Throughout the month of February, this column will be featuring stories of noted atheists who experienced dramatic shifts in their views, eventually becoming Christians. The stories will highlight the reasons why they held their atheistic views to begin with, and the reasons they became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
Bertrand Russell was a preeminent thinker and writer of the twentieth century, whose views on philosophy and ethics caused no small amount of controversy. His Sceptical Essays and his essay “Why I am not a Christian,” made it clear to the world that he was counter-religious, and his views on marriage, sex and ethics were misaligned with those of popular evangelical ethics. Despite views which were more controversial then than they are now, Russell was admired throughout the western world for his genius in mathematics and his keen philosophical insight, winning a Nobel Prize in 1959 for being “a defender of humanity and freedom of thought.”
Russell was married four times, having divorced the first three wives. He had a single daughter, Katharine, from his second wife. Katharine was raised in a somewhat sheltered life, at a private academy her parents had founded – Beacon Hill – specifically for the “promotion of free-thought.” The general model behind Beacon Hill (a model of education which Russell promoted elsewhere in his writings) was that children were to be introduced to a subject, presented all of the possible avenues to explore that subject and then left to make up their own mind. Or, at least, that was the theory. This is how Katharine describes it in practice:
“‘making up our own minds’ usually meant agreeing with my father, because he knew so much more and could argue so much better; also because we heard ‘the other side’ only from people who disagreed with it. There was never a cogent presentation of the Christian faith, for instance, from someone who really believed in it.”
Growing up with Russell as a father was difficult for Katharine because of the instability of the home that it presented. Her father’s view was generally that Protestant morality had held society back, and that, once free of the bonds of this morality, one might act as one pleased. This being so, he was none too subtle about his various adulterous affairs. He seemed to feel that this was perfectly justifiable on his ethics, saying things like, “Outside human desire there is no moral standard,” and of the women he left “surely they can find other men.”
Contrarywise, however, Katharine noted that her father supported the notion that a stable marriage was important to children – a notion which would ring somewhat hollow when he left her mother.
Katharine recounts a time when she asked her father if she should sleep with a gentleman friend of hers. Her father asked if she loved him. She decided that she didn’t – not really. Her father cautioned against it, saying “Then I shouldn’t. It’s best to save that for someone you love and not treat it lightly.” She also recalls the time that one of her father’s wives became pregnant by another man, and how hurt and angered her father had become. These things were difficult for her to reconcile with the ethics her father practiced and taught.
Holding to the humanist values taught by their father, Katharine’s family denied and obscured what she saw as the very real and legitimate problems of hate, envy, fear and anger, and they lay painfully unaddressed.
Eventually Katharine went to college at Radcliffe. She recalls having a conversation in the library one day. A handsome boy began chatting with her. She recounts the conversation:
“‘Don’t you believe in any kind of God?’ he asked, knowing who my father was. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t. It doesn’t seem to me necessary. ‘Then what is the point of living?’ ‘Well, I’ve been born now. I have little choice. Might as well go ahead and make the best of it.’ ‘That seems so bleak. How can you bear it?’ ‘Does it? Maybe. It’s just the way life is, the way the world happens to have developed. Not much use wishing it were otherwise.’ My godless world looked as desolate to him as a lifeless world would to me, but I was used to its impersonal freedom, never having known any other. At the same time, I was well aware that my existential despair was mere self-indulgence and that, God or no God, I would have to return someday to the humdrum world of doing good, helping individuals and mankind to the full extent of my rational benevolence, as I had been taught.”
Katharine met and married a man she truly loved, had two beautiful children. All of this pleased her very much, however she still found herself empty and unhappy. It was at this time that she came into possession of a copy of her father’s book The Conquest of Happiness, which promised to conquer the existential ennui and bring about true happiness to the reader’s life. She devoured it, eager to see if her father had discovered the answer they both had been looking for; but drew up short when she discovered that it was more of the same: her father’s “conquest of happiness” was to throw off the shackles of Protestant Religion and pursue Libertarian desire.
Her father had been raised in a very religious home in a puritanical tradition which saw the world as a place to be shunned. One separated oneself wholly from life and waited for death in order to receive the rewards which waited on the other side. With this as his introduction and foundation to religion, Russell’s entire life and philosophy seemed to be based around breaking free of these bonds, and Katharine notes that he never really explored more comprehensive models or arguments for Christian beliefs when arguing against them. He seemed only to argue against the Christianity of his youth:
“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”
Katharine’s older brother, John, suffered from serious psychological disorders. John married an unstable woman, and they and their children suffered all manner of psychological difficulties. Katharine herself explored psychology to see what hope it might render for the joyless conditions she felt, but to no end. Life was gray and humdrum by her account.
It was about this time that she and her husband were persuaded to attend church. Katharine was astounded to discover that the things she was hearing from the pulpit did not match the harsh caricatures of religion which her father had been selling her for her entire life:
“As I listened, I began to think that what I heard made sense out of everything…And I found it easier to believe in a universe created by an eternal God than in one that had ‘just happened.’ For me, the belief in forgiveness and grace was like sunshine after long days of rain. No matter what I did, no matter how low I fell, God would be there to forgive, to pick me up and set me on my feet again. Though I could not earn his love, neither could I lose it. It was absolute, not conditional…”
Upon her conversion, Katharine wished for nothing more than to share her newfound faith with her father. This, she was certain, was the answer he had been seeking his entire life!
“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] there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it”
Unfortunately, this was a lost cause. Her father’s opinion of religion and of Christianity had been formed by, in his daughter’s words, “blind Christians, [and] bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents.”
Russell himself died in 1970. His daughter published her book, My Father, Bertrand Russell five years later. Lady Katharine Tait (her father was an Earl, earning her the title) is the co-founder and still honorary member of the Bertrand Russell Society. She still lives in the same house her parents bought in 1922.