May 22, 2019

Bertrand Russell Showed Me I Was Not Alone

used book store

I have written many posts over the years about how one of the most important early milestones on my journal to atheism was finding Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects in a used book store. This has been on my mind recently because May 18 (1872) was Russell's birthday, and he has been receiving some attention on social media because of that. Since I have been thinking about that book, I thought I might try to provide a brief explanation of what made it so helpful to me all those years ago.

I was early in what would be a slow process of transitioning from believing Christian to atheist when I came across Russell's book. I had never heard of him, and I bought the book based on the title alone. I had little idea what to expect. I was struggling with the growing recognition that I no longer believed in gods, and I thought it might be relevant. I had had little idea what atheism meant, and I certainly did not consider myself an atheist. I knew what being a Christian meant, and it had never occurred to me that not being one was an option.

And that, my friends, was what Russell's book provided. It must sound stupid coming from someone who has been writing an atheist blog since 2005, but reading Why I Am Not a Christian was the first time I realized that I could walk away from Christianity. I did not have to remain a Christian simply because I had been raised that way.

I was aware that there were people out there who were not Christians. Most of them lived in faraway places to which I had never been, but I had met a couple of them in the form of foreign students. What I had yet to encounter was anyone who looked like me and grew up where I grew up who was not a Christian of some variety. I knew Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers, and probably a few others I am not remembering right now. They all considered themselves Christians, and so did I. Everyone in my family was Christian. All of my friends were Christian. It was all I knew.

By explaining what he meant by "Christian" and why he did not consider himself one, Russell opened my eyes to the fact that this was an option. Not only did he show me that not everyone was Christian, but he reviewed and dismantled most of the arguments I had heard for the existence of a god like the one in which most Christians claim to believe. It wasn't just that Russell was not a Christian; he was someone who did not believe in gods, someone who raised serious questions about much of what Jesus allegedly taught, and someone who made a strong case that organized religion was the enemy of progress. All of this would have an impact on me, but it was one that would unfold slowly. The immediate impact was one of opening my eyes to the possibility that I might not be a Christian.

Russell's book did not make me an atheist. I am reasonably sure I would have found atheism eventually even if I had never found his book. Still, I cannot overstate the impact finding it had on me. I do not think I had ever felt more alone before or since that point in my life. That book showed me that I was not the only one to question god belief. By discovering that I was not alone, I gained the courage to keep asking questions. It would take time, but I would come to regard that book as one of the most empowering things I had ever read.