Moving to a Smaller House Means Shedding Books: Should I Throw Out My Bertrand Russell?

Later this year, now that the value of property is picking up a little, my wife and I shall be putting our house on the market. Our family has grown up; we do not, strictly speaking, need a house of this size; and more compellingly, when we bought it, the plan was that in due course it would be sold and that the proceeds would give us, well, not a pension (nobody buys a pension any more) but a capital sum off which we might live.

All very well in theory: but emotionally draining in practice. We have lived here for 25 years, over half our married lives; this place is the repository of many happy memories. I do not want to move house. And the process of doing it is frightful: not least, the getting rid of so much stuff, again, all of it carrying its own memories. The worst thing of all is getting rid of books. There will simply not be enough wall space for it all: so half of it has to go.

But how? One’s library is a kind of history of one’s mind. Most interesting to me now are the books which reflect my mind as it was before I became a believing Christian, when I was a convinced and even militant atheist. I have just come across, for instance, a collection of essays by Bertrand Russell, given the title of one of them, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” after a lecture delivered in 1927 to the National Secular Society, and then published as a pamphlet. The collection was published much later, in 1952, and if you had asked me during my late teens and 20s what was the most important influence on my religious opinions, I would have pointed to that book as my “bible”.

It seemed to me entirely convincing, not least because of the power of Russell’s mind; but it was also attractive because of its relaxed good humor: it was so frequently so amusing. The contrast with the humorless Dawkins is total: not only is Dawkins nothing like as clever as Russell, his anti-clerical nastiness is completely absent from Russell’s way of arguing. Take the following passage, from the original lecture. He is explaining why modern Christians had toned down their beliefs, medieval Christianity being so difficult to maintain in modern times; and because he was arguing in a country in which “the Church” is taken to mean Anglicanism, he managed with consummate ease to make the whole thing seem simply ludicrous:

For instance, [Christianity] included the belief in hell. Belief in eternal hell-fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in hell.

More seriously, he goes on to deal with various arguments for the existence of God which the Church has found convincing and demonstrates why they are not. He for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, he said, until one day, at the age of 18, he read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?’” That, said Russell, showed him the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause: If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. Similarly (and, here again, the whole thing was made irresistibly attractive by Russell’s humorous tone of voice (his voice was one of the most recognizable in England), which made it so easy for him not merely to dispose of the argument from design, but to make it seem absurd. The argument, he said, was that “everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it. That is the argument from design. It sometimes takes a rather curious form; for instance, it is argued that rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. I do not know how rabbits would view that application.”

Such parodies of the argument, he said, had “turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed … because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence of design about it.” That argument seemed to me then entirely convincing: and it has to be said that it was convincing to nearly everyone else in this secularized culture, and it still is: that’s why Darwin is so central to Dawkins’s more polemical campaign against Christian belief.

Some of Russell’s arguments are much easier to counter, after a century of such extreme cruelty, much of it associated directly with political regimes passionately hostile to belief in a supreme being. “You find,” he said, “as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.”

One might think that it’s hardly worth countering that it was mostly Christian opposition to slavery that led to its abolition, or that “progress in humane feeling” was hardly in the course of the 20th century fostered by the increasing political power of anti-religious conviction. But Russell’s arguments convinced me then: and they are influential to this day.

It is difficult, almost impossible, to convince atheists by argument that they are wrong: until they discover for themselves that there is something non-viable about their world view, they will simply continue to entrench themselves behind its assumptions. It was not until I reflected that I was living in a culture which had more effectively rejected God as prime mover than any which had preceded it, and that this rejection had led to a more hopeless century than any in history, to the widespread belief, in the words of that horrendously influential philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, that “[i]n a world like this, where there is no kind of stability, no possibility of anything lasting… it is impossible to imagine happiness” and that “no man is happy; he strives his whole life long after imaginary happiness, which he seldom attains, and if he does, then it is only to be disillusioned.”

I realized that though I did not yet believe in God, I must be wrong. That was the essential first step. But what about the arguments against God? They were still an obstacle. That was where Newman came in; I had read and been impressed by the Apologia pro Vita Sua some years before, when studying nineteenth-century English literature; and I remembered one passage in particular.

“I am far of course from denying,” Newman wrote, “that every article of the Christian Creed … is beset with intellectual difficulties; and it is simple fact, that, for myself, I cannot answer those difficulties. Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of religion … but I have never been able to see a connection between apprehending those difficulties … and doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt … difficulty and doubt are incommensurate.”

