is further an interventionist G.

Therefore, it makes no sense for CGod to care if we believe in him, because he both knew we would, could change that, does not change the situations to allow us to believe, does not provide all that we need to know of his existence, etc.

If CGod does care, than it is a ridiculous vanity (indeed, such a god is arguably both a sadist AND a masochist, setting creation in motion so that he would suffer such offense, and punishing us for something that he knew and caused to happen).

Given the above, does the opinion not extend from a logical argument, potentially?

quarkquarkquark's avatar

So, I want to first say that your extremely clear and well-reasoned argument extends beyond the scope of my own, but I do want to take a crack at responding.

I have heard variants of this argument regarding lots of divergent theological points. Frequently it’s deployed in defense of abortion, utilizing the Sixth Commandment (or Fifth, if you’re Catholic or Lutheran). It’s definitely used in various conversations about free will and predestination, the legitimacy of the Church, the divinity of Jesus, etc., but I think this is its most potent form.

I am inclined to disagree with it on the grounds that being “fundamentally unfair” and “making no sense” are not really legitimate bases on which to refute a logical claim. However, you do salvage the argument by defending the statement—that if God does care, as we are led to believe He does, that it is a ridiculous vanity, as Russell implies. But he doesn’t state that, and now we’re getting into semantics, which is useless, if fun. He says that it’s “very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity”, which is the concluding statement. The logical leap is the predication of unlikeliness. It’s typically troublesome to make a modal claim like that one from a non-modal premise, but just informally, we’ve shown that Russell can’t show that it’s unlikely. He can show that such behavior satisfies our notions of ridiculousness or senselessness, or attempt to show that it is simply false. But that fails—unfairness does not provide grounds by which to derive a contradiction.

I should add that if I get a couple minutes in the next few days I’ll try try and write out the formal argument for this in predicate logic and at least see where the formal problem lies.

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