Updated: Oct 12, 2019
One of the most famous intellectuals of the last century was Sir Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). He was British, a political activist, logician, historian, mathematician, social critic, Nobel laureate and a very good and influential writer. He considered himself a fervent atheist who often challenged Christianity in particular and religion in general. Love him or hate him, he was clearly a force to be reckoned with.
In a biography about her father long after he had passed away, Russell’s daughter, Katharine Tait, wrote the following about her father’s reaction to the outbreak of war in Europe:
“He had grown up with an optimistic Victorian belief in automatic progress, with confidence that the whole world would, in its good time, follow the wise course of the English from ancient brutality to civilized self-government. Then, suddenly, he found his own beloved compatriots dancing in the streets at the prospect of slaughtering great numbers of fellow human beings who happened to be German.”
Sir Russell’s great optimism in progress and hope for a better future were common in the world at the time, a holdover of the Enlightenment ideal, which began a few centuries earlier. However, as he—and others—were to so bitterly learn, it was a false hope. All the “automatic progress” that they believed in helped progress the ways humans were able to kill each other.
Of course, even a cursory read of Matthew 24 shows Jesus warning of “wars and rumors of wars” and that “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places” and all as the “beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:6, 7-8) showed just how wrong-headed that sentiment was.
As Christians, yes, we are called to minister to the needy, to the hurting, and to be healers when and where we can. But the belief that the world is going to progress toward some kind of man-made utopia, as Russell had hoped?
By the way, the war that Sir Bertrand Russell was lamenting?