Once I had realized that, the way was open, and God soon made himself known, unmistakeably. Within five years I was studying for the Anglican priesthood; 20 years later, I was a Catholic, and Newman had a good deal to do with that, too. But that’s another story.

I shan’t, obviously enough, be throwing out the Apologia when we move house: there’s a landmark of the mind if ever there was one. But so is “Why I Am Not a Christian”; I shan’t be throwing that out, either. But there are so many others: what shall I do about them?

Editor’s note: This column first appeared November 29, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

  • Therese Warmus

    Keep the Russell! And blessings wherever you go, Dr. Oddie.

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  • Adam__Baum

    Read Russell if you want insights on mathematics, ignore his theology, the same way you might read Einstein for his insights on Physics, but ignore his economics.

    • redfish

      I find Russell also to be shallow, not just on religious subjects, but discussing the works of other philosophers, like Descartes and Hegel. Wittgenstein, with whom I disagree much, was also much more penetrating than him.

      • John200

        You can profit from reading Russell’s theology. One specific way is to use him as a foil. His arguments, as Dr. Oddie observed, always had a comical touch that covered a weak point. This tactic enabled the weak point to go right on past your defenses. In time you had to stop laughing — that’s when you would catch him in the act of sliding a falsehood right under your nose.

        Ultimately, I became a better thinker for having read Russell on religion, even though I don’t believe a word he says. He sharpened me.

        In this same way one can profit from reading Dawkins. But Dawkins does not have Russell’s wit, or broad background, or his logic, or his grasp of normal science. Dawkins hides more than he reveals. His main arguments were crushed in the time of Thomas Aquinas. Read him, look hard at the substantive lines of thought, you’ll see.

  • slainte

    Mr. Oddie, please consider donating your valuable collection (including dog-eared tomes) to a library in a poor section of town where God will ensure that they find their way into the hands of children (and adults) who are most in need of truth, beauty, and goodness.

  • John Uebersax

    You don’t own your possessions; they own you. 🙂

    • Shaqramento

      Yes !!!!!

  • hombre111

    Good question. Whenever I was reassigned to another parish, I left dozens and dozens of books behind for the parish library. But there are some old friends I will keep moving with me, forever.

  • I’ve had good dealings with Abe Books.

  • Jon W

    I say hang on to Russell, Mr. Oddie! It seems he is something of an intellectual father to you, as he is something of an intellectual grandfather to me. Quine was more of an intellectual father to me. Yet somehow I am a Thomist. The Lord played a hand in all of it. Intellectual refreshment–and re-refreshment–is much more than a mere maudlin re-hash of discarded sentiment. We become what we learn and revisiting our old selves sharpens our current selves and better prepares us for the self to come. God love you.

  • Ib

    I tossed (i.e., sold off) my Russell a couple years ago, including some reprints of the Principia. No regrets!

  • Mike Bickerstaff

    Dr. Oddie,

    There must be something else that can be discarded to make room for your old friends, even those who are so wrong in their beliefs. I say, “Keep Russell.” Thank you for a very enjoyable read; one that resonates with my stage in life. God Bless.

    Deacon Mike

  • rentonrain

    Some churches have libraries, and you might be able to donate some of the worthier books to such a library (two churches near me have a library). If you get rid of a lot of them, you might be able to replace some of them with newer literature, or even more ancient literature, depending on your tastes!

  • Mike M

    Remember, Dr. Oddie, there’s always the option of filling your bookshelves a few books deep.

  • Mary

    A law student at Boston Unicersity told me ‘A Will to Believe” was his favorite book so I read it because I happened to have a crush on the guy. When I found it in the library at the school I saw they had about 20 copies all in one area– and I realized this is thier bible! When I read that book I saw how dark the world view was, how hopeless and dehumanizing. I hated Bertrand Russell from then on. When I hear the political arguments of today I see his finger prints everywhere– even on the side of Macy’s during the Thanksgiving parade which had a large neon “BELIEVE” attached to it. Believe in what? That I am a mere cog in the wheel of human progress? it repels me to the core.

  • Janet

    A local seminary always welcomes my books on theology and religion. Sometimes they take history and literature books too.

  • Shaqramento

    Sorry to hear you were a closed minded atheist who likely influenced many people that way, but glad to hear you have come to the light. Don’t worry about your “stuff.” Sell it all off. We just cleared out my parents house of 45 years. They’ve been married for 53 years. They took exactly 10 boxes of personal effects to their new furnished condo. I have never seen my mother happier. As for your books, give them to charity and move your collection into iBooks as I have. I have 5,000 books on my iPad. Happy holidays sir

    • john smith

      You’ll be one bored fellow after the next Carrington event. Stay close to your chosen charity center.

  • Shaqramento

    Also, I like Bertrand Russell. I have several of his virtual books. He’s almost as amusing as Chris Hitchens .

  • Christopher John Hagen

    If you were in America I would recommend contacting Loome Theological Booksellers, but since you are in the UK, why not Christopher Zealy of St. Philip’s Books in Oxford?

  • dougpruner

    Ec 12:12 ff.
    As for anything besides these, my son, be warned: To the making of many books
    there is no end, and much devotion to them is wearisome to the flesh. The conclusion of the matter, everything having been heard, is: Fear the true God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole obligation of man. For the true God will judge every deed, including every hidden thing, as to whether it is good or bad.

  • fr. sergius-maria

    any catholic and orthodox books would be greatly appreciated by our religious community:
    apostolic monastics
    1055 – 22nd St., San Diego, CA 92102-1905; USA
    God reward your charity, Dear Mr. Oddie!

  • Edward Mulholland

    Read Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House” for a fictional look at the trauma that moving house is for a man of studies. He returns to his (unsold) house to study and write for months after the move!

    • john smith

      And if Willa Cather makes you think too hard or feel too serious, pop in “Funny Farm” with Chevy Chase.

      • slainte

        Or Chevy Case’s “European Vacation”…Clark Griswold and family spent quite a bit of time driving in circles in that London round-about…a good book might have come in handy.

  • john smith

    I was totally waiting for the part where you trash-canned Russell’s book. I therefore want to accuse the article of being anti-climactic. But on further reflection think the unexpected mercy toward a pernicious work was a nice touch. Good article.

  • john smith

    If there are any atheists reading, I would like to pose a sincere philosophical question:

    If human suffering did not exist, would the human study of science exist?

    (anyone may engage if it’s alright with the editors of Crisis)

    • James Patton

      “If human suffering did not exist, would the human study of science exist?”

      Yes. Science was never borne out of suffering, that would be religion…:D

      • john smith

        Thanks. Your last sentence is certainly correct if we’re talking about Buddhism. They make no secret of it.

        I should have stipulated that a brief explanation would be appreciated, at the very least, rather than answers in the form of terse declaratives. So I guess I’ll have to go all British on everybody:

        “Resolved: Human Suffering Is What Impels Scientific Study.”


        • James Patton

          Looking for unity between Natural Law and the distinctive tradition of scientific thought with a rational twist is historically located between Descartes and Leibniz. Now I am not either man’s biographer, but you can decide for yourself if their suffering “Impels” science…;)

          • john smith

            Really? Thanks. Of course, you could have just said “I dunno.” But seriously, thanks.

            Edited to Add: Your description of science, “the distinctive tradition of scientific thought with a rational twist,” makes me want to put it in an old-fashioned glass and sip on it.

            • James Patton

              Your understanding of science is not any better than the rocks in the tumbler understand of why you are sipping them.

              • john smith

                As the kids say these days: U mad bro? I thought we were having a friendly back-and-forth. Instead I’m getting recalcitrance and craven down-vote sniping without comment.

                But believe it or not, that tells me quite a bit in and of itself. So again I say, sincerely: thanks.

        • fredx2

          Cave man see sun rise.
          Cave man see sun set.
          Cave man eat, Belly full.
          Cave man see sun rise.
          Cave man see sun set.
          Cave man figure out earth is turning.
          No need suffering for that.

          • john smith

            Why and how cave man eat?

  • brotherrolf

    Don’t throw it out, shred it.

  • Laurene

    What I do to my books: when I like one, I give it to whoever I believe needs to know that subject – when I do not like them I just destroy them so no one else will waste their time. So I no longer have thousands and thousands of books dusting in the shelves and I am positive I do a lot of good distributing Chestertons, Aquinas, Anne Applebaums, Stephane Courtois, Daniel Rops, Kevin Williamsons, Slavko Barbarics, Maria Valtortas, Roberto de Mattei, etc etc

  • givelifeachance2

    I second the “two-deep” suggestion. If you cannot find a library that will value them (and not dump them in the trash the next day), then hold on to them. Keep them for your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are tokens of the intellectual spark you want to pass on to them.

  • lroy77

    One idea: try to scan or burn the books onto a CD-Rom. You may want to resize the bms/jpegs because they take a lot of space. Just be sure you do not sell or donate them to anybody because the books are copyrighted. If there was a disaster, could you live without the books?

  • uncle max

    Just keep your P.G. Wodehouse, or, better yet – give it to me.